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Training camp signings

Olin Kreutz of the Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FR: 2011 Franchise Players

Each year, we use Football Relativity as a tool to compare the class of franchise and transition players. We’ll compare them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy. 

Franchise players Peyton Manning and David Harris, via nydailynews.com

DEFINITIONS: Under the current rules, the franchise tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position and prevents other teams from signing them without a trade. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team. The transition tag guarantees a player a one-year salary equal to the average of the top 10 at his position, and gives his team the right to match if he signs a free-agent contract elsewhere.

Now onto the comparison…

10 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts (exclusive franchise tag) – The Colts let Manning’s contract expire, but there’s no way that they can risk losing him. So they placed the exclusive franchise tag on him, preventing any other team from even negotiating with him. Because Manning’s 2010 contract was expensive, the rules require the Colts to guarantee Manning $21 million for 2011. But that’s a small price to play for a player who has taken a team with average talent overall to the playoffs year after year. Manning may be approaching the end of his prime, but he’s still brutally efficient on the field and a strong character who gets the best out of his offensive teammates off the field. The Colts are prepared to pay him whatever the new CBA will allow, and the two sides will undoubtedly get a megadeal done soon after the new labor deal is in place. No player in the NFL is more important to his team, so Manning is the no-brainer choice to put atop this comparison.

9 – none

8 – DE Haloti Ngata, Ravens (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Few defensive linemen are as devastatingly effective as Ngata, who has a nose tackle’s size and a pass rusher’s agility. That makes him the best play-making 3-4 defensive end in football. Ngata makes plays against the run but also can get into the backfield, as he showed with a career-best 5.5 sacks in 2010. Ngata has made Pro Bowls the last two years and finally received his just due with a first-team All-Pro berth this season. He’s the best player on a star-studded Ravens defense, and now is the time for the former first-round pick to get the big-dollar contract that a devastating force in his prime merits. No wonder the Ravens are so eager to keep him and pay him.

8 (con’t) – QB Michael Vick, Eagles (exclusive franchise tag) – It’s no surprise that the Eagles tagged Vick, because they didn’t want to risk losing him after the gamble they made signing him off the scrap heap paid off handsomely. Vick emerged as not just the Eagles’ starter but as a dynamic force this season, throwing for 21 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and running for nine TDs. Despite missing four games, Vick was an elite player, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors and contending for MVP during the season. Vick has grown as a passer, surpassing his career-best in completion percentage in 2010 (62.6 percent) by a long shot. He’s in his prime, and the Eagles appear prepared to give him the kind of megadeal that franchise QBs tend to get. The Eagles will need to keep Kevin Kolb or develop Mike Kafka as a backup, because Vick gets hit more than most QBs and will miss some time, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to keeping Vick.

7 – none

6 – OLB Tamba Hali, Chiefs (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Hali, a five-year veteran, has emerged into a top-flight 3-4 pass rusher, and his emergence over the past two years has allowed the Chiefs defense to grow in stature around the league. Hali, a former first-round pick, had a career high 14.5 sacks (beating his previous season high by six) and made his first Pro Bowl. He then added a monster performance in the playoffs with seven tackles, two sacks, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. The Chiefs don’ t have a ton of elite players, so keeping Hali as he enters his prime at age 27 is imperative. Eventually, the team wants to work out a multi-year deal, and Hali isn’t opposed if the dollars are right. So this tag seems to be a short-term means to a long-term end.

6 (con’t) – WR Vincent Jackson, Chargers (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Jackson had an acrimonious holdout last year that lasted longer than any other in the league, in part because the Chargers cut his restricted free-agent tender down to the lowest amount. Eventually, Jackson reported and played in five games, catching 14 passes. But while 2010 was a lost season, Jackson has shown himself to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver with the size to be a possession receiver and the speed to get deep. While the Chargers have other receivers with size, none is as explosive or dependable as Jackson. San Diego simply can’t afford to lose Jackson, hence the tag. But the real question is whether GM A.J. Smith’s hardline tactics have burned too many bridges between the team and Jackson. If they have, then another prolonged holdout could be in the offing.

5 -ILB David Harris, Jets (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Harris hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity in his career – he has yet to make a Pro Bowl, for example – but he has emerged as an elite 3-4 inside linebacker. He’s sturdy against the run and dangerous against the pass, and he’s able to blitz at times as well. He is the heart of the Jets’ defense, and so the team franchised him instead of WRs Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards, among others. It’s a good move, because Harris can become the Ray Lewis of their defense, providing stability and impact inside while allowing the players around him to make the splashier plays on the blitz in the Jets’ uberaggressive scheme. Harris has already signed his tender offer.

5 (con’t) – OLB Lamarr Woodley, Steelers (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Woodley has been a double-digit sack man for the last three years, and more impressively he has a sack in all seven of his postseason games (11 postseason sacks total). He’s the best pass rusher the Steelers have, and while he may not be quite as versatile as fellow OLB James Harrison, he’s definitely a key cog in the Steelers’ defense. And after four pro seasons, it’s fair to expect Woodley to be in his prime over the next few years. He’s in line for a high-dollar deal, and the Steelers don’t seem averse to paying him – although negotiations have dragged to this point. So the Steelers, who tend not to use the franchise tag, have taken the step to make sure this burgeoning player doesn’t join the list of those who got away. Wood;ley has already signed his tender offer.

