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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: Separating RB teammates

Ricky Williams

Image via Wikipedia

 As we prepared our Fantasy Football draft board, we cross-checked our list against others around the web, and we noticed that we had a contrarian view of how fantasy numbers of NFL teammates at running back will compare. So in this post, we’re going to break down several of these teammate situations to explain our thinking – and hopefully give you a leg up in your draft process.

(By the way, our Draft Board broke all sorts of traffic records for the blog. Thanks to everyone who checked it out, and welcome back. Hopefully you’ll find more useful fantasy insights and NFL analysis throughout the 2010 season.)

Giants – Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Brandon Jacobs – Most fantasy analysts are pointing to Jacobs as the best fantasy option in New York, hearkening back to Jacobs’ solid 2008 fantasy season. But the reality is that Bradshaw was the best back in blue last year, averaging a yard per carry more than Jacobs. And even though he’s smaller than the bullish Jacobs, Bradshaw outscored Jacobs 7 touchdowns to 6. Jacobs appears to be wearing down, while Bradshaw seems to be emerging as a running threat. Our sense is that Bradshaw will take over the starting job this year and be on the good side of a 60-40 carries split, which will mean Jacobs’ fantasy stake will depend totally on touchdowns. We’d take Bradshaw as a top-25 running back, but Jacobs is a low-upside No. 4 back on our board. Bradshaw’s the better bet, and it’s not close.

Dolphins – Ricky Williams vs. Ronnie Brown – Most evaluators include both Williams and Brown among the top 25 at running back, but most of them favor Brown over Williams. We don’t, and here’s why. Williams had better yards-per-carry and yards-per-catch averages than Brown, and his fantasy numbers were less dependent on scoring than Brown’s were. Williams is also a better receiver than Brown. We expect Williams to end up with about 1,200 yards from scrimmage, while Brown will end up with about 1,000. Unless Brown outscores Williams by a bunch, Williams will be the more valuable fantasy back.

Cowboys – Marion Barber vs. Felix Jones – Barber outgained Jones 932-685 last year, even though Jones averaged 1.3 yards per carry more last season. Barber also had 14 more catches than Jones. A little bit of those accumulated differences is due to the fact that Jones missed two games, but he’s missed games in both of his pro seasons. Barber (who missed one game himself) has proven to be a consistent producer of both yardage and touchdowns over his career, and he’s a much surer bet than Jones. Jones will have bigger games than Barber, but Barber’s season-long production makes him a more valuable fantasy option.

Browns – Jerome Harrison vs. Montario Hardesty – Fantasy pundits are all over Harrison after he piled up 561 yards and five touchdowns in the final three weeks of the season last year. But we’d encourage you to slow your roll on Harrison. He was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on the season before those games (against the Raiders, Chiefs, and Jaguars, not one a top-level defense) and hadn’t scored a touchdown on 88 carries. We’d rather bet on rookie Montario Hardesty, who had a good career at Tennessee, than on Harrison coming anywhere close to replicating his out-of-character end-of-season stats. So we have Hardesty as a No. 3 fantasy back and Harrison as a No. 4.

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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

As more NFL teams turn to running back committees, it gets harder and harder for fantasy football owners to sort out crowded backfield situations. So in this post, we’re going to analyze some of these situations to see what fantasy insight we can glean. We’ll do this on a team-by-team basis. If we missed a team you want to discuss, leave a comment and we’ll add them in.

As always, there’s much more fantasy football coverage in the category listing on the blog. And we once again referred to this great depth-chart site to help us along.

BillsRookie C.J. Spiller is the enthralling pick among Buffalo’s stable of running backs because of his breakaway ability, and he makes an ideal No. 4 fantasy back because he can score at any moment. But our suspicion is that holdover Fred Jackson will be a bit more consistently valuable from a fantasy perspective and end up with more fantasy points. So Jackson creeps just above Spiller in the pecking order. Holdover Marshawn Lynch is in the doghouse and shouldn’t be drafted by fantasy owners.

Broncos – It appeared entering training camp that Denver had a pretty clear-cut breakdown in its backfield, with Knowshon Moreno emerging as a fantasy starter and Correll Buckhalter fitting in as bye-week flex play who got a few opportunities. But both Moreno and Buckhalter suffered training-camp injuries that slowed their preparation, and the Broncos added LenDale White and Justin Fargas just to get through the preseason. We still believe in Moreno as a high-end No. 2 fantasy back, but we’ve dropped Buckhalter to a No. 4 back until we see how he heals and whether White and/or Fargas make the team.

Browns – Some fantasy touts are pushing Jerome Harrison as a starting running back, but we don’t agree. Despite Harrison’s strong finish, we are much more comfortable slotting in Harrison as a low-end No. 3 fantasy back and borderline flex play instead of relying on him as a starter. Instead, we’d rather take a chance on rookie Montario Hardesty, who we see as a No. 3 fantasy back with upside. Second-year man James Davis has some talent but will trouble carving out a role and therefore is not draftable for fantasy owners.

Buccaneers – The offensive situation around Cadillac Williams is a bit more favorable than it was last year, and Williams actually had a decent fantasy year last year with 1,040 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he’s a solid fantasy backup who could edge into flex position consideration. Derrick Ward, who signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year, had a disappointing season with only half the yardage Williams posted and three touchdowns. He’s worth drafting in larger leagues, just in case he emerges quickly, but he’s a No. 5 fantasy back and not much more.

Cardinals – We’re big fans of Beanie Wells this year and expect him to break out as a top-15 back. As a result, we expect Tim Hightower to function more as a handcuff or a No. 4 back who’s an emergency fill-in instead of as a potential flex play, as he has been in the past. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a third-down back who won’t get enough chances to be fantasy relevant unless there’s an injury.

Chiefs – Jamaal Charles broke out as a fantasy performer over the second half of last year, and he’s a hot prospect this year. But because of the crowded backfield around him, it’s hard for us to project Charles as a No. 1 fantasy back. He’s a great investment with upside on Tier 2. The crowd is largely because the Chiefs added vet Thomas Jones in the offseason after he had a great season for the Jets. However, because of his age and Charles’ presence, Jones is more of a No. 3 fantasy back than a starter who will complement Charles instead of compete with him. Note also that rookie Dexter McCluster could get running back eligibility and merit No. 5 fantasy back status.

Colts – Joseph Addai had a solid season last year, holding off rookie Donald Brown to be a fantasy starter. Now Addai enters a contract year, and Brown is the heir apparent. Addai remains a fantasy starter, while Brown is a No. 5 fantasy back who can serve as a handcuff to Addai or as a speculative investment in the draft.

Cowboys – The buzz is around Felix Jones, but the hype doesn’t match reality. We prefer Marion Barber as a fantasy option to Jones (as we discussed in this post), and while we’re comfortable relying on Barber as a No. 2 fantasy back in larger leagues, we can’t say the same about Jones. Jones is an ideal flex play, not a starting running back. Tashard Choice is a talented back with limited opportunity who gains tons of value if either Barber and Jones get hurt. Choose Choice as a No. 5 back and stash him for a rainy day.

Dolphins – Miami, along with Carolina, is one of the few places where the top two running backs both merit fantasy starter consideration. We prefer Ricky Williams, who was amazing down the stretch last year, to Ronnie Brown, but we expect both guys to surpass 1,200 total yards if they stay healthy. Both are solid fantasy starters.

