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FR: Preseason injuries

Each year, the preseason is full of injuries big and small. In this post, we seek to compare the importance of injuries that will sideline players for the entire season. We’re focusing only on injuries that happened in the preseason and in training camps. We will update this post through the fourth preseason game, both with new injuries and with official news that hurt players will miss the season.

Ryan Williams, via revengeofthebirds.com

10 – CB Terrell Thomas, Giants – Thomas had a breakout season last year, his second as a starter. He had five interceptions, a whopping 21 passes defensed, and four forced fumbles. He had emerged as a top-tier starting cornerback, and was preparing to cash in on the free agent market after the season. But then he suffered a torn ACL in the second preseason game against the Bears. Losing Thomas is a huge blow to the Giants – especially since rookie corner Prince Amakamura has missed most of camp because of injury. The Giants are now thin at a key position, and they’ll be playing without the best playmaker in their defensive back seven.

10 (con’t) – Browns OLG Eric Steinbach – Steinbach, a long-time starter for both Ohio teams, suffered a back injury that he couldn’t come back from. That’s a blow for the Browns, who don’t have a ton of veteran leadership anywhere – or a solid option to replace Steinbach.

10 (con’t) – TE Tony Moeaki, Chiefs -Moeaki, who had a strong rookie season for the Chiefs, suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale and landed on injured reserve. It’s a huge loss for the Chiefs, who relied on Moeaki as a consistent receiving threat last season. There’s no one on the roster with anywhere near the level of skill Moeaki had.

9 – Redskins DE Jarvis Jenkins – Jenkins, a second-round pick this year, had earned a starting job on Washington’s rebuilt defensive line at left end. But his strong rookie push ended in the third preseason game against the Ravens when he tore his ACL. Jenkins will miss the season. It’s a huge blow to Washington, which doesn’t have a ton of depth at defensive end and certainly doesn’t have a player to step in and make the impact Jenkins was starting to make.

9 (con’t) – TE John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson is a solid starter at tight end, but a shoulder injury will shelve him for the season. It’s a blow for the Seahawks, but they signed Zach Miller in the offseason, who is an upgrade over Carlson. Still, it’s a blow for a productive youngster approaching free agency to miss an entire season.

9 (con’t) – MLB Jonathan Goff, Giants – Goff emerged as a starter at middle linebacker in his third season in 2010 and had a solid year. That led some observers to expect a breakout contract year in 2011. Instead, like fellow free-agent-to-be Terrell Thomas, Goff will miss the entire season after an ACL injury suffered in practice leading up to Week 1. It’s a another body blow to a Giants defense that has sustained too many this offseason.

8 – Cardinals RB Ryan Williams – Williams, the Cardinals’ second-round pick, looked to be a challenger to Beanie Wells’ starting job. But in the second preseason game against the Packers, Williams ruptured his patella tendon. He will miss the season.

8 (con’t) – Lions RB Mikel Leshoure – Leshoure, the Lions’ second-round pick, was expected to be the inside threat to pair with Jahvid Best. But Leshoure tore his Achilles in training camp and will miss the season. That’s a huge blow for the Lions, who have playoff aspirations after years of struggles but who don’t have a ton of depth – especially at running back.

7 – Panthers DT Ron Edwards – A couple of days after we discussed how important Edwards was to the Panthers, he suffered a torn triceps that will cost him the season. It’s a big blow to the Panthers, who were counting on Edwards to upgrade a thin position.

7 (con’t) – Panthers OG Geoff Schwartz – Schwartz, expected to be a starter this year at right guard, has a hip problem that will cost him the season. That’s a blow for a Panthers team that looked to have some offensive line continuity this year after missing Jeff Otah all last season.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs ILB Brandon Siler – Siler tore his Achilles in practice after the second preseason game, and will miss the season. He was signed from San Diego to be a starter and key player against the run, so his injury is a big blow to the Chiefs.

6 – Panthers WR David Gettis – Gettis, a second-year player who was on pace to start across from Steve Smith for the Panthers, tore his ACL and will miss the season. Gettis had a surprising rookie season with 37 catches for 508 yards and three TDs, so he will be missed. Now the Panthers need signee Legedu Naanee to emerge as a starter.

6 (con’t) – Cardinals CB Greg Toler – Toler, a third-year player, started 13 games for Arizona last year and was holding off Patrick Peterson for a starting job this year. But a torn left ACL suffered in the third preseason game will take Toler off the field this season. Now Peterson must be ready to start from Day 1, and the Cardinals also need to find some cornerback depth.