4 – OG Logan Mankins, Patriots (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Mankins sat out the first half of the season rather than play on a restricted free-agent tender, yet he still made the Pro Bowl. He’s become an all-star regular based on his physical play inside. Mankins, a former first-round pick, expressed his desire for a trade last year, but he may be more apt to accept a $10-million-plus one-year deal for 2011 than he was to risk his health for a $1.5 million deal in 2010. It’s hard to imagine that any guard would be worth this kind of money, but the Patriots clearly don’t want to lose Mankins, and they’re willing to pay for him to play. The question is whether Mankins will let bygones be bygones and move forward from this point.

3- OLB Chad Greenway, Vikings (non-exclusive franchise tag) – The Vikings faced a major choice with their franchise tag between promising WR Sidney Rice, pass-rushing defensive end Ray Edwards, and Greenway, and they opted to use their tag on Greenway. The former first-round pick has yet to make a Pro Bowl, but he has led the Vikings in tackles the last three years, and after missing his rookie season he’s played in every game over the past four years. Even better, Greenway wants to stay with the Vikings, and he sees the tag as an honor, not an obstacle on the market. The question is whether paying $10 million to keep a versatile linebacker and team leader is worth it to the Vikings, when it likely means losing Edwards and may mean losing Rice as well. Much like the Jets, who tagged David Harris for the same reasons, the Vikings made a choice for continuity and cutlural reasons. But Greenway falls a tad bit below Harris in terms of performance, and that makes Minnesota’s use of the tag a little more of a stretch.

3 (con’t) – C Ryan Kalil, Panthers (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Kalil, a two-time Pro Bowl alternate center, has played well for the Panthers since becoming a starter three years ago. He’s a highly effective pivot for an offensive line that needs to be solid for the Panthers’ offense to be effective. That’s why the Panthers opted to ensure they will keep Kalil instead of tagging RB DeAngelo Williams or emerging DE Charles Johnson. It’s a good move in that Kalil is eager to stay, even on a one-year deal, and also in that he has been more consistent that Johnson and younger than Williams. But the fact that Carolina must risk two of its top three free agents to the open market shows how the team’s philosophy to build through the draft has fallen apart. If a team is going to build through the draft, it must keep its own guys, and the Panthers can’t afford to lose Johnson or Williams after watching Julius Peppers walk away last year. So tagging Kalil is fine, but no move the Panthers made could overcome the dangerous situation the team’s overall philosophy the last few years has put the franchise in. Kalil has signed his tender offer.

3 (con’t) – TE Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Lewis finally fulfilled his potential as a former first-round pick in 2010, making his first Pro Bowl as he emerged as a major receiving threat. He set career highs with 58 catches (up from 41), 700 yards (up from 518), and 10 touchdowns (up from 2). In many ways, Lewis became the Jaguars’ most dangerous threat, better than outside receivers Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker. So Jacksonville can’t afford to lose Lewis, hence the tag. If Lewis can build on his breakout season in 2011, his long-term contract will be even more lucrative.

3 (con’t) – OLB Kamerion Wimbley, Raiders (non-exclusive franchise tag) – The Raiders thought they would be able to keep Wimbley via a buy-back clause in his contract that would cost them $3.5 million, but the convoluted CBA rules invalidated that option. That was a boon for Wimbley, who instead scores a one-year deal worth more than $10 million. Wimbley, a former Browns first-round choice, saw his career revitalized by the move to Oakland this year, as he put up nine sacks, the most since his rookie season in 2006. Wimbley brings an outside pass rush for the Raiders that no one else on the roster can, which proves to be a nice complement to a solid defensive line featuring Richard Seymour and promising rookie Lamarr Houston. And since the Raiders locked up Seymour earlier this month and CB Stanford Routt just before the franchise tag deadline (both at franchise-player prices, by the way), the tag was free for Wimbley. Routt was actually a key guy for the Raiders to keep, since Nnamdi Asomugha will almost certainly be leaving via free agency. Routt rebounded in 2010 (much like Wimbley did) and played at a high level. Wimbley is happy to sign his 2011 tender, given what his contract status is. The Raiders stabilize their defense, although it comes at the cost of $10 million and the risk of losing TE Zach Miller via free agency.

3 (con’t) – NT Paul Soliai, Dolphins (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Soliai is probably the least heralded player on the franchise tag list, given that he only emerged as a starter in 2010. But the Utah product emerged as a big-time nose tackle with veteran Jason Ferguson out this year, And since 3-4 nose tackles are incredibly hard to find, Soliai was going to be a hot commodity on the open market. Soliai holds the point of attack well against the run and can be disruptive at times, which is why the Dolphins are giving him a raise from his $467,000 2010 salary to the $12.4 million franchise tag in 2011. Soliai is expected to sign his tender to lock in the deal that’s worth 29 times more than what he made last year.

2 – none

1  – PK Phil Dawson, Brown (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Dawson, who has been Cleveland’s kicker since the franchise returned in 1999, has been a reliable kicker throughout his Browns career. For a team without a lot of high-profile free agents, protecting rights to Dawson makes sense. The price tag (between $3 and $3.5 million) won’t be exorbinant, and Dawson does contribute to the bottom line. Dawson has been angling for a long-term deal, but a one-year guarantee at this price is a nice consolation prize given his position.

1 (con’t) – PK David Akers, Eagles (transitioned) – It took Akers a couple of years to establish himself in the pros, but once he did he has become an 11-year stalwart at kicker for them. He’s made five Pro Bowls, including the last two, and was an all-decade kicker for the 2000s. The Eagles clearly trust Akers, despite a couple of misses in the playoffs this year. For a contender, paying a few million dollars to keep a trusted kicker is a worthwhile investment, and it’s not uncommon for kickers to get tagged, because it’s not prohibitively expensive to do so, and this seems like a shrewd move for the Eagles. Akers, meanwhile, continues to kick at a high level, and he deserves to cash in.

