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From T.O. to HOF?

 

Jerry Rice vs NY Giants cornerback (1995)

Should Terrell Owens make the Hall of Fame? And where does he rank among all-time receivers? This week’s news that T.O. suffered a torn ACL got us to thinking. We’ve already considered the way Owens’ career may have ended; now, let’s think about his place in history. (Hat tip to the Open Mic Daily guys for raising the questions and getting me thinking. UPDATE: Here’s the podcast of our conversation.)

We went to Pro Football Reference to look at the numbers. Going through the list, we considered 17 receivers from the top 20 in all-time receptions. (We left out No. 6 Tony Gonzalez, since he’s a tight end; No. 19 Larry Centers, since he was a fullback; and No. 20 Steve Largent, since he’s clearly from another era.) Of that group, only two are in the Hall of Fame – No. 1 Jerry Rice and No.  11 Art Monk. And Monk is the only guy on the list who played a significant portion of his career in the pre-Jerry Rice era (which began in 1985.)

Of these 17 receivers, we knocked out six – Monk, whose peak began before the era began, and five players who weren’t among the top 30 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns – Derrick Mason, Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith. We then added in four others – Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson, who don’t meet the numbers thresholds yet but should soon; and Michael Irvin, who has made the Hall of Fame.

So we set out to compare Owens to the other receivers of his era.

Hall of Fame level: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Hines Ward, Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison – We prefer Moss to Owens slightly, since Moss was the more dynamic threat, but both belong in the Hall. So does Carter, who may finally get over the hump now that Shannon Sharpe has gotten in to ease the receiver backlog. Ward has moved into the Hall of Fame level in the last few years as the leading receiver in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run; if Irvin is in, Ward should be in too. They’re equals. Harrison is an interesting case; his numbers say he’s in, but was he a really good player with a great quarterback, or a great player in his own right.

Current players: We’d also put Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson in this level at this point in their careers. They need to continue adding to their accomplishments, but they’re on track to get in. Reggie Wayne strikes us as a 50/50 case right now; could he eventually pass Harrison in line?

Just outside the HOF bubble: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Art Monk, Irving Fryar – Brown’s numbers are great, but he strikes us as a really good player who compiled great numbers. Bruce and Holt played in a WR-friendly system with the Rams; how could you choose between them for the Hall? Reed falls short, and we believe Monk should have as well. But if any of these players made the Hall of Fame, it wouldn’t be a travesty. We were shocked Fryar hit the numbers standards, but he did so just barely. He’s a level below the rest of the bubble guys.

Current players: Derrick Mason, Chad Ochocinco, Donald Driver, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, and Santana Moss have gaudy numbers but fall below the bubble as well. We don’t see any of this group crossing the HOF threshold.

Just missed the numbers thresholds: Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith – These guys were good but not great. They may be Hall of Fame finalists, but they won’t find their way in.

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Filed under Football Relativity, Pro Football Hall of Fame, research project

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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Carolina blues

It’s been a big week for losses in Carolina this week, as LB Thomas Davis suffered what appears to be a season-ending knee injury in minicamp and as WR Mushin Muhammad retires after a 14-year career. Below are thoughts on both events. You can see how Muhammad’s career compares to other 2010 retirees in this post, and you can see how Davis’ injury trumps all other minicamp injuries in this collection of thoughts.

While Jon Beason is the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense, Davis is the biggest playmaker in the front seven now that Julius Peppers is on his way out of town. But Davis, who was beginning a comeback from a 2009 ACL injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season, re-tore the ACL in his right knee in an early June practice. The non-contact injury is devastating for the Panthers, who will almost certainly lose Davis for the 2010 season. While Jamar Williams (who was acquired in a trade with Chicago for S Chris Harris) is a starting-quality replacement, he’s not going to provide the dynamic aspects via blitz and in coverage that Davis can at his best. Even worse, after tearing the same ACL twice, Davis must face questions of whether his career will ever return to the trajectory it was on as the ’09 season dawned. All in all, this is a devastating event for both the team and the player.

Muhammad entered the NFL back in 1996 for Carolina, and he played all but three of his 14 NFL seasons with the team. In his first tenure with the team, he emerged as a No. 1 receiver, and in 2000 he tied for the league lead in catches with 102. In a classic diva receiva moment, Muhammad used a 15-catch game in Week 17 to tie for the league lead, but it came in a 52-9 loss to the Raiders. After the game, Muhammad said of his accomplishment, “I guess you could say, in all the rubble today, a flower grew.” If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve with early newspaper deadlines, Muhammad would have been pilloried in the press the next day. But that moment doesn’t define Muhammad’s legacy. Instead, his willingness to block and to mentor Steve Smith in Carolina makes a lasting impression, to go with 860 catches for more than 11,000 yards. Muhammad was also a key player on Super Bowl teams for both Carolina and Chicago, and he still holds the record for the longest reception in a Super Bowl with an 85-yarder. Muhammad made two Pro Bowls, and although he won’t make the Hall of Fame, he’ll go down in history as one of the first great Panthers. That’s not a bad legacy to leave.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Injuries

FR: 2010 retirements

Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Walter Jones...

