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OP: The breakout superstar of 2011

Now that the lockout is almost over, it’s time to start previewing the upcoming season. And in our first post, we want to take a macro look at the league and identify the one player who will leap into the public consciousness this year. Our pick? Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman.

Josh Freeman, via thepewterplank.com

Just two years ago, Freeman was viewed as a project pick in the first round. The Buccaneers seemingly liked him more than any other NFL team, and so they picked him higher (17th overall) than most other teams would have. And as a rookie, Freeman looked a bit like a project, waiting till midseason to take over the starter role. He won his first game as a starter (an upset over the Dolphins), then lost five straight before two late-season wins over the Seahawks and Saints. In his 10 games, he completed just 54.5 percent of his passes and had 18 interceptions to 10 TD passes.

But last season, Freeman took over the Bucs as his own with a star-making season. He led the surprising Bucs to a 10-6 record and had 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions – a remarkable ratio for any player and especially for a starter in his first full season. He threw for 3,451 yards and ran for 368, showing remarkable speed given his massive 6-foot-6, 248-pound frame. Even more impressively, Freeman put up those massive numbers not with a veteran crew around him but with a baby-faced crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were all rookies.

Now the Baby Bucs are primed to mature together. And as they do, Freeman will begin to grow in stature as an NFL star. On-field production is one reason – Freeman will be a major fantasy football factor this year, after being an afterthought entering last season. That alone will raise his profile. But there are other reasons Freeman will break through in the public consciousness:

*Personality – What the Bucs figured out – or made a correct guess about – is that Freeman has the personality required to be a franchise quarterback. He is personable but also able to challenge his teammates to perform, which is essential for a top quarterback. That’s especially important in Tampa, because both Blount and Williams had troubled tenures in college. The Bucs can’t afford them to slip up (as CB Aqib Talib and S Tanard Jackson have). But if Freeman can help them stay in line, the Bucs will have a talented group around their quarterback.

*QB vaccuum – With Brett Favre (hopefully) done for good, Donovan McNabb probably done as an NFL starter, and Carson Palmer possibly sitting out the season, there’s space for quarterbacks to emerge as stars. And our money is on Freeman to do this – even more than guys like Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco. If Freeman has another massive season, he’ll break through and become at least a Philip Rivers-level star. A strong playoff push would take him even further up the Q-rating totem pole.

*Style of play – Freeman’s ability to run as well as pass makes him a more exciting player than a fellow young QB like Ryan. Freeman will make big plays on his own as well as by finding teammates, and those highlight type of plays will add to his profile.

Now is Freeman’s time. We hope he likes the spotlight, because it’s going to be focused on him this season and for many to come.

Who do you think will be the NFL’s breakout superstar of 2011? Leave a comment below.

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RP: Trading for backup quarterbacks

Kevin Kolb

Trade target Kevin Kolb. Image via Wikipedia

In the midst of the NFL lockout, one rumor that won’t go away is that the Eagles are looking to deal backup QB Kevin Kolb to a team that wants to make him a starter. Kolb, who is signed to a reasonable contract and who sits behind Michael Vick on the depth chart, says he’s ready to start, and his performance in fill-in performances supports that belief. And Eagles head coach Andy Reid seems open to granting Kolb’s trade wish if the price is right.

But is this wise for the Eagles? And is trading for Kolb a good move for a quarterback needy team? Let’s do a research project to see the results other trades in which teams dealt for someone else’s backup quarterback and made him a starter.
*If  you can think of an example we forgot, leave a comment and we’ll add it in below.

2010 – Chargers trade Charlie Whitehurst and 2010 second-round pick (60th overall) to Seahawks for 2010 second-round pick (40th overall) and 2011 third-round pick – Whitehurst, a former third-round pick, was never going to surpass Philip Rivers in San Diego, but he had also fallen behind vet Billy Volek on the depth chart. So when the Seahawks wanted Whitehurst to compete for their starting job, the Bolts made the deal. The Seahawks didn’t give up as much as other teams had for QBs they knew would start for them, but it was a fairly hefty price for an unproven backup. In his first year in Seattle, Whitehurst couldn’t beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck, and he started just two games. While his numbers weren’t great, he did lead the Hawks to a Week 17 victory over St. Louis to clinch a playoff spot. Hasselbeck is now a free agent, and the Seahawks want to keep him, which speaks to Whitehurst’s current value. But the jury is still out on whether Seattle got what it paid for in this deal.

2009 – Patriots trade Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to Chiefs for second-round pick (34th overall) – Cassel, who had been a backup at USC and with the Patriots, got his chance to play in 2008 when Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Cassel acquited himself well, to the point that the Patriots put the franchise tag on him after the season. That was really a move to protect his value, and New England soon traded Cassel to Kansas City for an early second-round pick. That was a pretty nice return on investement for the Pats, who were obviously going to turn back to Brady as their starter. Cassel struggled a bit in his first year as a starter, but he really came on in 2010 to show he can be at least an above-average NFL starting QB. At this point, K.C. has to be thrilled to have Cassel, even after paying a hefty price.

2007 – Falcons trade Matt Schaub and 2007 10th overall pick to Texans for 2007 8th overall pick, 2007 second-round pick, and 2008 second-round pick – This is the one example that worked out far better for the team acquiring the backup quarterback. Schaub had started two games behind Michael Vick in Atlanta before the Falcons were able to get a pretty nice ransom for the former fourth-round pick. Schaub went on to the Texans, where he supplaned disappointing No. 1 overal pick David Carr. Schaub has developed into a prolific passer and has started every game when healthy over the past four seasons. The Falcons, meanwhile, didn’t know that their first season without Schaub would also be their first season without Vick, whose legal troubles began that year. So under first-year head coach Bobby Petrino, Atlanta started a poo-poo platter of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich that season. Petrino bailed and went to Arkansas, and the Falcons ended up drafting Matt Ryan as their new franchise QB. Atlanta bounced back from this trade, but it was as disastrous at first for the Falcons as it was shrewd for the Texans.

2004 – Eagles trade A.J. Feeley to Dolphins for 2005 second-round pick – Andy Reid learned from Ron Wolf, the GM of the team he had been an assistant coach for, when it came to trading quarterbacks. So once Donovan McNabb was an established starter, Reid dealt third-stringer Feeley to the Dolphins for a pretty high price – a second-rounder. Feeley had been a fifth-round pick, but when McNabb and backup Koy Detmer were injured in 2002, Feeley went 4-1 as a starter, helping the Eagles land a playoff berth. He was stuck on the bench another year before the Dolphins anted up to get him. But Feeley started just eight games in Miami and played poorly, losing the starting job to Jay Fiedler as coach Dave Wannstedt got forced out. Within two years, Feeley was gone. The Eagles, meanwhile, got WR Reggie Brown out of the deal as a draft pick, and actually got Feeley back as a backup a few years later. Philly won in this deal, and Miami definitely lost.

2001 – Packers trade Matt Hasselbeck plus 2001 17th overall pick and seventh-round pick to Seahawks for 2001 10th overall pick and third-round pick – Hasselbeck was the third Packers backup under Brett Favre who was traded to become a starter elsewhere, and he was the most valuable. For one, GM Wolf had built up the value of his backups enough to show that they were worthwhile investments for trading partners. Plus, the Seahawks made the trade under GM/coach Mike Holmgren, who had been in Green Bay when Hasselbeck was drafted in 1998. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick who developed into a preseason star in Green Bay, but he was never going to get a chance to start with Favre in place. So he moved on to Seattle. It took a while for Hasselbeck to beat out Trent Dilfer for the starting job in Seattle, but Hasselbeck eventually developed into a three-time Pro Bowler who led the Seahawks to several playoff berths and one Super Bowl. The fact that Seattle lost just one draft pick (a third-rounder) while giving up a few spots in the first round was a solid investment. Both teams came out of this deal as winners.

