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The final cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Starting Running Backs

Few things in fantasy football are more frustrating than not having solid starters at running back. So in this post, we’re going to continue to break down our running back draft board to identify guys you can trust to start for you this season.

We’ve broken down Tier 1 at running back and looked at rookie running backs and potential breakout running backs. That has given us a clear view of Tiers 1 and 2 at the position, which as of now includes 11 RBs on Tier 1 and six RBs on Tier 2. That means Tier 3 will feature several running backs that will start for fantasy teams. So in this post, we’re going to use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss running backs on Tier 3 so that we can find the next 8-10 backs that will fill starting spots in 12-team leagues. Players are listed alphabetically.

Joseph Addai, Colts – After a disappointing ’08 season, Addai had a bit of a fantasy bounceback in 2009, piling up 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. That was a bit surprising, especially after the Colts added first-round running back Donald Brown. But don’t be deceived by Addai’s numbers, because he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and just 6.6 yards per catch, which was a yard and a half below his previous career low. Part of Addai’s low yards-per-touch averages was Indy’s offensive line, which struggled last year and has been upgraded in the offseason. But Brown’s emergence is still a danger to Addai’s production. Given his role, Addai still fits as a Tier 3 running back, but barely so. He’s only a fantasy starter in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber piled up 1,153 yards from scrimmage last year, and he scored seven touchdowns (giving him 49 in a five-year career). Still, the buzz is behind Felix Jones, not Barber, in the Cowboys’ backfield. Yes, Jones is more explosive than Barber, but we like the fact that Barber rebounded to average 4.4 yards per carry last year. Yes, Jones will get his chances, but Barber’s running and receiving should pile up 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns, which makes him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back and a solid Tier 3 member. Verdict: Applaud

Jahvid Best, Lions – Besides Ryan Mathews (a Tier 2 back), Best is the rookie back with the clearest shot for a starting job, as we discussed in this post. Detroit hasn’t been a great home for fantasy running backs in recent years, but Kevin Smith has put up decent numbers, and he’s not the explosive threat that Best is. Best is a nice investment as a top-25 back because his breakaway ability adds upside. He’s safely onto Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw had a breakout season last year, totaling 985 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, continuing his strong work in that category while increasing his workload. From about midseason on, Bradshaw was in basically a 50-50 split for carries with Brandon Jacobs, and we believe that trend continues this year based on Bradshaw’s performance last year. Bradshaw be a 1,000-yard producer with 6-8 touchdowns, and there’s a possibility for more if the Giants continue to swing the carries percentage toward Bradshaw based on performance. Verdict: Applaud

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – How do you break down the Dolphins’ backfield? Brown ran for 648 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in Miami’s ninth game, and afterhe injured his right foot. After Brown’s injury, Ricky Williams ran wild. So it’s safe to say that the Dolphins have a run-friendly offense with a stout offensive line, and even with Williams around Brown should pile up about 1,000 total yards with 8-10 touchdowns. That’s enough to place Brown safely on Tier 3 and consider him a top-25 running back, even though we slightly prefer Williams this year. Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Bush, Saints – At this point, fantasy owners need to accept who Bush is and who he’s not. Bush is a terrific triple threat who can score running, receiving, and on punt returns. But Bush isn’t going to be a mega-yardage producer who is a consistent fantasy performer. Last year showed that, as Bush totaled just 725 yards from scrimmage but had eight total touchdowns. That makes him a terrific No. 3 back who fits as a flex option or as a bye-week fill-in with great upside on any particular week. But if you depend on Bush to deliver on a weekly basis, you’ll be disappointed. He’s on Tier 3, but not as high as his teammate Pierre Thomas. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett was one of the few bright spots in a lost season in Seattle last year, amassing 969 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns despite sharing time with Julius Jones. Jones is still around, and Leon Washington is now around, duplicating many of Forsett’s skills. But Forsett is still the best option the Seahawks have, and we expect him to win enough touches in Pete Carroll’s always-compete system to come close to his 2010 numbers again. That encourages us to leave Forsett on Tier 3 as a potential starter in larger leagues.Verdict: Applaud