6 (con’t) – Jaguars RB Rashad Jennings – Jennings has proven to be a solid backup for Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and Jones-Drew’s injury problems last year gave Jennings more of a role. But a knee injury will sideline Jennings for the year, leaving Deji Karim as the backup in Jacksonville.

5- Browns P Reggie Hodges – Hodges, who finally seized a full-time job in Cleveland last year (anda  former Crazy Kicker of the Week), suffered a torn Achilles during camp and will miss the season. The Browns brought in Richard McGee to fill in, but they’ll undoubtedly be checking the waiver wire to see if a veteran punter they like shakes free.

5 (con’t) – Giants DT Marvin Austin – Austin, a first-round level talent whom the Giants took in the second round after he missed the 2010 season due to NCAA rule violations, suffered a torn left pec and will miss the season. It’s a blow to the Giants, and now Austin will try to return from two years off the field – which won’t be an easy task.

5 (con’t) – Bills ILB Reggie Torbor – Torbor, who started seven games for the Bills last year, suffered a shoulder injury that will cost him the season. As a result, he’ll miss the season. The Bills signed Kirk Morrison to replace Torbor, which should be an upgrade, at least on running downs.

5 (con’t) – Browns RB Brandon Jackson – Jackson was one of Cleveland’s few free-agent signings this offseason. He was going to be a third-down back with receiving skills to supplement Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty. But a toe injury will cost the former Packer the season.

4 – Titans CB Ryan Mouton – Mouton, who has played cornerback and been a key special teams player, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will be out for the year. The 2009 third-round pick lost his returner job after several fumbles in 2009, but he was growing into a solid extra corner.

4 (con’t) – Steelers QB Byron Leftwich – Leftwich was in the running for the Steelers’ backup QB job, but he broke his left arm against the Falcons in the third preseason game and will miss the season. It’s not a huge blow for the Steelers, who still have Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch in reserve.

4 (con’t) – Panthers OG Garry Williams – Williams had a chance to emerge as a starter at right guard for the Panthers after Geoff Schwartz’s injury, but he suffered a broken leg against the Steelers in the preseason finale and will miss the season. Williams was on the way to a roster spot, and losing him at a position of need was a big blow for the Panthers.

4 (con’t) – Giants OLB Clint Sintim – Sintim, a former second-round pick, was trying to come back from an ACL injury last season. But he tore the patella tendon in the same right knee he injured last year in the preseason finale, and will miss the year. Sintim was Mathias Kiwanuka’s backup and a versatile player, so losing him is certainly a blow to Big Blue.

4 (con’t) – Bengals TE Bo Scaife – Scaife, a free-agent signee this year, was supposed to be a versatile companion to Jermaine Gresham at tight end. Scaife’s a better blocker than Gresham while still being an effective receiver, but the Bengals’ WR depth should allow them to work around Scaife’s season-ending shoulder injury.

4 (con’t) – Seahawks DT Jimmy Wilkerson – Wilkerson, who has bounced around the league, suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game. He will miss the season. Seattle claimed Landon Cohen (fellow Spartanburg High School alum!) to replace Wilkerson.

3 – Giants CB Brian Witherspoon – Witherspoon, a backup corner, was the third Giants corner (after Terrell Thomas and Bruce Johnson) to be lost for the season. The ex-Jaguar and Lion, who played one game last season, was having a good camp and had a good chance to not only make the team but contribute until he, like Thomas, tore his ACL against the Bears. It’s another loss at a position getting deeper and deeper each day.

3 (con’t) – Broncos TE Richard Quinn – Quinn, a second-round pick in Josh McDaniels’ first draft in Denver, suffered an MCL injury early in the season, and Denver decided to put him on injured reserve. Quinn is a blocking tight end, but he looks to be getting caught up in the transition from McDaniels’ regime to the John Elway/John Fox group. Still, he once was a prospect, and losing his talent hurts.

3 (con’t) – Cardinals QB Max Hall – Hall, whom the Cardinals viewed as a potential future starter last year when he was an undrafted rookie, was waived injured after suffering a second injury to his non-throwing shoulder. After adding Kevin Kolb, the Cards only want to develop one young backup, and John Skelton is going to be the guy. Hall landed on injured reserve.

3 (con’t) – Broncos CB Syd’Quan Thompson – Thompson, a reserve cornerback for the Broncos, suffered a torn Achilles in the final preseason game. He will miss the season, taking away some of the Broncos’ secondary depth.

3 (con’t) Jets QB Greg McElroy – McElroy, a rookie, had played well as a No. 3 developmental quarterback until a thumb injury in the preseason finale shelved him. He’ll miss the season and more importantly the development he could have had as a rookie.