2000 – Packers trade Aaron Brooks and TE Lamont Hall to Saints for 2001 third-round pick and LB K.D. Williams – Brooks was the Packers’ third-string quarterback as a fourth-round pick out of Virginia, but after a year Ron Wolf was able to deal him to New Orleans for a third-rounder. The move was worthwhile for the Saints, as Brooks became a starter his first year and ended up starting 82 games for the team. Meanwhile, the Pack once again took advantage of Favre’s durability and turned a backup quarterback into a better pick than the one it had spent on him. So this deal was another win-win.

1999 – Broncos trade Jeff Lewis to Panthers for 1999 third-round pick and 2000 fourth-round pick – The Panthers, looking for a franchise quarterback, dealt for Lewis, who was a former fourth-round draft pick who was backing up John Elway in Denver. But Lewis couldn’t beat out veteran Steve Beuerlein in Carolina. Lewis was a backup for two years, in part because of a severe knee injury, getting only nominal playing time after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoff chase in 2000. And after George Seifert cut Beuerlein following the 2000 season to clear the way for Lewis, he fell flat on his face and was released at the end of training camp. The Panthers, led by rookie Chris Weinke, fell to 1-15 in 2001. The Broncos, meanwhile, dealt Lewis at the top of his value, because they already knew that Brian Griese had surpassed Lewis on the depth chart. After Elway’s retirement in 1999, Griese surpassed Bubby Brister and became a four-year starter for Denver. Denver fared fine in this trade, but it was a disaster for the Panthers.
(The short-lived Lewis era was when I covered the Panthers. Two funny stories: First, Lewis referred to himself as No. 8, leading reporters to joke that he was the first athlete to talk about himself not in the third person but the fourth person. Secondly, when Lewis saw a group of out-of-shape reporters going to play basketball during training camp, he looked at them and said, “Don’t blow a knee,” pointing back to the basketball injury that had derailed his career. It was the only time we saw a sense of humor from Lewis.)

1995 – Packers trade Mark Brunell to Jaguars for 1995 third-round pick and 1995 fifth-round pick – Brunell, who had spent two years backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay, was Jacksonville’s choice as their franchise quarterback for their first season, despite the fact that he had thrown just 27 NFL passes. It was a great move for the Jags, who got a three-time Pro Bowler for a very reasonable price. The Packers, meanwhile, had figured out that starter Favre was not just a Pro Bowl player but also an iron man who wouldn’t miss any time. So Wolf turned Brunell, a former fifth-round pick, into third- and fifth-round picks. The deal ended up as a win-win for both sides.

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FR: Super Bowl 45 Storylines

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisbe...

Ben Roethlisberger (left) will be on the spot at Media Day. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, the buildup to the Super Bowl is full of storylines. Some are hype, some are funny, some are ridiculous, and some actually mean something. So on the eve of the spectacle known as Media Day, we’re going to do what we do each year and break down the storylines using our Football Relativity comparison. The 10 level marks the storylines that you’ll hear the most; the 1 level is the storyline that will barely make a ripple.

If you have ideas we overlooked, suggest them via comments and we’ll add them to the comparison.

10 – Big Ben’s redemption – This story is old, because it’s been a full season since Ben Roethlisberger’s legal questions in Georgia, and several months since his league-mandated suspension. But Roethlisberger will be peppered with questions about his past and his future throughout the week. Armchair psychologists will try to determine if he has changed, if he has learned his lesson, whether women have forgiven him, and a multitude of other questions. With Big Ben giving pat answers to such questions all seasons, we can’t expect any revelations or public soul-searching, but the questions will undoubtedly be there.

9 – Aaron Rodgers’ place among the elite QBs today – Rodgers can break the glass ceiling of NFL quarterbacks if he wins this Super Bowl, much like Drew Brees did last year. Before New Orleans’ Super Bowl win, Brees was fighting for inclusion with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among the league’s best QBs. Now Brees has turned the duo into a threesome. If Rodgers leads the Pack to a win Sunday, he’ll make it a quartet. He already has the regular-season numbers, but a Super Bowl win would vault him over Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and the other good quarterbacks into the land of the great – at least in terms of national perception. This storyline will be a talking-head go-to this week.

8 – Big Ben’s place among the elite QBs all-time – While Rodgers is out to solidify his ranking among the quarterbacks of today, Big Ben has history at stake. If he gets another Super Bowl win, he’ll join the Troy Aikman/Brady class with three rings, trailing just Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw on the all-time list. The list of QBs with two rings includes many greats – John Elway, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese – but also Jim Plunkett, a good but not great. Roethlisberger can cement his lasting legacy (and strengthen his Hall of Fame case) by moving from the two-ring to the three-ring club.

7 – Packers IR controversy – Maybe it was the lull of the bye week, but the story about how the Packers were treating their 16 players on injured reserve blew up last week and will linger into media day. A quick review: First, the Packers announced that their IR players wouldn’t arrive in Texas until Thursday, which would leave them out of the team photo that happens Tuesday. Nick Barnett and JerMichael Finley took to Twitter to protest being left out, and the Packers rescheduled the photo until Friday. Then Rodgers publicly criticized players who were doing their rehab away from Green Bay, even though that’s a fairly typical decision for players. Again, Barnett and Finley (among others) took offense. The Packers will claim the waters have been smoothed over, but questions will persist all week and especially when injured players are available to the media later in the week.

6 – Looming lockout – Because both commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith will hold press conferences this week, the looming lockout will be front-page news. There will be plenty of posturing, and both sides will try to win the battle of public perception. Who knows who will win; but we do know for sure that headlines will be forthcoming.

5 – Hines Ward retirement – Some stories have percolated suggesting that Ward, the long-time Steelers receiver and Super Bowl 40 MVP, might retire were the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. But Ward has said his third ring won’t be enough to transition him out of the game. Still, reports are out there enough that Ward will have to declare he’s coming back more than once to the media onslaught this week.

4 – Steelers injuries – Both teams have injuries, but the Steelers’ are higher profile. Reports say that Pro Bowl rookie center Maurkice Pouncey is out, although the team hasn’t officially ruled him out. Star defensive end Aaron Smith faced an early-week MRI that will determine whether he’s able to play. Former first-round pick Ziggy Hood has played quite well in Smith’s stead, which could allow the Steelers to bring Smith back in a limited role. But Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, will be a pretty significant drop-off from Pouncey’s level of play. That makes this an on-field issue worth talking about this week.

3 – Clay Matthews’ stardom – Aside from Rodgers, the Packer with the most to gain from a marketing standpoint this week is Matthews, the star outside linebacker and third-generation NFL player. Matthews has a distinctive look and two fine pro seasons, and that will make him a popular target of questions, especially by the non-traditional media. It’ll be interesting to see if Matthews can become a breakout star this week.

2 – none

1 – Packers injuries – While the Packers would like to have either OLB Frank Zombo or Erik Walden available Sunday to start across from Clay Matthews, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition for the Packers. However, it is an excuse for us to declare once again that Zombo is the best surname in the NFL. It’s a name fit for an X-Man or a wrestler, and it’s his real last name. We want him to be a star just so we can hear ZOMBO more often.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 12

Each week, we preview teams that are moving up and moving down in our weekly Football Relativity comparison. We’ll analyze all 32 teams on Tuesday.

