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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Training camp signings

Olin Kreutz of the Chicago Bears

Longtime Bear Olin Kreutz is now a Saint. Image via Wikipedia

In this post, we analyze veteran signings during training camp, from the beginning of the league year on August 4 to the first cut down date on August 30. (For analysis of earlier signings, check out this mega pre-camp signings post.)

49ers (add WR Braylon Edwards, SS Donte Whitner and QB Josh McCown; keep FS Dashon Goldson)We discussed the Edwards and Whitner signings in this post. Goldson is a talented free safety who looked for a big deal on the market but couldn’t find it. He re-signed for one year. McCown comes on board as a backup quarterback, at least until Colin Kaepernick is ready.

Raiders (add TE Kevin Boss, safeties Matt Giordano and Josh Bullocks, and CB Lito Sheppard) – After losing Zach Miller to the Seahawks, the Raiders gave Boss a four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million in guarantees. Boss isn’t the dynamic receiver that Miller is, but he’s pretty good and will fill a need. He at least allows the Raiders to continue doing the things they want in their offense. After losing S Hiram Eugene, the Raiders added Bullocks and Giordano. Bullocks has great speed but hasn’t played consistently; Giordano is more of a system player. Likely only one will make the team. (UPDATE: Bullocks was quickly cut.) Sheppard was once a solid starter, but he has fallen off to the point that he is just barely a passable backup.

Jets (add WR Derrick Mason) – Mason, who was cut by the Ravens, got a one-year deal to come to the Jets as the third receiver behind Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. Mason is still a productive guy, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him find a bigger and bigger role as the season progresses. He’s a nice addition given his experience and dependability.

Saints (add C Olin Kreutz, CB Trumaine McBride, RB Patrick Cobbs and PK John Kasay) – After losing starting center Jonathan Goodwin to the 49ers, the Saints brought in veteran Kreutz as a short-time replacement while they develop young players. The long-time Bear, who’s known as a locker-room leader, got a one-year deal worth $2 million. McBride is a vet who will fight to add depth at corner. Cobbs is a versatile back who does great work on special teams and is also a good receiver. Still, he’ll be fighting to win a roster spot. With PK Garrett Hartley hurting, the Saints brought in veteran Kasay from Carolina. Kasay still has pretty good field-goal pop for a 40-something.

Patriots (add DEs Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, DT Gerard Warren, LB Niko Koutouvides, S James Ihedigbo, and LS James Dearth) – We covered the Patriots’ defensive line pieces in this post. Koutovides will fight for a roster spot to provide depth at linebacker, and Ihedigbo will do the same at safety. Dearth takes over at long snapper.

Chargers (keep WR Malcom Floyd and LBs Stephen Cooper and Kevin Bentley) – Floyd got a good look in Baltimore, but he ultimately decided to return to San Diego on a two-year deal. He’s a great complement to Vincent Jackson because he’s also big and fast. Cooper is a solid run-down inside linebacker who had a chance to start until he landed on injured reserve. Bentley came on board after that to add depth.

Steelers (keep OLB Lamarr Woodley, add WR Jerricho Cotchery and S Macho Harris) – Woodley, the Steelers’ franchise player, benefited from the Steelers’ cap situation and got a six-year, $61.5 million deal. Woodley doesn’t get the pub that James Harrison does, but he’s a terrific pass rusher who steps up even more in the playoffs. Cotchery, an ex-Jet, adds depth and experience for a young receiving corps. Harris, an ex-Eagle, has yet to make a big impact in the NFL.

Jaguars (keep TE Marcedes Lewis, add LBs Matt Roth and Gerris Wilkerson) – Lewis, the Jaguars’ franchise player, got a Zach Miller-sized deal (five years, $34 million, $17 million guaranteed) to return. Lewis had a terrific year last season and is the Jaguars’ best receiving threat. Roth got a one-year, $3 million deal to come to town as a strong player against the run and a pass-rush threat. He’s been better in a 3-4 than a 4-3 like the Jaguars use, but at this point in the offseason he’s a nice addition. The Jaguars will find a way to use him. Wilkerson is a versatile linebacker who may be able to back up at all three positions, and that could help him make the team. (UPDATE: Wilkerson was cut.)

Ravens (add RB Ricky Williams and OT Bryant McKinnie) – After losing Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain, the Ravens added Williams with a two-year, $4 million deal to back up Ray Rice. Williams and Vonta Leach fit better with Rice, because they will have more set roles that they can fill effectively. The result is a net gain for the Ravens’ running game. McKinnie fell out of favor in Minnesota, where his lax work habits and max gut impacted his play on the field. But the Ravens needed help at tackle, and McKinnie was the best option on the market. If McKinnie is right, he could start at left tackle and let Michael Oher move to right tackle, where he has played more effectively. McKinnie could also be a factor at right tackle as the Ravens try to develop rookie Jah Reid. The signing is a bit of a risk, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Ravens can get something out of McKinnie that the Vikes couldn’t in recent years.

Eagles (add WR Steve Smith) – The Eagles continued their offseason spending spree by adding Smith, an ex-Giant, on a one-year, $2 million deal. Smith isn’ t healthy at the moment, but if he recovers he becomes a fine inside option for the Eagles’ talented receiving corps. Plus, he was Eli Manning’s safety blanket, so signing him hurts the Giants. That’s a win/win for Philly.

Redskins (keep ILB Rocky McIntosh; add OT Sean Locklear, P Sav Rocca, and LB Keyaron Fox) – McIntosh is a solid starter at inside linebacker and a nice pairing with London Fletcher. Fox is more of a special-teams guy, but he provides depth as well. Locklear is a backup at tackle who has talent, although he hasn’t always shown it. Rocca takes over as the team’s punter.

Falcons (keep RB Jason Snelling, add TE Reggie Kelly, S James Sanders, and CB Kelvin Hayden) – Snelling returns on a one-year deal as Michael Turner’s backup. Snelling is a bruising runner who also has some receiving skills. He didn’t find a starting job elsewhere, but he’s good enough to do so if Turner gets hurt. Kelly, a former Falcon, returns to serve as a block-first tight end behind Tony Gonzalez. Sanders, who started for the Patriots last year, is a solid but unspectacular player who provides some depth and assurance. Hayden, an ex-Colt, has played well when healthy but hasn’t been healthy lately. It will be interesting to see if Hayden or Sanders finds playing time.

Lions (add RBs Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell and S Michael Johnson) – After losing rookie Mikel Leshoure to injury, the Lions brought in Harrison and Bell – who were traded for each other last season. They will likely fight for one spot to become the hardnosed complement to Jahvid Best. (UPDATE: It will be Harrison; Bell was cut.) Johnson, a former starter with the Giants, adds depth at a major trouble spot for the Lions. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as a starter.

Vikings (add DE Stylez White) – After losing Ray Edwards in free agency, the Vikings waited until after the second preseason game and then added White, an ex-Buccaneer who’s at least an average pass rusher. It’s a nice find this late in free agency, because White has enough punch to keep defenses from completely skewing their protections to guard against Jared Allen.

Bengals (add TE Bo Scaife) – Scaife, the long-time Titan, got a little more than the minimum to be the veteran backup for Jermaine Gresham in Cincinnati.