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TE two-step: Lewis tagged, Shockey cut

Jags vs. 49ers - Marcedes Lewis

Marcedes Lewis' future is looking up. Image by happyfunpaul via Flickr

Tight ends headlined the NFL news Wednesday, as the Saints cut star Jeremy Shockey and the Jaguars used their franchise tag on Marcedes Lewis. Below are thoughts on both moves.

In New Orleans, Shockey’s high profile masked the point that his play in New Orleans has been limited because of injuries. The nine-year veteran, who made the Pro Bowl four times during his time with the Giants, topped out at 50 catches in his three years with the Saints. Last season, he had 41 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns. That kind of production, while helpful, wasn’t going to be worth the price tag for 2011. By cutting Shockey now, the Saints not only save his $4.2 million salary for next season; they also avoid a $500,000 roster bonus in the short term. Most of all, the Saints can afford to go without Shockey, given the emergence of rookie Jimmy Graham last year. Graham, an ex-basketball player, developed quickly last year and should be ready to provide the kind of receiving threat for the Saints that Shockey did at his best. And with David Thomas playing a key role as a second tight end who blocks more, the Saints didn’t really have room for Shockey anymore. Shockey may get a low-cost shot with another team looking for a receiving threat, but his injury history and age seems to indicate that his best days are in the past.

In Jacksonville, Lewis finally fulfilled his potential as a former first-round pick in 2010, making his first Pro Bowl as he emerged as a major receiving threat. He set career highs with 58 catches (up from 41), 700 yards (up from 518), and 10 touchdowns (up from 2). In many ways, Lewis became the Jaguars’ most dangerous threat, better than outside receivers Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker. So Jacksonville can’t afford to lose Lewis, hence the tag. If Lewis can build on his breakout season in 2011, his long-term contract will be even more lucrative.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 8

Each week, we pore through the box scores to analyze fantasy football performances and tell you whether to applaud them or whether to consider them a fraud. With each verdict, we’ll make sure you know exactly what it means.

Quarterbacks 

Troy Smith of the 49ers. Via espn.com

Sam Bradford, Rams – We praised Bradford’s play but not his fantasy football prospects in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: A fraud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Garrard, who missed last week’s game with a concussion, came back with a vengeance, throwing for four touchdowns and running for one while completing an impressive 17-of-23 passes against the Cowboys. Garrard is a capable quarterback who will have big games from time to time, but he and his team show enough inconsistency that you can’t really count on him to do so. He’s a fantasy backup with upside, but not a guy we can count on as anything more than a spot starter. Verdict: A fraud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – Kitna threw four picks against the Jaguars, but if your league doesn’t penalize for turnovers he ended up with good counting stats – 379 yards and a touchdown. He can pile up some numbers, and he has good targets, so if you’re looking for a fantasy backup, he’s decent. From this point on, Kitna will be a top-20 fantasy quarterback, and that makes him ownable in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Troy Smith, 49ers – Smith, a former Heisman Trophy winner, got his first start for San Francisco and got a win across the pond, ralling the 49ers from a 10-3 deficit with three fourth-quarter scoring drives. And his numbers ended up being  good from a fantasy perspective – 12-for-19 for 196 yards with a passing TD and a rushing TD. It looks like Troy will outpace Alex Smith for the 49ers starting job going forward, and that makes him an interesting fantasy prospect the rest of the year. We’d feel good about claiming Troy Smith and seeing what happens in his next 2-3 games. Verdict: Applaud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford returned from his shoulder injury with a huge game, throwing for 212 yards and a touchdown. He isn’t an every-week fantasy starter, but as long as he’s healthy he’ s a quality spot starter who should definitely be owned in leagues with more than 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

LeGarrette Blount runs against the Cardinals

LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers – A week after we touted Blount as a pick-up, he broke free for 120 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. He should be owned in every league, and he deserves consideration now as a starter. He’s the man in Tampa Bay, and the RB job is his. Verdict: Applaud

Toby Gerhart, Vikings – The Vikes’ rookie had no yards on his two carries, but he did amass five catches for 67 yards. If he gains a third-down role, he becomes an interesting guy to watch down the stretch. For now, Gerhart is a must-own for Adrian Peterson owners, but if you don’t have Peterson and want to speculate with a waiver claim, go ahead. Verdict: Applaud

Marcel Reece, Raiders – Reece, the Raiders’ fullback, had a ridiculous game against the Seahawks with three catches for 90 yards and a touchdown and two rushes for 32 yards. But fullbacks aren’t reliable yardage producers, which means you should leave Reece on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – We told you it’s now time to cut Stewart in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, Rams – We told you that Amendola’s a borderline starter and that Gibson is worth a claim in our Panthers/Rams thoughts. Verdict: Applaud