Atlanta's Michael Turner against the Packers, via espn.com

Rise – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons proved they belong with the NFL’s elite with a 20-17 home victory over Green Bay. In a hard-fought game, the Falcons drove down the field in the final minute for a game-winning field goal. Matt Ryan was incredibly efficient, and Michael Turner also ran well. The defense also limited the prolific Packers to just 17 points. Atlanta has emerged as a complete team and a threat to win the Super Bowl come February.

Sink – Tennessee Titans – The Titans proved punchless with Rusty Smith at the helm, getting shut out 20-0 by the usually porous Texans defense. Chris Johnson ran for just five yards, and the most fight the Titans showed was when Cortland Finnegan got into it with Andre Johnson. The Vince Young imbroglio isn’t to blame, but Tennessee right now has the look of a team that’s collapsing down the stretch instead of making a playoff run.

Float – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings got a win in Leslie Frazier’s debut as head coach, but a four-point win over the Redskins isn’t reason for great celebration. We’ll have to see how the Vikes build on the success – especially with Adrian Peterson hurting – before we start to ratchet them up the comparison.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 10

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

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – As the Chiefs fell behind 42-10, Cassel was freed to throw like crazy, and the results were 469 passing yards and four touchdowns. That’s certainly not representative of Cassel’s normal opportunities, and it’s foolish to expect big numbers from Cassel going forward. Verdict: A fraud 

Matt Ryan of the Falcons, via espn.com

David Garrard, Jaguars – It’s been kind of quiet, but for the second straight game Garrard went crazy. He’s now thrown for 602 yards and six TDs over the past two games, so if you’re looking for a quarterback, it may be time to ride the hot hand with Garrard. Verdict: Applaud

Jon Kitna, Cowboys – After two horrendous games as a starter, Kitna went crazy against the Giants, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns despite completing only 13 passes. Maybe the Jason Garrett era will be kinder to Kitna, but we wouldn’t count on it. For now, keep Kitna out of your starting lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Ryan continued his stellar play at home, throwing for 316 yards and three TDs against the Ravens. At this point, if he’s at the Georgia Dome, he should be in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Mike Goodson, Panthers – With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both out, Goodson broke out for a 100-yard game against the Buccaneers. His role going forward this season is uncertain, but if you’re desperate for RB help Goodson is worth a claim just in case the Panthers give him a longer look. Verdict: Applaud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson had a monster game against the Lions, scoring two touchdowns and piling up 170 yards from scrimmage. He’s undoubtedly the best running back Buffalo has, and while he won’t always have matchups as attractive as Detroit, he’s still good enough to be a top-25 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – While we don’t believe Kitna’s a good bet, it seems plausible that Jason Garrett’s goal as a head coach will be to feature Jones more in the offense. Jones had 136 yards from scrimmage against the Giants, including a 71-yard touchdown catch. At this point, we’d recommend starting Jones next week to see if this is the start of a trend. Verdict: Applaud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno ran for 106 yards and had 50 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Broncos’ blowout of the Chiefs. While Moreno doesn’t normally get that many rushing yards, he usually has enough receiving catches to make him a borderline top 20 running back. As long as he stays healthy, he should be starting for you. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Tough day at the office for Tennessee's Randy Moss

 

Mario Manningham, Giants – Manningham moved into the starting lineup with Steve Smith out, and he delivered 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. As long as Smith is out, Manningham is a worthy flex play in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had just a single catch for 26 yards against the Dolphins, and he was only targeted four times (vs. 9 each for Bo Scaife, Nate Washington, and Justin Gage). Moss is bench-worthy until he proves to have a better role in the Tennessee offense. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas has been a consistent factor for the Jaguars, averaging four catches a game, and he finally broke through with eight catches for 149 yards and a score against the Texans. That included the game-winning 50-yard catch at the gun on an incredible Hail Mary. While this was Thomas’ first 100-yard game in his career, he’s been more consistent as a fantasy producer than better known teammate Mike Sims-Walker. Thomas is a guy worth a look as a third receiver in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Walter, Texans – Walter had six catches for 90 yards and a score against the Jaguars, but that doesn’t mean he’s back to his 2009 form. He still has just 28 catches on the season, which means his fantasy production is highly dependent on finding the end zone. We can’t recommend him as anything more than an emergency starter. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Anthony Fasano, Dolphins – Fasano had five catches for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Titans, putting up big numbers despite the fact that the Dolphins had to turn to their third QB by the end of the game. While these numbers are impressive, there are other tight ends (including the next guy in this post) that we’d turn to before we stuck Fasano in the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – Gresham had nine catches for 85 yards and a score against the Colts, keeping his solid rookie season on pace. Gresham now has three scores on the year, and he has 40 catches on the season. Given the massive TE injuries, Gresham has moved into the top-15 at the position for fantasy purposes. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Jaguars – The other Zach Miller (not the Raiders’ TE) had four catches for 79 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown. But he’s behind Marcedes Lewis on the Jags’ depth chart, and he’s not a fantasy factor. Don’t get confused by the names or this week’s numbers. Verdict: A fraud

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Bengals/Falcons thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we focus on the topsy-turvy contest between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Atlanta Falcons, which the Falcons won 39-32.

Roddy White celebrates for the Falcons against the Bengals. Photo from espn.com

It’s hard to know how good these teams are after such a strange game. Atlanta took a 24-3 halftime lead in a dominating first 30 minutes, but Cincinnati used big plays to score 22 unanswered points in the third quarter to take the lead. But the Falcons responded with two big drives to score 14 fourth-quarter points to put the game away. Atlanta is now 5-2 and at the top of the NFC standings, while the Bengals fall to 2-5 and are three games behind the Ravens and three and a half behind the Steelers in the AFC North.

On-field perspective
*Roddy White (pictured) showed in this game why he is a true No. 1 receiver in this league. Even though he’s the Falcons’ only real outside threat, he still caught 11 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, with a two-point conversion catch thrown in for good measure. White doesn’t get the publicity that other receivers get, but he’s just as important to the Falcons as guys like Andre Johnson or Calvin Johnson are to their teams. After a slow start to his career, White has developed into an elite player.
*While White proved once again in this game that’s he’s elite, there are still questions about whether Matt Ryan is at that same blue-chip level. Ryan showed good patience in the pocket against the Bengals, and he completed 24-of-33 passes for 299 yards, so in this game he showed his talent. But Ryan has always been better at home than on the road, and until he can take his show out of the dome, he’s not near the top-flight level of others at his position.
*The Bengals piled up  412 passing yards, and both outside receivers Chad Ochocinco (10 catches, 131 yards, 1 TD) and Terrell Owens (9 catches, 88 yards, 1 TD) put up big numbers. It was hard to tell whether Carson Palmer was favoring either outside receiver, because the modus operandi seemed to be picking on Christopher Owens outside. (That’s why Christopher Owens had 11 tackles.)
*Rookie Jordan Shipley, now that he’s healthy, is a terrific inside threat to complement Ochocinco and T.O. Shipley broke free for a 64-yard touchdown in the Bengals’ third-quarter explosion, showing great speed in the process. As he develops, he’s going to be tough for safeties to cover inside, and he could turn into a Wes Welker-esque threat.
*The Falcons defense gave up 32 points (although seven came from the Bengals D), but one underrated player impressed – DT Vance Walker. Last year, watching Falcons games unveiled Kroy Biermann to Football Relativity readers, and now we want to pump up Walker, a second-year man out of Georgia Tech. He had five tackles in this game, including one tackle for loss and another stuff of Cedric Benson. Walker’s development inside gives the Falcons another front-four threat.
*The strength of the Bengals’ defense is the secondary, and even though they let White go crazy in this game, Cincy still had two terrific plays. Leon Hall made a leaping interception of  Ryan pass to set up Shipley’s touchdown, and on the next possession Adam (Don’t call me Pacman) Jones stripped White and returned the fumble 59 yards for a touchdown. Still, the consistency was lacking in covering White, and that ended up being a huge reason the Bengals fell to 2-5.
*It didn’t decide the game, but the Bengals made a mistake by going for two points when they scored a touchdown to make it 24-19. They failed on that pass, and after scoring another touchdown failed again, so that they led 25-24 instead of leading by three. The Falcons later made a two-point conversion, and the difference ended up being a field goal. Chasing a two-point conversion to trail or lead by a certain amount is unwise until the fourth quarter, but the Bengals fell into that mindset. (The one exception comes when a team has a chance to tie a game via a two-pointer, as the Dolphins did against the Steelers. But instead of going for two, Miami kicked and trailed 17-16, and ended up losing by one after the teams traded field goals the rest of the way. Anytime a team has a chance to go for two to tie, we believe it should do so.)