Seahawks (keep DE Raheem Brock, add S Atari Bigby and LB David Vobora)Brock was one of the underrated players on the free-agent market, so it’s a coup for the Seahawks to keep him. He’s not huge, but he provides a good pass-rush threat. Bigby was once a starting strong safety in Green Bay, but injuries limited him to four games last season, and he was replaced. He will help to fill the gap left by the departed Jordan Babineaux. Vobora, an ex-Ram, is effective but limited athleticially. Still, with Lofa Tatupu gone, he adds depth and should be good enough to serve as a backup.

Giants (keep DT Rocky Bernard, S Deon Grant, and DE Dave Tollefson; add PK Rhys Lloyd, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Jimmy Wilkerson and CB Brian Williams) – The Giants cut Bernard in a salary cap move, but brought him back after the market didn’t offer a big deal. Bernard has talent, but 2010 was disappointing. They also re-signed Tollefson, a decent backup end. Grant played a lot in New York’s three-safety alignment last year, and is still good enough to contribute in pass defense. Lloyd is a touchback machine who is unproven on placements. Still, he should take pressure off of Lawrence Tynes. Kennedy, a former first-round pick, had a down year last year after rebounding in 2009 in Minnesota. He adds depth after Marvin Austin’s injury. Wilkerson adds depth at end. After injuries to Terrell Thomas and two other corners, the Giants brought in Williams for depth purposes. Williams really struggled with Atlanta last year and should be viewed as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option only.

Titans (add S Jordan Babineaux, CB Frank Walker, OT Adam Terry, and WR Kevin Curtis) – Walker will help to replace injured CB Ryan Mouton. Babineaux, an ex-Seahawk, provides depth behind Chris Hope. Terry hopes to hook on as a backup swing tackle. Curtis continues his comeback from cancer in Tennessee, which has young receivers but not a ton of experience at the position.

Cardinals (add DE Nick Eason, P Dave Zastudill, QB Brodie Croyle and CB Fred Bennett) – Eason is a solid backup 3-4 defensive end, and as an ex-Steeler he’s someone Ken Whisenhunt knows. He will add depth for the Cards. Zastudill will challenge Ben Graham for the punting job. Croyle, an ex-Chief, comes in as the veteran quarterback and sets the Cardinals’ hierarchy. Croyle will back up Kevin Kolb, with John Skelton as the developmental third quarterback. With Greg Toler hurt, the Cards picked up Bennett, whom the Bengals had cut. Bennett showed potential once upon a time, but it’s been years since then.

Buccaneers (keep DE Tim Crowder, add CB Ashton Youboty) – The Buccaneers kept Crowder, a free agent, on a two-year deal. He’s a solid but unspectacular option. Youboty has not been an effective NFL player, but he has talent and is worth a look, especially with Aqib Talib’s availablility in question for the season. (UPDATE: Youboty was cut.)

Chiefs (add OT Jared Gaither, TE Anthony Becht, and S Sabby Piscitelli) – We discussed Gaither’s addition in this post. Piscitelli is a hard hitter, but he struggles in coverage. Becht is a veteran who is still an effective blocker. Still, he could contribute as a special-teams guy in K.C.

Rams (keep WR Mark Clayton, OL Adam Goldberg and LB Ben Leber) – Clayton, who got off to a great start last year before injury struck, isn’t completely healthy but is now in the fold. He will get time to recoup from a Rams team that wants him to be a starter for them. Goldberg is a versatile lineman who can play anywhere across the line. He provides a security blanket for the Rams. Leber adds depth at linebacker. He’s still good enough to jump in as a starter if necessary.

Panthers (add WR Legedu Naanee and DT Kentwan Balmer) – We discussed Naanee in this Panthers training-camp update. The Panthers claimed Balmer, who had been cut by the Seahawks, to address a gaping defensive tackle need that’s growing by the day. He’s worth a look-see, but the former first-round pick has yet to pan out and won’t be a huge factor.

Bills (add WRs Buster Davis and Ruvell Martin and ILB Kirk Morrison) – Davis, a former first-round pick, was a disappointment in San Diego. Now he goes to Buffalo, where he will have to beat out a group of talented young receivers. Martin came on to add depth during a time of major injuries at the position. Morrison replaces the injured Reggie Torbor and should be an upgrade. He’s a solid player against the run, and he teams with Nick Barnett to give the Bills a solid duo at inside backer.

Dolphins (add RB Larry Johnson, OT Ray Willis, LB Marvin Mitchell and S Gerald Alexander) – Johnson, a former elite back, tries to resuscitate his career in Miami. Even if he makes the team, he’ll have trouble finding playing time. Willis, an ex-Seahawk, provides depth at offensive tackle. That’s important if the Dolphins plan to rely on Marc Colombo as a starter. Mitchell is a backup linebacker who can play any spot and also a key special teams player. Alexander, a four-year vet, will try to add depth at safety.

Colts (add DE Tyler Brayton) – Brayton doesn’t generate a lot of pass rush, but he was decent against the run the last couple of years in Carolina. He will add size to the Colts’ DE corps.

Cowboys (add PKs Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner) – Graham signs on to compete with David Buehler for the Cowboys’ kicking job. When Rayner was released in Detroit, the Cowboys quickly brought him into the mix too.

Browns (add OT Oniel Cousins) – The Browns claimed Cousins, cut by the division rival Ravens, to add depth at right tackle. He’s worth a look, especially for a team with OL needs.

Texans (add WR Bryant Johnson) – Johnson, a former first-round pick, hasn’t panned out at any stops, but he has enough athletic ability to be an acceptable No. 4 receiver. If he has to play much, though, the Texans are in trouble.

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Finding a Fit: Zach Miller

The lockout is on the verge of ending, and the proposed resolution will set four- and five-year veterans free. So in our next edition of Finding a Fit, we’re going to feature someone from that class – the best unfettered tight end, Zach Miller of the Raiders.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray EdwardsAubrayo Franklin, Plaxico Burress, Tyson Clabo, and Matt Light. Click through to check those out. Since the lockout is likely ending, this will probably be the last Finding a Fit feature of the offseason, so that we can turn to signings analysis soon.

Zach Miller, courtesy of theredzonereport.com

Synopsis

Miller, a former second-round pick, has put together four solid NFL seasons. After a solid rookie season, Miller has averaged 60.7 catches for 756 yards over the past three seasons despite having some of the shakiest quarterback play in the league. He’s a big target at 6-foot-5, but he has the speed to get down the seam and make big plays. The Raiders looked as though they were going to use their franchise tag on Miller, but a strange cause in OLB Kamerion Wimbley’s contract forced the Raiders to spend their tag there. That means Miller will hit the free-agent market without restriction, and he should be a popular target in Oakland and elsewhere.

Potential Fits

Oakland – The Raiders want to keep Miller, because they know he can make big plays while also being a dependable receiver. That’s important, since the Raiders rely on young, unproven receivers like Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and the disappointing Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Raiders don’t have another legit TE option, and they’ve been knowing to overpay to keep their guys, so Miller could get an offer he can’t refuse from the Godfather Al Davis.