Image via Wikipedia

We thought we’d play relativity with the various NFL retirements of the 2010 offseason. We’re comparing them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2010 season.

10 – OT Walter Jones, Seahawks – Jones, who played his entire 12-game career with the Seahawks, didn’t play at all in 2009, which is an unfortunate end for a great career. This mountain of a man was an elite cornerstone left tackle for almost all of his career, making nine Pro Bowls and earning first-team All-Pro honors four times. He had the incredible size that made him a quality run blocker for backs like Ricky Watters and Shaun Alexander and the athleticism to protect the quarterback’s blind side as well. That made Jones an all-decade pick for the 2000s along with Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, and Willie Roaf. Jones and Pace were incredibly similar players, while Ogden had a little more height and athleticism. But those three are the Hall of Fame level offensive tackles from the last 10-12 years, and Jones was the best of them. When Jones played next to Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks had by far the best left side of the offensive line in the league, and had Hutchinson stayed in Seattle, that duo would have made a dent in the all-time side-by-side protector pairs. Jones was the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft, and he got the franchise tag on multiple occasions, and all that goes to show that Jones truly was a franchise-making player for the Seahawks.

9 – QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals – Warner leaves the NFL at the top of his game. His career has as much distance between the peaks and valleys as just about anyone in the league. He was undrafted and had to go to the Arena Football League to earn a shot in St. Louis because of an injury to Trent Green. He then became a two-time MVP with the Rams, leading the high-octane “Greatest Show on Turf” offense to two Super Bowls and one Lombardi trophy. But a broken hand hampered him and sent him to the bench in St. Louis in 2002 and then for good in 2003, leading to a lull in his career. He went to the Giants as a placeholder for rookie Eli Manning and then went to Arizona, where he had two so-so seasons as a part-time starter before hitting his stride again late in 2007. But he ended his season with two fantastic seasons in ’08 and ’09, leading Arizona to two NFC West titles, four playoff wins, and the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. Warner has the three biggest passing-yardage games in Super Bowl history and leaves with a sterling reputation for clutch play. The question as Warner leaves is not whether he had a great career; that is certain. It’s whether he’s a Hall of Famer. His unlikely and unique career path makes that a huge question that will likely be debated for many years. He’s not a first-ballot guy, but he may well make it to Canton because his best was truly at the elite level. But his storybook career deserves admiration, and it was fun and fascinating to watch.

8 – OLB Derrick Brooks, Buccaneers – Brooks didn’t play last year, which is the only reason he isn’t even further up this list. But the current ESPN commentator, who played his entire 14-year career in Tampa Bay, retires as the preeminent Tampa-2 outside linebacker of his time. In an era where most teams played the 4-3, Brooks was the best weak-side linebacker, making 11 Pro Bowls and earning six first-team All-Pro honors. He was the heart and soul of Bucs defenses that were among the league’s best under coordinator Monte Kiffin for years and years. Even better, he was a prince of a guy, spending and raising a ton of money that helped teenagers in the Tampa area get better educated and experience life-changing trips to Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and even Africa. On a defense that also starred Warren Sapp and John Lynch, we believe Brooks was the best of the bunch. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

7 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins – Samuels made six Pro Bowls over his 10-year career with the Redskins, but after suffering a stinger five games into the ’09 season, he decided he wasn’t healthy enough to keep playing. Samuels wasn’t the top left tackle of the 00s decade – he fell behind Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, and even Orlando Pace – but he was on the next level down as a quality Pro Bowler who was reliable season after season. He started all 141 games he played, and before his ’09 injury he had missed just eight games over nine seasons. He had a great run in Washington and will be missed by the Redskins organization.

7 (con’t) – MLB Zach Thomas, Dolphins – Thomas, who signed a one-day contract with Miami so he could retire as a Dolphin, was an undersized middle linebacker who fell to the fifth round of the 1996 draft because teams were skeptical if he was big enough to make an impact in the NFL. But this smallish linebacker made a huge impact during his 12-year career with the Dolphins, which included five All-Pro nods and seven Pro Bowl berths. Thomas was a tackling machine who made the all-decade team for the 2000s and ended up being the perfect middle ‘backer for the Tampa 2, 4-3 defense that was so prevalent through the decade. Thomas was cut when the Dolphins moved to a 3-4 under Bill Parcells, and he started one season in Dallas before being cut there. Thomas is a borderline Hall of Fame player who made the most of his chance and his ability – and who should be thankful that he landed in the perfect situation for a player with his skills.