Matt Forte, Bears – After a terrific rookie season, Forte was a top-5 overall pick in many fantasy leagues last year. But his results dropped off significantly as he ended up with 1,400 yards from scrimmage and just four touchdowns. Even worse, aside from four pretty good fantasy performances against the sorry Lions (twice), Rams, and Browns, Forte’s weekly performance was even worse than his season numbers indicate. The Bears’ offensive line, which was a part of the problem, has gotten an offseason overhaul that should help, but the offense is different for Forte this year with Mike Martz on-board as offensive coordinator. Even more of a threat to Forte’s stock is the appearance of Chester Taylor, a versatile back who could merit at least 40 percent of the work and could take a greater share if Forte struggles. Forte’s receiving acumen fits Martz’s system, but his chances will decrease because of Martz’s system. After last year, we don’t trust Forte as a top-25 back, but he’s still a starter (barely) in large leagues and therefore a fit on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Montario Hardesty, Browns – In our rookie running back post, we talked about how Hardesty is worth drafting at the bottom of Tier 3 because of his upside. He’s not a starting-caliber running back, but we recommend drafting him as such in order to have his significant upside as your No. 3 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – As we recommend Hardesty, we believe Harrison will settle into No. 3 fantasy running back status on Tier 4. Yes, he ran for 862 yards last season, but his numbers were inflated by a 286-yard performance against an abysmal Kansas City defense. More importantly, in games in which he had at least eight carries, that was one of only two games in which he averaged at least four yards per carry. Hardesty’s breakaway ability will surpass Harrison’s workmanlike status, and so Harrison’s numbers will rely on a heavy dose of carries and catches. He’ll have enough for 800 yards from scrimmage and 5-6 touchdowns, but not significantly more. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson successfully carved out a role in Buffalo despite facing off against a first-round pick in Marshawn Lynch, and now he must maintain such a role alongside first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Jackson’s receiving skills will help him do so. While Spiller’s also a talented receiver, the Bills will likely want to limit Spiller’s exposure as a rookie so that they can prolong his career. That means Jackson will continue to pile up around 1,000 yards from scrimmage and with six touchdowns or so. That dependable production means that Jackson is a candidate to start in larger fantasy leagues and therefore a member of Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – After a terrific ’08 fantasy season, Jacobs slipped in a big way in 2009, running for just 835 yards and scoring just six touchdowns. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost carries as Ahmad Bradshaw was far more productive on 60 fewer carries. Part of the problem was that the Giants’ offensive line, which had been solid for so long, started to slip, but there’s a very real possibility that Jacobs is in decline. Because Jacobs isn’t a good receiver, his stats are all about the carries, and we don’t see him as a top-25 back, which means he shouldn’t be a starter in 12-team leagues. We’ll leave him off of Tier 3 because, while his numbers figure to match the Felix Jones and C.J. Spiller types, Jacobs doesn’t have the upside those guys do. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – In his second season, Jones played 14 games and still averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which is a remarkable number. But he only had three touchdowns on 135 touches. On first glance, we figured Jones was a good No. 3 back with upside, but after studying Marion Barber’s numbers, we’re a little less bullish on Jones. He’s still on Tier 3, but just barely, and he shouldn’t  be considered a fantasy starter. Don’t get carried away. Verdict: Applaud

Thomas Jones, Chiefs – At age 31, Jones had a career year in ’09, rushing for a personal-best 1,402 yards and a personal-best 14 touchdowns. But he slowed down in the playoffs, and the Jets actually cut him in the offseason to save several million dollars. Jones landed in Kansas City, where he will team with Jamaal Charles in the backfield. In this situation, there’s no way that Jones gets 331 carries as he did last year, and he may not get half that total. That means that Jones’ numbers are headed downward. The question is how far. We learned last year not to doubt Jones’ abilities, but our hunch is that Charles’ explosiveness will earn enough carries that Jones ends up in the 800-yard range. He has the potential to be the goal-line back, which could put him near double-digit touchdowns again, but Jones is still a better bet atop Tier 4 than among starters on Tier 3. Verdict: A fraud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – As a rookie, McCoy had a nice season, stepping in for the injured Brian Westbrook and totaling 945 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Now that Westbrook is gone, McCoy seems to have a clear shot to more touches, and that should help him get into the 1,000-1,200 yards from scrimmage range. Don’t get too carried away with McCoy’s stock, because Mike Bell could steal some short-yardage and goal-line carries, and fullback Leonard Weaver is a burly breakaway threat. But McCoy is worth the investment as a starting fantasy back, even in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Clinton Portis, Redskins – Portis isn’t even 29 yet (his birthday is just before the 2010 season opens), but he has a lot of miles behind him, which makes us skeptical of his production. The fact that he missed the second half of last season (after concussion symptoms) reminds us that Portis’ decline is coming, if it’s not already here. Portis’ numbers projected to 1,000-yard rushing season (although he scored just one touchdown in one game). Maybe he can recreate those numbers in 2010 under his former head coach Mike Shanahan, who’s now in D.C. But remember that the Skins also added over-30 backs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker in the offseason, which could limit Portis’ numbers. Our hunch is that Portis will be drafted as a No. 3 fantasy back, but we’re slotting him below that level on Tier 4 because we get the sense that his numbers could fall completely off the table. Verdict: A fraud

C.J. Spiller, Bills – We discussed Spiller in our rookie RB post and talked about how his talent doesn’t outweigh his situation in Buffalo. Spiller isn’t a guy you can rely on as a starter because of that situation, but we’ll stick him on the bottom of Tier 3 because his talent creates enough upside to take him as a priority No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas was the lead back in New Orleans’ three-headed backfield last season, piling up 793 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That production didn’t quite match his ’08 fantasy numbers, but they were still good enough to merit being a fantasy starter. This season, with Mike Bell gone to Philadelphia, Thomas could actually see his workload tick upward, especially at the goal line. He’s among the top backs in Tier 3 and a safe No. 2 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – At age 32 last season, Williams defied the odds by putting together a terrific season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry as he piled up 1,121 rushing yards and seven touchdowns despite sharing time with Ronnie Brown for the first half of the season. Plus, Williams had 35 catches, which marked the seventh time in his eight full seasons that he had at least 29 catches. With 13 total touchdowns, Williams ended the season with legitimate No. 1 fantasy back production, especially during the second half of the season. With Brown returning, expectations shouldn’t be that high, but Williams is back to being a reliable starting fantasy back who fits comfortably in Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud


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Fantasy Football – Rookie running backs

Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.