Eagles – Even with longtime stalwart Brian Westbrook gone, the Eagles once again have a crowded backfield situation. Second-year man LeSean McCoy figures to get the most touches, although we see him as much more of a No. 2 fantasy back than a guy with the upside to pace a fantasy roster. Free-agent addition Mike Bell could get some goal-line touches, because that isn’t McCoy’s forte, and fullback Leonard Weaver will get some shots as well. Both Bell and Weaver are No. 5 fantasy backs with a bit of upside in case McCoy struggles.

Jets – Shonn Greene’s performance in the postseason convinced the Jets he was ready to be a bellcow back, and we believe he’ll deliver fantasy starter numbers now that Thomas Jones is in Kansas City. With Leon Washington gone, some people expect LaDainian Tomlinson to emerge as a potential flex fantasy play, but we don’t. Tomlinson’s skills have fallen off the precipice, and we wouldn’t draft him as more than a No. 5 back. We’re far more inclined to bet on rookie Joe McKnight as the complement to Greene as a receiver and runner in the old Leon Washington-style role.

Panthers – As in Miami, Carolina features two running backs who deserve to start for fantasy teams. DeAngelo Williams is a Tier-1 back who will deliver fantasy starter numbers and who could carry a fantasy team to a title, while Jonathan Stewart is a dependable No. 2 fantasy back. Other options, like Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton, gain fantasy value only if Williams or Stewart is hurt.

Patriots – Few backfield situations are as inscrutable as New England’s, because so many guys have defined roles. But that makes it hard to mine much fantasy value from the situation. Laurence Maroney, although he’s been disappointing, is still the best prospect. He only had 856 total yards last year, but he scored nine touchdowns, including a stretch in which he had at least one touchdown six games in a row. He’s a No. 3 fantasy back who could emerge as a starter but probably won’t. Venerable veteran Fred Taylor played only six games last year, although he finished strong once he got healthy. If he stays healthy he could actually surpass Maroney in the pecking order. Right now, we have Taylor as a No. 4 fantasy back. Sammy Morris will steal some carries, but not enough to be fantasy relevant, and Kevin Faulk’s third-down back role won’t make him a fantasy option either.

Raiders – Justin Fargas is gone, but the Raiders still have a crowded backfield. Michael Bush and Darren McFadden both could lay claim to being No. 1 running backs, although the most likely scenario is that they split time. Bush averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, which is a fine number, but he must prove he can handle more than 140 touches in a season. McFadden averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and missed four games, but his pedigree as a top-5 overall pick speaks to his talent. He’s also a much better receiver than Bush, which will help him get more touches. Right now, we have both Bush and McFadden as borderline No. 3 fantasy backs with upside, and if one emerges in the preseason, he could jump up to the top 25 at the position. And it’s not a bad strategy to draft both Bush and McFadden in the middle rounds in hopes that one separates himself.

Redskins – The Redskins have the most geriatric RB corps in the league, and that’s not a good sign. But the situation around those runners is good now that Donovan McNabb and two new offensive tackles (Jammal Brown and Trent Williams) are in town. Clinton Portis thrived with Mike Shanahan in Denver, but he struggled in a big way last season and looks like a No. 3 fantasy back on performance right now. Larry Johnson bombed out in Kansas City last year, but he rebounded a bit in Cincinnati and looks like he could be a No. 4 fantasy back in larger leagues. There’s at least the potential that Johnson could usurp Portis, which adds fantasy upside. Willie Parker (aka old dog No. 3) is more likely to get released than to make a fantasy impact.

Saints – The Saints had a three-headed monster at running back last year, but it looks like a two-man show this season. Pierre Thomas is a solid No. 2 fantasy back, especially now that Lynell Hamilton is out for the season. Thomas should get more touches this season if he can stay healthy. Reggie Bush has carved out a feature role that makes him a nice flex option for fantasy owners. He can score in so many different ways that he’s capable of producing for fantasy owners, but it won’t happen consistently, which is why Bush is a No. 3 fantasy back and not a starter.

Seahawks – The Seahawks have a convoluted situation, but it appears that Justin Forsett will be the best fantasy option among their backs. It’s risky to count on Forsett as a No. 2 fantasy back, but if you can get him as a flex option, you’ll have a great situation. Leon Washington should carve out enough of a role to be a No. 4 fantasy back, and Julius Jones is still around. But Jones averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and will primarily keep Forsett and Washington from getting pummeled too often. That’s not a fantasy-friendly role.

Texans – Few coaches have been as frustrating to fantasy owners as Gary Kubiak, because he’s willing to give any running back a shot at any time. That means that Arian Foster, rookie Ben Tate, and former 1,000-yard rusher Steve Slaton all have upside, but they also have limited roles. Our suspicion is that Foster, who appears to be in line for the first shot at starting, will be the most valuable of the trio, and that’s why we slot him as a No. 3 fantasy back with a lot of upside. Tate is a borderline No. 3 fantasy back, while Slaton, who appears headed for a third-down role (at least for now) is a No. 5 back at best.

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FR: Training camp injuries

As NFL teams start full-contact practices in training camp, the injuries start piling up quickly. This post compares the significance of major training-camp injuries. Because training camp injuries are so prevalent, we’re only including injuries that will or could cost players regular-season time. We’ll update this post throughout training camp as the injuries add up.

For comparison of injuries during minicamp season, check out this post.

10 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – Dumervil stayed away from offseason work in Denver until he got a new contract, but just after he signed his $60-million-plus extension with $43 million in guaranteed money, he tore a pectoral muscle in training camp. He’ll miss four months, which takes him into the final quarter of the season and could lead the Broncos to put him on injured reserve. That’s a huge blow, because Dumervil developed into a premium pass rusher in Denver’s 3-4 defense last year. His 17 sacks were nearly half of the team’s 39, which is a statement about how good Dumervil was and how little other pass-rush help the team has. Without Dumervil, Denver’s 3-4 will undoubtedly struggle to pressure the passer, which will lead to more gimmick pass rushes that put more pressure on the secondary. For a team whose defense collapsed down the stretch, that’s a recipe for disaster. Now that Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have been shipped out, Dumervil was one of the two best players Denver had, and losing him is a massive blow that changes the course of Denver’s season. The fact that another of Denver’s elite guys, OLT Ryan Clady, is still trying to get back from an offseason torn patella tendon only makes the Broncos’ prospects bleaker.

9 – DE Ty Warren, Patriots – Warren, a seven-year veteran, has started all but one game he has played since his second season, and the former first-round pick has proven to be a durable and dependable defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 defense. However, a hip injury that required surgery forced Warren onto injured reserve, which means he will miss the 2010 season. While Warren isn’t a flashy player making a big statistical splash, his reliable presence allows the Pats to be creative in the linebacking corps. With Warren gone, the Patriots could miss Richard Seymour even more in 2010 than they did in 2009, as well as Jarvis Green, another recent departee.

8 – CB Domonique Foxworth, Ravens – Foxworth was the Ravens’ big signing at cornerback in 2009, and he started all 16 games with four interceptions last year. But he won’t start any games this year after tearing his ACL in the first practice of training camp. Losing a starter is always a big deal, but the Ravens losing a solid player like Foxworth in their biggest area of weakness is especially painful. The five-year vet says he’ll try to contribute to the team by participating in meetings and watching practices in an attempt to mentor Baltimore’s young corners, but the bottom line is that not having Foxworth on the field dampens the Ravens’ high hopes for the 2010 season a bit.