Fantasy Football perspective
*While White is an elite receiver and a no-doubt No. 1 fantasy receiver, no one else in the Falcons’ passing game is a starter. That includes TE Tony Gonzalez, who had just two catches in the game and was rarely targeted. There are better under-the-radar tight end options to start now than Gonzalez despite his name value.
*It’s hard for fantasy owners to make the call about who’s better, Owens or Ochocinco. Both players produced this week, and there’s always the chance for that to happen, especially if the Bengals fall behind. Both players fall into the second dozen of fantasy receivers.
*Both Michael Turner and Cedric Benson ran for more than 100 yards in this game, and both remain solid every-week fantasy starters.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Finding gems at quarterback

It’s clear in fantasy football this year who the top eight quarterbacks are. But who are the sleeper quarterbacks in this year’s crop?

In a previous post, we identified the top quarterbacks, and we’ve also discussed Donovan McNabb’s declining stock and Jason Campbell’s promise in this post. Now we’re going to comb through the rest of the NFL’s starters to see which have the upside to contribute as fantasy starters this season.

Our baseline in this post is to find guys who are better than Big Ben. Roethlisberger would belong with the top 8 quarterbacks if not for his suspension, and so this post seeks to find guys we’d rather have than Roethlisberger starting in Week 5.  We’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to do this, identifying with each verdict what it means in relation to Big Ben plus a fill-in.

Jason Campbell, Raiders – We covered Campbell earlier and told of our reasons for optimism with his fantasy stock. But is his stock going to rise enough to put him over the Big Ben level? Last year’s 20-TD season was Campbell’s career high by quite a bit, and throwing 20 TDs is basically replacement level for a top-15 quarterback. So while Campbell has upside, he’s more of a fill-in for Big Ben than an improvement over him. There’s upside here, but not enough to surpass Big Ben plus a fill-in. Verdict: A fraud

Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler’s first season in Chicago was interesting but inconsistent. With 27 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, Cutler was a fine fantasy quarterback in leagues where interceptions didn’t deduct points. But if he matches his TD and yardage numbers (3,666) from last season and drops just a few interceptions, he’ll shoot up the fantasy charts toward the top 10 at the QB position. Plus, Cutler seems to have a better environment to succeed this year with Mike Martz stepping in as offensive coordinator and young receivers like Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu emerging. Cutler may not break the 30 touchdown barrier, but he’ll break the Big Ben plus a fill-in mark by throwing for 25 TDs and approaching 4,000 yards. Verdict: Applaud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback in his second season, throwing for 21 TDs in ’09 after throwing just 14 the year before. He also threw for 3,613 yards, an increase of about 650 yards. And many fantasy analysts are projecting even bigger things for Flacco this year now that the Ravens have added Anquan Boldin. Boldin immediately becomes the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver, and he and Derrick Mason are a fine pair of receivers. Adding other players such as Donte Stallworth and rookie TE Ed Dickson add to Flacco’s group of receivers. That’s all good news, but consider that Flacco was basically a replacement-level backup QB last year. He’ll take a step forward to around 25 TDs, but counting on Flacco as a top-10 quarterback is risky. Still, Flacco moves above the Big Ben or fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

David Garrard, Jaguars – The past two years, Garrard has been a consistent yardage producer, throwing for right at 3,600 yards both seasons. But in both seasons, he threw only 15 touchdowns a season. Even though he has run for five TDs in the last two seasons combined, those low TD pass numbers keep Garrard from being a top-15 fantasy quarterback. Even though Garrard has a talented group of young receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker, it’s just too hard to imagine him making a huge jump in TD passes that will make him a better option than Big Ben plus a fill-in. Garrard is far better suited as a fill-in in that scenario than as a replacement for Big Ben. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck’s fantasy stock plummeted due to injury two seasons ago, and last season his numbers were pedestrian even considering he missed two games. His yardage total (3,000 in 14 games) was fine, but 17 TDs put him with the average fantasy quarterbacks. And now that Pete Carroll is the new sheriff in Seattle, it seems like the heat has been turned up on Hasselbeck’s seat. Hasselbeck is probably a safe bet for 20 touchdowns and 3,200 yards if he stays healthy, but that puts him just under the Big Ben or a fill-in level. Hasselbeck is merely a fantasy backup at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne had a solid first season, throwing for 2,878 yards despite playing only 14 games. Even better, he seemed to click into gear late in the season. After throwing for 220 yards or more in only one of his first nine games, he did so in four of his final five contests. So projecting Henne for 3,200 yards seems safe, and he has the ability to ratchet that number up into the 3,600-yard range pretty easily, especially after the Dolphins added Brandon Marshall in the offseason. The question with Henne is touchdowns. He threw for just 12 last year. If he follows the Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco pattern, he’ll move up to the 20-TD level in his second year as a starter, and if that happens Henne will be a replacement-level top-15 fantasy quarterback. But projecting Henne to double in his TD total – which is what it would take to put him over the Big Ben and a fill-in level – seems like a two-year project, not a 2010 occurrence. Henne is a terrific fill in with Big Ben, but we can’t quite put him over that level. Verdict: A fraud

Kevin Kolb, Eagles – Kolb doesn’t have much of a track record with just two career starts, but he steps into a  fantasy gold mine in Philadelphia. Andy Reid loves to throw the ball, and with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek, the Eagles have one of the best groups of young receivers in the league. And in Kolb’s two starts last year, he put up solid fantasy numbers by throwing for more than 300 yards in each game with two TDs in each game. Of course, Kolb won’t live up to those numbers through a full season, but his potential and his ideal situation makes us willing to take the risk on Kolb before we take the risk on the Big Ben plus a fill-in strategy. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Leinart, Cardinals – After Kurt Warner’s retirement, Leinart finally gets his shot to start in Arizona. He hasn’t started more than four games since his rookie season, and his performance then mirrored what we’ve seen from guys like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan more recently. And in his one start last year, he was 21-of-31 for 220 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, which is not a warning flag. Now that Anquan Boldin’s gone, Arizona seems to be tipping toward the running game, but even with that emphasis Leinart has a great collection of targets in Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Early Doucet. We can’t put Leinart above the Big Ben and a fill-in level, but he’s a decent gamble as the fill-in because he could emerge as a nice fantasy performer who becomes an attractive trade chip once Roethlisberger returns to the field. Verdict: A fraud