To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.

(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)

9 – none

8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.

7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.

7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.

(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)

6 – none

5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.

4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.

4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.

3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.

(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)

2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.

1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.

1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.

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Fantasy Football: Which running backs will break out?

As I work on creating tiers on my draft board, one of the things I like to do at the top of Tier 2 is to list young players with big upside. As part of the process, I analyze which young players – especially at running back – are most likely to break out. In this post, we’ll share that analysis of potential breakout running backs, both among veterans and among the top rookies.

(For analysis of who fits on Tier 1, check out our RB, WR, and QB Tier 1 posts. And though it isn’t our work, this fantasy football depth chart site is invaluable.)

Worth the Tier 2 gamble

Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews wasn’t the first running back taken in the April draft, but he certainly has the best opportunity to make a big fantasy impact among rookie runners. Mathews is a big, burly back who can handle 20 carries a game, and he moves into a San Diego offense that helped make LaDainian Tomlinson a fantasy record-setter. With Darren Sproles still in town, Mathews won’t put up LDT numbers, but Mathews should come in with a terrific season – 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns is well within reach. That makes Mathews a great rookie to take a shot on atop Tier 2.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – As a rookie, Moreno piled up 1,150 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns, even though he had 10 carries or fewer in five of his 16 games. Moreno still faces a carries challenge from Correll Buckhalter, and Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is from the Bill Belichick school of rotating running backs, but it’s fair to assume that, in his second year, Moreno will break through the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground. He should finish with upward of 1,300 total yards, and if he gets the 8-10 touchdowns that usually accompany that kind of yardage, Moreno will find himself securely in Tier 2. We predict a modest increase in his numbers, and that makes him a solid fantasy starter.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – The Daily Show had another fine fantasy season last year, running for 1,133 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also grabbed 139 receiving yards, and, more importantly for fantasy owners, scored double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season. Even in a 60-40 carry split behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart has proven he’s a legitimate fantasy starter. And when you consider that the Panthers won’t have Jake Delhomme turning the ball over constantly in ’10, both Williams and Stewart could actually see their numbers increase in the upcoming season. Because of his role, his week-to-week production can fluctuate, but the end-of-season results make it impossible to omit Stewart from Tier 2. He’s easily a top-20 fantasy back, and he’s knocking on the door of an even more elite group. And if Williams were to get hurt, Stewart’s stock would shoot up even more. He’s the real deal for fantasy owners.

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles had shown flashes of great ability in his rookie season and into his second year, but it wasn’t until Larry Johnson was sent packing that Charles exploded. He had at least 17 touches in each of the final eight games, and the results were six days with 100 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. So if the late-season status was the same, Charles would be a no-brainer for Tier 2 and a contender for Tier 1. But the Chiefs’ addition of Thomas Jones in the offseason will limit Charles’ opportunities enough to make him a borderline Tier 2 player. Charles (who had an impressive 40 catches last season) will still pile up 1,200 total yards, but Jones could steal a few touchdown chances and hold down Charles’ upside. So entering the season, we’ll include Charles at the bottom of Tier 2, with the proviso that if Jones gets hurt Charles could easily become a top-10 fantasy back.

Shonn Greene, Jets – Greene emerged as a running threat in the playoffs last year, and the Jets were sold to the point that they cut Thomas Jones and traded Leon Washington in the offseason. Now Greene and Tomlinson, who came over from San Diego, are the runners in an offense that depends on the ground game. Greene averaged five yards a carry in the regular season last year, and he had two 100-yard games in the postseason. Greene hasn’t proven he’ll be an end-zone specialist, and he hasn’t been much of a receiver out of the backfield, which limits his upside for fantasy owners. But if you’re looking for a No. 2 running back who will pile up 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns without making you sweat while still giving you the potential for much more, Greene’s a good option.

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – As a rookie last year, Wells started slowly, but he ended up with 793 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. More importantly, he established himself as at least an equal partner with Tim Hightower in the backfield by about Week 6, and from that point on Wells was a solid option. With Hightower around, Wells is unlikely to get more than about 18 touches a game, especially since Hightower trumps him in the receiving department. But with Kurt Warner gone, there should be more carries in Arizona, and that bodes well for Wells. And if Hightower were to get hurt, Wells’ upside jumps considerably. We think a 1,000-yard season is in the offing for Wells, and it should come with 8-10 touchdowns. That makes him a guy we’ll sneak onto Tier 2 as an upside play.