8 (con’t) – WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery was set to become the Rams’ No. 1 receiver once again, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in the Rams’ third preseason game, which will land him on injured reserve and end his season. The injury is a big blow to the Rams, because Avery (who had 100 catches over the past two years) is the only proven receiver on the Rams’ roster. The injury not only stymies a St. Louis attack that’s bereft of playmakers; it also makes it harder for rookie QB Sam Bradford to succeed because he has so few quality targets to look for.

7 – OLB Sergio Kindle, Ravens – Kindle, a second-round pick by the Ravens in this year’s draft, injured his head in a fall in a home in late July, and as a result he was not able to report to training camp. His college head coach, Mack Brown, has said that Kindle suffers from narcolepsy, which could explain the fall. Kindle is not cleared to leave Austin, Texas, while the swelling on his brain lessens, and as a result he likely won’t make it to Baltimore until after the Ravens break camp. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Ravens either placed Kindle on injured reserve or simply didn’t sign him until he’s healthy later this season or after 2010. The injury is a big loss, because we’re big believers in Kindle’s talents.

7 (con’t) – DE Phillip Merling, Dolphins – Merling suffered a torn Achilles in late July, just before camp opened, and it will cost him the entire 2010 season. Although he started only four games over  his first two seasons, Merling was a sturdy run-stopper who figured into the mix at defensive end. Miami now needs first-rounder Jared Odrick to be an immediate contributor and veteran Charles Grant to adjust quickly to the 3-4 defense after years in the 4-3. Veteran Marques Douglas, like Grant a pre-camp signee, also adds depth.

7 (con’t) – CB Leigh Bodden, Patriots – In a surprising move, Bodden was placed on injured reserve at the end of August with a rotator cuff injury. Bodden played well for the Patriots last year as a starter, and the team will miss his physical presence out on the corner. Now the Patriots must rely on youngsters like Darius Butler and Devin McCourty to hold down the fort on the corner.

6 – RB Ben Tate, Texans – The Texans’ offense took a big hit when second-round pick Ben Tate suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Tate was slated to compete with Arian Foster as the Texans’ featured back, and Houston head coach Gary Kubiak has shown he likes to have a deep stable of running backs. Now that Tate’s out for the year, Houston will need Foster to become an every-down back and Steve Slaton to regain consistency as a third-down back. Tate’s injury is a blow to Houston’s prolific offense, and that offense is the reason the Texans have playoff hopes.

6 (con’t) – RB Montario Hardesty, Browns – Hardesty, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, was a chic pick to become the Browns’ starting running back. But he suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game that will cost him the entire season. It’s a blow to a Browns offense that has a solid line but a lack of playmakers.

5 – TE John Phillips, Cowboys – Phillips, a backup tight end who was emerging as a complete threat for the Cowboys, tore his ACL in the Hall of Fame game and will miss the season. Now that Phillips is out, Dallas needs Martellus Bennett to convert his potential into performance on a far more consistent basis to balance all-star Jason Witten.

5 (con’t) – RBs Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill, Saints – With Mike Bell leaving via free agency, Hamilton was slated to step into the backup running back role for the Saints behind Pierre Thomas. That was an important spot last year, because it allowed Reggie Bush to be a versatile threat and not a heavy-use runner. Now, with Hamilton gone for the year with a torn ACL, the Saints will need to add a back or give Bush more carries and hope he stays healthy. Hill bounced around as a rookie last year, and after Hamilton’s injury he may have been able to fight his way into a roster spot, but a left leg injury cost him the 2010 season as well.

5 (con’t) – WR Torry Holt, Patriots – Holt, the long-time Ram who was trying to hook on with New England this year to continue his career, suffered a knee injury that caused the Patriots to put him on injured reserve and end his season. This may be the end of the line for the seven-time Pro Bowler who was on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s, and if it is, he unfortunately ended with a whimper.

5 (con’t) – S Gibril Wilson, Bengals – Wilson has been viewed as the answer in Oakland and Miami the last couple of years, but he hasn’t played up to the level he showed in his first four pro seasons with the Giants. The Bengals were ready to give Wilson a try this year, but he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the second preseason game and will spend the season on injured reserve instead.

5 (con’t) – RB LenDale White, Broncos – White, who landed with Denver just after training camp began, had a nice preseason and looked to have a job locked down. But White suffered a torn Achilles in the preseason finale and will miss the season. White would have sat out the first four games of the year on a league-mandated suspension, but his injury takes away an option that the Broncos would have liked to have had.

4 – CB Walt Harris, Ravens – Harris, 35, was trying to prolong his career in Baltimore after missing the ’09 season with an ACL injury. But he couldn’t get healthy enough to practice, and that landed him on injured reserve with an ankle injury. It’s a shame, because after Domonique Foxworth’s injury, the Ravens could use Harris’ veteran wiles on the corner.

4 (con’t) – DT D’Anthony Smith, Jaguars – Smith, a defensive tackle expected to be a big part of the Jaguars’ rebuilt defensive line this year, tore his Achilles tendon and will likely miss the season. Smith, a third-round pick  out of Louisiana Tech in April’s draft, was along with Tyson Alualu to add depth to an area that has been a weak spot since the glory days of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Now the Jags need guys like Terrence Knighton to step up alongside Alualu, who needs to be a premium player for Jax.

4 (con’t) – C Eric Heitmann, 49ers – Heitman has started all but two games for the 49ers since 2004, but he will miss at least the first month of the 2010 season with a broken leg he suffered in training camp. That’s a blow for a Niners team that invested so heavily in upgrading its offensive line this offseason. With Heitmann out, David Baas, who has started for the Niners but hasn’t played center since college, gets the first shot to step in.

4 (con’t) – ILB Donald Butler, Chargers – Butler, a third-round pick out of Washington in April’s draft, was contending for a starting spot in San Diego’s 3-4, but he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in early April. That’s a loss for the Chargers, who need stability at inside linebacker and don’t have a ton of depth there. Veteran Kevin Burnett now needs to hold up for a bunch of snaps for the Bolts.

4 (con’t) – ILB Andre Frazier, Steelers – Frazier, a five-year vet, had carved out a role as a backup inside linebacker in the Steelers’ vaunted 3-4 defense. But a knee injury will sideline Frazier for the season.

4 (con’t) – S Jamie Silva, Colts – Silva, an undrafted player three years ago, carved out a niche as a special-teamer with Indianapolis, both on coverage and also as a punt returner last year. But a knee injury in the preseason opener will halt Silva’s 2010 season before it begins.

4 (con’t) – WR Mike Furrey, Redskins – Furrey, one of the veterans the Redskins added in the offseason to provide depth in a sorry receiving corps, battled concussion symptoms throughout training camp and decided not to play the season. The issue could end his career, which as Pro Football Talk spelled out, is a unique one. He played both wide receiver and safety in the league, including playing both last season with the Browns. Not bad for a guy who had to fight his way into the league by playing in the Arena League.

4 (con’t) – WR Kerry Meier, Falcons – Meier, a rookie out of Kansas, looked to be winning a spot on the Falcons’ roster as a tall possession receiver, perhaps replacing long-time Falcon Brian Finneran. But the fifth-round pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game and will miss the season.

4 (con’t) – WR Marcus Easley and LB Danny Batten, Bills – Buffalo placed two of its 2010 draft picks on injured reserve on the same day. Easley, a fourth-rounder, suffered a knee injury in early August that required surgery, while Batten, a sixth-rounder, needed surgery for a training-camp shoulder issue. Both will miss the season.