7 (con’t) – WR Isaac Bruce, Rams Bruce was traded to the Rams so that he could retire with the team for which he holds records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. As part of the Greatest Show on Turf, Bruce was an elite receiver who produced time after time after time, including the go-ahead touchdown in St. Louis’ Super Bowl 34 victory. He made four Pro Bowls in his 16-year career and totaled 1,024 catches for more than 15,000 yards. Bruce falls just below the cut of Hall of Famers, but he was an elite receiver in his prime and continued to produce for a long and storied career that Rams fans will always celebrate and remember.

7 (con’t) – C Kevin Mawae, Titans – Mawae had three acts to his career – four solid years in Seattle, then eight elite years with the Jets, and then four more solid years in Tennessee. He made eight Pro Bowls, including six straight as a Jet and both of the last two years for the Titans. He was a physical center who provided good line leadership yet held his own. Plus, he was dependable, missing just 13 games over the last 15 years. He also served as the president of the NFL Players Association, so he’ll maintain a high profile over the coming year in that role. Mawae didn’t quite play at a high enough level to be a Hall of Fame center, but he was one of the best offensive linemen of the past decade, and that’s an accomplishment worth commemorating.

6 – DE Patrick Kerney, Seahawks – Kerney never got the publicity of the great defensive ends of his day, but he had a very solid career with Atlanta and Seattle. He made two Pro Bowls, one with the Falcons and one with the Seahawks, and had double-digit sacks in four of his 11 seasons. Kerney finished with 82.5 career sacks, and he was also sturdy enough against the run to be a solid two-way player. Kerney still had something left, but he leaves while still a solid contributor. He’s a loss for the Seahawks.

6 (con’t) – OT Jon Runyan, Chargers – Runyan played most of his career for the Titans and Eagles before making a cameo with San Diego last year. He only made one Pro Bowl, in part because he was a mauling right tackle instead of a left-side pass blocker, but he was an asset to many very good lines. He played in two Super Bowls and one Pro Bowl, and when he moved to the Eagles in 2000 he became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league at the time. He earned his money, starting 190 straight regular-season games along with all 18 postseason games he played during that span. Microfracture surgery after the 2009 season basically signaled the end of Runyan’s productivity, and now he’s trying to make an impact in the political arena as a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the third district of New Jersey. No matter where his political career goes, Runyan leaves the NFL as a terrific long-time starter who made his mark during his 14-year career.

6 (con’t) – OT Tra Thomas, Chargers – Ironically, Runyan’s fellow tackle with the Eagles for most of the decade of the 2000s also retired as a Charger. Thomas, who played in Philly for 11 years starting most of those years at left tackle and making three Pro Bowls in the process, was a stalwart of those teams as a big yet still fairly nimble left tackle who protected Donovan McNabb’s blind side. After 11 years as an Eagle, Thomas was a part-time starter in Jacksonville last year, and San Diego brought him in as a fill-in for holdout Marcus McNeil this season. But Thomas decided he had hit the wall, and he hung up his cleats during training camp, ending a fine NFL career.

6 (con’t) – CB Samari Rolle, Ravens – Rolle only made one Pro Bowl, but he was a long-time asset at corner for the Titans and the Ravens. During his best years, he was a No. 1 caliber corner who was both physical and fast. He was a big reason the Titans made the Super Bowl, and he also played on some of the great Ravens defenses of the last decade. He won’t make the Hall of Fame, but Rolle leaves knowing he made the most of a fine NFL career.

5 – RB Deuce McAllister, Saints – McAllister is the quintessential Bayou boy after playing collegiately at Ole Miss and putting in his entire nine-year career with the Saints. When he entered the league, he played behind Ricky Williams, but after Williams left New Orleans Deuce ran loose for 1,000 yard seasons in four of the next five years. With the arrival of Reggie Bush, McAllister’s role began to diminish, and he was cut by the team before the ’09 season. But once the Saints made the playoffs, the team signed McAllister for a game, let him serve as a captain in the playoffs vs. Arizona, and then let him retire with the team. That means McAllister leaves as part of a Super Bowl winning team. That’s a fitting legacy for one of New Orleans’ favorite sons who had 6,000 rushing yards and made two Pro Bowls for the team. He was well worth the first-round pick the Saints spent on him.