Eli Manning, Giants – Manning had his best fantasy season last year, throwing for career highs with 4,021 yards and 27 touchdowns. That yardage total was about 700 yards above what Manning had hovered around the three previous seasons, but that may be attributable to an improved group of receivers that features youngsters Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Even in Manning reverts to the 3,300-yard, 23-touchdown level that was his career norm before last year, he’s still above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. But last year showed that Manning has the upside to knock on the door of the top 10 at the position. Verdict: Applaud

Donovan McNabb, Redskins – We discuss McNabb previously, but just to reiterate our reservations about his stock. He’ll turn 34 during the season, which means his prime is waning if not completely gone. He’s never been a paragon of health, and now he’s moving behind an offensive line that’s more vulnerable up the middle than Philly’s was. Most of all for fantasy owners, McNabb’s cadre of receivers in Washington is two or three levels below what he had at his disposal in Philly last year. His numbers will decrease to the point that Roethlisberger’s a better bet starting in Week 5. You’d be better off with Big Ben and a fill-in than with McNabb. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – After an injury-plagued ’08 season, Palmer returned to play all 16 games in ’09. The problem was that his fantasy production didn’t return with him. After throwing for between 26 and 32 touchdowns in ’05 to ’07, he threw just 21 in ’09. (Three rushing touchdowns, more than his previous career total, mitigated that somewhat.) And instead of being in the 4,000-yard range, Palmer barely cracked 3,000. Part of the reason was that there was no real complement to Chad Ochocinco in the offense, and the Bengals believe signee Antonio Bryant addresses that issue. But fantasy owners know that a bigger reason is that the pendulum in Cincinnati has swung toward the running game. That means Palmer falls between 15 and 20 on the fantasy QB pecking order. Maybe there’s upside for him to begin to approach his glory-year numbers, but our hunch is that Big Ben and a fill-in will end up with better totals. So we’re placing Palmer below that level. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Ryan, Falcons – Although Ryan missed two games last year, his TD numbers went up from 14 to 22 as he took a step forward as a fantasy quarterback. Ryan hasn’t been a superb yardage producer – less than 210 yards per game – and that limits his fantasy value. But with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has two elite targets, and with a full season he should be in the 25-touchdown neighborhood again. Best of all, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of risk of Ryan falling off the map. He’s not an elite fantasy quarterback, but you can comfortably put Ryan in the top 12 at the position and slot him above the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: Applaud

Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie numbers were pretty typical – 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions with 2,444 yards (in 15 games). But he seemed to develop in the playoffs with four TD passes and just two interceptions, making him worth a second glance for fantasy owners this season. The Jets maintain a run-first offense, but by adding Braylon Edwards at midseason last year and Santonio Holmes (suspended four games) this season, the Jets have given Sanchez more to work with. Those guys, plus Dustin Keller and Jerricho Cotchery, create a deep group of receivers. It’s feasible to see Sanchez ratcheting up to the 20-TD, 3,000-yard mark, which would make him a fantasy backup. But expecting Sanchez to jump past Big Ben and a fill-in level to the top-12 at quarterback is asking too much. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford’s rookie numbers – 225 passing yards per game and 13 passing touchdowns in 10 games – weren’t bad. And if you project Stafford to take the same kind of second-year jump that Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco did, he would move from an 18-TD pace to a 22- or 23-TD clip. That, plus his 3,500 yard pace from last year, are promising. Add in the fact that the Lions added Tony Scheffler, Nate Burleson, and rookie Jahvid Best to Calvin Johnson to set Stafford up to succeed, and it seems like Stafford’s set up to succeed. But Roethlisberger’s track record makes us just a smidgen more secure in picking him than Stafford. Ideally, Stafford would be the fill in you pair with Big Ben, because Stafford’s upside could give you a top-12 fantasy quarterback to trade once Roethlisberger returns. But for now, we’ll leave Stafford just a hair below the Big Ben and a fill-in level. Verdict: A fraud

Vince Young, Titans – Young is an unconventional fantasy quarterback. In basically three seasons’ worth of starts, he has thrown just 32 touchdown passes, but he’s also run for eight. As much as his value comes from running the ball (about 25 yards per game last year) as from passing (about 150 yards per game last year). Some are projecting Young to emerge as a fantasy quarterback, and some signs are there. Young seemed to mature last season, throwing for 235 yards or more in three of four games down the stretch. Plus, Kenny Britt seems to be becoming the best receiver the Titans have had since Derrick Mason left. But even with those positive harbingers, we can’t put Young above the Big Ben plus a fill-in level. The numbers just don’t support it. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Wide Receivers

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. You can check out the running backs here and the quarterbacks in an upcoming post.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a receiver, that means someone projected get at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, or the equivalent in fantasy points. The A-Team at receiver includes players on Tier 1A, 1B, and 1C of our draft board.

No-brainers

Andre Johnson, Texans – Johnson put up his second straight 1,500 yard season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns in ’09. He’s a catch monster who has triple-digit receptions in three of the past four seasons, and last season he hit the century mark yet still averaged 15.5 yards per catch. The touchdown total is perhaps a tad lower than ideal, but it’s still a no-brainer to make Johnson the top-rated wideout and a member of the A-Team as a Tier 1B entrant.

Close calls

Randy Moss, Patriots – For all of his accomplishments, Moss isn’t the yardage producer that Johnson is. Moss has only broken the 1,500-yard mark once in his career, and that was back in 2003 with the Vikings. But Moss is the best receiver in the league at finding the end zone. He’s had an eye-popping nine double-digit touchdown seasons in his 12-year career, including all three of his campaigns in New England. At age 33, Moss could start slowing down a bit, and if his touchdown rate slows he can quickly plummet down draft boards, but given his sterling performance in New England and his contract-year motivation, we’ll include Moss as a Tier 1C receiver and part of the position’s A-Team.

Miles Austin, Cowboys – In one of the most shocking breakouts we’ve ever seen, Austin went from being a fourth receiver for the Cowboys to being an undeniable No. 1 receiver. It started with a 10-catch, 250-yard day against Kansas City in Dallas’ fifth game, but Austin kept it up over the rest of the season and finished with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but even more eye-popping is what Austin did over the last 12 games, which projects to a 101-catch, 1,652-yard, 13-touchdown pace over a full 16-game season. Nothing else in Austin’s background or career suggested this kind of fantasy dominance, so the call on him for 2010 comes down to whether he can maintain this top-level production despite the presence of Roy Williams and rookie Dez Bryant, among others. And our take is that Austin will do just that. We’re including Austin on the A-Team and making him our No. 3 receiver overall as a guy who ekes above Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne on his way to Tier 1.

Just missed

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – After two 1,400-yard seasons, Fitzgerald came back to earth a little in ’09 with 1,092 yards. But he did have a career high in touchdowns with 13, leaving him with A-Team quality numbers once again. The questions about Fitzgerald are not about his talent but about his quarterback, with Matt Leinart replacing Kurt Warner. That figures to put a bit of a drag on Fitz’s numbers, which is just enough to knock him off the A-Team. We’d rather draft Fitzgerald as a Tier 2 receiver with upside than overdraft him by including him on the top tier.