Denver – If the Raiders don’t keep Miller, their AFC West rivals in Denver could provide a quality landing spot. The Broncos had some of the worst TE production in the league last year. Daniel Graham is good as a  blocker, but he makes next to no plays in the passing game. And the Broncos’ two draft picks at the position, Julius Thomas and Virgil Green, aren’t likely to be big-time threats. Denver needs help in a lot of areas, but Miller would be a major upgrade in one.

Arizona – Like the Broncos, the Cards had horrific TE play last year. Holdover Ben Patrick makes little difference, and third-round pick Robert Housler is a raw prospect. That means that Miller (an Arizona State product) could come home and make a big difference. At one point, the Cards had such WR depth that a tight end wasn’t vital, but Larry Fitzgerald needs help, and Miller could provide it. If the Cards are looking to add a veteran QB, adding Miller could be a nice inducement.

Miami – The Dolphins’ offense likes to use a tight end, but Anthony Fasano is no more than a decent option. So Miller could be the kind of seam threat that would add a lot to the passing game.

Cleveland – As the Browns move to a West Coast offense, a big-time receiving tight end becomes important. Benjamin Watson had a nice season last year, and fourth-rounder Jordan Cameron could develop into a successor, but at least calling to see what neighborhood Miller’s price tag is in would be wise for the Browns.

St. Louis – The Rams didn’t get great production at tight end last year with Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, although Hoomanawanui has potential. But Miller doesn’t dovetail with new coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense, and the Rams need to spend their attention on outside receivers more than at tight end.

Atlanta – The Falcons will likely try to re-sign Tony Gonzalez, but if the free agent leaves, Miller could become their latest splashy, high-dollar addition.

N.Y. Giants – The Giants have gotten good production out of Kevin Boss in recent years, but Boss is fairly injury prone, and youngster Travis Beckum has yet to develop. So while adding Miller would be a major luxury, it does make a bit of sense.

Buffalo – The Bills are bereft of tight end talent aside from the injury-prone Shawn Nelson, so Miller is a fit. But it’s hard to see Miller going to play for a terrible team in terrible weather.

The Best Fits

1. Oakland – We smell an overpay coming from the Raiders when it comes to Miller. The question is whether Miller would want to leave enough to turn down more money.

2. Arizona – A homecoming for Miller makes a lot of sense, especially if the Cards find a veteran QB to add.

3. Denver – The Broncos outpace Miami as the stalking horse in this race.

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Jaguars/Giants thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. We already focused on the Thanksgiving Day games; now we turn our attention to the Giants’ 24-20 come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars.

The Jaguars, who had won three straight coming into the game, seemed to have this game under their control until a third-quarter interception gave the Giants new life. The win was huge for the Giants, who broke a two-game losing streak and some of the echoes of their recent late-season swoons, and it’s a big lost opportunity for the Jaguars as they try to unseat the Colts in the AFC South. After an extended look at the Jaguars, we don’t know if they’re a good team, but we’re certain they’re an above-average squad that has the potential to win nine games or more.

Mario Manningham scores for the Giants, via espn.com

On-field Perspective
*The Giants were playing without WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, but they still got big plays in the passing game from Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss. Eli Manning has a knack for making big plays in the clutch, and his two second-half TD passes were another example of that. Manning isn’t always clockwork efficient, but he tends to make the right play in the clutch, which is a great trait for a quarterback.
*The Giants didn’t create a massive pass rush for most of the game, although Justin Tuck and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul made some big plays late when the Giants started blitzing heavily. Still, the lack of a consistent pass rush is a question mark, since the Giants’ strong suit is supposed to be its front four. That question mark looms even larger because, by and large, the Giants weren’t able to exploit a Jaguars line playing without both starting tackles.
*Jaguars QB David Garrard is not a consistent passer, but he remains a threat to make plays with his legs, as he did on his incredible second-quarter touchdown. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, Garrard’s consistency waned in the second half, as an errant throw led to a Mike Sims-Walker bobble, which led to a Terrell Thomas interception. Garrard finished just 20-of-35, and he may have suffered a wrist injury on the final drive.
*Jacksonville has a fairly deep receiving corps, but Sims-Walker is inconsistent, and Mike Thomas’ only breakaway play was brought back by a penalty. We wondered why the Jaguars claimed ex-49er Jason Hill on waivers, but given Hill’s size we wonder if they’re trying to replace or at least inspire Sims-Walker to play with more consistency and reliability. MSW had a three-drop game in this one, and that kind of effort from him is far too familiar for the Jags.
*While the Jaguars’ passing game wasn’t sterling, their running game was. Maurice Jones-Drew (21 carries, 113 yards) kept the Jags in front of the chains, and backup Rashad Jennings (7 carries, 53 yards) did a good job, especially in the first half. Both guys are assets.
*As for the Giants’ runners, Brandon Jacobs (14 carries, 87 yards) looked better in this game than we’ve seen him in a while. Still, Ahmad Bradshaw (49 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards) is the breakaway threat who can also move the chains for the Giants, and despite his fumbling issues, we believe he should be getting more carries.
*Antrel Rolle was one of the Giants’ high-profile defensive additions in the offseason, but he was unnoticeable against the run and in pass coverage in this game. He did make a couple of nice plays on the blitz, including one shared sack with Tuck, but the Giants need more out of Rolle given his high price tag.
*Ross Tucker praised Jaguars rookie DT Tyson Alualu’s play, but no other Jaguars defenders really popped off the screen. The most impressive was probably LB Justin Durant, who had seven tackles and two passes defensed and was the one Jaguar we saw winning plays.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*Despite this game, we don’t believe that Jacobs is anything more than a flex option going forward. His 87-yard performance is pretty much the apex of what you can expect from him yardage-wise given Bradshaw’s consistency.
*Garrard isn’t consistent enough to trust as a fantasy QB. He has the potential to have big games, but he’s also going to hang around in this area (162 passing yards, 41 rushing yards, rushing TD) too often to help you win.
*Manningham is a fantasy starter as long as Smith and/or Nicks is out. Right now, he’s the only Giant wideout you can trust in your lineup.

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Football Relativity: Week One injuries

The injury list from Week One featured several devastating injuries that significantly impact teams moving forward. That made it necessary to analyze these injuries and how they impact teams moving forward. We’ll do that using our Football Relativity tool, placing the team with the most significant losses at the 10 level and teams that got off relatively easily at the 1 level. Note that a player going on injured reserve means he is officially out for the rest of the season.

10 – Packers – put RB Ryan Grant (torn ankle ligaments) and DT Justin Harrell (torn ACL) on injured reserve – Grant has been a solid workhorse back for the Pack since he first emerged in 2007, but torn ankle ligaments suffered against the Eagles in the opener will bench him for the rest of the season. Brandon Jackson, who was the Packers’ only backup tailback, gets the chance to replace him, and while Jackson has more speed than Grant he’s never really taken hold of opportunities before. Green Bay also added Dmitri Nance off the Falcons’ practice squad for depth. Harrell, a first-rounder back in 2007, has played in just 14 career games due to a variety of injuries. He finally looked healthy enough to contribute this season before he tore up his knee. His injury is another blow to a defensive line that had already lost Johnny Jolly for the season to a suspension.