5 (con’t) – WR Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers – Muhammad entered the NFL back in 1996 for Carolina, and he played all but three of his 14 NFL seasons with the team. In his first tenure with the team, he emerged as a No. 1 receiver, and in 2000 he tied for the league lead in catches with 102. In a classic diva receiva moment, Muhammad used a 15-catch game in Week 17 to tie for the league lead, but it came in a 52-9 loss to the Raiders. After the game, Muhammad said of his accomplishment, “I guess you could say, in all the rubble today, a flower grew.” If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve with early newspaper deadlines, Muhammad would have been pilloried in the press the next day. But that moment doesn’t define Muhammad’s legacy. Instead, his willingness to block and to mentor Steve Smith in Carolina makes a lasting impression, to go with 860 catches for more than 11,000 yards. Muhammad was also a key player on Super Bowl teams for both Carolina and Chicago, and he still holds the record for the longest reception in a Super Bowl with an 85-yarder. Muhammad made two Pro Bowls, and although he won’t make the Hall of Fame, he’ll go down in history as one of the first great Panthers. That’s not a bad legacy to leave.

5 (con’t) – WR Joe Horn, Saints – When I think of Horn, I don’t think of his infamous cell-phone touchdown celebration. I don’t even think of him as a Saint, which is what he was for his four Pro Bowl berths. (That’s why it was fitting that Horn re-signed with New Orleans for a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Saint.) Instead, I think back to my days at Pro Football Weekly and editing rosters. Part of our job for the PFW Preview magazine each year (which is still one of the best) was to edit the rosters down to fit. Some players would get their own lines; others would be relegated to a paragraph at the end. Horn started his career in the paragraph after coming to the Chiefs out of the CFL – he played for Shreveport and Memphis during the CFL’s ill-fated U.S. expansion era. And when Horn moved up to his own line on the roster, his alma mater – Itawamba J.C. – stuck out like a sore thumb. Considering that beginning, Horn’s rise to prominence in New Orleans is nothing short of shocking. Horn fought for his NFL chance and made the most of it once he grasped it, surpassing 600 career catches and 8,700 receiving yards and scoring 58 touchdowns. Horn earned a well-deserved spot in the Saints Hall of Fame, and as he retires we should celebrate his determination to establish himself as an NFL star.

5 (con’t) – CB Aaron Glenn, Texans – Glenn, who made three Pro Bowls in his 15-year career, made his retirement official with a ceremonial Texans contract in July. He had not played since 2008. Glenn, a former first-round pick, had eight good years with the Jets and then moved on the Texans, making the final of his three Pro Bowls there. He also played for the Cowboys, Jaguars, and Saints. Glenn was a good cover corner who held up against the pass despite being just 5-foot-9, and it’s fitting that he gets a head-nod as he retires. And getting it in Texas, where he played both professionally and in his college career in Texas A&M, is fitting.

4- OLB Bertrand Berry, Cardinals – Warner wasn’t the only Cardinal to announce his retirement after the team’s playoff loss to the Saints. The last couple of years, Berry has been a featured pass rusher for the Cards, but throughout the years he has been a starter for the Cards and Broncos after starting his 12-year career with the Colts. Berry finished his career with 65 sacks, including two double-digit seasons in 2003-04 with Denver and Arizona. That’s a pretty good career for a guy who was cut after three seasons with the Colts and forced to go to Canada looking for a gig. Playing nine more productive years in the league after that kind of setback speaks to Berry’s work ethic and perseverance, and he leaves as a guy who continued to produce until the end of his career.

4 (con’t) – PK Jason Elam, Broncos – Elam played most recently for the Falcons, but he signed a one-day contract with Denver before he retired so he could retire with the team for which he played 15 of his 17 seasons. Elam made three Pro Bowls and was on two Super Bowl-winning teams, and he also tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in 1998. Denver made Elam a third-round pick back in 1993, which is a high price for a kicker, but Elam proved to be worth that and far more during his long and fine career.

4 (con’t) – NT Jason Ferguson, Dolphins – Ferguson, who was facing an eight-game suspension for his second violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy, decided to retire after 13 years as a nose tackle. He was a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle who became a Bill Parcells guy with the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Never a great pass rusher, Ferguson held his own at the point of attack and was the kind of pivot man who was easy to build a 3-4 defense around. That’s a good NFL legacy, even if it doesn’t come with gaudy numbers on the stat sheet.

4 (con’t) – WR Ike Hilliard, Giants – Hilliard, who last played in 2008, spent 11 seasons in the NFL, the first seven with the Giants after the team picked him in the first round of the 1997 draft. Hilliard then had a nice second act to his career with Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Hilliard was never a No. 1 receiver, but he was productive in tandem with Amani Toomer for many years, and he ends his career with 546 catches for nearly 6,400 yards with 35 touchdowns. That’s a nice return of investment for the first-rounder the Giants spent on him.