3 – DT Chris Hovan, Rams – Hovan, a former star, was trying to prolong his career with the Rams, but a back injury landed him on injured reserve. He will miss the season and may be done for his career as well.

3 (con’t) – RB Brian Leonard, Bengals – Leonard turned into a solid third-down back for the Bengals last year, but in the Hall of Fame game he suffered a Listfranc injury for his foot. That’s a blow to the Bengals, who don’t have another back who can block, catch, and run at Leonard’s level. Bernard Scott will have to step up behind Leonard as the complement to Cedric Benson until Leonard returns, which the Bengals hope will happen at midseason.

3 (con’t) – ILB Scott McKillop, 49ers – McKillop was a backup last year as a rookie out of Pittsburgh, recording 15 tackles. But his second year stopped before it started when he blew out his ACL in a training-camp practice. With McKillop out, veteran Matt Wilhelm or rookie NaVarro Bowman will have to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

3 (con’t) – OLB Marcus Howard, Titans – Howard, who played in nine games with 1.5 sacks as a rookie last year, suffered a triceps injury in training camp that will cost him the 2010 season in Tennessee.

3 (con’t) – LB Jordon Dizon, Lions – Dizon, a second-round pick in Matt Millen’s last Detroit draft, hadn’t established himself as a starter but did play in every game last year for the Lions. He was slated for a backup role until he tore his ACL in mid-August; now he will miss the season.

3 (con’t) – P Dave Zastudil, Browns – Zastudil, an eight-year vet who has done a good job in unkind weather conditions in Cleveland, will spend the 2010 season on injured reserve because of a patella tendon injury that cost him the second half of last season as well. He will be replaced by Reggie Hodges, who filled in last year as well.

3 (con’t) – QB Charlie Frye, Raiders – Frye, who got a cameo as a starter in Oakland last year because of injuries, will miss the 2010 season with a wrist injury. But the loss isn’t a huge blow to the Raiders, because they have Bruce Gradkowski set behind new starter Jason Campbell, and Kyle Boller may be an upgrade over Frye at No. 3.

3 (con’t) – LB Freddy Keiaho, Jaguars – Keiaho, who was a starter for the Colts in ’07 and ’08 but fell out of the regular lineup last year, was trying to regain relevance in Jacksonville. But a concussion in the preseason opener landed him on injured reserve.

3 (con’t) – WR Jaymar Johnson, Vikings – Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2008, played as a fifth receiver in ’09, but he had a chance at more playing time this year, especially early, given the health issues of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. But Tarvaris Jackson’s former college teammate suffered a broken thumb that will cost him the season, further depleting Minnesota’s receiving corps.

3 (con’t) – QB Byron Leftwich, Steelers – Leftwich, who was battling with Dennis Dixon to be the Steelers’ starter in the first four games of the season while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended, suffered an MCL injury in the preseason finale. It’s a two-to-four week injury that takes Leftwich out of consideration to start the season opener and may take away his starting shot entirely.

2 – ILB A.J. Edds, Dolphins – Edds, a fourth-round pick out of Iowa, suffered a torn ACL in an early-August camp practice and will miss the season. Edds was expected to find a role on passing downs at inside linebacker in Miami’s 3-4. The injury is a blow to Miami and a blow to a rookie trying to earn a gig in the NFL.

2 (con’t) – DT John Gill, Colts – Gill, a second-year player, had a shot to win a rotation spot at defensive tackle for the Colts, but he will be sidelined as he deals with an alcohol problem. The team has placed Gill on the non-football injury list.

2 (con’t) – RB Harvey Unga, Bears – Chicago spent a seventh-round pick in the summer supplemental draft on Unga, who had a nice career at BYU. But when he struggled in training camp, a roster spot appeared like a long shot, so the Bears took advantage of a hamstring injury to put Unga on injured reserve and get a full offseason with him in 2011.

2 (con’t) – RB Stafon Johnson, Titans – Johnson’s feel-good story took a nasty turn when the undrafted rookie suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Johnson, a starter at USC who suffered a catastrophic throat injury during a weighlifting session when the bar fell on his throat, was trying to return to the field, but this injury makes the NFL an impossibility this year and even more of an improbability going forward. Johnson deserves better luck.

1 – RB-KR Kory Sheets, Dolphins – Sheets tore his Achilles tendon in a non-contact drill and will miss the season. He was contending to be the Dolphins’ primary kickoff returner. The Purdue product played in two games in his rookie season in ’09.

1 (con’t) – CB Evan Oglesby, Dolphins – Oglesby, who played one game for Miami last year, will miss the season with a left leg injury that landed him on injured reserve.

1 (con’t) – LB Darnell Bing, Texans – Bing, who spent the last two years in Detroit, was trying to make the Texans, but instead he will spend the season on injured reserve.

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Fantasy Football: Starting Running Backs

Few things in fantasy football are more frustrating than not having solid starters at running back. So in this post, we’re going to continue to break down our running back draft board to identify guys you can trust to start for you this season.

We’ve broken down Tier 1 at running back and looked at rookie running backs and potential breakout running backs. That has given us a clear view of Tiers 1 and 2 at the position, which as of now includes 11 RBs on Tier 1 and six RBs on Tier 2. That means Tier 3 will feature several running backs that will start for fantasy teams. So in this post, we’re going to use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss running backs on Tier 3 so that we can find the next 8-10 backs that will fill starting spots in 12-team leagues. Players are listed alphabetically.

Joseph Addai, Colts – After a disappointing ’08 season, Addai had a bit of a fantasy bounceback in 2009, piling up 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. That was a bit surprising, especially after the Colts added first-round running back Donald Brown. But don’t be deceived by Addai’s numbers, because he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and just 6.6 yards per catch, which was a yard and a half below his previous career low. Part of Addai’s low yards-per-touch averages was Indy’s offensive line, which struggled last year and has been upgraded in the offseason. But Brown’s emergence is still a danger to Addai’s production. Given his role, Addai still fits as a Tier 3 running back, but barely so. He’s only a fantasy starter in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber piled up 1,153 yards from scrimmage last year, and he scored seven touchdowns (giving him 49 in a five-year career). Still, the buzz is behind Felix Jones, not Barber, in the Cowboys’ backfield. Yes, Jones is more explosive than Barber, but we like the fact that Barber rebounded to average 4.4 yards per carry last year. Yes, Jones will get his chances, but Barber’s running and receiving should pile up 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns, which makes him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back and a solid Tier 3 member. Verdict: Applaud

Jahvid Best, Lions – Besides Ryan Mathews (a Tier 2 back), Best is the rookie back with the clearest shot for a starting job, as we discussed in this post. Detroit hasn’t been a great home for fantasy running backs in recent years, but Kevin Smith has put up decent numbers, and he’s not the explosive threat that Best is. Best is a nice investment as a top-25 back because his breakaway ability adds upside. He’s safely onto Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw had a breakout season last year, totaling 985 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, continuing his strong work in that category while increasing his workload. From about midseason on, Bradshaw was in basically a 50-50 split for carries with Brandon Jacobs, and we believe that trend continues this year based on Bradshaw’s performance last year. Bradshaw be a 1,000-yard producer with 6-8 touchdowns, and there’s a possibility for more if the Giants continue to swing the carries percentage toward Bradshaw based on performance. Verdict: Applaud