Reggie Wayne, Colts – We’ve long included Wayne as a Tier 1 receiver, but the numbers don’t consistently back that up. Last year was only the fourth of his career with 1,200 yards and at least nine touchdowns, and he’s never had more than 12 touchdowns while only passing 1,310 yards once. That keeps him from having the upside potential that Moss has because of touchdowns or Johnson has because of yards. Plus, the emergence of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon last year meant that the Colts aren’t looking at Wayne as often. So Wayne falls to Tier 2 instead joining the A-Team.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles – After a solid rookie season, Jackson blew up last year in a big way, with nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns (9 receiving, 1 rushing, and 2 on punt returns). There may not be a player in the league more prone to bust a big play than Jackson, who averaged an amazing 18.6 yards per catch last season. Jackson’s catch total won’t blow your mind, but he should be in the 1,200-yard-from-scrimmage neighborhood again this season, and if he can score 10 touchdowns or more he’ll be a Tier 1 producer. But with the Eagles changing from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, we can’t quite project Jackson to fully reach his upside, even though we’re tempted to do so. For now, we’ll keep Jackson near the top of Tier 2, and we’ll reserve the right to move him onto the A Team at a later date.

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson has perhaps the best physical gifts of any receiver in the league, and so fantasy owners drool over his potential year after year. That potential hasn’t changed, and Megatron’s 2008 campaign with 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns points to it. But last year, Johnson had just 1,057 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. He missed two games, which plays into things, and rookie Matthew Stafford struggled with injuries and interceptions as a rookie. So it wasn’t all Johnson’s fault. But while Johnson has the upside to join Tier 1, there are enough minor hiccups around him that he falls just below that mark. Maybe Megatron will transform into a no-doubt A-Teamer in 2010, but we can’t project him there right now.

Brandon Marshall, Dolphins – Marshall has passed the century mark in catches the last three years, and last year he scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time. But while his Denver numbers were just enough to match Tier 1 performance, it’s hard to project him reaching the same heights in his new home in Miami. The Dolphins’ more conservative offense should leave Marshall closer to 80 catches than 100, and that puts him on Tier 2. While there’s no player more fitting of being BA on our A-Team, the numbers don’t justify casting Marshall in that role.

Roddy White, Falcons – Since his breakout 2007 season, White has been a consistent fantasy producer, piling up at least 1,151 yards in each season and topping out with 11 touchdowns last season. But even with the development of QB Matt Ryan, White’s upside seems to be right around the borderline for Tier 1. And inclusion in the A-Team can’t rely solely on the best-case scenario. White is a quality fantasy receiver who fits well on Tier 2, but he’s not among the elite.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2010 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Tim Tebow and the value of intangibles, the Jimmy Clausen conundrum, how killer C.J. Spiller is, whether it was worth it for the teams that traded out of the first round this year, the guys we like (Jermaine Gresham on offense and Sergio Kindle and Eric Norwood on defense), and our research on what offensive positions and defensive positions are most likely to produce a superstar at the top of the draft.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Rams – QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
The Rams have passed on quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan the past two years, and so it’s no surprise that St. Louis has one of the most desperate quarterback situations in the league. With Marc Bulger now gone, St. Louis needs a quarterback to build around. Plus, with new ownership coming in this offseason, having a franchise quarterback that will sell tickets and, more importantly, hope is a good business strategy. So for all the off-the-field reasons, Bradford makes sense. But does he make sense on the field? We say yes. Bradford is tall (6-foot-4), and he’s put on enough wait in the offseason to make you believe he can stand up to a pounding. He can really throw the ball well despite his ’09 injuries, and he can pair in St. Louis with OLT Jason Smith (last season’s No. 2 overall pick) to begin to build a core on offense. And while the rest of the offensive line and the receiving corps is still painfully thin, Bradford can lean on Steven Jackson in 2010 to keep from being completely shell-shocked. The Rams have to take a quarterback soon to begin the building process, and Bradford checks all the boxes for a franchise-type guy. Taking a quarterback in the top 3 is always a risk, but Bradford is a risk the Rams simply must take.

2. Lions – DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Suh is quite possibly the best player in this year’s draft, and the Lions can afford to take him because they already have taken their shot at a quarterback by picking Matthew Stafford last year. With Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions have the makings of promise on offense, and now it’s time to start building on defense. Last year’s draft yielded two above-average defensive starters in OLB DeAndre Levy and S Louis Delmas, and Suh will become a playmaker on the interior of the defensive line. Suh can stuff the run, but even more he can penetrate into the backfield and create havoc as well. That combination is rare, and it’s what makes Suh such a great prospect for the Lions. He’ll roar in Detroit.

3. Buccaneers – DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
McCoy is above Suh on some draft boards, and the Oklahoma product has a more flash-forward style than Suh. That makes many scouts imagine McCoy as a new-era Warren Sapp, a three-technique defensive tackle that puts the teeth in the Tampa-2. Not nearly as many teams run that 4-3 zone-coverage scheme anymore, but the Buccaneers still do, and McCoy can make that scheme work. That, plus the fact that the Bucs drafted QB Josh Freeman in the first round last year, and plus the fact that the Bucs’ offensive line is at least average with a young player in Donald Penn at left tackle, makes whoever’s left between Suh and McCoy the logical and smart choice for Tampa Bay. McCoy could make an instant impact for the Bucs, and this franchise needs impact at any position in the worst way.

4. Redskins – OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma
After trading for Donovan McNabb, it’s obvious that the Redskins’ biggest need is now at left tackle. Chris Samuels is gone, and if Washington doesn’t get some help there, McNabb won’t make it through the season. So the question isn’t position but player for the Redskins. Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung is solid, but his upside is perhaps capped a bit. Other linemen like Williams and Anthony Davis of Rutgers are more talented and promising but far less consistent. Ultimately, the choice will come down to Okung and Williams, and we’ll break from the pack and pencil in Williams at this spot. Shanahan’s best offenses in Denver were stout at left tackle with Gary Zimmerman and Ryan Clady, and we should see the new Redskins boss take the same approach in Washington now. And since he trusts his coaching staff to get the most out of linemen, he’ll peg the third Oklahoma Sooner in the top four of this year’s draft.

5. Chiefs – S Eric Berry, Tennessee
Last year, the Chiefs reached to take a top-15 prospect in DE Tyson Jackson at No. 3 overall, and that leads some prognosticators to suppose that they’ll reach again to take Bryan Bulaga of Iowa at No. 5 this year. But since the Chiefs have a young left tackle in Branden Albert, we’re going to project that they’ll look for help at another position. That approach would lead the Chiefs to grab the best available player, and that’s Berry. Berry didn’t pop off the screen in Monte Kiffin’s cover-2 defense last year, but he was a standout the year before in a more traditional scheme. In Berry, Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel would get a Rodney Harrison-type of impact player in the defensive backfield. K.C. needs playmakers on defense, and Berry can be that splashy player who makes workmanlike guys like Jackson more effective.

6. Seahawks – OT Russell Okung, Oklahoma State
Like the Redskins, the Seahawks lost their long-time left tackle to retirement this offseason when Walter Jones came to the end of the road. So Seattle needs to fill that hole in this draft when it has two first-round picks. Perhaps the Seahawks chance it and wait till No. 14 to see if Davis or Bruce Campbell or even Bulaga is around, but the wisest course of action is to take the sure thing in Okung here and then find a playmaker like C.J. Spiller or Derrick Morgan at 14. Okung can be an anchor for Pete Carroll’s offense, and those guys simply don’t grow on trees. Seahawks fans should hope that Carroll, who’s calling the shots after being out of the NFL for more than a decade, realizes that and fills his massive OLT need ASAP.