4 (con’t) – DE Aaron Schobel, Bills – Schobel, who played his entire nine-year career in Buffalo, played every game in all but one of his seasons and provided a sturdy presence against the run and some pass-rush as well. He had his fourth double-digit sack season in 2009 with 10 and finished his career with 78.5, averaging about nine sacks a year. He also made two Pro Bowls. He was still good enough to play, although he didn’t want to continue in Buffalo’s new 3-4 system, but Schobel decided to retire instead of chase the dream elsewhere.

4 (con’t) – DE Leonard Little, Rams – Little spent his entire 12-year career with the Rams, piling up 87.5 sacks. While he is primarily known for a drunk-driving incident in his second season that killed a woman, Little remained a Ram throughout his career. He was on the Rams’ Super Bowl winner in 1999 and made a Pro Bowl in 2003, which was one of his double-digit sack seasons. he didn’t play in 2010 and let the Rams know in December that he was hanging up his cleats after a solid career.

3 – OT Brad Butler, Bills – Butler missed all but two games of the ’09 season with an ACL injury, but he had started the previous two years at right tackle. Now, at age 26, he’s decided to leave the NFL via retirement so he can pursue his passion for public service. It’s unusual to see a starting-caliber player leave NFL money behind so early, but you have to admire Butler’s desire to do something to help communities and individuals with his life. His former teammate, SI’s Ross Tucker, said that the retirement wasn’t really a shock for those who knew Butler. And for the Bills, this is a blow, because Butler was one of the few veterans slated to return to the offensive line for 2010.

3 (con’t) – P Jeff Feagles, Giants – Feagles played every game for 22 seasons as a punter for the Patriots, Eagles, Cardinals, Seahawks, and Giants, and to the end he remained a terrific directional punter if not a power leg. Feagles had enough leg to keep punting, but 22 years is enough, especially after finally claiming a Super Bowl with a Giants a few years ago. Feagles wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he made two Pro Bowls (including one in his 21st season) and had a fine career.

3 (con’t) – WR Eddie Kennison, Chiefs – Kennison, who didn’t play last season, signed a ceremonial contract so that he could retire as a Chief. The 13-year vet had more than 8,300 receiving yards in his career, and his two thousand-yard seasons came with the Chiefs in ’04 and ’05. For a guy who said he wanted to retire back in 2001 in Denver, Kennison’s five years with the Chiefs were a nice renaissance. The former first-round pick by the Rams lived up to that draft billing and had a good career, and it’s nice to see he gets a pat on the back as he hangs up the cleats.

3 (con’t) – WR David Patten, Patriots – Patten started his pro career in the Arena League, but he fought his way onto the Giants and into a 12-year career. His best days came with the Patriots’ three Super Bowl winners. He even became an NFL oddity by throwing a touchdown, receiving a touchdown, and running for a score in the same game back in 2001. Patten finishes his career with 324 catches for 4,715 yards and 24 catches, and Bill Belichick’s respect, which says even more about the way Patten prepared and played.

3 (con’t) – LB Mark Simoneau, Chiefs – Simoneau, who played nine years with the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints, was trying to come back after missing the 2009 season with injury, but after just one game in 2010 his body proved it couldn’t handle the game anymore. Simoneau started four seasons with the Saints and Eagles, and he won a Super Bowl ring on injured reserve for the Saints last season.

2 – P Craig Hentrich, Titans – Hentrich hung up his cleats after an injury-plagued 2009 season that capped off his 17-year career. But on the whole, it was a good run for Hentrich, who punted for the Packers and then Tennessee in his career. He won a Super Bowl with Green Bay and then went to Tennessee as a free agent. He made two Pro Bowls as a Titan and won Pro Football Weekly’s Golden Toe award in 1999 (I actually wrote the story on that award). Tennessee found a solid replacement for Hentrich during the season in Brett Kern, and that makes this a good time for a good guy to end a really good career.

2 (con’t) – OT Ryan Tucker, Browns – Tucker had a solid career with the Rams, where he started on the 2001 Super Bowl losing team, and then the Browns, but he played just one game in 2008 and missed the ’09 season with injury. If that wasn’t enough to show him the end of the road had come, the 8-game suspension he would have to serve for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy a second time most likely did. It’s an inglorious way to end a 12-year career.

2 (con’t) – WR-ST Sean Morey, Seahawks – Morey, who signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, made his living as a special-teams dynamo. He made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and was on a Super Bowl champ in Pittsburgh and a runner-up in Arizona. The Ivy Leaguer had just 11 career catches, yet he played seven full seasons after playing just two games between 1999 and 2002 at the start of his career. That’s a big statement on his value. Morey retired because of repeated concussions, and any player who has struggled with concussions needs to read what Morey told Peter King.