10 (con’t) – Jets – put NT Kris Jenkins (torn ACL) on injured reserve – For the second straight year, Jackpot Jenkins suffered a knee injury that will bench him for the remainder of the season. It happened on the Jets’ sixth defensive snap, which is devastating for a player who makes such an impact and has worked so hard to overcome last year’s problem. Fill-ins Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha have proven they can play efficiently, but they’re not the game-changers that Jenkins is at his best. Signee Howard Green is another workmanlike player. And after two devastating knee injuries, Jenkins may even consider retirement. That would be a disappointing end to what has been a great career for the three-time All-Pro.

9 – Eagles – put FB Leonard Weaver (torn knee ligaments) and C Jamaal Jackson (torn triceps tendon) on injured reserve; QB Kevin Kolb (concussion) and LB Stewart Bradley (concussion) – The Eagles lost two starters in Weaver and Jackson. Weaver suffered a horrific ACL injury that puts a damper on the Eagles’ offense. He was not only a fullback but a power runner and explosive receiver. Mike Bell will have to step in in short-yardage situations, and  signee Owen Schmitt will do a lot of blocking. Jackson, a four-year starter who was returning from a knee injury, will miss the season with a torn triceps. Either rookie A.Q. Shipley or Mike McGlynn will take over for Jackson. Both Kolb and Bradley have concussions which could keep them out of at least this week’s game at Detroit. Given Michael Vick’s play last year, Kolb’s absence might not be a killer, but it’s still quite significant.

8 – Colts – S Bob Sanders (torn biceps tendon) – Sanders is out “indefinitely” and could miss the rest of the season, which is a blow to a Colts defense that is always different when Sanders is in the lineup. But since Indy has played without Sanders so often in recent years, this injury falls a bit down this list. Melvin Bullitt is a solid fill-in for Sanders, but he doesn’t provide the dynamic aspect that Sanders can.

7 – Lions – QB Matthew Stafford (separated shoulder) – It’s unclear how long Stafford will be out after separating his shoulder, but most reports indicate 2-6 weeks is a safe bet.  That’s a blow for a Lions team that had such hopes of building wins up this season, since Shaun Hill does not have the big-play potential that Stafford provides.

6 – Texans – put DE/OLB Connor Barwin (dislocated ankle) on injured reserve – Barwin, a 2009 second-round pick, was supposed to be an athletic freak of a pass rusher to help get to the quarterback and take pressure off of Mario Williams. But he suffered a gruesome dislocated right ankle in the season opener against the Colts and will miss the rest of the season. Barwin, who had 4.5 sacks as a rookie, will be replaced by signees Adewale Ogunleye and Ryan Denney, both of whom are solid players with some pass-rush ability but not Barwin’s potential for the dynamic.

6 (con’t) – Seahawks – put OG Max Unger (toe) on injured reserve – Unger, a former first-round pick, is one of the stabilizing forces on the Seahawks’ offensive line, but he’s on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Seattle has really had a lot of changes up front, including losing OL coach Alex Gibbs to retirement just before the season began. So missing one of the solid guys they have is a real blow.

5 – none

4 – Panthers – QB Matt Moore (concussion) – Moore suffered a concussion in the second half against the Giants, and it’s unclear right now about whether he’ll be ready to play this week at home against Tampa Bay. Losing Moore would be huge, because the Panthers need to salt away a win in this home game chance, and starting rookie Jimmy Clausen would inhibit their chances to do so. 

3 – Giants – TE Kevin Boss (concussion) – Boss suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the opener against the Panthers, and he’s already been ruled out for this week’s game against the Colts. That’s a blow not only because of the absence of Boss’ receiving and blocking skills but also because the Giants had only one other tight end, Travis Beckum, on the roster. They’ve promoted Bear Pascoe to give them a little more flexibility.

3 – Dolphins – DE Jared Odrick (broken right fibula) – Odrick, the Dolphins’ first-round pick, had become a starter at defensive end in the Dolphins’ reworked 3-4 defense. But he’ll miss at least the next two games with a broken leg. Odrick was replacing Philip Merling, who’s also out for the year, so this injury really tests Miami’s depth. Tony McDaniel can fill in as a starter, but Miami will be looking hard for someone to step into the rotation behind the fill-in for the fill-in.

2 – Bills – LB Paul Posluszny (torn MCL) – Posluszny, who has battled injuries throughout his career, suffered a torn MCL and will miss at least a couple of weeks. That’s a blow to a Bills defense that played OK in Week One but is still looking to adapt to a new 3-4 defense. The fact that the Bills are thin at linebacker only makes Posluszny’s absence more damaging.

1 – Steelers – OT Max Starks (ankle sprain) – There are conflicting reports about whether Starks will miss this week’s game at Tennessee with an ankle sprain, which is why this injury isn’t further up the list. But after losing Willie Colon for the season, Pittsburgh simply can’t afford to lose another tackle.

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Fantasy Football: Comparing tight ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 11

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And although we didn’t do this post last week, you can check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here. Since we didn’t do this post last week, we thought we’d supersize this week’s version.

Quarterbacks

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Fitzpatrick, who was named the Bills’ starter by interim head coach Perry Fewell this week, responded with 297 passing yards and a touchdown. However, fantasy owners shouldn’t get too carried away, since 98 of those yards and the touchdown came on one bomb to Terrell Owens. Fitzpatrick isn’t a top-24 quarterback even if he remains the starter in Buffalo. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Leinart, Cardinals – Kurt Warner suffered a concussion, and that thrust Leinart into the lineup vs. the Rams. Leinart’s numbers (10-of-14, 74 yards) were solid but unspectacular. But given Leinart’s supporting cast, he is someone fantasy owners should definitely pick up this week, pending Warner’s status. Verdict: Applaud

Eli Manning, Giants – Manning threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants’ win over the Falcons. Part of that was because he was facing a below-average pass defense, but it’s still a good sign for a player who has often faded over the second half of the season. We’ll use this performance as reason enough to leave Manning among the top 16 fantasy quarterbacks – for now. But it doesn’t mean you should start to start Manning for your team. Verdict: A fraud

Brady Quinn, Browns – Quinn threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns against the Browns in a shootout that Cleveland ultimately lost. But don’t read too much into this one, because Detroit’s pass defense is a very soft crew. Quinn is still outside the top 25 among fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: A fraud

Alex Smith, 49ers – Smith’s three touchdown-pass day would have been a fantasy headline in a week that didn’t include an improbably Brady Quinn/Matthew Stafford pinball game, but it does show that Smith is fantasy relevant. He has thrown multiple touchdown passes in three of his five games this year, which is a sign that Smith is a good fantasy backup with upside in leagues with at least 12 teams. If he’s on your league’s waiver wire, you need to pick Smith up this week. Verdict: Applaud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – In the shootout against the Browns, Stafford threw for 422 yards and a stunning five touchdowns. That shows he does have what it takes to produce on the NFL level. Unfortunately, he won’t get to play the Browns defense every week. This is an isolated incident that can’t move Stafford into the top 25 at quarterback from a fantasy perspective. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Joseph Addai, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Addai in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a starting running back going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – There was a lot of noise about the Cowboys giving Felix Jones more run this week, but it was Barber who carried the load for Dallas against Washington. Barber’s 99-yard day was his best since Week 2. Barber hasn’t been a top-20 back, but this game might be the start of something. For now, consider Barber a flex, but don’t be afraid to start him on Thanksgiving against the Ravens. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Bell, Saints – Bell piled up 75 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs, but most of his work came in garbage time. Pierre Thomas is still the guy in New Orleans, and Bell is still not a guy who can start because of his limited role. Verdict: A fraud