Anthony Armstrong, Redskins – Armstrong has emerged as the Redskins’ breakaway threat, and he had a 50-yard grab against the Lions en route to a three-catch, 92-yard performance. Armstrong is now the clear No. 2 receiver in Washington behind Santana Moss, and Armstrong is worth a look in large leagues as a claim if he’s still on the waiver wire. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Breaston, Cardinals – After missing three games due to injury, Breaston returned with eight catches for 147 yards. That shows he’s healthy and that he can contribute despite Arizona’s sorry quarterback situation. If Breaston hit your league’s waiver wire, claim him, and consider starting him in leagues that use three receivers. He’s back to being a top-30 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – HeyBey broke free for one huge play, a 69-yard touchdown, and finished the game against the Seahawks with five catches for 105 yards and a score. He also added 30 rushing yards, which is a nice fantasy bonus. He’s a big-play guy, but consistency has been lacking to this point in his two-year NFL career. Still, the former first-round pick has rare speed. For now, we have him on watch lists, not on a roster, but in massive leagues he’s worth a claim just in case he’s starting to get it. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker had a huge day with eight catches for 153 yards and a score. He now has four touchdowns on the season, but just two 100-yard games. This was also only his second game this season with more than four catches. In other words, MSW is incredibly inconsistent, and that means he isn’t someone you can start with confidence. He’s the ultimate third wideout who can put up big numbers but is far from a sure bet to do so. Don’t be fooled by this game. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Tate, Patriots – Tate, the big-play threat outside for the Patriots now that Randy Moss is gone, broke free for a 65-yard touchdown against the Vikings and finished with 101 receiving yards. His production is incredibly inconsistent, though, and that means he is difficult to start even in larger leagues. So while Tate should be owned in case he develops consistency down the stretch, this game doesn’t mean he’s a weekly starter. Verdict: A fraud

Nate Washington, Titans – Washington caught his fourth touchdown pass of the season against the Chargers and finished with 117 receiving yards on four catches. That production, plus the fact that Kenny Britt is expected to miss “an extended period of time” with a hamstring injury, means Washington must be picked up this week and could emerge as a fantasy starter while Britt is out. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Marcedes Lewis celebrates a TD catch with David Garrard. From espn.com

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars  – Lewis had another huge fantasy game, grabbing two touchdown passes (his only two catches) for 51 yards against the Cowboys. He now has seven touchdowns this season, and even though his reception numbers have been a little inconsistent, he is without question an every-week fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Delanie Walker, 49ers – Vernon Davis of the 49ers entered the team’s game in London with an ankle injury, and in the first quarter he had to leave the game once again. Walker, the backup tight end who has rare speed for the position, stepped in and had a big game with five catches for 85 yards. If Davis misses any time, Walker becomes a major sleeper at the tight end position. Watch the news during San Francisco’s bye this week to see Davis’ status, and in large leagues go ahead and grab Walker and stash him if you have a roster spot. Verdict: Appalud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

Arian Foster against the Colts

Arian Foster breaks free against the Colts. Photo from abcnews.com

Most of the first week of the NFL season is done, and that means it’s time for pickups in fantasy football. But which performances from Week 1 should you trust? Each week, we’ll dig through some of the notable performances to find the ones you should applaud and the ones that are simply frauds to be ignored. With each verdict, we’ll discuss what it means in terms of your starting lineup and your league’s waiver wire.

Quarterbacks

Derek Anderson, Cardinals – Anderson got off to a good start as the Cardinals’ quarterback, throwing for 297 yards and a touchdown. His completion percentage was just above 50 percent (22-of-41), and that’s going to be the issue with Anderson. But he has enough of an arm and good enough targets that he’ll pile up some yards and touchdowns. If you need a fill-in quarterback or a new backup, Anderson is a decent option, especially in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Shaun Hill, Lions – With Matthew Stafford knocked out of Detroit’s game against the Bears with a shoulder injury, Hill came in and completed 9-of-19 passes for 88 yards with a touchdown. Hill is a serviceable quarterback, and so he won’t drag down the stock of Calvin Johnson while he fills in for Stafford over the next several weeks, but Hill himself isn’t a fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but the Bengals’ emphasis on the pass was mostly a result of falling behind 31-3. Don’t count on 50 pass attempts from Palmer each week, and don’t move him into the top 10 at quarterback. He’s still a fantasy backup. Verdict: A fraud

Michael Vick, Eagles – It’s uncertain at this point whether Eagles starter Kevin Kolb will miss any additional games with the concussion he suffered in Week 1, but if he does Vick is once again a fantasy option. Vick threw for 175 yards and a touchdown and ran for 103 yards against the Packers, showing that he’s back to the form that made him an interesting fantasy play back in the day. Vick’s worth grabbing if Kolb is your starter, and he’s worth a speculative claim for other owners depending on Kolb’s condition. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Matt Forte, Bears – Forte averaged less than three yards a carry with 17 carries for 50 yards, but he had 151 yards receiving with two touchdown catches. His receiving skills add a lot of value, and if the Bears’ new Mike Martz offense starts clicking, Forte’s going to be a solid starter. One caveat: Forte had good games last year against bad teams like the Lions, Browns, and Rams, but he didn’t do much against anyone else. So wait one more week before making Forte a no-questions starter in your league. Verdict: A fraud

Arian Foster, Texans – The hottest RB sleeper this season proved his mettle early with a monster 231-yard, three touchdown day. He’s a fantasy starter in every league and could end up being  a top-10 back by the end of the season. Give yourself a hand if you bought the hype. Verdict: Applaud

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis had the Browns’ only rushing touchdown against Tampa Bay, and he had as many carries as ostensible starter Jerome Harrison. Hillis finished with 65 yards from scrimmage, and it seems reasonable to expect 50 yards or so a week from Hillis. It seems like it’s going to be worth grabbing Hillis as a RB sleeper to see how he develops down the line. We never bought Harrison as a fantasy starter, and Hillis’ presence makes that suspicion seem well-founded. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jackson, Packers – Ryan Grant suffered an ankle injury against Philly, and Jackson stepped in and had 63 yards on 18 carries. If Grant misses time, Jackson’s good enough to be a flex option in leagues of 12 teams or more. He’s worth a claim given Grant’s injury. Verdict: Applaud

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – There was a lot of worry about Jones-Drew’s health over the last two weeks of the preseason, but he showed up with 23 catches for 98 yards in the 24-17 victory over the Broncos. That’s good reassurance for owners who took the shot and drafted MoJo despite the questions. Verdict: Applaud

