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Wild-card Saturday thoughts

Let’s reflect on a upset-filled Saturday of wild-card games to open the NFL playoffs.

Seahawks 41, Saints 36
*Matt Hasselbeck isn’t an elite quarterback, especially not at this point in his career, but he showed Saturday that he can still get incredibly hot and carry a team. His four-TD performance featured some beautiful deep throws to Brandon Stokley, Mike Williams, and Cameron Morrah, and he only turned the ball over once against a Saints defense that will give up yards for turnover opportunities. That performance allowed the Seahawks to overcome a 10-point deficit and build a lead.
*Once the Seahawks built a lead, Marshawn Lynch put the game away with an incredible 67-yard touchdown run on which he broke six tackles and eluded a couple others. That run showed Lynch at his best, after a career in which he was good, not great, in Buffalo, and simply mediocre for the Seahawks. But Lynch showed up incredibly at a crucial time with this run.
*Raheem Brock came up big for the Seahawks again. His solid season turned into a good one with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Rams in a win-or-else Week 17 game, and Brock showed up big again with a sack and a forced fumble to help the Seahawks turn the game around in the second quarter.
*S Roman Harper was the goat for the Saints. He got suckered on two big plays, John Carlson’s second TD catch and on Stokley’s big TD catch. He’s not the only defensive player who struggled, but he didn’t help the cause.
*The Saints’ inability to run the ball effectively really stung them in this game. Julius Jones had 59 yards and two touchdowns, but he also had a key fumble and didn’t make yards that weren’t blocked for him. Missing Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas, among others, came back to bite the Saints.
*I’m so glad that we got Mike Mayock as the color analyst for the game instead of blowhard Joe Theismann, who butchered the Jets/Bengals playoff game last year. Mayock isn’t flashy, but he sees the game well and stays away from the grand pronouncements that Theismann makes whether or not they’re true. Now that Mayock, who is the NFL Network draft expert, does Notre Dame games on NBC, the Peacock network actually has a great option for a No. 2 team that they don’t need at any time all year. And for that, we are thankful.

Nick Folk celebrates his game-winning field goal

Jets 17, Saints 16
*The key to this game kind of flew under the radar, but it happened on two third-down plays in the second half. Peyton Manning made the “right” decision at the line, based on the defense, by calling running plays, but Dominic Rhodes was stuffed on a third-and-1 and a third-and-7. As a result, the Colts got two field goals and trailed 14-13 instead of getting a touchdown in either spot. Manning is significantly better than either Rhodes or Joseph Addai, and we believe Manning should have taken the game into his own hands on at least one of those plays, instead of simply making the “right” play call.
*The Jets have to be encouraged by their running game, which controlled the ball throughout the second half. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns, and Shonn Greene ran for 70 yards. The Jets’ running game isn’t as unstoppable as it was in last year’s playoffs, and the Colts’ defense is so banged up and inexperience at linebacker that the Jets should have gouged it, but the trend is still a huge plus for Gang Green.
*Antonio Cromartie could have been the goat for the Jets, after giving up a long touchdown play to Pierre Garcon along with several other big catches, but his two kickoff returns in the second half were monstrous. His 41-yard return to start the second half helped to set up the Jets’ first touchdown, and his 47-yard return in the game’s final minute keyed the drive for the game-winning field goal.
*The Colts were not that talented in this game, after losing key skill-position players and a raft of secondary players. The question is whether the Colts can add talent and, as importantly, depth in time to rally in 2011. If not, we could be seeing the denouement of a great decade in Indianapolis.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle – As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia – This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 16

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

Tim Tebow

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

Running backs

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

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

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

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 14

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down.

Quarterbacks

Jason Campbell of the Raiders, via espn.com

 

Jason Campbell, Raiders – Campbell threw for 324 yards with two touchdowns against the Jaguars, but his numbers were inflated by a long Darren McFadden run on a screen pass and by the Jaguars’ porous pass defense. Even with these numbers, you shouldn’t trust Campbell as a top 20 quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Kerry Collins, Titans – Collins threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts, but that performance should be taken with several grains of salt. The Colts’ secondary has been decimated by injuries, and on a short week we probably saw them at even less than their best. You can’t rely on Collins to produce anywhere near these numbers, even in a plum matchup. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Flynn, Packers – Filling in for an injured Aaron Rodgers, Flynn threw for 177 yards on 15 completions. But he threw a pick and failed to find the end zone. Despite Green Bay’s terrific group of targets, Flynn just isn’t experienced enough to make it into anyone’s fantasy lineup – even if they just lost Rodgers. Verdict: A fraud

Alex Smith, 49ers – Smith returned to the starting lineup and threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns in a rout of the Seahawks. Who knows if Smith can keep this up, but he does have talent and a pretty good group of receivers. If you’re desperate for a quarterback, Smith isn’t a terrible option. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower ran for 148 yards and two scores against the Broncos, cementing the fact that he, and not Beanie Wells, is Arizona’s top runner. That makes Hightower a flex option in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Tolbert of the Chargers, via espn.com

 

Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, Chargers – After being a fantasy non-factor for a month, Mathews returned to action and had 16 carries for 65 yards and a score against the Chiefs. Tolbert, meanwhile, got 16 carries of his own and took them for 66 yards and a score. Tolbert, who has scored 10 touchdowns and has reached the end zone in all but four games this season, remains startable in all leagues. Mathews, meanwhile, is a flex option with a lot of upside. Verdict: Applaud for both

LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Tomlinson averaged just 2.6 yards per carry against the Dolphins, running for 49 yards on 19 carries. Tomlinson has now run for less than 60 yards in eight straight games and had two catches or fewer in three straight games. The 31-year-old is losing steam as the season goes on, and he’s no longer an automatic starter for fantasy teams. Verdict: A fraud

Ryan Torain, Redskins – Torain started off as a house afire, breaking the 100-yard barrier in the first half en route to a 172-yard rushing day. Torain has been productive this year when healthy, and this performance indicates that Torain is once again in good condition. He’s worth a look as a flex play and as a top-25 back next week. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Pierre Garcon, via espn.com

 

Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers – While fellow rookie Mike Williams has been the Bucs’ go-to receiver, Benn has become the biggest down-field threat. He delivered a 64-yard reception against the Redskins, and that keyed his four-catch, 122-yard day. Benn is a high-risk, high-reward play for fantasy owners, bu even if you’re desperate, the risk is too high to put Benn in your lineup. Claim him if you wish, but don’t get carried away and start him. Verdict: A fraud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon has had a pretty disappointing year, so Thursday’s six-catch, 93-yard performance that came with two touchdowns was a nice reward for fantasy owners who have stuck with him. But Garcon has quietly gotten on a roll before this week, notching at least five catches in five straight games, and he now has three touchdowns in the last two games. With Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez gone for the year and Austin Collie still sidelined by a concussion, Garcon has become a primary target behind Reggie Wayne for the Colts. He’s finally a solid fantasy starter – just as the season comes to an end. But if you’re in the playoffs, sticking with Garcon will end up rewarding you. Verdict: Applaud

Malcom Floyd, Chargers – Like most of San Diego’s receiving corps, Floyd has battled injuries this season. But he is now healthy, and his two-TD day against the Chiefs shows that he remains a key part of San Diego’s prolific passing game. Even with Vincent Jackson back, Floyd is worth consideration as a top-30 receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Ruvell Martin, Seahawks – With Mike Williams and Ben Obamanu out, Martin, the ex-Packer, led Seattle with four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. But it would be foolish to expect Martin to replicate this performance going forward. He’s not even worth a claim. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Bo Scaife, Titans – Scaife caught two touchdowns against the Colts on Thursday night, but they came in a game in which he had just 20 total receiving yards. Fantasy owners simply can’t rely on touchdowns every week, and Scaife isn’t getting enough catches or yards to merit being in a lineup regularly. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 4

Which fantasy football standouts from Week 4 do you need to trust, and which performances should you write off as unpredictable flukes? Each week we answer these questions by going through these performances and deciding whether to applaud or whether it’s a fraud. As always, with each verdict, we’ll give context for what it means.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Orton, Broncos – If you’re not on the Orton train yet, you should be. Orton threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns in Denver’s come-from-behind victory in Tennessee, and he’s already thrown for more than 1,400 yards, averaging 354 a game. He’s producing like a top-10 quarterback, so if you’re riding a borderline starter like Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, or Joe Flacco, making the move to Orton is the way to go. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis keeps getting better and better, as his 27-carry, 102-yard performance against the Bengals was his best of the season. Hillis has scored in every game this year, and he has claimed the Browns’ starting job. He’s a top-25 back at this point; don’t be afraid to start him. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Tolbert, Chargers – Tolbert had 16 carries for 100 yards and a score against the Cardinals, while stud rookie Ryan Mathews had just nine carries (for 55 yards and a score). Part of that was because of the blowout, and part was because the Chargers were easing Mathews back in after missing a game. But if Tolbert earns a split with Mathews in carries one more time, he’ll become a flex option in 12-team leagues. For now, though, owners can’t take the chance on starting Tolbert. Verdict: A fraud

LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – We haven’t been believers in Tomlinson, but he’s definitely showed some pop recently, including a 133-yard, two-TD game against the Bills this week. If you took the chance on Tomlinson, you should be starting him every week until he shows major signs of slowing down. On this one, we were wrong. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Ward, Texans – Ward came out of nowhere with an 80-yard, one-TD game against the Raiders, but he was in the lineup only because of discipline against Arian Foster. The performance shows that Ward is a solid handcuff for Foster owners, but anyone else should pass up Ward on the waiver wire because he’s not going to have these opportunities often. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Terrell Owens, Bengals – Owens finally broke out in Cincinnati with 10 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown, and although those numbers were inflated because the Bengals were trying to come back from a two-score deficit late, it’s a good sign for Owens owners. But we believe Owens needs to do it one more week before you can trust him as a regular starter. For now, he’s a matchup play, not a surefire fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal had eight catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, and he’s recovered from a disappointing 2009 season to be on pace for 100 catches and 1,196 yards. He’s once again a fantasy starter given his talent and the Broncos’ fling-it-around offense. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Stokley, Seahawks – In his first game with the Seahawks, Stokley had four catches for 62 yards. He’s going to have a role in the Seahawks’ offense, and that role will make him a top-40 receiver. He’s worth a waiver claim as a depth play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Joel Dreessen, Texans – In the supersleeper realm, Dreessen has some underrated value. He filled in for Owen Daniels this week and had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. He won’t keep his value once Daniels is healthy, but in Week 5 against the Giants, Dreessen could be a decent Hail Mary option in larger leagues. This applause is for 16-team leagues only, but don’t sleep on Dreessen. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller had 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, and he’s now on pace for a 1,000-yard season. If you’re looking for a bye-week fill-in at tight end, Miller’s a solid under-the-radar option. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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