Wait to roll the dice

Felix Jones, Cowboys – As the season dawns, it looks as though Jones has a leg up on Marion Barber and Tashard Choice in the Cowboys’ crowded backfield. That’s important, because while Barber and Choice are more physical runners, Jones is the Cowboy with the most breakaway ability. After playing just six games as a rookie, Jones stayed healthy enough for 14 last year, and the results included 800 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. With a few more touches (and good health, which isn’t a given), Jones could knock those numbers up to 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. But while that upside is there, Dallas’ stacked depth chart and Jones’ injury history make it unlikely. So we’ll leave Jones off Tier 2 and consider him an exciting No. 3 fantasy back instead of a dependable No. 2.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – With Brian Westbrook gone, McCoy looks primed to take over as the Eagles’ No. 1 back. But don’t read too much into that role. FB Leonard Weaver proved last year that he needs to get a few carry chances in each game, and free-agent signee Mike Bell is going to find a role too. Given that situation, it appears that McCoy’s best games will be 80-yard, single-touchdown affairs, and he could finish under 1,000 yards for the season despite being the starter in Philly. McCoy is only a borderline fantasy starter, and that leaves him on Tier 3 instead of with the starters-with-upside group in Tier 2.

Jahvid Best, Lions – Best is one of three running backs who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and like Mathews he seems to have a clear shot at starting, at least until Kevin Smith returns from a major knee injury at midseason. But Best proved to be a bit brittle in college, and he looks like a back who can succeed more in 15 touches a game than a carry-the-load, 25-carry guy. Best will make his share of big plays, but he’s more of a matchup play and a bye-week fill-in for fantasy owners than a guy they will want to depend on each and every week. Others may be enamored with Best’s skills, but our feel for his role causes us to leave him on Tier 3.

C.J. Spiller, Bills – Spiller may be the most skilled of the rookie running backs, and he proved in college that he could break a big play on a run, catch, or a return. But Spiller doesn’t have a clear shot to carries in Buffalo, where even with Marshawn Lynch apparently out of favor, Fred Jackson still merits touches. Spiller is small enough that a carry split is wise, at least early in his career, but Buffalo’s below-par offensive line is another strike against Spiller’s fantasy value. As long as Jackson is around, Spiller isn’t more than a No. 3 fantasy running back in most leagues. On Tier 3, he’ll provide enough big plays to be an exciting option for fantasy owners. On Tier 2, though, Spiller’s numbers will be sporadic enough to make him a disappointment. So drafters should hold off on picking Spiller until the Tier 3 level.

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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 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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Steelers/Lions thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week 5 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Pittsburgh won the game 28-20.

On-field perspective
*The Lions have some nice pieces on offense. Even with Calvin Johnson getting hurt in this game and Matthew Stafford not playing, RB Kevin Smith and TE Brandon Pettigrew showed their value. Smith is not a great back, but he’s above-average as a runner and as a receiver. He can help the cause going forward. Pettigrew showed great hands on a third-quarter catch, and he is a decent blocker already even though he’s just a rookie. These two guys, plus Johnson and Stafford, can be the building blocks for an offensive attack.
*Daunte Culpepper has Byron Leftwich disease, and that’s what keeps him from being a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL at this point. Culpepper is slow in the pocket, and he’s not great under pressure in the pocket. Nowhere was that more apparent than on the game’s final drive, on which Culpepper was sacked on three straight downs. Even though Culpepper put up a few numbers in the game, you can see why the Lions went ahead and went with Stafford as their starter this season.
*While the Lions have decent skill-position options, their offensive line is subpar, as is their defense. The pass defense is especially atrocious. That’s where the Lions’ lack of depth really shows. Even with William James returning an interception for a touchdown, the Lions’ defense still was a major problem.
*The Steelers’ offense looked in rhythm. This is the best group of targets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had, with veteran Hines Ward, the dependable Heath Miller, the explosive Santonio Holmes, and speedy rookie Mike Wallace. That’s depth in a passing game, and it showed as Roethlisberger completed 13 passes in a row at one point.
*Wallace has surpassed ’08 second-round pick Limas Sweed as the Steeler’s third receiver. It seems like Wallace produces in every game I watch him, and he’s on the end of far more targets than Sweed.
*Rashard Mendenhall again had nice numbers in the run game, but I remain convinced that he’s not a short-yardage back. Once he gets up a head of steam, “Rocky” can make big plays. But before he gets started, he’s eminently tackle-able. That’s going to limit his value to the Steelers once Willie Parker returns. Mendenhall is a good backup, but he’s not a good rotation back. That’s why Melwede Moore is so vital to the Steelers.
*James Harrison (who had three sacks) and the injured Troy Polamalu usually get the props as the stars of the Steelers’ D, but two unsung guys are emerging CB William Gay and hard-hitting safety Ryan Clark. They don’t make huge plays all that often, but they make the plays they need to make over and over.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Smith doesn’t put up huge numbers, but he’s a solid No.2 fantasy back. He gets so many chances that he’s bound to pile up yards each and every week. He had a total of 95 yards from scrimmage in this game.
*Dennis Northcutt had a nice fantasy game in the absence of Calvin Johnson with 5 catches for 70 yards and a touchdown, but he doesn’t have any long-term fantasy value. He’s not worth a waiver claim this week despite his nice game.
*Ward had his best fantasy game with 7 catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, and he scored his first TD of the season. He’s dependable, but he’s no more than a marginal No. 2 receiver in most fantasy leagues. That’s because he’s half a step slower and because the Steelers have so many options.
*Wallace, meanwhile, is a No. 4 receiver in most leagues. He’s worth a roster spot as an emergency play, and if Ward or Holmes gets hurt Wallace is starting-caliber in most leagues. He’s the real deal.
*Big Ben had a huge game, but that was in part because of the Lions’ porous secondary. He’s still outside the top 8 of fantasy quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis.
*Culpepper had a big game in relief of Matthew Stafford with 282 yards and a touchdown, but he’s not a fantasy factor going forward. Don’t pick him up this week.