Rock Cartwright, Redskins – With Clinton Portis out for the game and Ladell Betts hurting his knee, Cartwright became the Redskins’ top running back. He responded with 67 rushing yards on 13 carries, plus 73 yards on seven catches. We can expect Portis to miss at least one more game, and that means Cartwright is worth a claim as we find out about the severity of Betts’ injury. If Betts misses next week’s game, Cartwright could even be worth starting next week. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – In his first game in relief of Julius Jones, Forsett had just nine yards on nine carries. But he did have a touchdown run along with 80 receiving yards. Forsett isn’t a top-25 back, but he is a guy who can fit into your flex spot based on the matchup as long as Jones is out. That means you need to keep Forsett on your roster if you have him. Verdict: Applaud

Lex Hilliard, Dolphins – With Ronnie Brown out and Patrick Cobbs already on injured reserve, Hilliard is about the only guy Miami has behind new starter Ricky Williams. But Hilliard had just four carries and two catches against Carolina, and he totaled just 31 yards. Despite his standing, Hilliard just isn’t going to get enough touches to be fantasy relevant except in mega leagues of 16 teams or more. And even in those leagues, Hilliard is just bench depth. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney ran for 77 yards and two touchdowns, finding the end zone for the fifth consecutive game. He is now a starting-quality fantasy running back. Don’t hesitate to put him in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Ray Rice, Ravens – We included fantasy football thoughts on Rice in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a top-10 running back going forward.Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Smith, Lions – Smith only ran for 45 yards against Cleveland, but he had 104 yards receiving plus a touchdown. It was just the fourth touchdown of the year for Smith, who has been a borderline top 25 running back all season from a fantasy perspective. We’ll use this performance to say that Smith is still an excellent flex option and possibly even a No. 2 running back in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Snelling, Falcons – With Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood both inactive, Snelling was the go-to guy for the Falcons this week, and he finished with 76 yards on 25 carries, along with two touchdowns. That’s good production, but it’s enough for you to squeeze Snelling into your lineup for one more week as long as Turner remains out. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – In the first game with Ronnie Brown out, Ricky Williams went nuts with 119 rushing yards and three total TDs. While he won’t have those kind of monster numbers every week, Williams is now an every-week starter in every league. Verdict: Applaud

Wide Receivers

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – In his first game as the Chiefs’ de facto No. 1 receiver in the absence of Dwayne Bowe, Chambers delivered four catches for 119 yards. Of course, his 61-yard catch and run in overtime turned his effort from pedestrian to impressive, but the bottom line is that he delivered. While Bowe is out, Chambers is a top-35 receiver who is worth a look as a third wideout or flex play in many leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Garcon in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a third receiver or flex play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Mason, Ravens – We included fantasy football thoughts on Garcon in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a third receiver or flex play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Mohammed Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey, Browns – Both Massaquoi and Stuckey had five catches and a touchdown vs. Detroit, with Massaquoi piling up 115 yards and Stuckey amassing 76. But while Stuckey’s explosion is likely a product of a shootout against a bad team, Massaquoi has emerged as the Browns’ clear-cut No. 1 receiver. That doesn’t mean a ton, but it does put the rookie from Georgia inside the top 35 wide receivers and make him a potential flex play against highly favorable matchups. We can’t recommend Stuckey as a waiver claim, on the other hand, except in monster-sized leagues of 16 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud Massaquoi; A fraud for Stuckey

Robert Meachem, Saints – We tweeted this last week, but it’s now clear that Meachem is the No. 2 option among Saints receivers (including TE Jeremy Shockey). That means that Meachem is moving into the top 25 of fantasy receivers. He has scored touchdowns three weeks in a row, including two this week, so the gravy train is moving. Even though Meachem had just two catches in this game, we believe in Meachem as a fantasy force. Get on board with him now. Verdict: Applaud

Legedu Naanee, Chargers – Naanee scored for the second straight week, but he had just one two-yard catch in this game. Malcom Floyd is still the Chargers receiver you want behind Vincent Jackson. Verdict: A fraud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Owens’ numbers got a huge boost from a 98-yard touchdown catch, which was only his third touchdown of the season. But Owens would have had a decent fantasy game even without that monster catch, as he finished with 9 catches for 197 yards. Owens has perked up a bit lately, to the point that you can once again consider starting him as a third receiver or a flex. But it would be foolish to pencil T.O. into your starting lineup without checking matchups and other options. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith’s numbers have suffered this season with Jake Delhomme spraying the ball all over the place, but over the last five games Smith has had at least 56 yards in every game but one, and in that game he scored twice. All four of Smith’s touchdowns this season have come over that span. Smith isn’t a top-10 fantasy receiver, but he is back inside the top 20 now, which means he should be starting for your team. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss had a ridiculously slow start to the season, but he had five catches for 76 yards and two scores in this game, giving him four touchdowns in his last three games. That’s good enough to move him into the top 12 at tight end. Ride this hot streak if you can. Verdict: Applaud

Dallas Clark and Tom Santi, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Clark and Santi in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a top-10 receiver (both WR and TE for Clark) going forward and as a waiver claim for Santi. Verdict: Applaud Clark; A Fraud for Santi

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Jersey Numbers: Tight Ends

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. Now we move to tight ends. In general, tight ends wear numbers between 80 and 89, but several also wear numbers in the 40s.

40 – Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings – It’s hard to tell whether Kleinsasser is a true tight end or more of a fullback/H-back, but he plays on the line enough to earn the nod here. Kleinsasser doesn’t get the ball much, but he remains a solid blocker deep into a solid career.

41 – Spencer Havner, Packers – OK, so Havner is the only tight end wearing 41. But we have to give a few props to a player who was playing linebacker until about three or four weeks ago and now suddenly has three touchdowns in the past two games.

44 – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark is probably the best receiving tight end in the league at the moment. He’s not just reliable – he’s explosive down the middle of the field. He’s emerged as the complement to Reggie Wayne in the Colts’ prolific passing game, and Clark is just now hitting his prime.

45 – Leonard Pope, Chiefs – The former Cardinals starter landed in K.C. this year with a new jersey number. Pope has never played up to his immense physical gifts, but he is still a threat simply because of his size and speed.