2 – Eagles DE Victor Abiamiri – Abiamiri suffered a ruptured Achilles and will miss the season. It’s the second straight season he’ll miss, after microfracture surgery on his knee sidelined him in 2010. Abiamiri, a 2007 second-round pick, had grown into a solid defensive end backup before his 2010 injury, but now his career has to be in question.

2 (con’t) – Steelers RB Baron Batch – Batch, a seventh-round rookie out of Texas Tech, was making a strong case for a roster spot before he tore his ACL in training camp. Now, he will miss the season.

2 (con’t) – Giants CB Bruce Johnson – Johnson, a third-year pro, suffered a torn Achilles early in camp and will miss the season. A knee injury cost him most of the 2010 season, but he had shown in 2009 that he’s a decent rotation cornerback. So it’s a loss for the Giants.

2 (con’t) – Vikings OG Scott Kooistra – Kooistra, a journeyman vet who was trying to win a job with Minnesota, suffered a serious neck injury in the second preseason game against the Seahawks. The injury could be career-ending.

1- 49ers TE Nate Byham – Byham, who developed immediately into a solid blocking tight end as a rookie last year, suffered a torn ACL early in camp and will miss the season. Byham was a sixth-round pick in 2010.

1 (con’t) – Saints OT Alex Barron – Barron, a first-round bust who was trying to win a job with the Saints, injured his knee in the preseason and will miss the season.

1 (con’t) – Bengals LB Roddrick Muckleroy – Muckelroy suffered a torn Achilles in the first week of Bengals camp and will miss the season. The 2010 fourth-round pick played 14 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Panthers OG Zack Williams – Williams, a sixth-round pick, suffered a torn ACL and will miss his rookie season.

1 (con’t) – 49ers CB Curtis Holcomb – Holcomb, a seventh-round pick, suffered a torn Achilles early in training camp and will miss the season.

1 (con’t) – 49ers WR Dontavia Bogan – Bogan, an undrafted rookie, tore his ACL early in training camp.

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Training camp cuts roundup

Jerricho Cotchery of the New York Jets running...

Ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery. Image via Wikipedia

In this post, we’ll discuss the players released during training camp. This will include players cut until the first cutdown on August 30. (For players released earlier, check out this link to our pre-camp cuts analysis.)

Vikings (cut OT Bryant McKinnie)We discussed McKinnie’s release in this post.

Cowboys (cut C Andre Gurode) – Gurode has made the Pro Bowl the last five years, but the nine-year vet’s play no longer matches his price tag. It’ll be interesting to see what contingency plan the Cowboys have in mind, but it’s clear that Gurode still has enough in the tank to be at least an above-average center for someone.

Bills (cut OLB Aaron Maybin) – Maybin, a former first-round pick, was an utter disappointment in Buffalo. He never provided much of a pass rush, and so his impact was negligible. His talent may earn him a look elsewhere, but it’s hard to see someone who was such a complete bust completely turning his career around. The Bills, under a regime different than the one that drafted Maybin, cut the cord after two seasons, indicating they thought he was a hopeless case.

Jets (cut WR Jerricho Cotchery) – Cotchery has been a decent starter for the Jets, but after the Jets spent big money for Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, his price tag proved to be too much. So the Jets (who also lost Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith) will likely try to add a veteran as the third receiver until Jeremy Kerley develops. Cotchery latched on with the Steelers.

Saints (cut OT Jon Stinchcomb and DE Alex Brown) – Stinchcomb had started every game at right tackle the past five seasons for the Saints, and he made a Pro Bowl just two seasons ago in 2009. But his play slipped last year, and he’s not the heavy-duty run blocker the Saints seem to prefer at this point. So New Orleans saved $2 million plus and released him. Still, he’s good enough to start elsewhere, especially for a West Coast offense team. Brown, whom the Saints added last season, is a decent starting defensive end because he’s OK against both the pass and the run, but he’s no longer an impact guy. He lost his job as the Saints upgraded across the D-line and his pricetag no longer matched his expected contribution.

Bengals (cut DT Tank Johnson, CB Fred Bennett and QB Jordan Palmer) – The Bengals gave the troubled defensive tackle a chance, and it worked out beautifully in 2009. But last season, Johnson’s performance fell off. If he can prove he’s healthy and stay on his best behavior, Johnson could still latch on as a backup DT elsewhere. Bennett, a former Texans starter, has completely fallen off the map. Palmer (the brother of Carson Palmer) lost a roster spot after the additions of Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski. 

Titans (cut DT Jovan Haye) – Haye was a starter for the Titans in 2008-2009, but he lost his starting gig last year and then lost his roster spot this year. Still, he provides experience at a position of need, so he should find a job somewhere.