Darren McFadden, Raiders – With Michael Bush out of action, McFadden had a solid fantasy game with 150 total yards and a touchdown. He’s still got to beat Bush out to be worth a starting spot, and that’s the reason we’re not clapping yet, but if you have McFadden on your bench this is a positive sign. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Steve Breaston, Cardinals – In his first game as a starter after the departure of Anquan Boldin, Breaston stepped up with a huge game – seven catches for 132 yards. That performance means that Breaston’s status as a No. 3 fantasy receiver, which seemed questionable when Derek Anderson first took the starting job, is secure. Verdict: Applaud

Mark Clayton, Rams – In Clayton’s first game in St. Louis, he established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiver with 10 catches for 119 yards. He won’t put up those kinds of numbers every week, but he’ll produce enough to be a No. 4 fantasy receiver. His change of scenery has really boosted his fantasy stock. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie finished with 10 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, keyed by a 73-yard catch late. His numbers allow us to contend as we have throughout the offseason that Collie will end up being more fantasy relevant than Pierre Garcon. Verdict: Applaud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks is now a top-20 receiver after a three-TD game, as we detailed in our Panthers/Giants post. Verdict: Applaud

Mario Manningham, Giants – We talked in our Panthers/Giants post about how Manningham is worth a pickup in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Lance Moore, Saints – We talked in our Saints/Vikings post about how Moore looks to have a bigger role in 2010 than he did in 2009. Although he finished the game with just three catches for 23 yards, he’s worth putting on your watch list. But for now, don’t worry about a claim unless you’re in a monster league of 14 teams or more. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Ochocinco piled up 12 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown as the Bengals tried to come back from a huge deficit. More notably, he had 12 catches to Terrell Owens’ seven. We still believe Ochocinco is the more valuable fantasy receiver than Owens and that Ochocinco is the Bengals’ receiver you want to be starting. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas had six catches for 89 yards against the Broncos, while Mike Sims-Walker went without a catch. It’s entirely possible that Thomas, not MSW, will end up being the Jags’ No. 1 fantasy receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Washington, Titans – Washington had a big game against the Raiders with 88 receiving yards, including a 59-yard touchdown. But we’re not ready to predict that kind of production from Washington on a weekly basis. He’s likely to be an inconsistent producer who puts up big numbers on occasion but not often enough to find a spot in your lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Wes Welker, Patriots – If you had any doubt about Welker’s health after last year’s ACL injury, his eight-catch, 62-yard, two-touchdown performance should set your mind at ease. He’s once again a no-brainer fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Williams, Seahawks – Seattle’s big reclamation project panned out in Week One, as Williams had four catches for 64 yards against the 49ers. He’s worth owning as a fantasy backup in leagues of 12 teams or more, but don’t get carried away and start Williams yet. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – Lewis had just two catches against the Broncos, but they both went for touchdowns. Our sense is that Lewis isn’t a top-10 fantasy tight end, but he could end being a top-15 tight end and a nice injury or bye-week fill-in. If you had Kevin Boss, Lewis is a solid replacement. Verdict: Applaud

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – We talked in our Saints/Vikings post about what Shiancoe’s performance means. He should be a starter in all leagues with a dedicated TE spot at this point. Considering we had Shiancoe outside our top 10 at the position before the season, that’s worth a hand clap. Verdict: Applaud

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Jersey Numbers: Tight Ends

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

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

We started this project with wide receivers in this post. Now we move to tight ends. In general, tight ends wear numbers between 80 and 89, but several also wear numbers in the 40s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Applaud or a Fraud – Emerging Tight Ends

Yesterday, we went back through our preseason top-10 tight end rankings to determine whether fantasy owners should applaud these backs or consider them frauds going forward. You can read that post here.

In this post, we’re going to look at tight ends outside of the preseason top-10 and determine whether we should applaud these tight ends or consider their numbers fraudulent. Read the individual reports to see whether the verdicts mean you should start a player, hold him on your bench, pick him up, or drop him. We’ve listed these players alphabetically.

Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek was a hot sleeper prospect before the season given the expansion of his role in Philadelphia, and he has delivered. He’s averaging 6 catches and 76 yards per game, and he has two touchdowns on the season. Celek has become a starting-caliber fantasy tight end, as many projected. You can feel good about Celek as a starter moving forward. Verdict: Applaud

Vernon Davis, 49ers – Once a top-10 overall draft pick, Davis has spent most of his career as a disappointing performer. But he has started to get it under new Niners coach Mike Singletary, and fantasy owners are reaping the benefits. Davis is averaging 52 yards per game and has three touchdowns in his first five games, which are both solid numbers for a starting fantasy tight end. He’s not a top-6 performer, but he’s plenty good as a fantasy starter now and going forward over the rest of the year. Verdict: Applaud

Jermichael Finley, Packers – If Celek was the sleeper du jour before the season, Finley was the supersleeper du jour. And Finley has gotten on the radar of fantasy tight ends. He has 49 yards per game and one touchdown, although he has one game without a catch and another with just one catch. But while Finley is an interesting prospect, he’s still not a top-15 tight end. He’s a guy whose fantasy upside will truly be realized in 2010, not this year, and that means you shouldn’t be counting on Finley to start for your team. Verdict: A fraud

Todd Heap, Ravens – After an injury-plagued ’07 season and a forgettable ’08 campaign, Heap is having a bit of a fantasy renaissance. He’s averaging 43 yards per game and has two touchdowns, which projects to be much like his last really good fantasy season in 2006. With the Ravens’ offense blossoming under young QB Joe Flacco, Heap becomes at least a matchup play for fantasy owners. He’s not in the top 10 of fantasy tight ends, but he’s close enough to that level that we can clap for him. Verdict: Applaud

