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Jersey Numbers: Defensive Backs

This is our final post in picking the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. Next, we’ll combine all of our posts to create our all-jersey number 2009 team.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post and linebackers in this post. Now we move to defensive backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

20 – Ed Reed, Ravens – This hasn’t been Reed’s best year because of injury, but he still has three interceptions and three forced fumbles in 11 games. No safety in the league has had more impact this decade than Reed, and the fact that he won the league’s defensive player of the year award in a year that his team didn’t make the playoffs speaks to his greatness. So he gets the nod over long-time standouts S Brian Dawkins of Denver and CB Ronde Barber of Tampa Bay. Other notable 20s: Mike Adams, Browns; Alan Ball, Cowboys; Atari Bigby, Packers; Ralph Brown, Cardinals; Antoine Cason, Chargers; Chris Gamble, Panthers; Randall Gay, Saints; Brent Grimes, Falcons; Nick Harper, Titans; Michael Johnson, Giants; David Jones, Bengals; Keenan Lewis, Steelers; T.J. Rushing, Colts; Anthony Smith, Jaguars; Keith Smith, 49ers; Craig Steltz, Bears; Justin Tryon, Redskins; Jonathan Wade, Rams; Donald Washington, Chiefs; Donte Whitner, Bills; Madieu Williams, Vikings

21 – Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders – It’s an incredibly difficult call to go with Asomugha over Green Bay’s Charles Woodson, who is having an epic renaissance year in Green Bay. But while Woodson has eight interceptions, Asomugha has one pick and just four passes defensed because teams refuse to throw his way. That ultimate sign of respect ultimately gives Nnamdi the nod. Injured Colts S Bob Sanders, a former defensive player of the year, would be in this discussion were he able to stay healthy. Other notable 21s: Asher Allen, Vikings; O.J. Atogwe, Rams; Derek Cox, Jaguars; Vontae Davis, Dolphins; Andre’ Goodman, Broncos; Corey Graham, Bears; Joselio Hanson, Eagles; Mike Jenkins, Cowboys; Kelly Jennings, Seahawks; Dwight Lowery, Jets; Chris Owens, Falcons; Kenny Phillips, Giants; Sabby Piscitelli, Buccaneers; Brodney Pool, Browns; Antrel Rolle, Cardinals; Lardarius Webb, Ravens; John Wendling, Bills; Dante Wesley, Panthers

22 – Asante Samuel, Eagles – First in New England and now in Philadephia, Samuel has been and still is a top-level cornerback. His eight interceptions this year is the second-best total in his career, and he now has 34 in his career. Other notable 22s: Nate Clements, 49ers; Vincent Fuller, Titans; William Gay, Steelers; Chevis Jackson, Falcons; Johnathan Joseph, Bengals; Pat Lee, Packers; Brandon McDonald, Browns; Tracy Porter, Saints; Carlos Rogers, Redskins; Samari Rolle, Ravens; Benny Sapp, Vikings; Matt Ware, Cardinals; Terrence Wheatley, Patriots

23 – DeAngelo Hall, Redskins – It pains me to honor Hall, but he’s the best of the lot at a thinner number. Hall was OK in Atlanta and then awful in Oakland, but in D.C. he’s been pretty good. So he gets the nod over New England’s Leigh Bodden, a solid but unspectacular corner, declining CB Marcus Trufant of Seattle, and CB Dunta Robinson of Houston. Other notable 23s: Tyrone Carter, Steelers; Cedric Griffin, Vikings; Renaldo Hill, Broncos; Kevin Hobbs, Lions; Chris Houston, Falcons; Marcus Hudson, 49ers; Quentin Jammer, Chargers; Tim Jennings, Colts; Sherrod Martin, Panthers; Donnie Nickey, Titans; Dimitri Patterson, Eagles; Jermaine Phillips, Buccaneers; Hank Poteat, Browns; Mike Richardson, Chiefs; Corey Webster, Giants

