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Finding a Fit: Plaxico Burress

The Man

Will Plaxico Burress be left by himself, or will he find a new football home? Image by tedkerwin via Flickr

 

Plaxico Burress will be released from prison Monday, and with that backdrop we want to consider Burress’ future NFL home in the latest edition of Finding a Fit. This is the fifth edition in a series that will continue as long as the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

Previous Finding a Fit features focused on Matt Hasselbeck, Nnamdi Asomugha, Ray Edwards, and Aubrayo Franklin. Click through to check those out, and if you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Synopsis

Burress was once a true No. 1 receiver, both with the Steelers and the Giants. He is a long, lanky target who can get downfield and make the big play. Plus, he’s proven he is clutch, with his game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 42 as proof. But for the last two years, Burress has been in prison because of a weapons charge in which he shot himself in the leg with a concealed gun in a night club. Now he’ll try to make an NFL return at age 33 and reclaim his career, which has featured 505 catches for 7.845 yards and 55 TDs.

Potential fits

N.Y. Giants – It seems as though the door is closed on a Burress return to the Giants. Former teammate Brandon Jacobs said as much in an interview last week. It makes sense for Burress to want a new start, and the Giants have a deep receiving corps with Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Burress-sized prospect Ramses Barden. It makes the most sense for both teams to move on.

N.Y. Jets – If Burress wants to stay in the Big Apple, the Jets could be an option, especially if free agents-to-be Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith leave. But it appears that Burress would be a fallback option at best for the Jets, which is probably not the situation he’s looking for.

Philadelphia – Burress has made it known that he’d love to land with the Eagles, in large part because of the team’s success resurrecting Michael Vick’s career. But while the connection makes sense from an off-field perspective, on the field Burress doesn’t fit. The Eagles have a great young receiving corps in DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper. There’s simply no room for Burress to take up a roster spot.

St. Louis – Burress and Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo were in New York at the same time, and that connection could lead to a chance for Burress. QB Sam Bradford has a ton of young targets, but aside from Mark Clayton (and maybe Danny Amendola at this point), none are proven. Taking a low-cost shot at Burress makes sense, and few teams offer Burress more playing-time opportunity than the Rams.

Washington – The Redskins are receiver-poor, with only smallish Anthony Armstrong established as a solid option. So they will need to add a receiver in free agency, and Burress could offer depth or even backup in case higher-profile, higher-priced targets stay away. This situation bears watching.

Pittsburgh – The Steelers originally drafted Burress, but they let him leave via free agency because his off-field demeanor seemed to limit his talents. (The same thing happened with Santonio Holmes a few years later.) Reports indicate that Pittsburgh may consider a Burress return, but with Hines Ward still ensconsed and youngsters Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerging, the luxury of having Burress wouldn’t be worth the baggage of the past for the Steelers.

Cleveland – The Browns have a cadre of promising young receivers led by Mohammed Massaquoi and rookie Greg Little, but they don’t have a veteran go-to guy. So Burress makes sense from an on-field perspective. But Burress’ skills don’t necessarily match up with Colt McCoy’s best traits, and the Browns are rebuilding so much that Burress could be a distraction. So unless the opportunity is a low-cost flier, it’s hard to see the Browns being the ones to take the plunge in this market.

Chicago – The Bears don’t have a high-profile receiver, although youngsters Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester. Burress would add a tall receiver and a red-zone threat, but is he precise enough in his route-running to play for Mike Martz? It’s hard to see Burress jumping into such a complicated system in a lockout-shortened season.

Oakland – The Raiders always end up on lists of homes for lost souls, and their receiving corps has promise in Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and first-round bust-so-far Darrius Heyward-Bey. If no contender steps up, the Raiders could end up being Burress’ best option in terms of playing-time possibilities. This is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.

The best fits

1. St. Louis – It would be a bit out of character for the Rams to take a chance on a veteran like Burress, but he would provide a safety net for a young group of receivers, and he could be the difference between an NFC West title at 8-8 or 9-7 and another 7-9 season. Plus, the Giants ties with Spagnuolo add a comfort level.