Broncos (cut RB LenDale White) – The Broncos signed White after the Titans and Seahawks gave up on him, but he got hurt last preseason and missed the entire year. After adding Willis McGahee, White became expendable for Denver.

Steelers (cut WR Limas Sweed) – Sweed, a former second-round pick, was supposed to replace Plaxico Burress in the Steelers’ offense, but injuries and inconsistency limited his impact. Instead, later draftees like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerged, making Sweed extraneous. Some team will really be looking at the way-back machine if it is to give him a second chance.

Ravens (cut FB Jason McKie and OT Oniel Cousins) – McKie is a decent fullback, but after the Ravens upgraded with Vonta Leach, he became expendable. Given the dearth of teams that use a fullback, McKie could have trouble finding work. Cousins entered camp as a potential starter at right tackle but lost the job and then a roster spot. The addition of Bryant McKinnie made Cousins an expendable piece.

Eagles (cut DE Ricky Sapp) – Sapp, a fifth-round pick in 2010, was battling knee injuries and roster depth before he left the Eagles early in camp. Given their depth, the Eagles decided to cut Sapp instead of keeping his rights.

Patriots (cut safeties Brandon McGowan and James Sanders) – McGowan, who was a starter at free safety for the Patriots in 2009, had fallen behind youngsters Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriwether at the position. So he was released. The more surprising cut was Sanders, who was a starter and a regular last year and a starter in the third preseason game two days before his release. He’s still good enough to fit in somewhere.

Redskins (cut PK Shayne Graham) – Graham lost out in a kicking competition with Graham Gano. The vet will likely become an injury replacement somewhere before the season is out.

Rams (cut LBs David Vobora and Na’il Diggs) – Vobora, a former Mr. Irrelevant, was a stat-minded favorite, but his talent wasn’t going to justify a roster spot. It’ll be interesting to see if an analytics-driven team gives him a shot. (UPDATE: Seattle did.) Diggs is a solid veteran who is a replacement level starter at best. He will find work as an injury fill-in at some point.

Lions (cut RB Mike Bell, DT Montavious Stanley, and PK Dave Rayner) – Bell, one of the running backs whom the Lions signed after Mikel Leshoure’s injury, failed to make an impact to win a job. Stanley provides decent depth at tackle but lost a job on Detroit’s deep line. Rayner did a good job filling in for Jason Hanson last year, but Hanson’s back for his 20th year in Detroit.

Jaguars (cut WR Tiquan Underwood) – Underwood, a former sixth-round pick, becomes the first draft pick of the Gene Smith era to be cut in Jacksonville. His three years were underwhelming, and the Jags have added a ton of other receivers in the draft since he was selected.

Bears (cut DE Vernon Gholston and DT Tank Tyler) – Tyler, an ex-Chief and Panther, has never lived up to his draft status as he’s bounced around the league. But he’s not nearly the bust that Gholston, a former sixth overall pick, was. The Bears took a shot on Gholston as a reclamation project, but it obviously didn’t take. (Meanwhile, Amobi Okoye, a similar case, has performed pretty well.)

Chargers (cut LS David Binn) – Binn played 17 years for the Chargers, but he’s always been small for a long snapper and no longer holds up. The Chargers’ special teams problems last season ultimately led to many changes, including this one.

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FR: Minicamp injuries

This post compares the significance of injuries that happened during minicamps, organized team activities, and other team workouts between the draft and the opening of minicamps. We’ll update this post as the offseason rolls along.

10 – OLB Thomas Davis, Panthers – While Jon Beason is the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense, Davis is the biggest playmaker in the front seven now that Julius Peppers is on his way out of town. But Davis, who was beginning a comeback from a 2009 ACL injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season, re-tore the ACL in his right knee in an early June practice. The non-contact injury is devastating for the Panthers, who will almost certainly lose Davis for the 2010 season. While Jamar Williams (who was acquired in a trade with Chicago for S Chris Harris) is a starting-quality replacement, he’s not going to provide the dynamic aspects via blitz and in coverage that Davis can at his best. Even worse, after tearing the same ACL twice, Davis must face questions of whether his career will ever return to the trajectory it was on as the ’09 season dawned. All in all, this is a devastating event for both the team and the player.

9 – OT Willie Colon, Steelers – Colon, the Steelers’ starting right tackle who has 50 straight starts, injured an Achilles during a late-June workout and will miss the season. That’s a huge blow for a Steelers team that has a subpar offensive line in general. Colon was a strong suit on that line, providing stability and some ground-game punch. Without Colon, the Steelers will have to immediately rely on rookie Maurkice Pouncey to start inside so that they can shuffle on the outside. Losing a starter in June is tough, but losing your best offensive lineman is almost devastating.