24 – Darrelle Revis, Jets – Revis has had a breakout season as the preeminent lockdown corner in the league. So even though he wears the same number as all-time great CB Champ Bailey of Denver, stud safety Adrian Wilson of Arizona, and former Pro Bowl S Chris Hope of Tennessee, Revis is the obvious choice. Other notable 24s: Al Afalava, Bears; Ron Bartell, Rams; Sheldon Brown, Eagles; Jarrett Bush, Packers; Brandon Flowers, Chiefs; Dominique Foxworth, Ravens; Deon Grant, Seahawks; Tye Hill, Falcons; Michael Huff, Raiders; Dante Hughes, Chargers; Terrence McGee, Bills; Kalvin Pearson, Lions; Sean Smith, Dolphins; Ike Taylor, Steelers; Terrell Thomas, Giants; Leigh Torrance, Saints; Jonathan Wilhite, Patriots; Eric Wright, Browns

25 – Ryan Clark, Steelers – In a battle of former teammates, we’ll go with hard-hitting strong safety Clark over CB Bryant McFadden, who left Pittsburgh to play corner for Arizona in the offseason. Clark doesn’t get the hype that his teammate Troy Polamalu does, but he’s a good player who really fits into the attitude of the Pittsburgh defense. Other notable 25s: Will Allen, Dolphins; Kevin Barnes, Redskins; Tarell Brown, 49ers; Chris Carr, Ravens; Pat Chung, Patriots; Kevin Ellison, Chargers; Nick Ferguson, Texans; Coye Francies, Browns; Danny Gorrer, Rams; Bruce Johnson, Giants; Tyrell Johnson, Vikings; Ellis Lankster, Bills; William Moore, Falcons; Reggie Nelson, Jaguars; Jerraud Powers, Colts; Kerry Rhodes, Jets; Aqib Talib, Buccaneers; Morgan Trent, Bengals; Pat Watkins, Cowboys; Marvin White, Lions

26 – Antoine Winfield, Vikings – Winfield is not just a great cover corner; he also hits with the tenacity of a safety. Even though he’s missed several games this season, we’ll give him the nod. So he gets the nod over fine Lions rookie S Louis Delmas. Other notable 26s: Will Allen, Buccaneers; Josh Bell, Packers; Michael Coe, Jaguars; Erik Coleman, Falcons; Abram Elam, Browns; Ken Hamlin, Cowboys; Kelvin Hayden, Colts; Sean Jones, Eagles; Kevin Kaesviharn, Titans; Dawan Landry, Ravens; Ty Law, Broncos; Mark Roman, 49ers; Stanford Routt, Raiders; Lito Sheppard, Eagles; Quinton Teal, Panthers; DeShea Townsend, Steelers; Eugene Wilson, Texans; Josh Wilson, Seahawks; Ashton Youboty, Bills

27 – Rashean Mathis, Jaguars – He doesn’t get a lot of attention because he plays in front of empty seats, but Mathis is a terrific cover corner. He gets the nod over two safeties, Jordan Babineaux of the Seahawks and Philadelphia’s Quintin Mikell. Other notable 27s: Michael Adams, Cardinals; Kyle Arrington, Patriots; Will Blackmon, Packers; Daniel Bullocks, Lions; Joe Burnett, Steelers; Reggie Corner, Bills; Torrie Cox, Buccaneers; Jamaal Fudge, Falcons; Cletis Gordon, Cowboys; Walt Harris, 49ers; Malcolm Jenkins, Saints; Jacob Lacey, Colts; Paul Oliver, Chargers; David Roach, Rams; Fred Smoot, Redskins; Nick Sorensen, Browns; Donald Strickland, Jets; C.J. Wilson, Panthers

28 – Gibril Wilson, Dolphins – Wilson was a safety on the Giants’ Super Bowl champion team, and then got a contract that was too big from the Raiders. But the Raiders cut him after the season, and Wilson found a great home in Miami. Other notable 28s: Darius Butler, Patriots; Thomas DeCoud, Falcons; Steve Gregory, Chargers; Marlin Jackson, Colts; Leodis McKelvin, Bills; Antwuan Molden, Texans; Curtis Taylor, 49ers; Greg Toler, Cardinals; Usama Young, Saints; Tom Zbikowski, Ravens

29 – Leon Hall, Bengals – Hall has been the breakout corner of the season, as he and Johnathan Joseph have given the Bengals a terrific pair of corners. Hall has five picks and 20 passes defensed this season. He gets the nod over Arizona’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another good young corner. Other notable 29s: Tyrone Culver, Dolphins; Drayton Florence, Bills; Lendy Holmes, Redskins; D.J. Johnson, Giants; Eric King, Lions; Derrick Martin, Packers; Marcus McCauley, Saints; William Middleton, Jaguars; Ryan Mouton, Texans; Ryan Mundy, Steelers; Glover Quin, Texans; Derrick Roberson, Buccaneers; Shawn Springs, Patriots; Brian Williams, Falcons; Cary Williams, Ravens