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – Lewis flies under the fantasy radar, but he’s delivered halfway decent numbers thus far. He’s averaging 34 yards per game and has two touchdowns thus far. Those numbers make him a nice fill-in option, but he’s not a guy you can consider as an every-week starter. Verdict: A fraud

Heath Miller, Steelers – For the first three years of his career, Miller was a top-flight fantasy tight end, but last year his TD total decreased to 3, causing many to forget Miller. But Miller is once again a huge part of the Pittsburgh offense, and he’s averaging 32 yards per game and has four total touchdowns this season. That’s a big fantasy season and plenty of reason to start him in your fantasy league. I’d even start him over Jason Witten at this point. Heath is back as a top-6 tight end. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller is a talent whom fantasy owners were salivating over this season, but he didn’t put up big numbers until this week’s 6-catch, 139-yard, one-touchdown game against the Eagles. Miller is hamstrung by his quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, who is so bad that he depresses everyone else’s fantasy value in Oakland. So despite Miller’s big game, we can’t applaud him as a fantasy starter going forward. Just remember: Zach, it’s not your fault. Verdict: A fraud

Tony Scheffler, Broncos – It’s already been a tale of two seasons for Scheffler. In the first three games, he had just one catch per game. But he’s had at least three catches in each of the last three games, and now for the season he’s averaging 36 yards per game with two total touchdowns. He’s an intriguing upside guy right now, but he hovers around 15 on the overall list of fantasy tight ends instead of around the top 10. Verdict: A fraud

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – We thought Shiancoe’s seven-TD season last year was a bit of a fluke, and so we had him outside the top-12 at tight end entering the year. But it wasn’t a fluke. The guy who had just four career TDs entering ’08 now has 12 over the last 22 games, including two last week and five this season. Shiancoe is perhaps the Vikings’ best red zone target, and with Brett Favre running a West Coast scheme the tight end will continue to be part of the offense. Shiancoe doesn’t have wonderful yardage numbers (just 27 yards per game), but he’s scoring so much that you have to start him in fantasy leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey is averaging 40 yards per game, which isn’t a ton, but he does have three touchdowns through the season’s first five games. Shockey has established more of a role in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense than he had last year, and that makes him ownable in most leagues. But he’s not a better start than guys like Heath Miller or Owen Daniels or even Chris Cooley or Kellen Winslow. He’s better than expected, but he’s only a matchup play in 12-team leagues. So we’ll give him thumbs down as a starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Benjamin Watson, Patriots – Watson has three touchdowns early in the season, but two came in the first game of the season. Plus, he’s averaging just 31 receiving yards a game. He’s worth noting here, but he’s not worth starting unless you’re in a fantasy league with more than 15 teams. Verdict: A fraud

 

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 2

Last week, we dove into the stat sheets to find out which Week One performers we should applaud and which were frauds. We’re going to examine this week’s stat sheets to do the same. We’re trying to identify new players, so we’ll only repeat players from last week if their applaud or a fraud status has changed.

Quarterbacks
This week we’re posting the quarterbacks on our Most Valuable Network blog. You can find it (and other good blogs) on MVN’s Football Wire. We’ll cover Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub, Jake Delhomme, Byron Leftwich, and Kevin Kolb over there, so check it out.

Running backs

Mike Bell, SaintsLast week (over at MVN) we called Bell a fraud. Then he went out and had 65 yards and a TD against the Eagles. But note that he suffered what is believed to be a sprained MCL in his knee against the Eagles. That would sideline him for several weeks. If not for the injury, we’d be clapping, but Bell now falls down the chart in fantasy relevance. Verdict: A fraud

Correll Buckhalter, Broncos – Buckhalter only got nine carries against Cleveland, but he cashed them in for 76 yards and a touchdown. In the long run, Knowshon Moreno (who had 17 carries this week) is going to be the go-to guy in Denver, but in an effort to keep him healthy the Broncos will give Buckhalter 10-12 touches. He’s good enough to produce in that limited role. He’s definitely worth a roster spot in all leagues and could be a flex play against some of the weaker sisters in the AFC West. Verdict: Applaud

Heath Evans, Saints – Evans is the Saints’ fullback, and fullbacks aren’t usually fantasy relevant. But he’s going to show up on your leaders because he’s caught a TD pass from Drew Brees in each of the first two games. There’s a decent chance Evans ends up with 4-5 touchdowns this season because of the potency of the Saints’ offense, but it’s going to be so difficult to predict when those scores come that Evans still isn’t going to be a reliable fantasy football option. If you’re in a 16-team league or bigger, Evans might be worth a flier, but otherwise you’re going to be wiser just leaving him on the waiver wire. Verdict: A fraud

Tim Hightower, CardinalsLast week (over at MVN) we also called Hightower a fantasy fraud. But after having a ridiculous receiving game in Week One, he had a solid rushing game against Jacksonville in Week 2 with 72 yards and a touchdown. At this point, you have to consider Hightower a top-30 running back, which makes him a starter in larger leagues and a flex play in 10-to-12 team leagues. He doesn’t get a standing ovation, but he’s worth a golf clap at this point. Verdict: Applaud