2. Washington – If Burress wants to prove to the Giants that he can still play, Washington is the place he would get the most chance to play. The Redskins added a bunch of old receivers last year, but aside from Joey Galloway, none even made a regular-season catch. With Santana Moss facing free agency, Burress may provide a bit of security and a bit of leverage for the Redskins.

3. Oakland – The Raiders don’t have a strong need for Burress, but taking a shot on a veteran fits Al Davis’ history. This option makes less sense, but we get a nagging suspicion that Oakland is going to be a player in this market.

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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: Breakout wide receivers

What wide receivers are ready to break out as stars this year? In this post, we’ll use our Football Relativity tool to compare the fantasy football stock of some potential breakout receivers and some receivers who broke out last year. With each player, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss whether he is worthy of being a top-4 receiver on your fantasy team (top 40 at the position). Players are listed alphabetically.

And remember, you can follow all of our fantasy football analysis in the Football Relativity fantasy football category.

Devin Aromashodu, Bears – Aromashodu is a big-time sleeper this year because of his strong finish last year (22 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the final four games of the season) and the Bears’ new emphasis on the passing game. But our sense is that Johnny Knox is more likely to shoot up the fantasy charts than Aromashodu is, and that makes us slot Aromashodu in as a No. 5 receiver with upside instead of a counting on him among the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Breaston, CardinalsWith Anquan Boldin gone, Breaston has a chance to replicate his ’08 numbers, which would make him a terrific No. 3 fantasy receiver. Even with Matt Leinart at quarterback instead of Kurt Warner, Breaston makes the breakout cut. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt had a nice rookie season with 42 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns, and it appears that he’s ready to surpass Justin Gage as the Titans’ top receiving option. Remember that Tennessee hasn’t really been a home of fantasy receivers since Derrick Mason left, and don’t get your head out over your skis, but you can pencil Britt in for 800 receiving yards and 5-6 touchdowns, which makes him a draftable receiver in all leagues as a No. 4. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie fit right into the slot in his rookie season with Indianapolis’ high-powered offense, putting up 60 catches for 676 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers put him on the border of the top 40, and being familiar with the offense from the beginning will only help Collie inch those totals upward. Even better, Collie is less susceptible to losing targets to Anthony Gonzalez because he thrives in the slot and not outside. Our hunch is that Collie ends up in the top 40 at wideout as a nice No. 4 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – We’ve already endorsed Crabtree as a top-20 receiver in this post. We’re still clapping and expecting an even bigger breakout for the sophomore. Verdict: Applaud

Early Doucet, Cardinals – The guy we now call Fluffy moves up to No. 3 wideout in Arizona with Anquan Boldin’s departure. Fluffy is ready for his close-up after 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in two terrific postseason appearances. Doucet will break out this year, likely surpassing his career regular-season totals of 31 catches and 304 yards. He won’t make it into the top 40, but owners in deeper leagues need to have Doucet on their draft boards. Verdict: A fraud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – Garcon was one of two young Colts receivers to emerge last year. He piled up 765 yards and four touchdowns on 47 catches (in just 14 games), and then added two more touchdowns and 251 yards in three playoff games. Maybe Garcon will take another big step forward this year, but we’re skeptical. Anthony Gonzalez could return to the field, and that could take targets away from Garcon and Austin Collie. And Garcon will likely need more catches to repeat his regular-season yardage and touchdown numbers. He has upside, but we’re leaving him just outside the top 40 at wideout and slotting him as a No. 5 fantasy wideout, not a No. 4. Verdict: A fraud

Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – After being the first receiver picked in the ’09 draft, HeyBey only had nine catches for 121 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season. People have raved about his preparation this offseason, and the addition of QB Jason Campbell could aid Heyward-Bey’s deep skills. But he has so much improving to do that fantasy owners can’t put HeyBey in the top 40. Slide him in the top 50 if you want to take a shot on talent, but don’t get crazy. Verdict: A fraud