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – How do you break down the Dolphins’ backfield? Brown ran for 648 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in Miami’s ninth game, and afterhe injured his right foot. After Brown’s injury, Ricky Williams ran wild. So it’s safe to say that the Dolphins have a run-friendly offense with a stout offensive line, and even with Williams around Brown should pile up about 1,000 total yards with 8-10 touchdowns. That’s enough to place Brown safely on Tier 3 and consider him a top-25 running back, even though we slightly prefer Williams this year. Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Bush, Saints – At this point, fantasy owners need to accept who Bush is and who he’s not. Bush is a terrific triple threat who can score running, receiving, and on punt returns. But Bush isn’t going to be a mega-yardage producer who is a consistent fantasy performer. Last year showed that, as Bush totaled just 725 yards from scrimmage but had eight total touchdowns. That makes him a terrific No. 3 back who fits as a flex option or as a bye-week fill-in with great upside on any particular week. But if you depend on Bush to deliver on a weekly basis, you’ll be disappointed. He’s on Tier 3, but not as high as his teammate Pierre Thomas. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett was one of the few bright spots in a lost season in Seattle last year, amassing 969 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns despite sharing time with Julius Jones. Jones is still around, and Leon Washington is now around, duplicating many of Forsett’s skills. But Forsett is still the best option the Seahawks have, and we expect him to win enough touches in Pete Carroll’s always-compete system to come close to his 2010 numbers again. That encourages us to leave Forsett on Tier 3 as a potential starter in larger leagues.Verdict: Applaud

Matt Forte, Bears – After a terrific rookie season, Forte was a top-5 overall pick in many fantasy leagues last year. But his results dropped off significantly as he ended up with 1,400 yards from scrimmage and just four touchdowns. Even worse, aside from four pretty good fantasy performances against the sorry Lions (twice), Rams, and Browns, Forte’s weekly performance was even worse than his season numbers indicate. The Bears’ offensive line, which was a part of the problem, has gotten an offseason overhaul that should help, but the offense is different for Forte this year with Mike Martz on-board as offensive coordinator. Even more of a threat to Forte’s stock is the appearance of Chester Taylor, a versatile back who could merit at least 40 percent of the work and could take a greater share if Forte struggles. Forte’s receiving acumen fits Martz’s system, but his chances will decrease because of Martz’s system. After last year, we don’t trust Forte as a top-25 back, but he’s still a starter (barely) in large leagues and therefore a fit on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Montario Hardesty, Browns – In our rookie running back post, we talked about how Hardesty is worth drafting at the bottom of Tier 3 because of his upside. He’s not a starting-caliber running back, but we recommend drafting him as such in order to have his significant upside as your No. 3 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – As we recommend Hardesty, we believe Harrison will settle into No. 3 fantasy running back status on Tier 4. Yes, he ran for 862 yards last season, but his numbers were inflated by a 286-yard performance against an abysmal Kansas City defense. More importantly, in games in which he had at least eight carries, that was one of only two games in which he averaged at least four yards per carry. Hardesty’s breakaway ability will surpass Harrison’s workmanlike status, and so Harrison’s numbers will rely on a heavy dose of carries and catches. He’ll have enough for 800 yards from scrimmage and 5-6 touchdowns, but not significantly more. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson successfully carved out a role in Buffalo despite facing off against a first-round pick in Marshawn Lynch, and now he must maintain such a role alongside first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Jackson’s receiving skills will help him do so. While Spiller’s also a talented receiver, the Bills will likely want to limit Spiller’s exposure as a rookie so that they can prolong his career. That means Jackson will continue to pile up around 1,000 yards from scrimmage and with six touchdowns or so. That dependable production means that Jackson is a candidate to start in larger fantasy leagues and therefore a member of Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – After a terrific ’08 fantasy season, Jacobs slipped in a big way in 2009, running for just 835 yards and scoring just six touchdowns. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost carries as Ahmad Bradshaw was far more productive on 60 fewer carries. Part of the problem was that the Giants’ offensive line, which had been solid for so long, started to slip, but there’s a very real possibility that Jacobs is in decline. Because Jacobs isn’t a good receiver, his stats are all about the carries, and we don’t see him as a top-25 back, which means he shouldn’t be a starter in 12-team leagues. We’ll leave him off of Tier 3 because, while his numbers figure to match the Felix Jones and C.J. Spiller types, Jacobs doesn’t have the upside those guys do. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – In his second season, Jones played 14 games and still averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which is a remarkable number. But he only had three touchdowns on 135 touches. On first glance, we figured Jones was a good No. 3 back with upside, but after studying Marion Barber’s numbers, we’re a little less bullish on Jones. He’s still on Tier 3, but just barely, and he shouldn’t  be considered a fantasy starter. Don’t get carried away. Verdict: Applaud

Thomas Jones, Chiefs – At age 31, Jones had a career year in ’09, rushing for a personal-best 1,402 yards and a personal-best 14 touchdowns. But he slowed down in the playoffs, and the Jets actually cut him in the offseason to save several million dollars. Jones landed in Kansas City, where he will team with Jamaal Charles in the backfield. In this situation, there’s no way that Jones gets 331 carries as he did last year, and he may not get half that total. That means that Jones’ numbers are headed downward. The question is how far. We learned last year not to doubt Jones’ abilities, but our hunch is that Charles’ explosiveness will earn enough carries that Jones ends up in the 800-yard range. He has the potential to be the goal-line back, which could put him near double-digit touchdowns again, but Jones is still a better bet atop Tier 4 than among starters on Tier 3. Verdict: A fraud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – As a rookie, McCoy had a nice season, stepping in for the injured Brian Westbrook and totaling 945 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Now that Westbrook is gone, McCoy seems to have a clear shot to more touches, and that should help him get into the 1,000-1,200 yards from scrimmage range. Don’t get too carried away with McCoy’s stock, because Mike Bell could steal some short-yardage and goal-line carries, and fullback Leonard Weaver is a burly breakaway threat. But McCoy is worth the investment as a starting fantasy back, even in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Clinton Portis, Redskins – Portis isn’t even 29 yet (his birthday is just before the 2010 season opens), but he has a lot of miles behind him, which makes us skeptical of his production. The fact that he missed the second half of last season (after concussion symptoms) reminds us that Portis’ decline is coming, if it’s not already here. Portis’ numbers projected to 1,000-yard rushing season (although he scored just one touchdown in one game). Maybe he can recreate those numbers in 2010 under his former head coach Mike Shanahan, who’s now in D.C. But remember that the Skins also added over-30 backs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker in the offseason, which could limit Portis’ numbers. Our hunch is that Portis will be drafted as a No. 3 fantasy back, but we’re slotting him below that level on Tier 4 because we get the sense that his numbers could fall completely off the table. Verdict: A fraud

C.J. Spiller, Bills – We discussed Spiller in our rookie RB post and talked about how his talent doesn’t outweigh his situation in Buffalo. Spiller isn’t a guy you can rely on as a starter because of that situation, but we’ll stick him on the bottom of Tier 3 because his talent creates enough upside to take him as a priority No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas was the lead back in New Orleans’ three-headed backfield last season, piling up 793 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That production didn’t quite match his ’08 fantasy numbers, but they were still good enough to merit being a fantasy starter. This season, with Mike Bell gone to Philadelphia, Thomas could actually see his workload tick upward, especially at the goal line. He’s among the top backs in Tier 3 and a safe No. 2 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – At age 32 last season, Williams defied the odds by putting together a terrific season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry as he piled up 1,121 rushing yards and seven touchdowns despite sharing time with Ronnie Brown for the first half of the season. Plus, Williams had 35 catches, which marked the seventh time in his eight full seasons that he had at least 29 catches. With 13 total touchdowns, Williams ended the season with legitimate No. 1 fantasy back production, especially during the second half of the season. With Brown returning, expectations shouldn’t be that high, but Williams is back to being a reliable starting fantasy back who fits comfortably in Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud


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Fantasy Football – Rookie running backs

Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.