46 – Daniel Fells, Rams – Fells is the only tight end wearing 46, but like Havner he has three touchdowns on the season. Of course, one came on a fake field goal, and the other two came from Kyle Boller in one game on the same play call, but three is three. Other notable 46: Delanie Walker, 49ers

47 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley is hurt at the moment, but he has proven to be a terrific pass catcher in Washington in recent years despite playing with subpar quarterbacks throughout his tenure. He’s also a serviceable blocker and a fan favorite because of his outsized personality. He’s one of the few home-grown players who has really paid off for the Redskins. Other notable 47s: Jeff King, Panthers, Billy Bajema, Rams; Travis Beckum, Giants; Gijon Robinson, Colts

80 – Bo Scaife, Titans – Scaife is the Titans’ most important receiver because he has great size and provides a great interior target. Tennessee recognized his value when it tagged Scaife as its franchise player this past offseason. That’s enough reason to give Scaife the nod at 80 over Zach Miller of the Raiders, who’s a great young receiver. Other notable 80: Derek Schouman, Bills

81 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Before he suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, Daniels was the most productive tight end in the league. That marked the third straight season he was one of the league’s most dangerous targets. That’s enough to earn him honors for this number over Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe, who has blossomed as a receiving threat the last two seasons. Other notable 81s: Dustin Keller, Jets; Joey Haynos, Dolphins

82 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten isn’t having his most sterling of seasons, but he has long been one of the league’s two or three elite receiving threats from the tight end position. He may be the receiver Cowboys opponents need to concentrate on stopping most. He’s an All-Pro level tight end, which puts him above young studs Kellen Winslow of the Buccaneers and Greg Olsen of the Bears at this number. Other notable 82s: Alex Smith, Eagles; L.J. Smith, Ravens

83 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a tall target who can really catch the ball, and that makes him a great mid-field target in a Pittsburgh offense where ball control is still important. Miller is also having a bit of a bounce-back year numbers-wise, which makes it even easier to give him the nod at 83 over the declining Alge Crumpler of Tennessee. Other notable 83: Jeff Dugan, Vikings

84 – Benjamin Watson, Patriots – The Patriots have never seemed completely satisfied with Watson, a former first-round pick, at tight end, but Watson continues to put up good touchdown numbers. He also has the longest touchdown reception in Patriots playoff history, a 63-yarder against Jacksonville in the 2005 season. So he gets the nod over Randy McMichael of the Rams, who has had some decent seasons, and rookie first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions. Other notable 84: Robert Royal, Browns

85 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates, who didn’t play football but basketball in college, has been one of the preeminent receiving tight ends in the league over the past decade or so. Injuries have slowed him a step or two, but he’s still really good. One day, Vernon Davis of the 49ers will claim this number, but that won’t happen until Gates retires. Other notable 85: David Thomas, Saints

86 – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap is another tight end having a renaissance year this season, reminding all of us how good of a receiver he has been in his career. Like Heath Miller, his size is his biggest asset as a receiver. Other notable 86s: Donald Lee, Packers; Fred Davis, Redskins; Daniel Coats, Bengals; Chris Baker, Patriots

87 – Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a good game or two before this season, but he has seized his opportunity this season and established himself as a better-than-average receiver at tight end already. He brings an explosiveness to the position that the Eagles never got from L.J. Smith. Other notable 87: Kellen Davis, Bears

88 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – T-Gon is another of the classic tight ends of this era, and like Gates he had a basketball background. Gonzalez is still a prolific receiver, and his veteran presence has made the Falcons’ offense much more dangerous. He’s clearly the choice here over Jeremy Shockey of New Orleans and many others. Other notable 88s: JerMichael Finley, Packers; Tony Scheffler, Broncos; Dante Rosario, Panthers; J.P. Foschi, Bengals; Desmond Clark, Bears

89 – Daniel Graham, Broncos– This is a close call between Graham, who’s known more for his blocking than for his receiving, and young tight ends like Kevin Boss of the Giants, John Carlson of Seattle, and Marcedes Lewis of the Jaguars. We’ll give Graham the nod based on the longevity of his career and his blocking prowess. Other notable 89s: Will Heller, Lions; Sean Ryan, Chiefs; Matt Spaeth, Steelers; Ben Patrick, Cardinals; Shawn Nelson, Bills

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 8

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

Quarterbacks

Marc Bulger, Rams – Bulger is back healthy again, and he led the Rams to their first win of the year. But he’s not going to lead your fantasy team anywhere throwing for 176 yards without a touchdown. He’s back – so what. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford returned to the lineup against the Rams, but his first game back didn’t lead to big numbers or a win. With just 168 passing yards, Stafford was a fantasy disappointment. That’s probably going to remain the case over the rest of the season. Stafford’s a talent, but he’s not seasoned enough to help fantasy owners yet. Verdict: A fraud

Vince Young, Titans– Young made his triumphant return to the lineup actually triumphant, leading the Titans to their first win of the season. His fantasy numbers weren’t great – 125 passing yards, one passing touchdown, and 30 rushing yards. But his completion percentage (15-of-18) was good, and that’s a good sign. Young’s not ready to contribute to a starting lineup right now, but he has a little potential. It’s enough to make him a waiver claim in larger fantasy leagues of 12 teams or more. That will earn him very reserved applause. Verdict: Applaud

Running Backs

Matt Forte, Bears – Forte has been the most disappointing fantasy first-round pick this season, but he came back with a big game against the Browns this week. But don’t let that performance of two touchdowns and 121 yards from scrimmage serve as a panacea. Forte’s two best games of the season have happened against the Browns and Lions, which is not a good sign against real-live NFL teams. Forte is not worth dropping (as one person in a small league I play in did), but be careful about starting him on a weekly basis. And because he’s not a shoo-in starter, we have to give him a thumbs-down right now. Verdict: A fraud

Jamal Lewis, Browns – Lewis’ injury problems and terrible team left him on the waiver wire of many leagues. He’s not a great fantasy performer – 69 yards on 16 carries against Chicago is about as much as you can expect – but it is a reminder that he is worth owning in leagues with a normal-sized bench. This is just a smattering, but still… Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Moats, Texans – Steve Slaton’s persistent fumbling problems caused the Texans to bench their starter midway through the game against Buffalo, and Moats stepped in to have a ridiculous game with 126 yards and three rushing touchdowns. Who knows what the Texans will do with Moats going forward, but the amount of upside he showed in the Texans’ prolific offense is enough reason to sprint to the waiver wire to claim him. Moats isn’t just a cause celebre in cruel hospital cop episode anymore; he’s this week’s best fantasy pickup. Verdict: Applaud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart has had a good season from a yards-per-carry basis this year, but he has rarely found the end zone. That changed at Arizona this week as he had two touchdowns along with his 87 yards on 17 carries. While you can’t count on Stewart scoring twice every week, Sunday’s line is a reminder that Stewart is still a pretty good flex option most weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Leonard Weaver, Eagles – Just about every fantasy-relevant Eagle (save the concussed Brian Westbrook) scored against the Giants this week, but the first to score was Weaver, the team’s fullback. Not only did he have a 41-yard touchdown run; he actually piled up 75 rushing yards. Weaver is a fullback, which limits his fantasy value, but he always seemed to end up with three or four touchdowns a year in his previous home in Seattle. So you can’t think of Weaver as a pickup in most leagues, but in massive leagues (16 teams or more) he should be on your radar. We can’t clap for that limited a fantasy market, but we wanted to at least note Weaver’s meager value. Verdict: A fraud