7. Browns – RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
This is where the draft could get crazy quick. Berry is the guy who makes the most sense for the Browns, but if he goes off the board, then Cleveland will face some choices. Bryan Bulaga, the last of the three elite offensive tackles, doesn’t make sense, because Cleveland already has Joe Thomas. The Browns could look at a defensive playmaker, but neither Derrick Morgan nor Jason Pierre-Paul really fits the 3-4 system they run, and it’s too early for guys like Rolando McClain or Dan Williams who do fit. So we’ll give the Browns the best playmaker on the board in Spiller, who would add an element of explosiveness to Cleveland’s offense that isn’t there at this point. That explosiveness is the Browns’ biggest need, and Spiller’s the option most likely to provide it. Spiller is a safer bet than wideouts Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, but like those players he can bring a jolt into the passing game. Plus, Spiller would be a huge upgrade at running back over Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, and his former college teammate James Davis, and he will help journeymen quarterbacks Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace have a far better chance of success in 2010. The Browns may pick a quarterback, but they seem more likely to do at the top of the second round than at this spot. Holmgren has made this kind of pick before, taking Shaun Alexander in the first round in 2000 with Seattle, and so we’ll make the unconvential call that leaves Spiller wearing an orange helmet in the pros just as he did in college.

8. Raiders – DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
Everyone seems to think the Raiders are going to do something crazy at this pick, and that’s certainly possible after last year’s Darrius Heyward-Bey fiasco. But last year, we heard of the Raiders’ love for HeyBey well before the draft, and there’s not similar buzz this year. So we’ll give Oakland a more conventional guy in Morgan, who’s the most complete 4-3 defensive end in this draft class. Morgan isn’t superfast, but he can get into the backfield and also hold up against the run. In a lot of ways, he’s like Richard Seymour, whom the Raiders traded their 2011 first-rounder for and then used the franchise tag on. The Raiders have a need at offensive tackle, but Bryan Bulaga isn’t their cup of tea, and it doesn’t seem that Al Davis has fallen for inconsistent specimens Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis. And while the Raiders could use a quarterback, the Raiders’ maven has refused to give up the ghost with JaMarcus Russell yet. That leads us to defense, where Morgan is a great fit.

9. Bills – QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
We’ve already discussed how we’re not huge Clausen fans, but he’s clearly a notch above other quarterback prospects like Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow. And given that quarterback is the Bills’ glaring need, it will be hard for them to pass up on Clausen here. Buffalo could still use a tackle like Bryan Bulaga or a pass rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. But most of the time, when a team has a desperate quarterback need, and there’s a quarterback available in the first round, the team can’t stomach the idea of passing on the chance to get him. So Clausen is the pick.

10. Jaguars – CB Joe Haden, Florida
The Jaguars would probably prefer to trade out of this spot, in part because they want to replace their traded first-round pick and in part because they have a hard time cutting the check for a top-10 selection. But in this spot, they have a chance to address their pressing need for secondary help. While Earl Thomas fits a more glaring position need at safety, Haden’s the better prospect by a fair amount. Haden could team with Rashean Mathis to stabilize Jacksonville’s secondary and set the rest of the defense up for success. Haden’s stock dropped a bit after a slow 40 time at the combine, but he’s a really good player who will play up to this lofty draft position. He’d be a win for the Jags at this point.

11. Broncos (from Bears) – WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
The Broncos under Josh McDaniels have become a tricky team to predict, because McDaniels is so confident in his abilities as an evaluator and coach that he’ll do the unconventional. He traded Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and last year in the draft he took Knowshon Moreno in the first round even though he had added several running backs in free agency. With Marshall gone, the Broncos need a No. 1 receiver, and while Dez Bryant is the consensus No. 1 wideout Thomas might be the Broncos’ choice. Bryant is a more complete player than Thomas, and he was more accomplished at the collegiate level. Plus, Thomas suffered an offseason injury that limited his workout time. But Thomas is a physical freak with amazing speed, and while he’s raw he can develop into the kind of breakout receiver that Marshall was for Denver. We think the wiser pick would be for the Broncos to upgrade their 3-4 defense as they continue to build personnel for that defense, but while Dan Williams or Rolando McClain would fit, we believe McDaniels will get his way and get another exciting tool for his offense. So we’ll reach a bit with the Broncos and project Thomas here.

12. Dolphins – NT Dan Williams, Tennessee
After acquiring Marshall, the Dolphins can now go big by upgrading their defensive line. And that leads them to Williams, who is sturdy enough to play on the nose in the 3-4. That’s a rare trait, and we saw with B.J. Raji last year that nose tackles are premium players who shoot up the board in the draft. Williams could replace Jason Ferguson, an aging player who will miss the first eight games of the season under league suspension, and help to stabilize a Dolphins’ defense that slipped a bit last year after solid play in 2008. Bill Parcells loves big players, and they don’t come bigger than Williams in this year’s draft class.

13. 49ers – DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida
Pierre-Paul is a boom-or-bust type of prospect, but the upside is so huge that a team in the teens like the 49ers will feel compelled to pull the trigger and take him. Pierre-Paul has the size to play defensive end in the 4-3 and the speed to play from a two-point stance in the 3-4, and that versatility could allow him to become a Terrell Suggs type of player in the best-case scenario. The 49ers have a sturdy defense, but they lack the pass-rush pop that JPP could provide. With Mike Singletary at the helm, the 49ers also may figure they have the coaching to make the most of talented players, with Vernon Davis’ emergence last year as proof positive. This would be a risk, but with two first-round picks, the 49ers should take a shot this year to add a premium talent with at least one of them. And that points to JPP with one of their first two picks.

14. Seahawks (from Broncos) – WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
The Seahawks are bereft of playmakers, and so with one of their two picks they have to get some explosiveness. That could mean a pass rusher, but in this scenario the value is with Bryant, an elite talent who will need a little TLC to develop. Pete Carroll can provide that kind of atmosphere, and if he does Bryant could really thrive. He could become a No. 1 receiver who can make big plays down the field while also providing a dependable option on third downs. And while there are concerns about Bryant’s background and upbrining, he’s not a bad guy. Instead, like Michael Oher last year, he came from such a bad situation that his maturity process will naturally be slower. But a former college coach like Carroll can really help Bryant, and the payoff would be huge. This is probably about the best situation for Bryant off the field, and he would really fill a need for the Hawks on the field.

15. Giants – MLB Rolando McClain, Alabama
The Giants have gotten old quickly both on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. So there are a lot of ways that Big Blue can go at this spot. A lineman like Bryan Bulaga, Mike Iupati, or Maurkice Pouncey would make a ton of sense, but we’ll project them to look at the other side of the ball and add a defensive leader instead. McClain is not an elite athlete, but he’s an incredibly heady player who leans into a leadership role. He would immediately step into the MLB spot vacated in New York when Antonio Pierce was released in the offseason. This would be a need pick, but the Giants have a lot of needs if they want to keep their window of opportunity open in the next couple of years. McClain can contribute right away and help them do just that.

16. Titans – DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
After losing Kyle Vanden Bosch and bidding adieu to Jevon Kearse in the offseason, the Titans have a pressing need for a pass rusher. Thankfully for them, they also have one of the best defensive line coaches in Jim Washburn, who has helped guys like Kearse and Albert Haynesworth – both picked around this spot in the first round – emerge into prime-time players. Our hunch is that the Titans give Washburn another swing this year, and given the way the draft has gone Graham is the best prospect available to them. Graham is a DE-OLB tweener who might fit a 3-4 defense more quickly, but his pass rush skills are valuable in any system. If the Titans take Graham (or any other defensive lineman), the player should consider himself lucky to be able to work under such good coaching. We trust the Titans to make the most of this pick.