Jacoby Jones, Texans – Jones is starting to get some buzz as a fantasy sleeper this year after a six-touchdown season in ’09. But those scores came on just 27 catches and 437 yards, which are lower totals than most guys on this list. Jones has big-play ability, and if he can surpass Kevin Walter in the pecking order, there are fantasy points to be had. But we haven’t seen enough consistency to match the upside that would lead us to put Jones in the top 40. He’s a late-round sleeper, not a No. 4 wideout. Verdict: A fraud

Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox was another in the list of rookies who had a terrific first season, with 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns (plus a kick return score). And the news out of Chicago in training camp is that Knox is emerging as the Bears’ best target. If that’s the case, Knox could really benefit from offensive coordinator Mike Martz’ new system. Before training camp, we would have put Knox just below the top-40 cutoff (and Devin Aromashodu just above it), but now Knox is the Bear whose upside is worth betting on. Verdict: Applaud

Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns – He didn’t get the fantasy pub that other rookies did last year, but Massaquoi finished the season with solid debut totals of 34 catches for 624 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t a consistent producer, but he showed the ability to have big games. Now he’s probably Cleveland’s best outside option. The Browns’ shaky quarterback situation could limit Massaquoi’s development, and that will keep him away from the top 40. But he’s worth thinking about for owners in larger leagues, because he comes with upside. Verdict: A fraud

Robert Meachem, Saints – Meachem, a former first-round pick, emerged in his third year with nine touchdowns receiving (plus one on a fumble return) and 722 yards on 45 catches. He’s now a factor in a deep corps of Saints receivers, although he’s behind Marques Colston and on par with Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. Meachem’s fantasy scoring last year was very dependent on touchdowns, and his catch to touchdown ratio was abnormally high. Meachem has some upside, but he can’t be counted within the top 40 at receiver. Verdict: A fraud

Louis Murphy, Raiders – Murphy didn’t have the rookie season that other mid-round picks like Johnny Knox or Mike Wallace did, but his 34-catch, 521-yard, four-touchdown totals weren’t bad at all. Now he has a chance to emerge as the Raiders’ No. 1 wideout, and that could bear fantasy fruit. But before you get too bullish on Murphy, remember that Chaz Schilens is around the whole year and that the buzz around Darrius Heyward-Bey is good. Our hunch is that Murphy could become the best option, but the split among those three wideouts will keep any of them from making it into the top 40 at the position. Murphy is draftable, but not in the top 40. Verdict: A fraud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks had a surprisingly strong rookie season with 47 catches for 790 yards and six touchdowns, which were numbers good enough for top-40 status last year. And he put up those numbers despite some inconsistency. This year, it appears that Nicks has a chance to be the Giants’ second outside option behind Steve Smith, and if that’s the case, he’ll be a top-40 receiver. This is a borderline call, but we’ll point to Nicks’ upside and give him the benefit of the doubt as (barely) a top-40 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Chaz Schilens, Raiders – Schilens missed half of last season, but once he returned he produced decent fantasy backup numbers. Now that Jason Campbell is pulling the trigger in Oakland, there’s a chance that Chaz could become a fantasy fill-in. He falls just outside the top 40, but he’s a good No. 5 receiver with some upside. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – Wallace averaged a whopping 19.4 yards per catch last season as he piled up 756 yards and six touchdowns on just 39 catches. Now that Santonio Holmes is gone, Wallace will get more catches, but we expect his yardage and touchdown numbers to hover at the same level. Still, that’ll be enough to make him a No. 4 fantasy receiver while still giving him some upside. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 11

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And although we didn’t do this post last week, you can check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here. Since we didn’t do this post last week, we thought we’d supersize this week’s version.