8 – none

7 – FS Marlin Jackson, Eagles – Jackson, a former Colts first-round pick, moved to Philly this offseason after Indy let him go instead of offering him a restricted free agent tender. Jackson’s play wasn’t the problem in Indianapolis; instead, it was a pair of knee injuries that cost him much of the ’08 season and all of the ’09 campaign. The Eagles brought Jackson over and planned to move him from cornerback to free safety, a spot where they weren’t able to adequately replace Brian Dawkins last season. But Jackson suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in an early June minicamp and now looks like he could miss the season. The best case scenario for Jackson is probably the physically unable to perform list, which would cost him the first six games of the season at least. That’s a big blow that now puts a lot of pressure on rookie Nate Allen, who was selected with the Donovan McNabb pick in the second round of April’s draft. Allen now becomes the Eagles’ only chance to make free safety a plus position instead of a problem spot.

6 (con’t) – WR Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith’s broken arm wasn’t a minicamp injury, but we’re including it because it happened during minicamp season. Smith broke his arm in late June playing flag football, and the injury will sideline him through training camp. Smith is due to return before the season opens, but his absence is disturbing on two fronts. First, the Panthers are trying to break in new starter Matt Moore and develop rookie Jimmy Clausen. Smith’s absence will force Moore and Clausen to emerge with a motley crew of receivers. And the Panthers’ lack of receiving talent is the other reason Smith’s injury is scary. Any setback, and Carolina will enter the season with guys like Dwayne Jarrett, Kenny Moore, and Brandon LaFell trying to perform at a starter level. That won’t work, and it would cause the Panthers’ top-flight running game to face eight-man or even nine-man fronts. Smith’s offseason flag-football jones could end up costing Carolina big.

6 – WR Limas Sweed, Steelers – Sweed, a former second-round pick who has been a disappointment thus far for Pittsburgh, injured his left Achilles tendon in a May minicamp and needed surgery. The team subsequently put Sweed on injured reserve, shelving him for the season. For a Steelers team that dealt starting WR Santonio Holmes and needed Sweed (or rookie Emmauel Sanders or someone else) to step up behind Hines Ward and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace, this injury is a blow. Even though Sweed has been inconsistent, he at least provided a downfield threat. But with him gone, Wallace now must become a starting-quality receiver in his second year, and retreads Antwaan Randle El or Arnaz Battle must make more of an offensive impact than they have in years. We believe in Wallace, but the rest of this equation is now even shakier than it was before Sweed’s injury.

6 (con’t) – WR Domenik Hixon, Giants – Hixon suffered a torn ACL in mid-June, and his injury was blamed on how new the Giants’ practice-field FieldTurf was. It’s a big loss. While Hixon didn’t have the potential to have the impact that Sweed did because the Giants have a deep receiving corps, he had carved out a nice niche as the Giants’ No. 4 receiver and designated down-field threat. More importantly, he had emerged as a dangerous return man who handled duties on both kickoffs and punts. With Hixon gone, the Giants will have to search for a new returner, or they’ll have to risk stalwarts like Mario Manningham or Hakeem Nicks on returns to try to replace Hixon’s explosiveness. That’s what makes Hixon’s loss sting for Big Blue.

5 – OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold and OG Mark Setterstrom, Rams – The Rams picked Saffold at the top of the second round this year to become a bookend tackle to ’09 second overall pick Jason Smith as they seek to rebuild a horrible line. Saffold got some OTA work in before he suffered a right knee sprain in early June that shelved him from any further on-field work until training camp. Smith, meanwhile, suffered a fractured toe that ended the offseason early. The Rams said they were sitting Saffold and Smith to be extra cautious, but it’s always troubling when young players who are in prominent roles miss important development time. But those injuries pale in severity to Setterstrom, who suffered a triceps injury in OTAs that quite possibly could sideline him for the season. Setterstrom has talent, but he’s played just 19 games since entering the league in 2006 because of a raft of injuries that’s still sailing along. And the more injuries that pop up on St. Louis’ line, the less likely (or wise) it is for the Rams to start the season with Sam Bradford under center.

5 (con’t) – S Chad Jones, Giants – Jones wasn’t hurt during a minicamp practice, but his late-June auto accident caused a serious leg injury that will certainly shelve him for the 2010 season and could prove to be career-threatening. Thankfully, Jones had already inked his rookie contract, so the third-rounder will have a little money to collect if he can’t make it onto the football field. And he also has baseball as a professional option if football is too trying on his leg. But for the Giants, losing a terrific prospect like Jones at a position that was a huge problem last year, even if the loss is just for 2010, is a blow.