Wide Receivers

Keenan Burton, Rams – Burton had five catches for 54 yards for the Rams this week. There are so few targets in St. Louis that we’ve seen guys like Burton and Danny Almendola pop up on the weekly stat leader sheets each week. The thing is that they pop right back off that list. So don’t waste a claim on Burton this week. Verdict: A fraud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – Harvin continues to be a reliable option for Brett Favre, and that is paying off for fantasy owners. He scored his fifth touchdown of the year as he had five catches for 84 yards and a score against Green Bay. Harvin is a top-30 receiver in leagues where his return touchdowns count, which is pretty high status indeed for a rookie receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Greg Jennings, Packers – Jennings has been a big-time fantasy disappointment this year, but he did bounce back against his former teammate Brett Favre’s Vikings Sunday with eight catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. Jennings isn’t the top-8 fantasy wideout that he was drafted to be, but he is a top 20 wideout still, and that makes him a weekly starter. For that, we’ll clap. Verdict: Applaud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Owens scored just his second touchdown of the season Sunday on a 29-yard run. That’s a boon to anyone who is still starting Owens, but the bottom line is that no one should still be putting T.O. in their lineup on a weekly basis. If this blip on the scoring radar helps you get a little more in a deal for Owens, do it, because he’s not a starter moving forward. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas, one of the Jags’ many rookie receivers, had a nice game against Tennessee with four catches for 55 yards. That’s not enough for us to recommend that you claim Thomas, but it is enough for us to note him. He’s a guy to watch in the next couple of weeks to see if he starts to emerge with a bigger role in the offense. Verdict: A fraud

Tight Ends

Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss caught his first TD pass of the season against the Eagles Sunday, and it was the first TD pass from Eli Manning to a non-wideout this year. Boss is a decent receiver, but he’s not a good enough receiver to have big upside  over the rest of the season. He’s a top 16 tight end, but only barely. So unless you’re in a massive league, pass over Boss. Verdict: A fraud

Spencer Havner, Packers – When I first looked up Havner in the NFL.com database, he was listed as a linebacker. But this ‘backer has three touchdowns over the past two weeks for the Pack. That scoring spree matches up with Jermichael Finley’s injury. It’s hard to see Havner as a serious fantasy option given that he has just four catches over the past two weeks, but with three of those grabs going for touchdowns, Havner’s a guy to consider as a bye-week fill-in Week 9. Verdict: Applaud

Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller has had a bit of a disappointing season, but he broke out against the Dolphins with eight catches for 76 yards and a touchdown this Sunday. Keller is on bye this weekend, and he’s still going to be up and down, but this game gives hope that he has some more fantasy production left in his season. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football: Valuing Tight Ends

One of the most difficult things I face every year in putting together my fantasy football draft board is valuing tight ends properly. Part of this is because of the peculiarity of the leagues I play in. Two of the three leagues include tight ends with wide receivers, and so very few tight ends are worthing of starting in the WR/TE position. But the other league requires a tight end starter.

So I thought I’d go through the top tight ends and compare them as fantasy options using the football relativity scale. On this scale, 10 is a tight end who is an elite fantasy player, and 1 is a tight end who’s only worth owning in leagues of 12 teams or more that require a tight end starting every week. We’ll indicate on the scale the levels where the tight ends are also starters at WR/TE positions and where tight ends are worth owning as backups in WR/TE leagues.

One more note before we begin: you can follow all of our previous fantasy football articles by following the fantasy football category here on the blog.

10 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten is a catch machine. He had 81 catches for 952 yards following a 96-catch, 1,145-yard season in ’07. But he had just four touchdowns last year, which was a mid-pack figure for tight ends. But with Terrell Owens gone, Witten is by far the most dependable receiving option in Dallas, and you can reasonably expect that Witten gets some of the red-zone looks that Owens demanded in previous years. That means that last year’s numbers are on the low end of what you can expect from Witten in ’09, and his TD numbers should go up as well. He’s the surest thing among fantasy tight ends in 2009 and should be the first one off the board.

10 (con’t) – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark has long been one of the best touchdown producers among tight ends, crossing the goal line 30 times in the last five years. He had 77 catches for 848 yards and six scores last year, putting him near the top of the tight end category in terms of catches and yards. With Marvin Harrison gone, you have to figure that Clark will be a little more frequent target for Peyton Manning, and that should help to stabilize his production and make him more valuable as a fantasy option. The only negative on his profile is the fact that he’s been dinged enough to miss games each of the last three years, Still, Clark is one of the top 2 tight ends from a fantasy perspective for 2009.

9 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – Gonzalez is an all-time great who might end up being the all-time greatest tight end. He’s had at least 95 catches for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, which shows you that he’s not losing any steam. He also still has great leaping ability in the red zone, as his 10-touchdown ’08 campaign attests. The only question with Gonzalez is what kind of role he’ll find in his new home in Atlanta this year. The Falcons have a stud receiver in Roddy White and a big target in Michael Jenkins, and the two of them may take a play or two away that Gonzalez had gotten in the red zone in his K.C. days. Gonzalez is still a tight end stud and a legitimate starter in WR/TE leagues as well. He just doesn’t quite have the sure-thing quality that Witten and Clark appear to have going into the ’09 season. But if you are the third to take a tight end, you’re still going to be set up for big success.

8 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates has been a fantasy stud for years, but even though he played all 16 games in ’08, he finished with a lower-than-usual 60 catches for 704 yards. He still scored eight touchdowns, which was second among tight ends, but even that was his lowest TD total in five years. His fantasy value is as much from touchdowns as from receiving yards, and with Vincent Jackson emerging, there’s not a need for the Chargers to target Gates every time in the red zone any more. So it seems like Gates’ fantasy impact is starting to wane just a bit. Still, while there are some questions, Gates is still the fourth-best tight end on fantasy draft boards, and he’s still a No. 3 starter at WR/TE in a 12-team league.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a starter in 10-12 team leagues with a combined WR/TE position.*

7 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels is the newest guy to break into the ranks of fantasy starters. Did you know that he’s averaged 66 catches and 815 yards in each of the last two seasons? Those are elite numbers. The only negative is his touchdown totals – he had five in his rookie season but just five combined in his last two seasons. Daniels should put up big numbers again in ’08, and if his touchdown numbers inch up, he could truly join the elite receivers. Of course, for that to happen, QB Matt Schaub must stay healthy, which is a question. So for now, Daniels is a supersolid starter as a tight end in fantasy leagues, and he’s a quality backup and spot starter in WR/TE leagues. And if his TD rate starts gaining speed, his value will shoot up.

6 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley had a strange fantasy season last year. He had career highs with 83 catches for 849 yards, but he had just one touchdown after scoring at least six in each of his first four seasons. Cooley has surpassed 700 receiving yards in each of his last four seasons, so he’s a safe starting tight end, and if his touchdown total moves back up to five or more, he could pass Daniels and even come close to the four elite tight ends. But I’m a little skeptical about that given Jason Campbell’s uneven performance thus far in his career. The reason Cooley lands below Daniels is that I trust Matt Schaub more than I trust Campbell. Still, Cooley is a starting tight end in all leagues and a worthy backup in leagues with a WR/TE position.