2 (con’t) – WR David Tyree, Giants – Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl 42 is one of the iconic catches in NFL history, and it was also the last grab of Tyree’s career. Better known as a Pro Bowl-level special teams player, Tyree played five seasons for the Giants before an injury shelved him in 2008. He returned to play 10 games on special teams for the Ravens last year, but Tyree wasn’t signed in the offseason and so he signed with the Giants to retire with the team. He’ll be a Giants legend for one play, and that’s not a bad legacy to leave with.

2 (con’t) – RB Glen Coffee, 49ers – Coffee, a third-round pick in 2009’s draft, had a nice career at Alabama and appeared to be a nice backup option to Frank Gore last season. That’s an important role, because Gore has missed a handful of games in his career. Glen got a cup of coffee as a starter early last season when Gore missed Weeks 4 and 5, but he ran for just 128 yards on 49 carries. On the season, he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, and he faced a challenge from rookie Anthony Dixon and holdover Michael Robinson for the backup RB role this year. But during training camp, Coffee decided that he wanted to move on from football. It’s a blow to the 49ers to have a young contributor hang up his cleats, and it raises questions about whether something in San Francisco drove the 22-year-old away.

1 – TE Casey Fitzsimmons, Lions – Fitzsimmons played seven seasons for the Lions, and although he rarely started, he had developed into a second tight end who could make some plays in the passing game and hold his own as a blocker. But concussions led the team to recommend that Fitzsimmons retire, and so he chose to end his career before his play dictated doing so.

1 (con’t) – OLB Jeremy Thompson, Packers – Thompson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, suffered a neck injury in a December practice that will force him to retire. The Wake Forest product played in 15 games, starting three, in his two years with the Pack and had just nine tackles from scrimmage.

1 (con’t) – LB John DiGiorgio, Bills  – DiGiorgio played three seasons in Buffalo, including one as a starter, but he suffered a severe knee injury in Week 7 in 2008 and hasn’t been able to recover. He’s retiring as a result.

1 (con’t) – LS Mike Schneck, Falcons – Schneck made one Pro Bowl in his 11-year career with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Atlanta, which makes him at least worth noting.

1 (con’t) – OT Matt McChesney, Broncos – McChesney started his career in 2005 as a defensive lineman, then moved to the offensive line to try to continue his career. But of all things, a golf-course injury ended his career when his surgically repaired ankle was run over by a golf cart. He played a total of four NFL games for the Jets and Dolphins and was expected to contend for a roster spot in Denver this year.

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Panthers/Falcons thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week Two game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Falcons won 28-20 in the Georgia Dome.