30 – Mike Brown, Chiefs – At a popular safety number, Brown gets the nod with his renaissance season in Kansas City. He has stayed healthy all season after injury problems plagued him in three of his last five years in Chicago. So he earns the choice over Charles Godfrey of Carolina, LaRon Landry of Washington, and Brandon McGowan of the Patriots. Other notable 30s: David Bruton, Broncos; Chris Clemons, Dolphins; Drew Coleman, Jets; Gerard Lawson, Browns; Jason McCourty, Titans; D.J. Moore, Bears; Geoffrey Pope, Eagles; Ko Simpson, Lions; Reggie Smith, 49ers

31 – Cortland Finnegan, Titans – If Antoine Winfield isn’t the most physical corner in the league, Finnegan is. He’s vital to the Titans’ defense and their strong second half of the season. So he gets the nod over rookie sensation Jarius Byrd of Buffalo and corners Antonio Cromartie of San Diego and Al Harris of Green Bay. Other notable 31s: Dre’ Bly, 49ers; Phillip Buchanon, Lions; Hiram Eugene, Raiders; Ellis Hobbs, Eagles; Justin King, Rams; Maurice Leggett, Chiefs; Ken Lucas, Seahawks; Richard Marshall, Panthers; Darcel McBath, Broncos; Brandon Meriweather, Patriots; Bernard Pollard, Texans; Pierson Prioleau, Saints; Aaron Ross, Giants; Scott Starks, Jaguars; Nathan Vasher, Bears; Fabian Washington, Redskins; Roy Williams, Bengals

32 – Eric Weddle, Chargers – At a tough number to call, we’ll give Weddle, a key player in the Chargers’ defense, a nod over CB Jabari Greer of New Orleans and big-money safety Michael Lewis of San Francisco. Other notable 32s: Jason Allen, Dolphins; Fred Bennett, Texans; Anthony Henry, Lions; Orlando Scandrick, Cowboys

33 – Charles Tillman, Bears – Tillman isn’t a premier cover corner, but he’s pretty good in coverage. He’s also a good tackler and great a punching the ball out, as his six forced fumbles attest. He gets the nod over Raiders SS Tyvon Branch, who has a ridiculous 110 tackles this season. Other notable 33s: Melvin Bullitt, Colts; Michael Griffin, Titans; Nate Jones, Dolphins; Elbert Mack, Buccaneers; Jamarca Sanford, Vikings; Alphonso Smith, Broncos; Eric Smith, Jets; Brandon Underwood, Packers

34 – Dominique Barber, Texans – At a thin number, Barber, a part-time starter at safety for the Texans, gets the nod over Mike McKenzie, a long-time solid pro who recently re-signed with the Saints. Other notable 34s: Marquice Cole, Jets; Travis Daniels, Chiefs; Kyries Hebert, Bengals; Roy Lewis, Seahawks; Mike Mitchell, Raiders; Byron Westbrook, Redskins

35 – Zack Bowman, Bears – Bowman took over as a starting cornerback in Chicago, replacing Nathan Vasher. He gets the nod over rookie safety Macho Harris of the Eagles. Other notable 35s: Kevin Dockery, Giants; Todd Johnson, Bills; Jacques Reeves, Texans

36 – Nick Collins, Packers – Collins is a terrific safety for the Packers, and he gets the edge over another safety, Tanard Jackson of Tampa Bay, because Jackson missed four games due to suspension earlier this year. Collins has six picks this year, while Jackson has four. Other notable 36s: Jamar Adams, Seahawks; Josh Barrett, Broncos; Josh Bullocks, Bears; Quincy Butler, Rams; Courtney Greene, Jaguars; Mike Hamlin, Cowboys; Brandon Hughes, Chargers; Jim Leonhard, Jets; Lawyer Milloy, Seahawks; James Sanders, Patriots; Shawntae Spencer, 49ers