Quarterbacks

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Fitzpatrick, who was named the Bills’ starter by interim head coach Perry Fewell this week, responded with 297 passing yards and a touchdown. However, fantasy owners shouldn’t get too carried away, since 98 of those yards and the touchdown came on one bomb to Terrell Owens. Fitzpatrick isn’t a top-24 quarterback even if he remains the starter in Buffalo. Verdict: A fraud

Matt Leinart, Cardinals – Kurt Warner suffered a concussion, and that thrust Leinart into the lineup vs. the Rams. Leinart’s numbers (10-of-14, 74 yards) were solid but unspectacular. But given Leinart’s supporting cast, he is someone fantasy owners should definitely pick up this week, pending Warner’s status. Verdict: Applaud

Eli Manning, Giants – Manning threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants’ win over the Falcons. Part of that was because he was facing a below-average pass defense, but it’s still a good sign for a player who has often faded over the second half of the season. We’ll use this performance as reason enough to leave Manning among the top 16 fantasy quarterbacks – for now. But it doesn’t mean you should start to start Manning for your team. Verdict: A fraud

Brady Quinn, Browns – Quinn threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns against the Browns in a shootout that Cleveland ultimately lost. But don’t read too much into this one, because Detroit’s pass defense is a very soft crew. Quinn is still outside the top 25 among fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: A fraud

Alex Smith, 49ers – Smith’s three touchdown-pass day would have been a fantasy headline in a week that didn’t include an improbably Brady Quinn/Matthew Stafford pinball game, but it does show that Smith is fantasy relevant. He has thrown multiple touchdown passes in three of his five games this year, which is a sign that Smith is a good fantasy backup with upside in leagues with at least 12 teams. If he’s on your league’s waiver wire, you need to pick Smith up this week. Verdict: Applaud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – In the shootout against the Browns, Stafford threw for 422 yards and a stunning five touchdowns. That shows he does have what it takes to produce on the NFL level. Unfortunately, he won’t get to play the Browns defense every week. This is an isolated incident that can’t move Stafford into the top 25 at quarterback from a fantasy perspective. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Joseph Addai, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Addai in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a starting running back going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – There was a lot of noise about the Cowboys giving Felix Jones more run this week, but it was Barber who carried the load for Dallas against Washington. Barber’s 99-yard day was his best since Week 2. Barber hasn’t been a top-20 back, but this game might be the start of something. For now, consider Barber a flex, but don’t be afraid to start him on Thanksgiving against the Ravens. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Bell, Saints – Bell piled up 75 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs, but most of his work came in garbage time. Pierre Thomas is still the guy in New Orleans, and Bell is still not a guy who can start because of his limited role. Verdict: A fraud

Rock Cartwright, Redskins – With Clinton Portis out for the game and Ladell Betts hurting his knee, Cartwright became the Redskins’ top running back. He responded with 67 rushing yards on 13 carries, plus 73 yards on seven catches. We can expect Portis to miss at least one more game, and that means Cartwright is worth a claim as we find out about the severity of Betts’ injury. If Betts misses next week’s game, Cartwright could even be worth starting next week. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – In his first game in relief of Julius Jones, Forsett had just nine yards on nine carries. But he did have a touchdown run along with 80 receiving yards. Forsett isn’t a top-25 back, but he is a guy who can fit into your flex spot based on the matchup as long as Jones is out. That means you need to keep Forsett on your roster if you have him. Verdict: Applaud

Lex Hilliard, Dolphins – With Ronnie Brown out and Patrick Cobbs already on injured reserve, Hilliard is about the only guy Miami has behind new starter Ricky Williams. But Hilliard had just four carries and two catches against Carolina, and he totaled just 31 yards. Despite his standing, Hilliard just isn’t going to get enough touches to be fantasy relevant except in mega leagues of 16 teams or more. And even in those leagues, Hilliard is just bench depth. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney ran for 77 yards and two touchdowns, finding the end zone for the fifth consecutive game. He is now a starting-quality fantasy running back. Don’t hesitate to put him in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Ray Rice, Ravens – We included fantasy football thoughts on Rice in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a top-10 running back going forward.Verdict: Applaud