On-field
*The Falcons continue to show that they’re a solid team across the board. Even though Michael Turner hasn’t yet had a huge game, the offense is moving well.The addition of Tony Gonzalez has been absolutely huge, because he gives Matt Ryan another elite-level target along with Roddy White. That mitigates the fact that Atlanta’s other receivers are average.
*Even without Jerious Norwood for most of the game, Atlanta’s running game was terrific. Jason Snelling stepped right in with 47 yards from scrimmage, including a TD catch, while Turner got stronger as the game went on and finished with 105 yards and a late touchdown.
*A lot of that offensive success is due to Atlanta’s solid offensive line. Guard Harvey Dahl has a mean streak that you need, and the fact that Julius Peppers and Everette Brown were stonewalled says something about second-year OLT Sam Baker. Atlanta held Carolina without a sack in this game.
*Atlanta’s defense isn’t great, but it’s good. OLB Mike Peterson has added an edge and some play-making ability in pass coverage that Keith Brooking didn’t provide, while second-year MLB Curtis Lofton continues to emerge as a force. DE John Abraham is a factor whenever he’s in the game as well, and backup DE Kroy Biermann has flashed ability in the first two games of the season. Young CB Chris Houston and veteran Brian Williams are a nice duo as well. This D isn’t going to completely shut anyone down, but it’s good enough to make the Falcons a dangerous team.
*For Carolina, Jake Delhomme was OK, and the offense moved the ball accordingly. As long as Delhomme avoids meltdown mode, the Panthers can move the ball thanks to a mauling offensive line and terrific RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
*Steve Smith is a great receiver, Muhsin Muhammad is still a good receiver, and TEs Jeff King and Dante Rosario are OK. But the Panthers don’t have any WR depth, and that hurts when they’re trying to come back as they were in this game.
*Carolina’s defense really struggled for the second week in a row. The lack of DT depth hurt, as Turner was able to wear down the interior of the defense. And without any pass rush, Ryan did pretty much whatever he wanted. LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis played well, but they can’t be expected to snuff out the run game by themselves.
*I really like Carolina’s CB duo of Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble for their aggressiveness and their tackling, but they don’t get to show their skills off fully in the Panthers’ cover-2 scheme. I liked the Ron Meeks hire as defensive coordinator in the offseason, but I’m starting to waver on that.
*The Panthers have some serious special-teams problems. Already this season, they’ve given up a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown, along with some sizable kickoff returns. That has to change if they’re going to crawl out of their 0-2 hole.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*Steve Smith is going to be OK. If you picked Smith early in your draft, you undoubtedly had some fears after Week One. But with Jake Delhomme rebounding, Smith showed that he can still be highly productive for fantasy owners.
*Aside from Smith, none of the Panthers’ receivers is worth owning. Muhsin Muhammad gets some looks, but everyone else is a bit player for fantasy leagues. Likewise, Delhomme is not really a major fantasy threat. He might end up being an OK backup in larger leagues, but don’t count on him for more.
*The Panthers have three decent receiving tight ends in Jeff King, Dante Rosario, and Gary Barnidge. But even though Rosario caught a touchdown in this game, he’s not a fantasy factor. Rosario plays as the movement tight end in two-TE sets, but King is on the field more. So while Rosario looks good catching the ball, he doesn’t get enough playing time to be a top-20 fantasy tight end.
*Both Panthers running backs are really good. DeAngelo Williams will end the season as a top 8 or top 10 back, and Jonathan Stewart will be a yardage force with limited touches. This game is actually going to be pretty typical of the workload spread between the two players and the production you can reasonably expect.
*Michael Turner is not a dynamic back like Adrian Peterson, but he’s a very good back who, like Williams, will end up being a top guy this year.
*Jason Snelling had a good game, but he’s not a fantasy factor because he’s below Jerious Norwood in the pecking order, and Norwood is barely ownable in most leagues. So let Snelling lie on your waiver wire this week, despite the talent he displayed this week.
*Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are both fantasy starters, and Matt Ryan may be as well. The addition of Gonzalez is going to help Ryan grow his TD numbers from 16 last year into the 20s this year. He’s growing as a fantasy option.

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FR: Receivers for 2009 and beyond

When I was writing the post about Terrell Owens going to Buffalo, I mentioned that there were at least 5 receivers I would take before Owens. So that got me to thinking… Exactly where does Owens rate among receivers in the NFL going into 2009? So I compiled a relativity post comparing NFL receivers to each other. (We already did this earlier this offseason with quarterbacks.)

Here are the qualifications I used: Since so many receivers start and/or play in the NFL, I used a statistical benchmark. We’ll rate the 33 receivers who had at least 800 yards receiving in 2008. In addition, we’re including nine of 10 receivers who had 800 yards in ’07 but not ’08 (omitting Shaun McDonald). We’re also including two of the 3 receivers who had 1,000 yards in ’06 but didn’t reach 800 in either of the last two years (omitting Mike Furrey). That leaves 44 receivers, who we’ve compared on 10 levels. 10 is the level for the ultimate receiver, and 1 is a guy who shouldn’t be starting anymore.

10 – Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson. Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and his play in the playoffs was at a level we haven’t seen much at all since Jerry Rice was in his prime. Andre Johnson is a physical specimen whose only negative is his inability to stay healthy. Smith is a gamebreaker who is just 5-foot-9, but the Panthers are still able to throw jump balls up and trust Smith to catch them, as if he were 6-foot-5. (The end of last year’s win at Green Bay was a prime example.) Calvin Johnson had terrible quarterbacks and still had an amazing year. If the Lions get a young quarterback who can grow with Johnson, watch out.

9 – Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Hines Ward. Wayne has developed into a true No. 1 receiver in an offense that remains one of the league’s most potent. Moss is a tremendous deep threat who has resurrected his great career in New England. Welker, Moss’ teammate, is the ultimate slot receiver who catches pass after pass and gets first down after first down. He’s impossible to cover inside. Ward isn’t a gamebreaker with the ball, but his ability to block downfield puts him on this level. He remains a great asset, especially on a running team.

8 – Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin, Roddy White, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings. So there are eight receivers definitely ahead of Owens on my list, and I’d take Boldin and maybe White on this list above him in ’09 as well. (Thinking long term, Bowe and Jennings would move ahead of him too.) Owens is still a gamebreaker, but his hands were spotty last year, and his age (35) says a slow-down is coming before too long. Boldin is a great receiver after the catch, and he could be a No. 1 on most teams. However, he’s not at Fitzgerald’s level. White emerged as a good receiver in ’07 and took another step forward last year. He and Matt Ryan will be a top-flight combo for a long time. Bowe is physically gifted, and he’s put up good numbers in bad offenses the last two years. It’ll be fun to see how he steps up with Matt Cassel at the Chiefs’ helm now. Marshall has the talent to be a 9, but his off the field issues have made him unreliable. He could easily miss some games on league suspension in ’09, and that has to be accounted for. I’m not sure I would gamble on him as a long-term answer at this point. Jennings has developed into a strong threat, and last year he finally passed Donald Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 threat. He and Aaron Rodgers make another good pitch-and-catch combo.