5 – Greg Olsen, Bears – Olsen, a former first-round pick, continued to take steps forward in his career in ’08. He went from his rookie totals of 39 catches for 391 yards and two scores to improved sophomore stats of 54 catches for 574 yards and five scores. A similar gain in ’09 would make Olsen a top-five tight end. A gain is possible, because new Bears QB Jay Cutler is much better than the Bears’ former starter Kyle Orton. But remember that Olsen is sharing TE duties with Desmond Clark, another quality pass catcher, and even though the Bears run a lot of two-TE sets, that still should hold Olsen’s numbers down. We can project enough of a gain for Olsen to make him a sure fantasy starter and a backup in WR/TE leagues. But projecting more right now would be getting your head out over your skis.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as the equivalent of a fourth or fifth option at WR/TE in leagues without a tight end position. Therefore, they should not be backups in 10-12 team WR/TE leagues.*

4 – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow may be the most physically gifted tight end in the league, and he has been really productive in the last two years. He had 171 catches for nearly 2,000 yards and eight TDs in ’06 and ’07 combined, and in just half a season last year he still had a whopping 43 catches for 428 yards and three TDs. He moves from a pass-first Cleveland system to Tampa Bay, which would seem to be more of a run-first scheme with lesser quarterbacks. So that could cause a dip in his numbers. We still expect at least 500 yards and four touchdowns, which makes Winslow a tight end starter. He also has upside to do more than that. If you’re picking a fantasy TE starter late and Winslow is there, take a shot and hope for the best. But don’t reach for this talent in such an uncertain situation.

4 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a strong rookie season in Seattle with 55 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. And he did that with Matt Hasselbeck missing much of the season. Hasselbeck’s returns will help Carlson’s numbers, but the arrival of T.J. Houshmandzedah could hurt a little. So pencil Carlson in for 500 yards and four touchdowns, make him one of the last TE starters picked in your draft, and hope that Carlson exceeds expectations in ’09 like he did in ’08. Carlson is a safe pick with some upside, which is what you want with a late-round pick.

4 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – There are actually two Zach Millers playing tight end in the league this year, so if you want this Miller, make sure to draft correctly on your computer system. Oakland’s Zach Miller took a step forward in his second season, increasing his catch total from 44 to 56 and his yardage total from 444 to 778. He only had one touchdown, which limits his fantasy value. But Miller probably will pass 700 receiving yards again in ’09, and if he can move his touchdown total up, he’ll move from being a marginal fantasy starter to a solid one. Given the Raiders’ problematic offense, it’s hard to project that TD jump, which is why Miller ranks down here. But he’s the best weapon Oakland has aside from Darren McFadden, and that fact should help Miller’s numbers remain solid.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a tight end starter in 10-team leagues. The players below should be seen as backups except in larger leagues.*

3 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe was one of the breakout fantasy players of 2008, as his seven touchdowns and nearly 600 yards made him an elite fantasy tight end. That touchdown total, though, seems a bit out of whack given the fact that Shiancoe had just 42 catches, and so prudency demands we expect that TD total to take a bit of a dive. The Vikings’ unsettled QB situation (obligatory Brett Favre mention) is troubling as well. I can see Shiancoe amassing 400 yards and three touchdowns without a lot of trouble, and he does have the capability to do more. But he’s not good enough to put him in the top 10 at the position in fantasy terms. He misses that plateau, although not by much.

3 (con’t) – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller, a Jets’ first-round pick in ’08, had a strong rookie season, totaling 48 catches for 535 yards and three touchdowns. If he makes the kind of second-year jump that Greg Olsen and Zach Miller did, Keller would be a fantasy starter. But the fact that the Jets are breaking in a rookie quarterback could hold Keller back just a little. Keller is a talent, and Mark Sanchez has a better arm than Brett Favre had at the end of the ’08 season. But for safety’s sake, we’ll project Keller to match his ’08 numbers and hope for some upside instead of expecting more and getting less.

2 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a quality tight end who is remarkably consistent. He’s had at least 34 catches but not more than 48 in each of his four seasons; had at least 393 yards but not more than 566 in all four seasons; and had at least three touchdowns every year as well. Miller has shown some touchdown productivity in the past, but he had just three last year, which I think is a sign of things to come because Santonio Holmes has finally emerged as a proven No. 2 receiver for the Steelers. So Miller is a safe backup tight end, but he doesn’t have the fantasy upside that a guy like Keller has. In a huge league, Miller’s an OK starter if you’re among the last to take a tight end, and he’s a perfectly good fill-in if your starting tight end has a bye or gets hurt. But at this point, we know what Miller is – and that’s not an elite fantasy tight end.

2 (con’t) – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey is a huge talent at tight end, and he has had monster numbers in past year. Last year, despite missing four games, he still had 50 catches for nearly 500 yards. But there are strikes against him. First, he didn’t score a touchdown last year in his first season as a Saint. Second, he is no Saint, as off-the-field problems are frequent enough to make fantasy owners nervous. Third, he is injured often enough – he’s never played all 16 games in a season – that you can’t rely on him. If he played all 16 games in New Orleans, he could be a top-5 tight end. But the chances of that happening are slim enough to downgrade Shockey. He’s a classic boom or bust pick, which means he’s worth taking late but not worth taking early. I wouldn’t rely on Shockey as a starter, but he’s the kind of guy worth having as a backup tight end if your team requires you to carry one. Just be prepared for a roller-coaster if you take him.

2 (con’t) – Brent Celek, Eagles – If there is one tight end who’s going to take a leap out of obscurity in ’09, it’s Celek. He played in every game and started seven for the Eagles last year, totaling 27 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown in part-time duty. Now, with L.J. Smith gone, we can expect Celek to have the kind of season Smith used to have in Philly – something like 300-500 yards and three TDs. But there’s upside for even more production than that here, and that makes Celek an intriguing fantasy backup.

2 (con’t) – Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss replaced Shockey with the Giants last year and had a solid season, catching 33 balls for 383 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a good season for a fantasy tight end, but it’s not enough to pencil Boss in as a fantasy starter this season. His touchdown total is out of whack compared to his catches, which means it’s wiser to expect him to have more like three scores in ’09. He’s a solid backup, but there is more upside with up-and-coming players like Carlson and Keller and Zach Miller that you should opt for before considering Boss.

1 – Tony Scheffler, Broncos – Scheffler has been a fantasy sleeper in his first two seasons, with at least 40 catches and at least 549 yards in each season. He’s also averaged 4 touchdowns a year through his three-year career. But while Scheffler has talent, he is going to be hurt by his situation as much as any fantasy player this year. The departure of Jay Cutler takes away Scheffler’s best friend on and off the field. Moreover, Scheffler’s down-the-field style doesn’t seem to fit the Josh McDaniels offensive system we saw in New England in recent years. Scheffler’s good enough to get 300 yards regardless of system, but he’s a backup until we see him prove that he can thrive without Cutler in McDaniels’ new system.

1 (con’t) – Bo Scaife, Titans – The Titans used their franchise tag on Scaife this offseason to make sure they kept him after his 58-catch, 561-yard season. But it’s hard to see Sciafe matching those numbers in ’09. The Titans drafted rookie Jared Cook, a pass-catching tight end who will take at least a few opportunities away from Scaife. And even with all of Sciafe’s catches, he has never had more than two touchdowns in a season. For fantasy owners, Scaife is just a fill-in. He’s a guy who’s better on the NFL field than he is in fantasy scoresheets.

1 (con’t) – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was once an elite fantasy tight end, but injuries and changes in Baltimore’s offense have limited his impact. Even though he started every game last year, he had just 35 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Ravens have added L.J. Smith to the roster, which could limit Heap’s numbers even more. It’s hard to see Heap as a fantasy factor this year; we’re including his name here just so you know we didn’t forget.

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