Kevin Smith, Lions – Smith only ran for 45 yards against Cleveland, but he had 104 yards receiving plus a touchdown. It was just the fourth touchdown of the year for Smith, who has been a borderline top 25 running back all season from a fantasy perspective. We’ll use this performance to say that Smith is still an excellent flex option and possibly even a No. 2 running back in your league. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Snelling, Falcons – With Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood both inactive, Snelling was the go-to guy for the Falcons this week, and he finished with 76 yards on 25 carries, along with two touchdowns. That’s good production, but it’s enough for you to squeeze Snelling into your lineup for one more week as long as Turner remains out. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – In the first game with Ronnie Brown out, Ricky Williams went nuts with 119 rushing yards and three total TDs. While he won’t have those kind of monster numbers every week, Williams is now an every-week starter in every league. Verdict: Applaud

Wide Receivers

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – In his first game as the Chiefs’ de facto No. 1 receiver in the absence of Dwayne Bowe, Chambers delivered four catches for 119 yards. Of course, his 61-yard catch and run in overtime turned his effort from pedestrian to impressive, but the bottom line is that he delivered. While Bowe is out, Chambers is a top-35 receiver who is worth a look as a third wideout or flex play in many leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Garcon, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Garcon in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a third receiver or flex play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Mason, Ravens – We included fantasy football thoughts on Garcon in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a third receiver or flex play going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Mohammed Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey, Browns – Both Massaquoi and Stuckey had five catches and a touchdown vs. Detroit, with Massaquoi piling up 115 yards and Stuckey amassing 76. But while Stuckey’s explosion is likely a product of a shootout against a bad team, Massaquoi has emerged as the Browns’ clear-cut No. 1 receiver. That doesn’t mean a ton, but it does put the rookie from Georgia inside the top 35 wide receivers and make him a potential flex play against highly favorable matchups. We can’t recommend Stuckey as a waiver claim, on the other hand, except in monster-sized leagues of 16 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud Massaquoi; A fraud for Stuckey

Robert Meachem, Saints – We tweeted this last week, but it’s now clear that Meachem is the No. 2 option among Saints receivers (including TE Jeremy Shockey). That means that Meachem is moving into the top 25 of fantasy receivers. He has scored touchdowns three weeks in a row, including two this week, so the gravy train is moving. Even though Meachem had just two catches in this game, we believe in Meachem as a fantasy force. Get on board with him now. Verdict: Applaud

Legedu Naanee, Chargers – Naanee scored for the second straight week, but he had just one two-yard catch in this game. Malcom Floyd is still the Chargers receiver you want behind Vincent Jackson. Verdict: A fraud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Owens’ numbers got a huge boost from a 98-yard touchdown catch, which was only his third touchdown of the season. But Owens would have had a decent fantasy game even without that monster catch, as he finished with 9 catches for 197 yards. Owens has perked up a bit lately, to the point that you can once again consider starting him as a third receiver or a flex. But it would be foolish to pencil T.O. into your starting lineup without checking matchups and other options. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith’s numbers have suffered this season with Jake Delhomme spraying the ball all over the place, but over the last five games Smith has had at least 56 yards in every game but one, and in that game he scored twice. All four of Smith’s touchdowns this season have come over that span. Smith isn’t a top-10 fantasy receiver, but he is back inside the top 20 now, which means he should be starting for your team. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss had a ridiculously slow start to the season, but he had five catches for 76 yards and two scores in this game, giving him four touchdowns in his last three games. That’s good enough to move him into the top 12 at tight end. Ride this hot streak if you can. Verdict: Applaud

Dallas Clark and Tom Santi, Colts – We included fantasy football thoughts on Clark and Santi in our Colts/Ravens game thoughts post. This verdict is as a top-10 receiver (both WR and TE for Clark) going forward and as a waiver claim for Santi. Verdict: Applaud Clark; A Fraud for Santi

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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Wild Wideout Wednesday

Two huge news items regarding NFL wide receivers Wednesday. San Francisco and first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree finally agreed to a contract, ending the last holdout from this year’s NFL draft. Then the Browns traded WR Braylon Edwards to the Jets for WR Chansi Stuckey, LB Jason Trusnick, and third- and fifth-round draft picks. Here are some thoughts on both moves, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective

On-field perspective

Many observers and analysts considered Crabtree the best receiver in this year’s draft (including Crabtree himself), but the Raiders took Darrius Heyward-Bey over Crabtree with the seventh pick. Crabtree went 10th the 49ers but continued to insist he deserved to be paid as the top receiver entering the league this year. That led to a stalemate between the Niners and Crabtree, with the would-be rookie threatening to sit out the entire season. But with the Niners coming on, Crabtree came on board and signed a six-year contract in which the final year is voidable. It will take Crabtree time to learn the offense, but later this season he could be an impactful addition to the Niners’ playoff push. His route-running and run-after-the-catch ability meshes well with QB Shaun Hill’s accuracy, and that could create more big plays than the Niners’ offense is currently capable of. It remains to be seen how long it will take Crabtree to become a good pro, but it seems safe to say that he will become a good NFL player at some point.

Edwards, a former top-3 draft pick, only had one season in which he fully lived up to his potential in Cleveland. In that season, 2007, he was a big-time receiving threat with 80 catches for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs. He has great size and speed, but his hands are sometimes questionable. That was certainly the case last year, when he fell to 55 catches for 873 yards and three scores. Edwards also was reportedly unhappy in Cleveland, and Chris Mortenson tweeted that Edwards was the source behind many of the “problems” and “grievances” that had been filed against head coach Eric Mangini. Because Edwards wasn’t on board, Mangini and the Browns dealt him away – just as they dealt away their other top offensive playmaker, Kellen Winslow, in the offseason. With Edwards gone, the Browns will have to rely on rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi to step up as receivers. Chansi Stuckey, the third or fourth receiver with the Jets who came over in the trade, could help, but he’s not a long-term answer. In addition to Stuckey, the Browns got special-teams stalwart Jason Trusnick and third- and fifth-round picks. That’s not great return for Edwards, who might have drawn a first-rounder from the Giants or Titans before the draft if Cleveland had traded him then. This is another example of Mangini assigning more value to guys he previously coached and getting inadequate value in a trade – just as he did in the Mark Sanchez draft-day deal. For the Jets, this deal could answer their biggest question – an outside receiving threat. Jerricho Cotchery has been good, but he’s more of a possession guy than a gamebreaker. Having Edwards and Cotchery, along with TE Dustin Keller, gives the Jets a chance to build a passing game around rookie QB Sanchez. Edwards longed for the spotlight of a big city like New York, but we’ll have to see if he can perform at a level to make that spotlight shine instead of glare. If he continues dropping passes frequently, he could get run out of the Meadowlands in an ugly scene. But at this price, the trade is a no-brainer for the Jets, who have a chance to build a special offense.

Fantasy Football perspective

Crabtree is not a great prospect for this year, because it will take him at least a month or two to adjust to the offense. If you’re in a keeper league, he’s worth a speculative claim. His presence also bumps Shaun Hill’s value up just a bit.

The Edwards deal has many more fantasy football ripples. Edwards has about the same value with the Jets as he had in Cleveland, although it would be no surprise if his numbers jumped a bit because he’s happier in the system. He’s still a marginal starting receiver in 10- or 12-team leagues. Cotchery, who had become a solid fantasy starter, will likely take a step back to being a No. 3 fantasy receiver, because Edwards will take away some targets. Sanchez’s value increases a bit, but he’s still a fantasy backup, not a starter. In Cleveland, whatever sleeper value Derek Anderson had takes a hit, simply because he doesn’t have many good options to throw to. The best might be Massaquoi, who had 8 catches for 148 yards last week after Anderson entered the lineup. He and Robiskie are the upside guys who are probably worth claiming this week as the receiving corps sorts itself out. Josh Cribbs, the returner extraordinare, could find a few more plays as well, which could make him an emergency fill-in. Stuckey, like Mike Furrey, is an OK receiver on the field who doesn’t have real fantasy value.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 4