Willis McGahee, RavensLast week (over at MVN) we also called McGahee a fantasy fraud. Then he went out and scored two touchdowns against San Diego, giving him four for the year. Ray Rice might be a better back at this point, or if not at this point sometime soon. But McGahee still has ability – while our proclivity is to lump McGahee in with over-30 running backs, he’s only 28 – as he showed by averaging 5.3 yards per carry this week without breaking a long run. At this point, ride the hot streak and start McGahee if you’ve got him. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but maybe this is a renaissance year for him. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Snelling, Falcons – We talked about Snelling’s fantasy value in our Panthers/Falcons post on Sunday. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox, a raw rookie from Abilene Christian, was expected to simply be a return specialist this year, but he has been a big part of the passing game. He had a 68-yard catch in the opener and then had six catches for 70 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 2. With Jay Cutler now in place, the Bears are definitely more pass-happy, and the receiving corps is thin enough that a guy like Knox can jump up. I don’t know exactly what to expect from Knox going forward, but he’s shown enough so far that it’s worth stashing him on your roster and seeing how he develops in the next 2-3 weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Mario Manningham, Giants – After two weeks, it seems like we’re starting to get some clarity on the Giants’ receiving corps from a fantasy perspective. Steve Smith is the most reliable guy, and Manningham (who has a touchdown in each of the first two games) is the second option. Manningham was actually targeted 13 times against Dallas en route to a 10-catch, 150-yard game. He’s absolutely worth a pick-up and could even be a spot starter in 12-team and larger leagues right now. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker, who had a solid season last year for Jacksonville, had 106 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. He’s undoubtedly one of Jacksonville’s top two receivers along with Torry Holt, only Sims-Walker is more explosive. He didn’t have a single catch in the opener against Indy, though, which goes to show how sporadic Jacksonville’s passing game is. Sims-Walker is a name worth knowing, and if you’re looking to take a flier as you build receiver depth, he’s worth a shot at this point. He could put up decent fourth or even third fantasy wideout numbers in 10-to-12-team leagues by the end of the season. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Kellen Davis, Bears – Davis scored a touchdown, but he’s getting playing time only while Desmond Clark is out. Greg Olsen will get far more looks than Davis while Clark is out for 6 weeks or so. If you’re in an incredibly deep league or a league that requires you to start two tight ends for some reason, Davis is worth a flier, but he’s no better than the 15th best fantasy tight end during Clark’s absence. Verdict: A fraud

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – Lewis is a gifted receiver who is often forgotten in fantasy terms because the Jaguars are kind of an anonymous team. But he had 62 yards and a TD against the Cardinals in Week 2, and he has three catches in each of the first two games. He’s not a top-10 tight end, but if you’re looking for a bye week fill-in soon he’s definitely worth consideration. Don’t expect too much, but Lewis can be a useful fantasy player. Verdict: Applaud

Dante Rosario, Panthers – We talked about Rosario’s fantasy value in our Panthers/Falcons post on Sunday. Verdict: A fraud

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Opportunists

At the suggestion of Carl, we’re going to take the opportunity to look at players whose touches should significantly rise or fall based on new circumstances this year. We’ll try to identify this trend among some players whom we have not yet discussed in our fantasy football coverage this year (which you can catch up on via this category on the blog or by searching via player name on the right).

Opportunity Rising

RB Fred Jackson, Bills – With Marshawn Lynch being suspended for the first three games of the season, Jackson will be a No. 1 back to begin the year. The fact that he was so productive as a No. 2 back last year (884 total yards, three TDs) makes him a solid fantasy backup; the fact that he’ll be the guy for three games makes him an early-season starter. Jackson is a No. 3 fantasy back in leagues of 10 or more teams, and don’t be shocked if he starts for your team at some point after Lynch’s three-game break.

RB Darren McFadden, Raiders – This is more of a hunch than a situational call, but you can bank on McFadden having more than 142 touches in 2009. He missed three games last year and had three more games in which he had three or fewer touches. (Those numbers also indicate that someone else in Oakland, either Justin Fargas or Michael Bush, will likely lose some touches.) If McFadden just gets up to 10 touches in those games – which is a conservative projection – he becomes a borderline No. 2 fantasy running back. If he can move up to 15-20 touches a game, he’s a gimme starter with huge upside.

RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice was the third guy in Baltimore’s RB trio last year, but all signs from training camp this year are that he has stepped up to be the primary running back. LeRon McClain will still get work as a fullback, but Rice should end up with more than 140 touches and more than 727 yards, which is what he ended up with last year. He’s a borderline starter and a flex option for fantasy leagues.

RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas established himself as a big-time fantasy back last year despite being a part-time player in New Orleans. He had just 160 touches last year but turned that into 900 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now that Thomas has proven his ability to produce, we can count on him moving up into the 200 touch area, which will put him equivalent to or maybe even a tad above Reggie Bush’s load. That should push Thomas into the 1000-yard area, which will make him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back at worst.

WR Miles Austin, Cowboys – With Terrell Owens gone, the Cowboys have a No. 1 receiver in Roy Williams who probably won’t be an 80-catch guy and no clear No. 2 receiver. That opens the door for Austin, who had just 13 catches but three touchdowns last year. He should be a 30-catch guy easily this year and could end up with many more grabs than that. (We talked more about Austin in this post.)

WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery was kind of under the radar as a fantasy wideout last year, but he had a strong season for a rookie, catching 53 balls for 674 yards and three scores (along with one rushing TD). With Torry Holt gone, Avery is now the unquestioned lead receiver for the Rams, and with some luck (most notably health for Marc Bulger) he could move up to the 70-catch level. As you project Avery, watch his leg injury, which held him out of most of training camp and could sideline him in the regular season’s first game or two.