37 – Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins – Bell is a solid starting safety for the Dolphins, and his tackle total (103) is among the tops for defensive backs across the NFL. So we opt for Bell over George Wilson, another tackling machine playing safety for Buffalo, and Raiders CB Chris Johnson. Other notable 37s: James Butler, Rams; Sean Considine, Jaguars; Reed Doughty, Redskins; Eric Frampton, Vikings; Roderick Hood, Titans; Anthony Madison, Steelers; Chip Vaughn, Saints

38 – Dashon Goldson, 49ers – Goldson is emerging as not just a starter at free safety but as an impact player for the Niners. He gets the nod over Packers CB Tramon Williams and Bears S-CB Danieal Manning. Other notable 38s: Brandon Anderson, Buccaneers; DeMarcus Faggans, Texans; Bret Lockett, Patriots; DaJuan Morgan, Chiefs; Mark Parson, Texans; Charlie Peprah, Falcons; Ramzee Robinson, Browns

39 – Brandon Carr, Chiefs – Carr has started all 30 games at cornerback for the Chiefs since he entered in the NFL as a 2008 fifth-round pick. He gets picked on a bit because Brandon Flowers is emerging as a good corner on the opposite side, but Carr has broken up 16 passes this year. Other notable 39s: Husain Abdullah, Vikings; Quintin Demps, Eagles; Trevor Ford, Packers; Chris Reis, Saints; DeAngelo Smith, Lions

40 – Marquand Manuel, Lions – Manuel has bounced around a lot, but he has been a starter in all but one of his six NFL stops. This year in Detroit, he started six of the nine games he played before going on injured reserve. Other notable 40s: John Busing, Texans; K.J. Gerard, Ravens; Jamie Silva, Colts

41 – Antoine Bethea, Colts – Bethea, the Colts’ starting free safety, has had to be the one constant in the secondary for the Colts this year, and he’s played his role well with 90 tackles and four interception. He gets the nod over Cowboys CB Terrence Newman, Saints S Roman Harper, and Bengals S Chinedum Ndukwe. Other notable 41s: Tyron Brackenridge, Jaguars; C.C. Brown, Giants; Antoine Harris, Falcons; William James, Lions; Corey Lynch, Buccaneers; Brice McCain, Texans; Kareem Moore, Redskins; Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers; Evan Oglesby, Dolphins; Karl Paymah, Vikings; C.J. Spillman, Chargers; Raymond Ventrone, Browns; Frank Walker, Ravens

42 –Darren Sharper, Saints – Sharper’s veteran leadership has helped the Saints stabilized their secondary, and the veteran continues to make plenty of plays. He has eight picks this year, three of which he’s returned for touchdowns, and now 62 career interceptions. Other notable 42s: Gerald Alexander, Jaguars; Chris Crocker, Bengals; Brian Russell, Texans; Jack Williams, Lions

43 – Troy Polamalu, Steelers -Polamalu has been hurt much of the year this year, but his ability to range and make plays is what takes the Steelers defense from good to great. He may miss the Pro Bowl for the first time since his rookie season, but he still gets the nod here in a walk. Other notable 43s: Craig Dahl, Rams; Aaron Francisco, Colts; Chris Harris, Panthers; Hakuri Nakamura, Ravens; Tom Nelson, Bengals; Bryan Scott, Bills; Gerald Sensabaugh, Cowboys

44 – Jarrad Page, Chiefs – Page was in his third season as a starting safety in K.C. before going on injured reserve after playing five games this season. Still, that’s a better resume than that of Kevin Payne, who has lost his starting safety job with the Bears. Other notable 44s: James Ihedigbo, Jets; Rico Murray, Bengals

45 – De’von Hall, Colts – Hall, an undrafted rookie out of Utah State, has seen action in four games in his rookie season, notching three tackles. He is the only active defensive back wearing 45.

46 – none

47 – Jon McGraw, Chiefs – McGraw is in his eighth season, and he has started seven games for Kansas City this season, which is a career high. He also recorded his first career sack this season. His long career of contributing gives him the nod over rookie Cary Harris of Buffalo and fourth-year man Matt Giordano of Green Bay.

48 – Chris Horton, Redskins – Horton, a second-year player out of UCLA, emerged as a starter in his rookie season but fell out of the lineup before a midseason injury stopped his sophomore campaign. He is the only notable DB wearing 48.

49 – Rashad Johnson, Cardinals – Johnson, a third-round pick out of Arizona, is the only active defensive back wearing 49. He has not seen action this year.