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Running Backs

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top running backs who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Michael Turner, Falcons – Turner’s yards per carry average isn’t great at 3.5, but he has scored in his last two games and has had at least 50 yards in all three games. This is a bit of a slow start, but it’s still fair to consider Turner a legitimate No. 1 fantasy running back. He hasn’t been the dominant player that most owners who drafted him in the top 2 would hope, but his performance has been good enough for applause. Verdict: Applaud

2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson is averaging 103 yards per game, is second in the league in rushing yards, and has five touchdowns already. While much of that production came in a huge Week One, Peterson’s performance is what you expect from a top-tier fantasy running back. Clap it up. Verdict: Applaud

3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo’s yardage total of 296 rushing doesn’t look great, but he also has 97 receiving yards, and his five rushing touchdowns is tied for the league lead through Week 4. He’ll end up with 1,200 rushing yards, another 400 receiving yards, and 15 TDs or more. That’s exactly what owners at the top of fantasy drafts were hoping for when they called his name. Verdict: Applaud

4. Matt Forte, Bears – Forte started really slow before putting up 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 4. If we had done this post last week, Forte would have been a fraud. But now his yardage totals (271 rushing and 92 receiving) are close enough to Jones-Drew’s, and if he starts scoring he’ll be just fine. He’s been a little disappointing thus far, but he’s still a No. 1 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – When I was putting together my rankings, it took a long time for me to settle on who the No. 5 and No. 6 backs were. But Williams, who I eventually moved up into this spot, has delivered despite terrible performances by his quarterback and receivers this year. He has 180 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards, and two TDs in three games, which is solid production. Owners can be confident that Williams will end up with 12 touchdowns and 1,200 total yards at least, and those are No. 1 back numbers. He’s the only Panther worth clapping for, but he’s earned it. Verdict: Applaud

6. Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson was the player I moved into the 6th position, and he has delivered big-time. Even though the Titans are 0-4, Johnson leads the league in rushing yards with 434 rushing yards, and he has another 117 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. If you got Johnson in the first half of the first round of your draft, it’s paying off big time. Verdict: Applaud

7. Steve Slaton, Texans – Like Forte, Slaton started out incredibly slowly before breaking out in Week 4. He has just 192 rushing yards, but he also has 121 receiving yards and the two touchdowns he scored this past Sunday. Slaton looks to be a yardage machine, and if he starts getting into the end zone regularly, he’ll be worth the first-round pick he cost in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

8. Clinton Portis, Redskins – At one point this offseason, I was staring at Portis’ impressive record and pencilling him in as a top-5 back. I drifted off that a bit, thankfully, as the season neared, but I still considered Portis great value at the end of the first round of my drafts. But Portis hasn’t really delivered, running for 281 yards in four games – three against soft defenses in Detroit, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. The schedule says that Portis should have had a hot start, but he hasn’t done so, and he hasn’t even reached the end zone yet. At this point, I wouldn’t consider Portis an every-week starter, and that makes this preseason ranking just flat wrong. Verdict: A fraud

9. Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Jacobs hasn’t started frequenting the end zone yet, but he has 288 rushing yards in the first four games. He’s not really a top-10 fantasy back yet, but once he starts finding pay dirt more often he will be. For now, he’s a solid fantasy starter, and that’s enough reason to clap. Verdict: Applaud

10. Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson is tied for fourth in the league in rushing yards with 367, and he also has 67 receiving yards. The problem for fantasy owners is that he hasn’t yet scored. Jackson is a victim of the Rams’ sorry offense, but at this point he’s still worth starting for fantasy owners because of his yardage numbers. His worst game was a 67-yard performance in Week One, and that’s not abysmal. So we’ll give him a golf clap. Verdict: Applaud

11. LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – I was down on Tomlinson this year because of his age and injuries over the past years, and so far those concerns have been valid. Tomlinson has just 72 yards from scrimmage so far and just one touchdown, and he has missed two games. His performance could get better, but at the quarter pole his fantasy owners can’t be happy. Verdict: A fraud

12. Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook has missed one game with injury and had a bye, and he’s had one good fantasy game and one OK performance. So while he, like Tomlinson, hasn’t really shined yet, his numbers look a little better in context. His upside for ’09 still has yet to be seen, but he’s done just enough to get a soft clap at this point. Verdict: Applaud

13. Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore is another back who’s already missed a game and most of a second tilt. His injury history was a big reason I didn’t include him in my top 10. When he’s played, he’s been terrific, with 298 total yards and 4 TDs. That makes Gore a legit No. 1 back when he’s in the lineup, and that’s worth applause despite his injury. Verdict: Applaud

14. Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber is another back who’s missed a game already, but in the three games he’s played he has 302 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. That’s production well worth a top-15 draft spot, even including the fact that he missed a game. Verdict: Applaud

15. Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t a guy that gives you great assurance when you take him, but as the top back on my Tier 2, he has just barely delivered thus far with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s been lacking in some games, but as a No. 2 fantasy back he’s been OK. Given how that meets expectations, we’ll give him some reserved applause. Verdict: Applaud

16. Ryan Grant, Packers – Grant got off to an awful start last year, but he’s been better in the first quarter of the season this year. He’s run for 257 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 receiving yards, which helps. Those are solid No. 2 fantasy back numbers that are worth of this spot on the preseason draft board. Verdict: Applaud

17. Darren McFadden, Raiders – I was far higher on McFadden than most people, figuring that his natural talent would lead to a 1,000-yard, 8-TD season no matter how bad his situation was. But he has just 198 yards from scrimmage and one TD in the first four games, and now he’s hurt. He’s a No. 4 fantasy back, not a fantasy starter. This was a bad preseason ranking. Verdict: A fraud

18. Kevin Smith, Lions – I didn’t love Smith this year, but I liked him enough to rate him as a borderline fantasy starter. And with 335 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, Smith has been a little better than borderline. He’s been a pleasant surprise thus far. Verdict: Applaud

19. Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas missed the season opener and played very sparingly in Week 2, but since then he’s been a big-time back. In the preseason, had Thomas not gotten hurt, he would have been a top-15 back. With 258 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs in the last two games, Thomas is a legit fantasy starter. Those who had patience with Pierre are being rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

20. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno (who was also hurt in the preseason) has been a good but not great fantasy player so far with 249 rushing yards and two TDs. And after a slow start in Week One, he has at least 65 rushing yards in each game. Now that Correll Buckhalter is hurt for a few weeks, Moreno has a chance to really emerge as not just a fantasy starter but as a No. 1 fantasy back. That makes him well worth this kind of preseason ranking. Verdict: Applaud

21. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is a good back, but he’s not good enough to overcome the general malaise that has hit the Panthers thus far. So even though he’s averaging more than 4 yards per carry, he has just 162 yards from scrimmage in three games and no touchdowns. That’s not worth this draft position, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to being a fantasy starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

22. Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – This ranking was way, way off. I didn’t see Cadillac Williams as a serious contender for carries, but it’s been Williams who has been the lone fantasy-relevant back for Tampa. Ward has just 129 yards from scrimmage and one TD. That’s not worth this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

23. Larry Johnson, Chiefs – I was far from sold on Johnson, but it was hard for me to imagine him not being at least a decent No. 3 back. But he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, and his 237 yards from scrimmage without a touchdown makes him nothing more than a roster-filler for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

24. Marshawn Lynch, Bills – It’s hard to judge Lynch because he missed the first three games due to his suspension. In his first game, he had just four yards on eight carries, although he did have 43 receiving yards. It’s far from certain that Lynch will be able to beat out Fred Jackson for the bulk of chances in Buffalo’s running game. So the signs aren’t yet good, but if you drafted Lynch you committed to be patient because you knew he would miss the first three games. For now, we’ll be patient with our verdict. Verdict: Incomplete

25. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – I was a lot further down on Brown than most, and he went as a No. 2 fantasy back in the drafts I was in. But Brown has delivered so far. He’s third in the league with 369 rushing yards, and he also has four touchdowns and 50 receiving yards. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now, which is what I was skeptical of. Another miss on my part. Verdict: Applaud

26. Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson gained steam as a sleeper during the preseason, and with good reason. He’s tied for fourth in the league with 367 rushing yards, and he has two touchdowns. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now and a nice surprise for owners who took a shot on him. Verdict: Applaud

27. Jamal Lewis, Browns – I was down on the Browns entering the year, but Lewis still made it into No. 3 running back range because he was one of few undisputed starting backs left. Lewis had 150 yards from scrimmage in the first two weeks, which is OK, before missing the last two games. You would never feel good about starting Lewis in a fantasy league, which means this ranking is about five spots too high. He should have been a No. 4 fantasy back at best, not a No. 3, and so we can’t clap for him at this level. Verdict: A fraud

28. Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is averaging 6 yards per carry, and he already has 429 yards from scrimmage. He just has one touchdown, which is the only thing keeping him from being a No. 1 fantasy back. But he’s a fantasy starter at this point, meaning that owners who got him at this point in fantasy drafts should be thrilled. Verdict: Applaud

29. Donald Brown, Colts – One of my big predictions in my preseason draft-boarding was that Brown would end up being a better fantasy back than Joseph Addai. That’s not yet the case – Brown has 257 yards from scrimmage and two TDs to 283 yards and three TDs for Addai – but I still get the sense that Brown will end up being better. In any case, Brown is already an OK No. 3 fantasy back who still has upside to move into being a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

30. Willie Parker, Steelers – Parker missed Week 4, and before that he put up 203 yards and one TD. Those aren’t quite No. 3 fantasy back numbers, but they’re close enough that this draft position for him is defensible. Verdict: Applaud