To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.

(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)

9 – none

8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.

7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.

7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.

(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)

6 – none

5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.

4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.

4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.

3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.

(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)

2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.

1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.

1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.

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FR: 2010 NFL Draft Review

After putting out first-round thoughts on the draft and comparing the veteran players traded during the festivities, we now want to take time to compare each team’s draft class to each other. Because draft grades are just as useless as power rankings, we’re going to do this the Football Relativity way. We’ll compare each team’s haul to the others, with the best hauls at 10 on the scale and the worst haul at 1.

Note: This year’s draft classes are more bunched than usual, because there weren’t many teams that drafted exceptionally poorly this year.

10 – Rams – St. Louis had no choice but to draft a quarterback first overall, and Sam Bradford was a great one to take. It’s still a risky proposition, especially given the Rams’ lack of offensive line and receiver experience, but Bradford is the kind of guy who should succeed. Adding OT Roger Saffold in the second round will help Bradford. Saffold, Jason Smith, and Jason Brown are a good start on the core of a line that succeeds. Fourth-round WR Mardy Gilyard and TEs Michael Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onubun add to the depth of targets for Bradford as well. Third-round CB Jerome Murphy is the only real defensive help the Rams added, although seventh-round George Selvie could emerge as a situational pass rusher. But the Rams had to draft Bradford and get him some help, and they did a good job of executing that plan.

10 (con’t) – Bengals – Cincinnati loves pure talent, and they have built a reputation on picking the most talented guys despite any outside concerns. So first-round TE Jermaine Gresham’s 2009 injury or second-round DE Carlos Dunlap’s legal issues weren’t enough to dissaude Cincinnati. If those picks work, both guys have the talent to become premium players at their positions. Third-round CB Brandon Ghee (of Wake Forest) is a super-talented guy as well who didn’t always play up to that level, but he could become a top nickel back. Jordan Shipley could fit perfectly as a slot receiver, and he and Gresham have the potential to inject quite a bit of pizzazz into a passing game that sputtered down the stretch last year. Even sixth-rounder Dezmon Briscoe has top talent at wideout. There’s a lot to like in this class, even though the Bengals’ mindset comes with more risk than most teams prefer.

10 (con’t) – Ravens – Baltimore traded out of round one, but it still got a premium player in LB Sergio Kindle, the kind of versatile player the Ravens know how to feature. Baltimore also got two defensive tackles in Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones who have worlds of talent. Both come with some risk, but if one of the two turns into a stud, it’s worth the second- and fifth-rounders Baltimore spent at the position. If both shine, this draft becomes stellar. TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta could be a pass-catching duo for years as well. This is a very good draft in terms of value that has big-time upside at the nose tackle spot. That’s not a bad result after trading out of the first round.

9 – Eagles – Philly had a ton of picks, and they used some of them to trade up to No. 13 to take DE Brandon Graham. The Eagles have had a lot of success with an undersized pass rusher in Trent Cole, but they’ve been missing a running mate for Cole for a while. Third-round DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and fifth-round DE Ricky Sapp, another undersized guy, should help at the position as well. Second-round S Nate Allen has athleticism and could eventually fill the role vacated last year by Brian Dawkins. Fifth-round WR Riley Cooper could fit as a dependable fourth wideout, and seventh-round DT Jeff Owens has a lot of talent if not performance. And fourth-round QB Mike Kafka will have a chance to develop into Kevin Kolb’s backup. Philly had a lot of picks, and as usual they made the most of them. Graham’s probably the only guy with the ability to become a superstar, but the Eagles definitely found plenty of reinforcements.

9 (con’t) – Seahawks – The draft fell Seattle’s way, and Pete Carroll’s new regime took advantage by taking OT Russell Okung and S Earl Thomas in the first round. Both are premium players who significantly upgrade problem areas. Second-round WR Golden Tate also addresses a problem area, but he’s more of a No. 2 option on a good NFL team than a 1. Still, he’ll contribute. DE E.J. Wilson (fourth round) and SS Kam Chancellor (fifth round) will have opportunities to start if they outperform their draft position, and sixth-rounder TE Anthony McCoy is a talent who Carroll knows from USC and trusts despite off-field issues. Seattle did the right thing in the first round, and that talent infusion is just what a roster that got old quick needed.

8 – Buccaneers – Tampa entered the draft with a bunch of problem areas, but they leave with two fewer. At defensive tackle, first-rounder Gerald McCoy and second-rounder Bryan Price should become a talented tandem that anchors the defense for the next 5-8 years. And at receiver, the Bucs added premium talents in second-rounder Arrelious Benn and fourth-rounder Mike Williams. If those four players pan out, the draft was a success for the Bucs. Throw in third-round CB Myron Lewis, who could eventually replace Ronde Barber, and sixth-round OLB Dekoda Watson, and Tampa looks to have gotten a bunch of help with its selections.

8 (con’t) – Cardinals – Arizona entered the draft needing to add some young talent to its 3-4 front seven, and they did just that. NT Dan Williams was a boon at pick 26 in the first round, and OLB Daryl Washington will bring some pass-rush potential in the second round. OLB O’Brien Schofield, a first-round talent who suffered an injury in the Senior Bowl, could prove to be worth the wait as a fourth-rounder. Third-round WR Andre Roberts won’t have much pressure on him immediately, but he could develop much as Steve Breaston and Early Doucet have the last couple of years in Arizona. All in all, it was a solid job for Arizona.

8 (con’t) – Patriots – New England entered with a ton of picks (as usual), and they used them to pick up an extra second-rounder for next year (as usual). But they also drafted a bunch of reinforcements for a team that needs young playmakers. We’re all about second-round TE Rob Gronkowski, who can be a game-changer if he keeps his back healthy, and fourth-round TE Aaron Hernandez adds even more talent to a position that was depleted of talent by free agency. Florida LBs Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes also add depth to a position that had gotten old and then gotten worse in recent years. They’re not the new Bruschi and Vrabel, but they’ll help. First-round CB Devin McCourty addresses a need area as well, and WR Taylor Price adds youth to a unit that is painfully thin behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. We’ll see if any of the late-round guys are able to force their way onto the roster, but simply based on the first four rounds the Patriots did a good job.

7 – Saints – New Orleans drafted at the end of each round, but they did a good job of extracting value out of their draft spots. In the first round, CB Patrick Robinson was the last of the top tier of corners, and he comes to an area that was average but not much better last year. Adding Robinson also gives the Saints the ability to move ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins over to safety, which adds depth there as well. Second-round OT Charles Brown was too much of a value to pass up, and third-round TE Jimmy Graham is a developmental prospect who some scouts believe could emerge into the best tight end of this class. Fourth-round DT Al Woods also contributes to a need area. Aside from Graham, there’s not massive upside in this group, but there’s a lot of talent in key places, and that’s more than a Super Bowl champ usually gets from spot 32 in each round.