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Franchise players: Atogwe, Hill, Scaife & Starks

A final-day flurry resulted in a total of 14 franchise players in the NFL this offseason. That’s a record, topping the 11 tagged players last year and in 2005.

In this post we’ll cover four remaining franchise players who we haven’t yet covered on the blog. You can see how they compare relative to the full class of 14 in the finally finalized franchise player post.

S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams – Atogwe isn’t a big name, but he’s built a nice reputation in league circles. In fact, he probably would have been the top safety on the open market had he not been tagged. Atogwe, who has 13 interceptions over the last 2 seasons, is one of the few defensive building blocks the Rams have, so it was smart of them to make sure and keep him despite the $6.3 million investment.

LB Leroy Hill, Seattle – I first watched Hill when he was a redshift freshman at Clemson making more plays than a backup usually does. He continued exceeding expectations and became an immediate starter in Seattle despite being only a third-round pick. Hill hasn’t gotten the pub of fellow ‘backer Lofa Tatupu, but he has been a defensive stalwart nonetheless. But the $8.3 million guarantee the Seahawks are making to keep Hill is quite steep for a player who is only solid and not spectacular. This tag will only make sense for Seattle if they can reach a long-term deal with Hill.

TE Bo Scaife, Titans – Tennessee might have tagged PK Rob Bironas for the second straight year, but the Titans got a contract done just under the wire. So instead, they tagged Sciafe, who was their leading receiver last year with 58 catches. The cost isn’t severe – $4.46 million – so it’s a good move. Sciafe isn’t a game-changer, but he’s dependable. And because he’s depended on, he’s worth a tag.

OT Max Starks, Pittsburgh – Starks was a backup entering last offseason, but the Steelers gave him a tag worth almost $7 million. He ended up starting 11 games at left tackle when Marvel Smith got hurt. This year’s tag guarantees Starks $8.45 million. But here’s the thing – Starks isn’t starter quality. As a stopgap, he’s at least above putrid, but not much more than that. The Steelers have a ton of free agents on their line this offseason, so it makes sense to keep someone. But I get the feeling that Starks isn’t a solution now, nor will he ever be. He’s simply not worth the cost.

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FR: Franchise players

I thought that, as the franchise player window opens, we should play relativity with this year’s class of franchise players. We’ll rate them on a 10-point scale, with 10 being a franchise MVP (think Albert Haynesworth for Tennessee last year) and 1 being a why-bother-keeping guy. As we are doing with the head-coaching post, we’ll update this post with franchise players until the Feb. 19 deadline to name them passes.

(I’ve also begun including links to PFW’s free agent scouting reports, which are interesting reads and a great resource.)

10 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers – The next evolution of man, as Peppers was called by teammates, is an athletic freak. He’s 6-7, a lean 290 pounds, and as quick as most wide receivers. He wants out of Carolina, which runs a 4-3 defense, so that he can play in a 3-4 system as an outside rush linebacker. Peppers could be absolutely devastating in that role because of his athleticism, even though he’s almost too big to stand up and rush. The question is whether he could learn a new system quickly. His instincts aren’t always top-notch. Peppers wants out of Carolina, but the Panthers committed $16.683 million of cap room to him. (Insted of getting the $9 million tag that most defensive ends would, Peppers is guaranteed 20 percent more than his massive 2008 salary-cap figure.) Peppers has been a very good, productive player in Carolina, but for some reason he has stayed half a rung below elite level. Still, Peppers should fetch a trade bounty at least equal to what Jared Allen elicited last year (a first-rounder and two third-rounders). He is the biggest free agent tagged on the market this year, and his impending trade will be one of the biggest moves of the offseason whenever it happens.
(A note, just for the record: If the Raiders hadn’t been able to re-sign Nnamdi Asomugha and had franchised him again, Asomugha would have rated as a 10, and Peppers would have been a 9 with Suggs. Asomugha is the best player in the NFL at his position, and  you just can’t say the same about Peppers.)

9- OLB/Rush DE Terrell Suggs, Ravens – The Ravens enter free agency this offseason in a pickle. Three of their starting linebackers – Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Bart Scott – are entering the market. But Suggs’ skill set is the most irreplaceable. He is a strong pass rusher who fits perfectly in the Ravens’ 3-4 system. Suggs doesn’t get the hype of Demarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman, but he is nonetheless in their class as a rush specialist. The Ravens couldn’t afford to let him go, no matter the franchise price tag.