4 -DE Bryan Smith, Jaguars – The Jaguars grabbed Smith, a disappointment as a third-round pick in Philly, off the Rams’ practice squad last September, and he actually emerged a bit and started two games. With Quentin Groves traded, Smith would have had a role as a backup defensive end behind Aaron Kampman and Derrick Harvey, but Smith tore an ACL and will miss the 2010 season. That’s a tough break at a position that has plagued the Jaguars for several years now. The Jaguars have recently added LBs Freddie Keiaho and Teddy Lehman for more depth at outside linebacker, but neither has the promise as a blitzer that Smith (a former defensive end) showed.

4 (con’t) – CB Kevin Thomas, Colts – Thomas, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, had a real shot of finding playing time right away in Indy after the offseason departures of Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings. But Thomas suffered what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury in a May minicamp that could end his season before it begins. Thomas was slated to add size to a cornerback group that is now undersized, but now the Colts will need Kelvin Hayden to return from injury and need ’09 rookies Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers to step up once again.

4 (con’t) – OT Chris Scott, Steelers – Scott, a fifth-round pick in April’s draft, broke his foot in June and will miss at least three months. That means that Scott won’t be available as the regular season opens, and it makes it likely that Scott will start the season on the physically unable to perform list. On its own, this isn’t a huge blow for the Steelers, but losing Scott along with Willie Colon’s injury depletes Pittsburgh’s offensive tackle depth quickly and will likely force Pittsburgh to sign one or even two tackles to add depth.

3 – CB Rod Hood, Titans – Hood, who started in the Super Bowl for the Cardinals in February 2009, bounced around a ton last year before finding a home in Tennessee and actually starting four games late in the season. He was in the mix for a starting spot once again, but a knee injury during offseason workouts (though not in an OTA) likely ended his 2010 season. It’s a blow for Hood, who seemed to have landed with a team that fit his style, and for the Titans, who had massive cornerback problems last year.

3 (con’t) – DE Derrick Morgan, Titans – Tennessee’s first-round pick has struggled with hamstring and calf injuries that have slowed his rookie offseason. The injuries aren’t serious, but development time is vital for any rookie, especially a first-rounder who has a clear path to a starting spot if he delivers.

3 (con’t) – DT Kenny Smith – Smith, a free agent who played for Kansas City last year, suffered a torn Achilles tendon while working out in July hoping for a roster berth. He’ll now miss the 2010 season. It’s hard to see a free agent in his 30s suffer a blow while trying to earn a job once again.

2 – S Orlando Scandrick, Cowboys – Scandrick broke a finger on his left hand, and the break was so severe that Scandrick won’t be able to participate in any on-field activities until training camp begins because he can’t safely get his hand on the ball. Still, he should be good to begin the season.

2 (con’t) – OT Ed Wang, Bills – Wang, the Bills’ fifth-round pick in the ’10 draft, suffered a high ankle sprain in early June that should shelve him for the rest of the offseason. Wang, who has a chance to back up Demetrius Bell at the crucial left tackle position, needs to provide depth for a Bills team that struggled on the line last year. But this usually persistent injury will limit Wang’s ability to contribute right off the bat.

1 – MLB Stewart Bradley, Eagles – Bradley, who missed all of last season after a training-camp Achilles injury, suffered a calf injury in June workouts that sent him to the bench. The injury wasn’t believed to be serious, but the setback in Bradley’s comeback is worth noting.

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Sweed sidelined

The Steelers put WR Limas Sweed on injured reserve this week in a transaction that may prove to be more significant than it appears. Below are thoughts on Sweed’s injury; we’ll compare its significance to other minicamp injuries in an upcoming post.

Sweed, a former second-round pick who has been a disappointment thus far for Pittsburgh, injured his left Achilles tendon in a May minicamp and needed surgery. The team subsequently put Sweed on injured reserve, shelving him for the season. For a Steelers team that dealt starting WR Santonio Holmes and needed Sweed (or rookie Emmauel Sanders or someone else) to step up behind Hines Ward and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace, this injury is a blow. Even though Sweed has been inconsistent, he at least provided a downfield threat. But with him gone, Wallace now must become a starting-quality receiver in his second year, and retreads Antwaan Randle El or Arnaz Battle must make more of an offensive impact than they have in years. We believe in Wallace, but the rest of this equation is now even shakier than it was before Sweed’s injury.

