Tag Archives: mike thomas

TE two-step: Lewis tagged, Shockey cut

Jags vs. 49ers - Marcedes Lewis

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

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

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

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

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Jaguars/Giants 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. We already focused on the Thanksgiving Day games; now we turn our attention to the Giants’ 24-20 come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars.

The Jaguars, who had won three straight coming into the game, seemed to have this game under their control until a third-quarter interception gave the Giants new life. The win was huge for the Giants, who broke a two-game losing streak and some of the echoes of their recent late-season swoons, and it’s a big lost opportunity for the Jaguars as they try to unseat the Colts in the AFC South. After an extended look at the Jaguars, we don’t know if they’re a good team, but we’re certain they’re an above-average squad that has the potential to win nine games or more.

Mario Manningham scores for the Giants, via espn.com

On-field Perspective
*The Giants were playing without WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, but they still got big plays in the passing game from Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss. Eli Manning has a knack for making big plays in the clutch, and his two second-half TD passes were another example of that. Manning isn’t always clockwork efficient, but he tends to make the right play in the clutch, which is a great trait for a quarterback.
*The Giants didn’t create a massive pass rush for most of the game, although Justin Tuck and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul made some big plays late when the Giants started blitzing heavily. Still, the lack of a consistent pass rush is a question mark, since the Giants’ strong suit is supposed to be its front four. That question mark looms even larger because, by and large, the Giants weren’t able to exploit a Jaguars line playing without both starting tackles.
*Jaguars QB David Garrard is not a consistent passer, but he remains a threat to make plays with his legs, as he did on his incredible second-quarter touchdown. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, Garrard’s consistency waned in the second half, as an errant throw led to a Mike Sims-Walker bobble, which led to a Terrell Thomas interception. Garrard finished just 20-of-35, and he may have suffered a wrist injury on the final drive.
*Jacksonville has a fairly deep receiving corps, but Sims-Walker is inconsistent, and Mike Thomas’ only breakaway play was brought back by a penalty. We wondered why the Jaguars claimed ex-49er Jason Hill on waivers, but given Hill’s size we wonder if they’re trying to replace or at least inspire Sims-Walker to play with more consistency and reliability. MSW had a three-drop game in this one, and that kind of effort from him is far too familiar for the Jags.
*While the Jaguars’ passing game wasn’t sterling, their running game was. Maurice Jones-Drew (21 carries, 113 yards) kept the Jags in front of the chains, and backup Rashad Jennings (7 carries, 53 yards) did a good job, especially in the first half. Both guys are assets.
*As for the Giants’ runners, Brandon Jacobs (14 carries, 87 yards) looked better in this game than we’ve seen him in a while. Still, Ahmad Bradshaw (49 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards) is the breakaway threat who can also move the chains for the Giants, and despite his fumbling issues, we believe he should be getting more carries.
*Antrel Rolle was one of the Giants’ high-profile defensive additions in the offseason, but he was unnoticeable against the run and in pass coverage in this game. He did make a couple of nice plays on the blitz, including one shared sack with Tuck, but the Giants need more out of Rolle given his high price tag.
*Ross Tucker praised Jaguars rookie DT Tyson Alualu’s play, but no other Jaguars defenders really popped off the screen. The most impressive was probably LB Justin Durant, who had seven tackles and two passes defensed and was the one Jaguar we saw winning plays.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*Despite this game, we don’t believe that Jacobs is anything more than a flex option going forward. His 87-yard performance is pretty much the apex of what you can expect from him yardage-wise given Bradshaw’s consistency.
*Garrard isn’t consistent enough to trust as a fantasy QB. He has the potential to have big games, but he’s also going to hang around in this area (162 passing yards, 41 rushing yards, rushing TD) too often to help you win.
*Manningham is a fantasy starter as long as Smith and/or Nicks is out. Right now, he’s the only Giant wideout you can trust in your lineup.

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Giving up and other Week 11 transactions

Jeff Reed

Image by AndyeMcee via Flickr

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click this link and start working back.

It was a week of giving up, as two teams released high 2007 draft picks and another cut a long-time stalwart. Here are the details.

Broncos (cut LB Jarvis Moss, add LB David Veikune) – Moss, the Broncos’ 2007 first-round draft pick, had just 3.5 sacks in his Denver career, and Josh McDaniels finally gave up on the defensive end/linebacker. Moss was an unmitigated bust in Denver, and he joins a long list of draft snafus by the Broncos in recent years. Both Moss and ’07 second-rounder Tim Crowder were released, and the Broncos traded ’09 second-rounder Alphonso Smith for a role player in Dan Gronkowksi. They also dealt ex-draft picks Jay Cutler, Tony Scheffler, Peyton Hillis, and Brandon Marshall. Given that lack of draft impact in Denver, it’s no wonder the Broncos are struggling this year. In his place, Denver is trying Veikune, a former second-rounder in Cleveland.

Steelers (cut PK Jeff Reed, add PK Shaun Suisham) – Reed had been the Steelers’ kicker since late in the 2002 season, and for many years he had success kicking in tough environs in Heinz Field. That led the Steelers to stick with him despite some off-field fracases and embarrassment. But Reed has missed seven-of-22 field goal tries this year, and that coupled with some unkind words toward Steelers fans proved to be the last straw. He is replaced by Suisham, a journeyman with a strong but scattershot leg.

Jaguars (claim WR Jason Hill) – Hill, a 2007 second-round pick by San Francisco, had just 40 catches in three-plus years with the 49ers, and 30 of those came in 2008. The Niners gave up on Hill, and the Jaguars now give him a shot. But given the Jags’ receiving corps, it’s hard to see Hill passing guys like Mike Thomas and Mike Sims-Walker.

Bengals (put PK Mike Nugent on IR, add PK Aaron Pettrey) – The Bengals had to park Nugent for the rest of the season, and replaced him with Pettrey, another Ohio State product who will make his NFL debut Sunday.

Chiefs (LB Mark Simoneau retired, add LB Charlie Anderson) – Simoneau, who played nine years with the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints, was trying to come back after missing the 2009 season with injury, but after just one game his body proved it couldn’t handle the game anymore. He’s replaced by Anderson, a seven-year vet who was with the Chiefs briefly earlier this year.

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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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Rise/Sink/Float Week 10

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.

Cortland Finnegan vs. Brandon Marshall, via espn.com

Rise – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons cemented their credentials as a home-field monster and an NFC contender with a 26-21 win over the Ravens on Thursday night. Atlanta has been terrific at home, and at 7-2 they’re in position to get NFC home-field advantage. If that happens, they become a serious threat to make the Super Bowl. They have an elite WR in Roddy White and an improving young front seven on defense, and we don’t foresee them going away easily.

Sink – Tennessee Titans – The Titans knocked out two Dolphins quarterbacks, yet still gave up 29 points in a home loss to the Dolphins. Miami is a decent team, but Tennessee lost an opportunity here to keep track with the Colts in the AFC South. Even worse, the Randy Moss debut was a bust, as Moss had just one catch late. Tennessee had a chance to stamp itself as a playoff contender, but they proved in this game to be more of a bubble team.

Float – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars got a thrilling 31-24 home win over the Texans thanks to a 50-yard bomb from David Garrard to Mike Thomas as time expired, but that doesn’t mean we are moving Jacksonville out of the middle of our comparison. The Jags smell like a .500 team that gets the job done at home but struggles on the road, and this home win fits that pattern. So congrats to them on the win, but this win doesn’t move them up.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

Arian Foster against the Colts

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

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

Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

Running backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight ends

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

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

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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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