7 (con’t) – Chiefs – We’re not quite as ga-ga over the Chiefs’ class as some are, but there’s no doubt that a lot of help is on the way to K.C. First-round S Eric Berry is a true impact player, and he’ll start from day one. Second-round CB Javier Arenas is probably a No. 2 corner because he doesn’t have outstanding size, but he’s a starter. Dexter McCluster, drafted as a slot receiver at the top of the second round, needs to prove he’s as dependable as Wes Welker, but he does have the ability to break big plays. McCluster’s size, though, makes us worry about his ability to absorb the massive hits over the middle. OG Jon Asamoah and TE Tony Moeaki, both third-rounders, could step into the lineup as well. K.C. killed the first three rounds, but the thing that will determine if this draft is good or great is McCluster’s contribution. If he’s a role player, K.C. did well; if McCluster becomes a star, this class becomes epic.

6 – Texans – Some have doubted Houston’s decision to pick CB Kareem Jackson over Kyle Wilson in the first round, but Jackson fits the Texans’ scheme perfectly because it’s so much like Alabama’s. So he fills a major need, as does banger RB Ben Tate in the second round. TEs Garrett Graham in the fourth round and Dorin Dickerson in the seventh provide insurance in case Owen Daniels struggles to return from his knee injury, and LB Darryl Sharpton is small but still a tackling machine. Plus, Trindon Holliday provides value as a returner in the sixth round. This isn’t the sexiest draft class, but it seems positioned to help a team on the cusp finally break into the playoffs.

6 (con’t) – Giants – Big Blue took a big swing in the first round with DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who has more talent than any end in the draft but very little experience. That leads to questions, but the upside looks really good for New York. Adding Pierre-Paul and second-round DT Linval Joseph may seem repetitive given the Giants’ roster of D-linemen, but the defense struggled last year, and so the status quo wasn’t acceptable. Third-round S Chad Jones was productive and could develop further, and fourth-round MLB Phillip Dillard could step in for Antonio Pierce at least on first and second downs. Seventh-round punter Matt Dodge will compete to replace the retiring Jeff Feagles as well. The Giants got help in this draft and admitted that the defense which was once a strength really needed to be addressed.

6 (con’t) – Panthers – Regardless of what their plan was, the Panthers couldn’t resist pulling the trigger on QB Jimmy Clausen with their first pick at 48th overall. Clausen, who became the quarterback taken earlier by Carolina than anyone since Kerry Collins was the franchise’s first-ever draft pick, has the chance to be a long-term solution at a position where the Panthers have never had a premium player. If that happens, this draft was a huge success. Carolina addressed needs with third-round WR Brandon LaFell and sixth-round DE Greg Hardy, and both guys could find significant roles as rookies. Fourth-round OLB Eric Norwood is one of our favorites, and although he doesn’t really look the part he makes a ton of plays. The big question mark in this class is Armanti Edwards, who will go from being a small-school quarterback to an NFL wildcatter/slot receiver/punt returner. Maybe he can fill that role, but they price Carolina paid – next year’s second-rounder – to take Edwards at the end of the third round was simply too much for a specialty-type of player.

6 (con’t) – Jets – As usual, the Jets didn’t have quantity picks, but given the offseason additions they made via trade and free agency, a bunch of sixth- and seventh-rounders wouldn’t have made the team anyway. But the guys the Jets got are key. First-round CB Kyle Wilson becomes a nickel back immediately, and if he plays well the Jets may let Antonio Cromartie leave via free agency after the season. Wilson also provides insurance against the Big Apple eating Cromartie up and spitting him out. Second-round OG Vladimir Ducasse will get the chance to replace the released Alan Faneca at left guard immediately. Ducasse has all the physical tools, but he’s taking a big leap up in competition from UMass. The Jets dealt most of their remaining picks to pick RB Joe McKnight in the fourth round as the slash-and-dash complement to Shonn Greene. Maybe McKnight can fill Leon Washington’s shoes, but McKnight wasn’t a consistent force at USC. Fifth-round FB John Conner will probably spend 2010 learning from Tony Richardson before replacing the long-time fullback soon after. McKnight and Ducasse are risks, but if they pan out the Jets will be thrilled with this four-person draft class.

6 (con’t) – Broncos – Denver’s draft is a story of a bad strategy executed well. Trading back into the first round for a quarterback is the strategy that fails, and we have major reservations about Tim Tebow’s throwing motion. That’s a double whammy. But the trading Denver did turned a second-round pick into the first they used on Tebow and turned a fourth-rounder into a third. So while we can’t support Josh McDaniels’ infatuation with Tebow, the rest of the draft went well. WR Demaryius Thomas fits what Denver needs, and he and third-rounder Eric Decker could become the outside receiving combo to spur McDaniels’ offense. OG Zane Beadles and  C J.D. Walton will continue Denver’s transformation to a more physical offensive line than the nimble zone-blocking scheme Mike Shanahan used there. Fifth-round CB Perrish Cox is a terrific talent with off-the-field question marks, but at that spot he’s a risk worth taking. So while we will continue to beat the drum against the Tebow pick, on the whole we respect what McDaniels and his crew did with this draft class.

6 (con’t) – Lions – Detroit didn’t have a ton of picks because they traded lots of lower-rounders for veterans who can help now, and we approve of that strategy. We’re also all for Detroit’s no-brainer decision to take DT Ndamukong Suh second overall. But the more we think about Jahvid Best, the more we think he was a little bit too much of a luxury for a team that’s still in the rebuilding process. That pick may have come a year too early, and Best’s durability questions may mean he’s not around when the Lions actually get good. Fourth-round OT Jason Fox and seventh-round DE Willie Young are good developmental prospects, and third-round CB Amari Spievey addresses a need area. The Lions are moving the right direction, but our questions about Best keep us from really raving about this draft class.

6 (con’t) – Browns – Cleveland needed a major talent infusion in this draft, but they didn’t get all that they needed. CB Joe Haden in the first round was probably as good as Cleveland could get at No. 7, and he’ll help. Second-round Montario Hardesty was a helpful pick in the second round, and Mike Holmgren has a way of turning mid-round QBs like Colt McCoy into starters or future draft equity. G Shawn Lauvao could emerge as a starter out of the third round, and sixth-round DE Clifton Geathers has the size to become a factor in a 3-4. But ultimately, Cleveland will need second-round S T.J. Ward to outperform his pre-draft rankings for this draft class to truly make the kind of impact the franchise needed.

5 – 49ers – The 49ers played the personality game in the draft by using two first-round picks to cement their offensive identity as a tough run-first team. OT Anthony Davis is gifted but not always dedicated, but Mike Singletary has broken through such veneers before. OG Mike Iupati is more likely to help right away as a mauler, especially in the run game. The Niners then took SS Taylor Mays in the second round and ILB Navarro Bowman in the third, both of whom should help to reinforce a defense that’s on the rise. There’s not eye-popping performance in this draft, but the Niners did fine as they continue to become the kind of team they want to be.

5 (con’t) – Packers – Green Bay gumped into OT Bryan Bulaga with the 23rd overall pick, and so they got a good player at a position of real need. We still see Bulaga as a better right tackle than left tackle, but since the Packers have needs at both spots Bulaga makes a ton of sense. S Morgan Burnett in the third round is a fine player who will fit the defense well. We’re not as confident about second-round DE Mike Neal, but if he can serve as a reserve he’ll help. The Packers didn’t have many gaping holes, and so if Bulaga and Burnett end up as starters this draft will end up being more positive than negative.