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Steelers/Lions thoughts

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy Football, Football Relativity, NFL games

Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 3

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. We’ve also included some key injury replacements in this post. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And if we’re changing a past recommendation, we’ll include it here as well. On we go…

Quarterbacks

Derek Anderson, Browns – You might have seen that Anderson replaced Brady Quinn via coach’s decision against the Ravens. We want to make sure you also see Anderson’s numbers – 92 yards passing, no touchdowns, three interceptions. At this point, keep each and every Brown as far away from your lineup as you can. Verdict: A fraud

Kyle Boller, Rams – I’ve always had a soft spot for Boller, who seemed to play well every time I saw him in a Ravens uniform. He stepped in for an injured Marc Bulger vs. the Packers and threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns, which aren’t bad numbers. It’s hard to picture a scenario in which Boller is worth starting in your fantasy league, but if Bulger’s shoulder injury is significant, Boller might merit backup-QB consideration in larger leagues (12 teams minimum). Otherwise, just ignore this new starter. Verdict: A fraud

Jason Campbell, Redskins – Campbell had a prototypical garbage-time line against the Lions, throwing for 340 yards and two touchdowns in a failed effort to bring the Redskins back against the Lions. It would be foolish to buy these numbers as something Campbell can do regularly, and that makes this an easy call. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne took over when Chad Pennington had to leave the game with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Now Pennington is out for the year, and that means that Henne isn’t a terrible backup option. He completed 10-of-19 passes for 92 yards with one pick and one sack. Henne won’t put up Kevin Kolb-ish fill-in numbers, but he’s a safe bet to throw for 175 yards or more, probably with a touchdown. So Henne is one of the better options among the fill-in quarterbacks. This is very mild applause, but still… Verdict: Applaud

Josh Johnson, Buccaneers – Johnson took over for Byron Leftwich during the Bucs’ abysmal offensive performance vs. the Giants, and Monday he was named the starter going forward. While Johnson isn’t as slow moving or throwing the ball as Leftwich is, he’s not a long-term answer because first-rounder Josh Freeman is lurking. So note this change – especially if you bought Leftwich’s OK fantasy numbers in blowouts the first two weeks of the season. Then walk away quietly. Verdict: A fraud

Seneca Wallace, Seahawks – Matt Hasselbeck tried to play against the Bears this week, but in the end he couldn’t go with a broken rib. So Seneca Wallace took his place and threw for 261 yards and a touchdown. Wallace started eight games last year and threw for 11 TDs and 1,500 yards, so he can be productive. If he plays next week against the Colts – which is not a sure thing, given how close Hasselbeck was to playing Sunday – Wallace has fantasy value, if for no other reason than the fact that the Seahawks will likely find themselves behind on the scoreboard. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw, the Giants’ change-of-pace to bruiser Brandon Jacobs, had a big game against the Buccaneers with 104 yards on 14 carries. We’ll use his century mark to remind you that Bradshaw is a flex option in most yardage leagues most weeks, unless the Giants are playing a big-time defense. He’s a nice guy to have as an option. Verdict: Applaud

Glen Coffee, 49ers – Coffee, a rookie out of Alabama, really hasn’t gotten untracked yet this season, and he averaged less than 3 yards per carry in his 54-yard day taking over for Frank Gore against the Vikings. But with Gore likely to miss two games or more, Coffee is a legitimate starting running back who’s worth a pickup in your league and maybe even a start against the Rams next week depending on your other options. In fact, both his Week 4 matchup against the Rams and his Week 5 game against the Falcons are favorable. Grab Coffee if he’s available, and don’t rule him out of your lineup without some consideration this week. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – With Jamal Lewis inactive, the Browns turned to Harrison instead of rookie James Davis to carry the load. Harrison did post 52 yards, but it took him 16 carries to do so. Our suggestion that you avoid any and all Browns definitely applies here. Verdict: A fraud

Julius Jones, Seahawks – Jones is one of the most overlooked starting running backs in the league, but he has been productive thus far this season. He had 98 rushing yards plus a 39-yard receiving TD this week against Chicago, which makes him worthy of starting in most fantasy leagues. He’s still more of a flex option than a top-2 running back for most teams, but he’s an OK fantasy option. Don’t overlook him completely. Verdict: Applaud