31. Reggie Bush, Saints – I kept moving Bush down my draft board in the preseason, but even this level wasn’t low enough. Mike Bell and Lyndell Hamilton have scored for the Saints, and yet Bush has just one touchdown. He does have 269 yards from scrimmage, and as a No. 3 fantasy back, he’s marginal. This is probably going to end up being about the right ranking for Bush, so we’ll clap – reluctantly. Verdict: Applaud

32. Beanie Wells, Cardinals – We projected that Wells would beat out Tim Hightower for the Cardinals’ No. 1 running back role, but that hasn’t yet happened. So Wells has just 71 rushing yards, and he doesn’t have a catch yet. If you drafted Wells, you probably have to stash him on your bench hoping that he’ll get it more and more as the year goes on. But even with that hope, this draft position looks too high. Verdict: A fraud

33. LenDale White, Titans – White became a fantasy starter last year by being a rushing-TD machine, but with the Titans falling apart White’s goal-line role has disappeared. He has just one touchdown and just 94 yards from scrimmage. He’s barely ownable at this point. Verdict: A fraud

34. Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson took advantage of his role as the Bills’ primary back in the first three games, and he has a whopping 493 yards from scrimmage in the first four games. He has just one touchdown, but if you took Jackson as a short-term answer, you have to feel good about how he did and about what he can do moving forward. Verdict: Applaud 

35. Joseph Addai, Colts – You can’t be secure about Addai’s role in the offense with Donald Brown emerging, but thus far Addai has been a solid No. 3 fantasy back. So given this ranking, we’ll applaud him. Verdict: Applaud

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

FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Regime change survivors

One of the biggest factors of a player’s fantasy football success is the offensive system he plays in. So as a service, we thought we’d go through the teams that are changing regimes this season and analyze how these changes should affect the relevant fantasy performers on each team. Where we’ve discussed players in more detail, we’ll include a link to our previous discussion. These offensive regime changes include teams with new head coaches as well as some teams with new offensive coordinators.

As always, you can read all sorts of other fantasy football analysis in our fantasy football category tag. And we have to give thanks to this site for a current list of offensive coordinators.

In this post, we’ve made some intentional omissions:
*With the Jets, Brian Schottenheimer survived the coaching change, and so that offense will look quite similar
*The Saints replaced Doug Marrone (now the Syracuse head coach) with Pete Carmichael Jr. but should run the same system
*The Patriots didn’t replace Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator, but Bill Belichick and his lieutenants will keep the same offensive system in place
*The Seahawks, moving from Mike Holmgren’s regime to Jim Mora’s, will still run a similiar West Coast style of offense under coordinator Greg Knapp.

Arizona (from Todd Haley to Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm/Mike Miller) – Now that Haley has gone to become the head man in Kansas City, Whisenhunt will probably look to become a little more proficient running the ball in Arizona. Grimm, like Whisenhunt an ex-Steelers assistant, will be the run-game coordinator, and Miller is the passing game coordinator. This shouldn’t affect the numbers of QB Kurt Warner or WRs Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin much – call them floats– but WR Steve Breaston’s numbers will likely sink a little, while rookie RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who will surpass Tim Hightower as a fantasy option, looks like the main beneficiary of this regime change.
*More on Fitzgerald here
*More on Boldin here
*More on Breaston and Hightower here
*More on Wells here

Cleveland (from Rob Chudinski to Brian Draboll) – This change is hard to quantify, but it probably pushes the Browns just a bit more conservative. It’s hard to know what to think of the Browns anyway, because QBs Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson are fighting for a job. But this should cause WR Braylon Edwards’ numbers to sink a bit, and could help RB Jamal Lewis’ numbers rise if he’s not in too much physical decline.

Denver (from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy) – This is a pretty significant change from Shanahan’s more wide open West Coast style offense to a more mixed New England-style offense. McCoy comes from Carolina, where he was QB coach in a run-run-run offense. This (plus the change from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton at QB) will cause the numbers of WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal to sink just a bit. TE Tony Scheffler will see an even bigger sink in his numbers. The beneficiary is rookie RB Knowshon Moreno and, to a lesser degree, ex-Eagle Correll Buckhalter.
*More on Orton and Buckhalter here
*More on Marshall here
*More on Royal here
*More on Moreno here
*More on Scheffler here

Detroit (from Jim Coletto to Scott Linehan) – The Lions’ offense was pretty much a train wreck last year, as was everything else in an 0-16 season. In comes Linehan, who bombed out as a head coach in St. Louis but who has a good record as a coordinator in Minnesota and Miami. He’s more prone to pass than Coletto was, and that should help the numbers across the offense work well. At quarterback, neither Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper is a great prospect, because neither will likely play all 16 games. But Calvin Johnson remains a stud whose numbers will float, and one of the receiver additions, Dennis Northcutt or Bryant Johnson, could see his numbers rise if he can seize a starting job. Plus, Kevin Smith’s numbers, which weren’t terrible fantasy-wise in ’08, could rise at least a little.
*More on Smith here
*More on Calvin Johnson here
*More on Bryant Johnson and Northcutt here
*More on Stafford here