7 – Santana Moss, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, Donald Driver, Lee Evans , Braylon Edwards – Moss is a consistent playmaker for Washington, but his lack of size keeps him from being higher on this comparison. Houshmandzadeh has been a consistently good possession receiver, but he can be a bit more – and will have a chance to prove it in Seattle this year. Holmes emerged as a game-changing receiver in the playoffs, and I expect him to knock down the door and become an elite receiver in ’09. Driver is getting up in age but has been a productive guy under the radar for several years. Evans is a deep threat whose yards-per-catch average is always good and should be better with T.O. in Buffalo now. Edwards struggled with drops last year, which keeps him down on this list, but he has the talent to be on the 8 or 9 level if he improves his consistency.

6 – Antonio Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Derrick Mason, Eddie Royal, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Bernard Berrian, Roy Williams  – Bryant finally capitalized on his immense talent level last year in Tampa. If he can do it again and stay on the field, he’ll rocket up this list. Jackson is a big receiver who quietly had a monster year in ’08. He and Philip Rivers are a pretty good answer as a pitch-and-catch combo. Mason has lost a step from his Tennessee days, but he’s a solid veteran receiver who still makes more plays than you might expect. Royal had a great rookie season and is an ideal complement to Brandon Marshall because of his speed, shiftiness, and breakaway ability. Moore emerged last year as a big-time player in New Orleans’ offense. He’s the inside receiver who can make big plays, while Colston is the big outside receiver. Both are good, and if Colston gets healthy, that could be an elite tandem in ’09. Berrian has breakaway ability, and he delivered a fair amount of big plays last year after Minnesota brought him over to be their No. 1 wideout. Williams has all the ability in the world but didn’t produce last year after moving to Dallas. He has the ability to move up this ranking, but does he have the will?

5 – Steve Breaston, DeSean Jackson, Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, Muhsin Muhammad, Torry Holt – Breaston emerged as a legitimate starter in Arizona last year and is ready to step in and produce if Anquan Boldin moves on. Jackson was a big-play source as a rookie, but his size may prohibit him from being a true No. 1. He’s better as the big-play threat than the every-down target. Cotchery isn’t dynamic, but he’s solid and can put up numbers. Coles, who moved to Cincinnati, is not as good as he thinks he is but is still an above-average NFL starter. Johnson (or Ocho Cinco, if you prefer) had a down year last year, and he’s been banged up the last two years. Can he still be a true No. 1 guy? Muhammad had a suprisingly big year returning to Carolina in ’08 and is also a good downfield blocker. He is still a quality complement to Steve Smith. Holt was banged up much of last year, and injuries have slowed him down at least a little, but he can still be an effective starter as long as a team has a speed guy who can draw coverge his way on the opposite side.

4 – Kevin Walter, Kevin Curtis – Walter had a big year in Houston last year and seems to be a good complement to Andre Johnson. He’s good enough to be an above-average No. 2 target. Curtis battled injuries last year but had a big year in ’07. He probably fits better as a No. 3 than a No. 2, but he won’t kill a team if it has to start him.

3 – Plaxico Burress – Burress has worlds of talent, but his off-the-field issues drop him well down the list. The fact that the Giants are at least considering keeping him, though, shows he still has some value.

2- Joey Galloway, Bobby Engram  -Welcome to the has-been haven. Galloway is moving to New England to show he still has value, but he’s a No. 3 there at best. He probably still can succeed in that role. Engram moves to Kansas City, where his possession skills should help take some pressure off of Dwayne Bowe.

1 – Chris Chambers, Javon Walker, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce – Has-been haven continues Chambers went to San Diego in ’07 to be a No. 1, but he’s slipped while Vincent Jackson has stepped up. Now it’s a question whether Chambers can even be an average No. 2 target. Walker has been a major bust in Oakland, but 2 years ago in Denver (before a serious knee injury) he was dynamic. It’s unlikely he can near that form again, but he’s still the Raiders’ best option. Harrison had a decent year last year, but he’s falling off, and he needs to find the perfect situation to keep playing. Bruce wasn’t bad in San Francisco, but he’s in decline too. He’s considering retirement, and if he plays he might not even be starter quality anymore.

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