17. 49ers (from Panthers) – OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
After taking a pass rusher with their first pick, we have the 49ers flipping to the offensive line with their second pick. Bulaga, who some are pointing to as a potential top-5 pick, would be great value here. Bulaga isn’t a premier left tackle, but he can play there in a pinch, and he could settle in at right tackle and thrive. Bulaga plus Joe Staley would give the 49ers bookend tackles that will stabilize their line and help the offense grow. Another offensive lineman like Maurkice Pouncey or Mike Iupati would make sense too, but our hunch is that the Niners won’t pass on Bulaga twice.

18. Steelers – OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
The Steelers have a pressing offensive line need, especially on the inside, so taking Iupati would be a nice fix. Iupati is probably going to project more as a mauling guard than a nimble-footed tackle at the NFL level, but he has enough chance of playing outside that he’ll find himself a first-round pick. Some have compared Iupati to Steve Hutchinson, which is incredibly high praise, but if Iupati can be 75 percent of what Hutchinson is, he’ll be a great mid-first-round pick.

19. Falcons – S Earl Thomas, Texas
Thomas is a terrific safety, but the fact that he’s undersized could put a cap on his draft stock. Still, Thomas is likely to step in and be an immediate starter and asset at safety, even for a quality team like Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to upgrade their defense, and Thomas or his Texas teammate Sergio Kindle would do just that. A pass rusher would look good too, but it appears unlikely that one of the premium guys will slip this far. So we suggest that the Falcons will draft for value and happily grab Thomas.

20. Texans – RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State
The Texans are on the cusp of breaking into the playoffs, and the one piece they’re missing is a top-flight running back. Mathews is just that. He has size and speed and explosiveness, and scouts drool about all he can bring to a team. Maybe the Texans should be looking at a cornerback to replace Dunta Robinson, but our hunch is that Gary Kubiak and his staff will look for an over-the-top guy like Mathews instead of trying to fill in a gap somewhere.

21. Bengals – TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
The Bengals haven’t had a top-flight tight end in what seems like forever, but given their new run-first bent on offense, it makes sense for them to add a counter-punch option like Gresham. We’ve made our respect for Gresham known, and we think he can be a great mid-field option between Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant. If Gresham can step in and make an impact in the passing game, the Bengals’ good offense could get a little bit better and make Cincy a playoff contender once again.

22. Patriots – OLB Jerry Hughes, TCU
It’s always hard to predict what the Patriots will do, but with a first-rounder and three second-rounders this year, New England needs to add some pass-rush punch. Hughes can do just that. He’s more of a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defense end, but he can get to the quarterback, and Bill Belichick is certainly smart enough to maximize the skills of a player like Hughes who has strengths but is a fit in only certain schemes. New England could easily go in another direction, but a high-character guy like Hughes seems like the kind of guy that Belichick would invest a pick in.

23. Packers – OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
The Packers made a great transition to the 3-4 defense last year, thanks in large part to rookies B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and Brad Jones. Suddenly, the Packers look set on defense, and that means it’s now time to turn their attention to their offensive line. That unit was awful last year until Mark Tauscher returned from retirement and Chad Clifton recovered from injury, but those veteran tackles aren’t going to last forever. So picking a high-upside player like Davis makes sense. Green Bay won’t need Davis immediately, and they can wait and hope that Davis’ work ethic catches up to his talent as he interns under Clifton and Tauscher for a year.

24. Eagles – C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
There are myriad rumors about who the Eagles want and how they want to trade up, but here’s the bottom line – since Andy Reid came to town, the Eagles almost always go big with their first-round pick. And when you survey the offensive and defensive linemen available at this point, Pouncey is the best. Pouncey’s gotten a lot of pub in the weeks leading up to the draft, and some have speculated that he’s going to go in the teens, but it’s hard to see a center/guard who’s good but not great going that high. Instead, this spot seems about right. Our guess is that Philly would be happy to add Pouncey to stabilize the interior of a line that slipped a bit last year.

25. Ravens – DE Jared Odrick, Penn State
The Ravens rarely swing and miss in the draft, even when they draft for need. So even though we think they’ll address their defensive line depth with this pick, they won’t reach. Instead, they’ll stay put and grab Odrick, who’s probably the prototypical 3-4 end available this year. With Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards leaving via free agency, the Ravens need depth there, and Odrick can provide the kind of solid play that allows Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to get aggressive on the pass rush. Odrick would be a great fit in Baltimore.

26. Cardinals – OLB Sergio Kindle, Texas
The Cardinals have lost a ton of front-seven players over the last two seasons, and now it’s time to replenish the cupboard. Kindle is the kind of versatile player who can do the things Karlos Dansby did, plus provide a pass-rush punch. He’d be a great complement to Joey Porter and could emerge into a team leader in the vein of Dansby. We’ve made our affinity for Kindle known, and Arizona would be a place for his promise to shine.

27. Cowboys – DE Tyson Alualu, California
Alualu is a fast-rising prospect, in large part due to his ability to play defensive end in the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys are stocked across the board, so they can afford to look for the guy they like the best, and Alualu’s size and tenacity fits. He can plug in and play the five-technique to allow DeMarcus Ware and the emerging Anthony Spencer to continue to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

28. Chargers – CB Kyle Wilson, Boise State
It only makes sense for San Diego to spend its first-round pick to replace Antonio Cromartie, whom they traded in the offseason. Since none of this year’s cornerback class behind Joe Haden is great, our guess is that several of them will end up clumped at the end of the first round and beginning of the season. Wilson is a solid player who had a good Senior Bowl week and also a solid college career. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he’s good enough to thrive in a pressure defense like San Diego runs.

29. Jets – OLB Sean Witherspoon, Missouri
The Jets have been among the most aggressive teams in the offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to fill some of their biggest needs. That puts them in position to draft the best player left. A tackle like Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis may make sense to eventually replace Damien Woody on the right side, but our guess is that Rex Ryan tries to reinforce his defense. Witherspoon is a standout player who has enough pass-rush pop to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he’s also good in coverage. That kind of versatility will make Ryan drool in the war room and could land Witherspoon with Gang Green.

30. Vikings – CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama
The Vikings have a loaded roster, but the one place where they can use an upgrade is in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty from Rutgers would be one option, but we’ll point instead to Jackson, who is a proven player from a top-notch program who can step in and serve as a quality starter for the Vikes, and therefore help them continue to move forward in the NFC. While some prognosticators have the Vikings pulling the trigger on Tim Tebow here, we think more immediate help is in the offing.

31. Colts – OT Vladimir Ducasse, Massachusetts
Colts president Bill Polian made no secret about the fact that he was unhappy with the play of his team’s offensive line in the Super Bowl, and as proof of that conviction he cut starter Ryan Lilja soon after. So it makes sense that Indy will spend its first-rounder on a lineman. We’re projecting Ducasse over Roger Saffold or Charles Brown, but any of those players would make sense for Indy as it attempts to keep its Peyton-powered offense running smoothly.

32. Saints – TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
The defending Super Bowl champions could use help at safety from a guy like Taylor Mays or at cornerback from a guy like Patrick Robinson, but our hunch is that Sean Payton gets some more help for his high-powered offense. Gronkowski is a dynamic tight end who’s even more physical than Jeremy Shockey. The Saints used several different tight ends last year in Shockey, Darnell Dinkins, David Thomas, and Billy Miller, so we can see that it’s a big part of their offense. Gronkowksi could usurp one or even two portions of that role and make the Saints even more explosive. That sounds to us like the kind of approach Payton would want.

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