Indianapolis (from Tom Moore to Clyde Christensen) – The Colts should run the same system – Christensen has been on the staff for years, and Moore did a runaround on the NFL’s new pension system for coaches by becoming a consultant. So the changes here will be minor. You can expect the numbers of QB Peyton Manning, WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark to basically float. RB Joseph Addai’s numbers will sink because of the addition of Donald Brown, while WR Anthony Gonzalez’s numbers will rise because of the departure of Marvin Harrison.
*More on Manning here
*More on Wayne here
*More on Clark here
*More on Addai here
*More on Brown and WR Austin Collie here

Kansas City (from Chan Gailey to Todd Haley/Gailey) – Gailey survived the coaching change in K.C., but with Haley now serving as head coach we should see a little different offensive system for the Chiefs. By the end of the year, Gailey was basically running a spread-type system that used the running talents of QB Tyler Thigpen and also let him fling the ball around. If the Chiefs are better this year, you have to think they’ll play it a little more conservatively, which would bode well for RB Larry Johnson. If Johnson plays the full year, his numbers should rise from his 874-yard, 5-touchdown campaign in 2008. WR Dwayne Bowe’s numbers should continue to rise just a bit, if for no other reason than the fact that import Matt Cassel is better than Thigpen. Look for Mark Bradley’s numbers to rise a little bit as well, and we’ve already predicted that free-agent addition Bobby Engram’s stats will float. Engram actually could fill the reliable role that Tony Gonzalez held for so many years in K.C. Cassel’s numbers should float in Haley’s pass-friendly system as well. All in all, the Chiefs should be a fantasy-friendly team this year.
*More on Cassel here
*More on Engram here 
*More on Bowe here

Oakland (from Lane Kiffin/Greg Knapp to Ted Tollner) – Good luck trying to describe the Raiders’ offense last year – best I can tell, it was more or less a West Coast offense approach, given Knapp’s history. And good luck trying to even identify the offensive leader this year – Tollner is passing game coordinator, Paul Hackett is quarterback coach, and there is no run game coordinator. But given the fact that head coach Tom Cable is an offensive line coach, and given Al Davis’ history, we can expect a run-friendly offense with deep passing. That means Darren McFadden is ready for his numbers to rise, especially if he stays healthy. McFadden’s just too good not to get a bunch of carries. If he does, as we expect, then Michael Bush and Justin Fargas will see their numbers sink. Passing wise, don’t expect too much out of JaMarcus Russell, who could lose snaps to Jeff Garcia. That could cause Russell’s modest numbers to sink even a bit more. Meanwhile, TE Zach Miller’s numbers should rise a little bit – he won’t have just one touchdown again – and Darrius Heyward-Bey actually has good fantasy potential for a rookie receiver.
*More on Miller here
*More on Heyward-Bey here

St. Louis (from Scott Linehan to Pat Shurmur) – Linehan is a quality offensive coordinator, but his head-coaching tenure was a disaster. Now the rams are under the system installed by Shurmur, who was the Eagles’ QB coach. His pedigree (his uncle Fritz was a longtime Mike Holmgren aide) indicates a pedigree in the West Coast offense. The Rams have completely reworked their offense, letting stalwarts Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce go. It should center around RB Steven Jackson, whose numbers should at least float. QB Marc Bulger is coming off a horrendous season, and if he can stay healthy his numbers will rise, but not enough to make him a fantasy starter. He’s not even really a feasible backup in most fantasy leagues. The only other Ram who is draftable is WR Donnie Avery, who had a decent first season and could see his numbers rise if he can up his touchdown total from the three he tallied in ’08.
*More on Jackson here

San Francisco (from Mike Martz to Jimmy Raye) – The 49ers had a pass-happy system under Martz last year, at least until Mike Singletary took over. Now Singletary will revert to a more old-school, pro-style offense that will feature lots of running and short passing. That means that RB Frank Gore’s numbers should float and that rookie Glen Coffee is worth a look late in the draft. The quarterback situation is still a battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, so watch to see who wins the war before investing in one of them as a sleeper. At receiver, Michael Crabtree is a draftable prospect (as long as he doesn’t hold out too long) and either Josh Morgan or Brandon Jones could emerge as a quality fantasy backup. And while TE Vernon Davis isn’t draftable at this point, he’s a fantasy sleeper to watch if he finds more of a role in the 49ers’ new system.
*More on Gore here
*More on Crabtree and Coffee here

Tampa Bay (from Jon Gruden to Jeff Jagodinski) – Gruden fancied himself an offensive guru who used a high-flying offense, but new coordinator Jeff Jagodinski will likely be a bit more conservative. That means that breakout WR Antonio Bryant’s numbers will likely sink, and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow’s numbers will rise only because he missed time with injury last year. At running back, both Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are draftable, but the fact that they’re splitting carries is nettlesome for fantasy owners. We expect Ward’s numbers to sink and Graham’s to sink as well given the new split, which should be almost 50-50. QB Byron Leftwich’s numbers will rise because he should start some games, but don’t rely on him too heavily because rookie Josh Freeman is in the wings and could see time in the second half of the season.
*More on Bryant and Ward here
*More on Leftwich and Mike Nugent here
*More on Graham here
*More on Winslow here

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