WR Patrick Crayton, Cowboys – As we discussed earlier, there are plenty of opportunities in the Dallas passing game. Crayton is the natural guy to move up from a 39-catch guy last year up into the 50-catch area. He was at that level in 2007, so he can do it. Crayton isn’t quite a fantasy starter, but he’s worth a bench spot as you see just how much of an opportunity he has in ’09.

WR Jerricho Cotchery, Jets – With Laveranues Coles gone, Cotchery is the unquestioned No. 1 wideout for the Jets. While that’s not a huge fantasy production spot now that the Jets are going with rookie Mark Sanchez at quarterback instead of Brett Favre, Cotchery has a chance to up his reception total from 71.

WR Anthony Gonzalez, Colts – With Marvin Harrison gone, Gonzalez moves up from a No. 3 slot receiver in Indy to a starting role. He’ll play both outside in 2-WR sets and in the slot in three-WR groupings, which means he’ll be on the field a lot. That means that he should see a bump up from his 57-catch total from last year. He’s probably not an 80-catch receiver, but 65 to 70 grabs is reasonable, and Gonzalez would likely turn that kind of opportunity into a 1,000-yard season.

WR Domenik Hixon, Giants – Hixon, whom the Giants plucked off the waiver wire in 2007, emerged as a legitimate receiving threat last year with 43 catches for 596 yards and two scores in ’08. With Plaxico Burress gone, Hixon is the best down-field option Eli Manning has now. That’s worth knowing going into fantasy drafts. While his catch numbers probably won’t scream upwards – he’s more likely to end up in the 50s than in the 70s – he should make enough plays on deep balls to be an intriguing fantasy option most weeks.

WR Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal had a whopping 91 catches for 980 yards as a rookie, and it could be hard for him to match that catch level in the Broncos’ new offense. But we want to put him on this list to note that in the new Josh McDaniels system, Royal may end up with more catches than Brandon Marshall. And if Marshall holds out, sits out, or gets traded, Royal’s production will make him a starting receiver. This is a name you need to know going into your draft.

WR Steve Smith, Giants – The Giants let go of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer in the last year, and so there are opportunities a-plenty in New York. Smith, who had 57 catches last year, is the most likely guy to lead the Giants in catches. He may not have the yards or touches that other receivers like Domenik Hixon or maybe even Mario Manningham create, but Smith will be the most consistent fantasy option among the Big Blue wide receivers.

TE Dustin Keller, Jets – We’ve already discussed Jerricho Cotchery’s opportunity, but the real beneficiary of Coles’ departure is Keller, who should become a more regular part of the Jets’ offense. He had 48 catches last year, but he should be well into the 50s or even the 60s this season. His yards per catch will probably slip as a result, but from the ultimate fantasy perspective the opportunities will pay off. (We talked more about Keller in this post.)

TE Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – With the upheaval the Jaguars have experienced at wide receiver, there’s an opportunity for Lewis to step up his production this year. He had 41 catches for 489 yards last year, and he could move up toward 50 catches and 600 yards this year. Because of the depth of the tight end position, those are still backup numbers, but they make Lewis a legit backup, especially if your league forces you to carry two tight ends.

PK Lawrence Tynes, Giants – After his postseason heroics in the Giants’ Super Bowl run, Tynes sat most of last season. He was hurt early, and replacement John Carney did so well that Tynes never really got a shot. But Carney is now in New Orleans, which means that Tynes once again will be the Giants’ full-time kicker.

Opportunity Falling

RB Joseph Addai, Colts – With the addition of rookie Donald Brown, Addai can no longer be considered Indy’s No.1 back. That means that Addai’s production will be more like what he offered in ’08 (750 yards, seven touchdowns) than his stud years (1,400 yards, 8 and 15 touchdowns) before that. (We talked more about Addai in this post.)

RB Earnest Graham, Buccaneers – Graham entered last season as the Bucs’ No. 1 back, but he can’t boast the same status this year because of the arrival of Derrick Ward. That makes Graham little more than a fantasy backup this season. (We talked more about Graham in this post.)

WR Lee Evans, Bills – Evans has been the Bills’ bellweather receiver for years now, but with Terrell Owens coming to town, he’s now more of a complementary player. That may not hurt Evans’ numbers too badly, because he’s averaged only 59 catches over the last two years. Evans will probably be around 55 catches this year, but with more of his chances coming downfield, he could average 16 or 17 yards per catch with six touchdowns or so. Still, that makes him more of a No. 3 receiver than the No. 2 he’s been in some recent years.

WR Justin Gage, Titans – Gage was the Titans’ best receiving option last year, compiling 34 catches in the 12 games he played. Because the Titans’ offense isn’t that pass-happy, no Tennessee receiver is a great fantasy option. But the addition of free-agent Nate Washington indicates that Gage will be more of a possession receiver in ’09. That knocks him from being a fantasy backup to more of a waiver-wire option in most fantasy leagues.

TE Benjamin Watson, Patriots – Watson, a former first-round pick, had a big fantasy season with 6 touchdowns in 2008, but he had just two last year. With Chris Baker coming on board, Watson should be even less of a receiving option this year. As a result, Watson is not a draftable fantasy guy.

PK Matt Bryant, Buccaneers – Make sure you note on your list that Mike Nugent signed in Tampa Bay to take over Bryant’s job.

PK Garrett Hartley, Saints – Hartley stablized the Saints’ kicking position late in the season last year, and the Saints’ kicker should be a high draft pick because of New Orleans’ prolific offense. But Hartley will miss the first four games of the season due to a league suspension, and the Saints brought in vet John Carney to fill in. Last year, Carney rode a fill-in spot with the Giants to a full season and a Pro Bowl berth. That means that you can’t bank on Hartley to begin the season and shouldn’t have him on your roster until Carney is out of the way.

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