John Kuhn, Packers – A West Coast offense fullback is always a threat to vulture a touchdown away, and Kuhn did it twice this week against St. Louis. (If you had Kuhn and St. Louis’ Daniel Fells as the two-TD producers in that game, you are much better at fantasy football than I am.) Kuhn actually scored five TDs last year, and he will likely approach that number this year. But if he doesn’t score a TD, he has no fantasy value, so we can’t recommend him as a fantasy option, despite his nose for the end zone. Verdict: A fraud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – The rookie from Pittsburgh got a clear shot at starting for Philly this week with Brian Westbrook inactive, and McCoy responded with 84 yards and a touchdown. When Westbrook is inactive, McCoy is a starting option in all fantasy leagues. But if Westbrook does what he’s done in the past and plays most weeks despite being listed as questionable, McCoy will be a more difficult guy to turn to. Still, McCoy is a necessary insurance policy for Westbrook owners, and he has some fantasy value on his own given Westbrook’s tendency to get dinged. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Bryant Johnson, Lions – Johnson is kind of a boom or bust player so far this year. He had four catches in the opener, none in Week 2, and then four catches for 73 yards and a score against the Redskins this week. Johnson is a good but not great receiver who has never had fewer than 39 catches in a season over his seven-year career, so we can expect him to put up some numbers. But with the mass of receivers the Lions have to support Calvin Johnson, Bryant will have to beat out Dennis Northcutt to be the No. 2 target. In the end, we expect that mantle to be passed back and forth, which will make it hard to start Bryant Johnson on any particular week. This is a close call, but there are better bench guys for your team. Verdict: A fraud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon, more than rookie Austin Collie, has stepped up and produced with Anthony Gonzalez injured. He has scored two weeks in a row now, and this week he was a consistent offensive threat with three catches for 64 yards. While Gonzalez is out – which is for several more weeks – Garcon is definitely ownable and even startable if you’re in a bye week pinch. Verdict: Applaud

Santana Moss, Redskins – After two disappointing games to start the season, Moss broke out with a huge game (10 catches for 178 yards and a score) against the Lions. But this production was due to the Redskins’ attempt at a late-game rally. Moss is ownable in most leagues and is a top-35 receiver, but it’s going to be hard to start him most weeks unless you’re missing other options due to bye weeks or injuries. Verdict: A fraud

Greg Lewis, Vikings – You’ll see Lewis all over the TV this week after his game-winning catch against the Vikings. But don’t get carried away and claim him. That 32-yard touchdown was Lewis’ only TD of the game, and he was only in the game because (according to Peter King) Percy Harvin had run seven straight go patterns and needed a breather. Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Bernard Berrian are still above Lewis on the Vikings’ receiver depth chart. Great catch, but Lewis has no fantasy value right now. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – There isn’t a rookie receiver who’s having a better year than Wallace, a third-round pick who has emerged ahead of Limas Sweed as Pittsburgh’s No. 3 receiver. Wallace had a big game against the Bengals with seven catches for 102 yards, and he seems to be stepping into the role Nate Washington had with the team last year. Washington averaged 34 catches for 535 yards and four TDs the past three years with Pittsburgh, and those are reasonable targets for Wallace this year. That makes Wallace a top-50 fantasy receiver who’s worth having on your bench, especially as bye weeks force you to look deeper for roster help. Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, which may have causd some owners to forget about him or even to waive him. But in his first game back, Walter reminded everyone of his important role in a potent Texans’ offense with seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. He’s a starting-caliber receiver in all fantasy leagues now that he’s back on the field. Verdict: Applaud

Kelley Washington, Ravens – Washington, who showed some potential as a receiver with the Bengals five years ago, had become a special-teams specialist in recent years, but he’s getting the chance to catch the ball with Baltimore this year and making the most of it. He has at least three catches for at least 43 yards in each game this season, including a five-catch, 66-yard performance this week against Cleveland. He also has one touchdown. As Joe Flacco grows as a passer, he’s going to need to find depth at wide receiver, and Washington is providing it. Washington is still way under the radar, but he’s worth a pickup in deep leagues (12 teams or more) and worth watching in other leagues right now. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Vernon Davis, 49ers – Davis, who was once a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, finally seems to be getting it under new 49ers head coach Mike Singletary. He also has a good connection with QB Shaun Hill. The results Sunday were a huge game – seven catches for 96 yards with two TDs. This might be the year that Davis finally emerges as a big-time receiving threat at tight end. At the least, he’s a top-12 fantasy tight end going forward. If he’s on the waiver wire in your league, he shouldn’t be after this week. Grab him as a bye-week fill-in or even as a starter if your TE option isn’t great. Verdict: Applaud

Daniel Fells, Rams – Honesty time: I had never heard of Fells before his name popped up in the box score this week. Turns out, he’s an H-back who has been in the league for three years and has 10 career catches. Both of his TDs this week against Green Bay came on the same play call, and you have to believe that won’t happen again. Good for Fells for scoring twice, but it ain’t gonna happen again. Verdict: A fraud

Kickers

Olindo Mare, Seahawks – We don’t normally list kickers here, but we wanted to note that Mare missed 43- and 34-yard tries against the Bears this week and was called out publicly by coach Jim Mora. It would not be a shock if Mare were cut this week and replaced by Brandon Coutu, who has been with Seattle the last two preseasons, or another free agent. Verdict: A fraud

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

FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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