5 (con’t) – Dolphins – Miami’s draft, which focused on defense except for one pick, wasn’t high-profile, but  first-round DE Jared Odrick and second-round OLB Koa Misi should add depth to the front seven immediately. They fit what Miami’s trying to do on defense. Third-round OG John Jerry is a physical blocker who’ll fit Miami’s personality as well. Miami was on its own agenda in this draft, but the Dolphins know what they want, and that usually leads to drafts yielding players.

4 – Colts – Indy’s drafters know exactly what kind of players they want, and first-round DE Jerry Hughes fits the Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis mold. But second-round MLB Pat Angerer seems stuck behind Gary Brackett, who just got a new contract, and the Colts didn’t get any offensive line help besides fourth-round OG Jacques McClendon. Third-round CB Kevin Thomas should break into the rotation, and the Colts do better than any other team in the undrafted rookie market. So this rookie class could end up looking better than the draft list does at first glance.

4 (con’t) – Steelers – Many observers were hoping for an eye-popping draft from the Steelers in light of the Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger issues. But Pittsburgh instead focused on its normal solid, long-range planning. First-rounder Maurkice Pouncey will be a long-term starter at center or guard, and third-round WR Emmanuel Sanders will have a chance to step in as a third receiver now and emerge as a starter once Hines Ward is gone. Pittsburgh added three outside linebackers for its 3-4 zone blitz in Jason Worilds, Thaddeus Gibson, and Steven Sylvester, even though it has two established starters at those positions. Fifth-round CB Crezdon Butler addresses more of a need area. In four years, we’ll look back at this draft as helpful, but in 2010 there’s not an impact.

4 (con’t) – Raiders – Oakland didn’t bomb this draft as it has in past years, but the question is whether the Raiders got the massive amount of help that they need. LB Rolando McClain in the first round is a good leader, but he’s probably more of a two-down player than an every-down contributor. He’ll help, but he’s not a top 10 talent. Second-round DT Lamarr Houston was a terrific value pick who will help, and promising OTs Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell in the third and fourth rounds each has potential to emerge as a top-level left tackle. If one of those guys lives up to his potential, this draft class will look a lot better, but can you trust the Raiders to develop talent that this far away from contribution? Fourth-round WR Jacoby Ford and fifth-round CB Walter McFadden should help in limited roles. Oakland did OK, but this draft isn’t the kind that will put them over the top.

4 (con’t) – Titans – In the first round, Tennessee took DE Derrick Morgan, a solid player at a big-time need position. He’ll probably have a career closer to Kyle Vanden Bosch than Jevon Kearse, but that’s still a big plus. Second-round WR Damian Williams could eventually pair with Kenny Britt to give Tennessee a solid receiver duo, but Williams is unlikely to help a ton this year. Third-round LB Rennie Curran is productive but undersized, and the Titans need more CB help than fourth-rounder Alterraun Verner can provide. This is a solid class, but we don’t sense a ton of upside with the group.

3 – Cowboys – Jerry Jones fell in love with Dez Bryant, and when Bryant started falling down the board, Jones jumped up to grab him. If Bryant can develop into an elite receiver, this will be a memorable move, but it does come with some risk. The fact that Miles Austin developed into an elite receiver last year makes the move curious as well. Fourth-round safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah is another risk because he comes from a small school, but he has all the physical tools and mental toughness he needs. Second-round ILB Sean Lee should become Keith Brooking’s replacement before long. This class is long on superstar potential but short on sure things.

3 (con’t) – Bears – Chicago came into this draft short-handed after the trades for Jay Cutler and the late Gaines Adams, but the Bears made the most of the picks they have. Safety was a crying need, and so getting Major Wright in the third round was a huge win. Fourth-rounder Corey Wootton has a ton of talent if he can fully recover from a 2008 ACL injury, and QB Dan LeFevour was the kind of developmental prospect who’s worth a sixth-round shot. Chicago did little to address its offensive line problems, but that’s the price you pay for trading draft picks for vets.

3 (con’t) – Redskins – Washington didn’t have second- or third-round picks, so the franchise didn’t get the quantity of help it needed. But it got high-quality help in first-round OT Trent Williams, who Mike Shanahan believes can become his new Ryan Clady. Fourth-round ILB Perry Riley could step into Washington’s new 3-4 defense, and seventh-round offensive linemen Erik Cook and Selvish Capers have a chance to make it at a major problem area.

2 – Bills – The Bills looked for thrills by taking C.J. Spiller at nine, and although he didn’t fit a specific need, he was probably the best player available. For a team bereft of talent, that’s important. Buffalo then focused on filling its new 3-4 defense with NT Torell Troup and DE Alex Carrington. If those two guys become starters, this draft will look good for the Bills, but neither was the best prospect on the board when he was picked. Maybe the Bills found a diamond in the rough in sixth-round OLB Arthur Moats or Danny Batten, and that would help the front seven as well. This draft ended up being pretty risky for Buffalo, and when the top player wasn’t at a need position, that’s a scary proposition.

2 (con’t) – Chargers – San Diego gave up its second round pick to shoot up the first round draft order and take RB Ryan Mathews at 12. Mathews is a good player at a need area, and San Diego often moves way up to get guys they want, but that strategy hasn’t always worked well before. So the Chargers need Mathews to deliver, and they need to find plenty of help from later-round picks. Third-round ILB Darrell Butler could emerge as a starter, but the key guy might be fifth-round NT Cam Thomas, who has the talent to step into Jamal Williams’ old spot if he can stay motivated. Jonathan Crompton, a sixth-rounder, replaces Charlie Whitehurst as the Chargers’ developmental quarterback. We don’t love the top of this draft, but we get the feeling the later rounds will pay off for the Bolts.

2 (con’t) – Falcons – Without a second-round pick, Atlanta’s draft class looks a little thin, but first-round LB Sean Witherspoon and third-round DT Corey Peters are big helps to a defense that needed reinforcements. Atlanta tried to play the value game with interior offensive linemen Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley in the middle rounds, and if both emerge as starters in the next two years, this draft will end up being a win. For now, though, we’re uncertain.

1 – Vikings – Minnesota traded out of the first round, and at No. 34 they took 6-foot-2 cornerback Chris Cook. Back when I covered the Panthers, CB Eric Davis once said, “Do you know what you call a 6-2 corner? A safety.” And for the most part, ED’s wisdom has borne out. That makes me skeptical of Cook and his prospects for truly becoming an elite corner. Trading up for RB Toby Gerhart at the end of the second round was strange too, because he’s not different enough style-wise from Adrian Peterson to complement the standout back. Those were Minnesota’s only two picks in the first two rounds, which limits the impact of this class. Fourth-round DE Everson Griffen is a talent who had off-field questions but was worth a shot where the Vikes got him, and fifth-rounder Chris DeGeare was a college tackle at Wake Forest who has a shot to make it as a guard. But on the whole, this class leaves us with many more questions than answers.

1 (con’t) – Jaguars – People have pounded on Jacksonville for taking DT Tyson Alualu at 10, and they didn’t maximize the value of that pick. But our sense is that Alualu will be a good player. The problem is that, at 10, Jacksonville needed a great player. Third-round DT D’Anthony Smith seems to be the brawn to contrast Alualu’s inside quickness, but some have pointed to Smith as a reach. Since those were Jacksonville’s only two picks in the first four rounds, it doesn’t look as though Jacksonville reaped a ton of immediate help from the draft.

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