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

Quarterbacks

Derek Anderson, Browns – Last week, we called Anderson a fraud – and who wouldn’t after his three-interception half. But Anderson injected at least a little life into the previously comatose Browns’ offense, and his numbers (269 yards, one passing TD and one rushing TD) look better on fantasy scoresheets than he looks on the field. Don’t go starting him, but Anderson is at least ownable in most leagues. This is applause at the volume of a third of a golf clap is, but it is a clap. Verdict: Applaud

Kerry Collins, Titans – Collins had a monster game against Jacksonville, but don’t buy it. For one, the Jags’ pass defense is sorry. For two, Collins lit up the Jags last year as well. And for three, if the Titans keep losing they’ll have to turn to Vince Young soon. So look at Collins’ 284-yard, one-TD day – and then pass on him. Verdict: A fraud

Matthew Stafford, Lions – Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, had his first really good fantasy day, throwing for 296 yards and a touchdown. But he hurt his knee later in the game, and with an MRI scheduled today, it’s just not the time to add Stafford to your fantasy roster. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

Rashad Jennings, Jaguars – The rookie from Liberty, who is Maurice Jones-Drew’s primary backup, had 53 rushing yards on nine carries. But this is a garbage-time line dictated by game situation and not a sign that Jennings is getting more of a look in the offense. If you own MoJo, Jennings is worth a roster spot as injury insurance. Otherwise, he’s not roster worthy except in massive leagues (18 teams or more). Verdict: A fraud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – Last week, we told you that Harrison was a fraud, because we didn’t trust the Browns’ offense. But a couple of things have changed. First, rookie James Davis went on IR, which makes Harrison the only backup to Jamal Lewis. And the insertion of Derek Anderson into the starting lineup provided a little more offensive punch that opened up the running game a little. The results against Cincinnati were a surprising 121-yard game for Harrison. Harrison still isn’t a great starting option, but as long as Jamal Lewis is hurt, he’s now ownable. Verdict: Applaud

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – With Willie Parker out, Mendenhall had a huge game against the Chargers Sunday night (165 rushing yards and two TD). Here’s why you should approach him with caution. First, Mendenhall has not yet shown the ability to be a fantasy contributor with limited touches. So when Parker’s in, Mendenhall needs to be out of your lineup. Secondly, the Chargers are terrible vs. interior running now with Jamal Williams out, and that was a perfect fit with what Mendenhall had to do. Mendenhall is definitely worth owning, but I would be slow to start him unless Parker is inactive again. Verdict: A fraud

Ryan Moats, Texans – Just as Rashad Jennings’ 53-yard performance was dictated by garbage time, Moats’ 53 yards was a result of the Texans’ easy win over the Raiders. Plus, the fact that it took Moats 15 carries to rush for 53 yards shows he’s not ownable, even if you are looking for Steve Slaton insurance. Verdict: A fraud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno scored the Broncos’ first touchdown vs. the Cowboys on a nine-yard catch and also had 65 rushing yards. But as we said in our Cowboys/Broncos thoughts post, the fact that Moreno has to share time with Buckhalter makes him a tough start for fantasy owners. Moreno is good enough to be a fantasy starter, but his offensive role right now limits his value. He’s a flex play at best. Remember that disclaimer as you hear this applause. Verdict: Applaud

Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice was a hot name before the season, but because he has yet to score a touchdown, you might wonder about starting him in fantasy leagues. His 103-yard performance against the Patriots should tell you enough to know that he is a top-2 fantasy running back except in touchdown-only leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt, Titans – In the Titans’ blowout loss in Jacksonville, first-round pick Britt passed the century mark for the first time in his career with seven catches for 105 yards. Even with Nate Washington back, Britt is still getting plenty of chances in the Titans’ offense, and he now has 17 catches for 271 yards on the season. Britt isn’t a starting-caliber fantasy wideout, but he’s getting enough looks now to project as a 50-catch receiver, which is quite good for a rookie and adequate for fantasy owners in larger leagues (15 teams or more). So if you’re in one of those leagues, Britt is now a prospect for a claim. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie, a rookie out of Brigham Young, caught his first career touchdown against the Seahawks in the midst of a six-catch, 65-yard day. Collie and Pierre Garcon are filling the role opened by Anthony Gonzalez’ injury, although they play different spots. Garcon plays outside, while Collie is a specialist in the slot. Garcon (who had 71 yards receiving this week) is still the receiver that’s the best fill-in for your fantasy team, although Collie’s development is worth watching. Once Gonzalez returns, though, Collie will quickly pass Garcon in fantasy value this year. So if you’re in a larger league, it might be worth it to go ahead and grab Collie. This is very mild applause, but just in case, we’ll clap. Verdict: Applaud

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks – Houshmandzadeh hadn’t done much in his first season in Seattle before grabbing eight catches for 103 yards against Indianapolis. Those numbers came in a blowout, which is always a warning sign for receivers. But it is now safe to say that Houshmandzadeh is healthy enough to contribute after some early season bumps and bruises. Still, T.J. isn’t the top-20 fantasy receiver he was expected to be before the season, and that means he’s not an automatic starter in your league. Don’t drop him, but don’t start him until we see a repeat of Sunday’s performance. Verdict: A fraud

Sam Hurd, Cowboys – The Cowboys’ receiving corps is painfully thin, and that means that different players will jump up with impressive numbers in a single game, as Hurd did with three catches for 62 yards against Denver. But it would be foolhardy to expect consistent returns like this from Hurd (or Patrick Crayton or Miles Austin, for that matter). Stay away. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Marshall, Broncos – We talked in our Cowboys/Broncos post about why none of the Broncos’ receivers are the fantasy threats they were last year. Marshall is an elite talent who’s not getting elite opportunity, and that’s why he’s a marginal starter in most leagues at this point. It’s a shame, but we can’t recommend Marshall as much more than a flex play at this point. For most owners that drafted Marshall, that’s a disappointment. Verdict: A fraud

Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns – The out-of-nowhere fantasy performance Sunday came from Massaquoi, the rookie from Georgia who had eight catches for 148 yards. The second-round pick in April’s draft has good size and speed, but he had just two catches in the first three games of the season. Still, with Derek Anderson coming into the lineup, the Browns seemed to have a little more offensive punch, and it’s reasonable to think that Massaquoi could benefit from that. He’s worth a flier claim in larger leagues (12 teams or more) just to see what happens over the next few weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks, who had been sidelined with a foot injury, returned and had a 54-yard touchdown catch vs. the Chiefs. But it was Nicks’ only catch of the game, and he’s still no better than the third-best Giants’ wideout. So while we should congratulate Nicks on a big play, fantasy owners shouldn’t pick him up. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Two weeks ago, we told you to claim Sims-Walker. After Sunday’s seven-catch, 91-yard, two-TD performance Sunday, we’re now telling you that he should start in leagues of 12 teams or more. He’s the No. 1 receiving option in Jacksonville. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Giants – Smith didn’t get a lot of preseason respect, and he ended up being outside the top 40 on many lists of wide receivers. But he’s clearly the best fantasy option among the Giants’ wide receivers, and his production Sunday  against the Chiefs (11 catches, 134 yards, 2 touchdowns) signaled his emergence as a legitimate fantasy starter. If you took a shot on Smith, congrats. You’re being rewarded with an every-week starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions – The only rookie tight end of note had a nice day agains the Bears, catching four passes for 64 yards. Pettigrew is a solid tight end who’s as good blocking as receiving, and he’ll be a big part of the Lions’ offense going forward. But there are so many good tight ends out there that we can’t recommend picking up Pettigrew in fantasy leagues. He’s not going to be a top-15 tight end this year. But if you’re in a league where you can keep several players, keep an eye on Pettigrew to see if he shows signs of becoming more of a force in 2010 and beyond. Verdict: A fraud

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