8- LB Karlos Dansby, Arizona – Along with Adrian Wilson, Dansby has been the heart of the Cards’ defense. Dansby is big and fast, and while his instincts don’t always seem to click, he still makes his share of plays. While some other players on this defense are more talented (namely Darnell Dockett and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), you could argue that only Wilson could be considered more important. That’s why the Cardinals are tagging Dansby for the second straight year. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Cardinals can get a long-term deal done with Dansby, as both sides say they want to. They should, because Dansby is a core player for this aggressive defense. This was a move the Cards had to make.

7- RB Brandon Jacobs, N.Y. Giants – Jacobs played as part of a RB trio with Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, so at first blush it’s a little surprising that he’s franchised. But when you look behind the surface, you realize that Ward is a free agent as well and will most likely be too rich for the Giants’ given his role in Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jacobs is at his best as a 20-carry guy who has a speedy counterpart. The Giants are set up for exactly that scenario. Few backs have Jacobs’ size and power, and his style dovetails with the kind of team the Giants want to be. This is a good fit between player and team, and it’s good to see the Giants recognize it. Jacobs is in the best position he could be, and it seems he realizes it. He wants a long-term deal and is confident it will happen. He even is taking the franchise tag as a compliment, which doesn’t always happen. This is a marriage that should and will continue. The only reason this ranking doesn’t go higher is that a running back’s career is shorter, and Jacobs is part of a duo. He won’t determine his team’s success, but he’s a big contributor.

6- WR Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers — The Bucs grabbed Bryant off the scrap heap, and he paid huge dividends in 2008 with 83 catches, 1,248 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Those are true No. 1 receiver numbers, and they reflect the way Bryant emerged last year. But that emergence was a long time coming for Bryant. Originally a Cowboy, he bombed out in Dallas after butting heads with Bill Parcells. He played for the Browns for 2 years, notching his first 1,000-yard season, and then played a year for the 49ers before being out of football in ’07. That background plays into this move. The Bucs need Bryant next year, because he’s by far the best receiver they have, and true No. 1 receivers just don’t hit the free-agent market very often. But it has to be a little scary to think about giving Bryant a long-term deal. So while the franchise tag probably represents an overpayment in ’09, it mitigates Tampa Bay’s long-term risk. For that reason, this move was necessary – even if it makes you grit your teeth just a smidge.

6 (con’t) – CB Dunta Robinson, Texans — Houston has focused its drafts, at least in the first round, on defense for years now. They’ve had some big hits with Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, and some misses with Travis Johnson and perhaps Amobi Okoye. Robinson has fought injuries, but when healthy he’s fit more in the hit category. That’s why the Texans have decided to pay nearly $10 million next year to keep Robinson, who has 13 interceptions in his 5-year career. Robinson isn’t an elite corner in the class of Nnamdi Asomugha, but he’s a legit starter. Ideally, the Texans would lock Robinson up long term and save some dollars this year. If Robinson could get a deal like the one Panthers CB Chris Gamble took (6 years, as much as $50 million), he should take it. And you could justify that from the Texans end as well. If this team is going to take the next step, they must keep core players, and Robinson is good enough to be considered part of that core.

5- RB Darren Sproles, San Diego – Sproles made a name for himself by starring for the Chargers in the playoffs this season. Although he’s tiny, he has superb speed that allows him to bust free as a return man or from the backfield. Sproles probably shouldn’t be a go-to back – I doubt he would hold up for the whole season – but in a Reggie Bush type of role, he can be a game changer more often than not. But is that worth $6.6 million a year? It is to the Chargers as long as they’re not expecting Sproles to replace LaDanian Tomlinson. But if they cut LDT, this move could easily blow up in their faces.

5 (con’t) – S Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams – Atogwe isn’t a big name, but he’s built a nice reputation in league circles. In fact, he probably would have been the top safety on the open market had he not been tagged. Atogwe, who has 13 interceptions over the last 2 seasons, is one of the few defensive building blocks the Rams have, so it was smart of them to make sure and keep him despite the $6.3 million investment.

4- QB Matt Cassel, New England – This is a bit of a strange move because Cassel projects as a backup for New England in ’09. Cincinnati (Stacy Andrews) and Pittsburgh (Max Starks) made similiar moves last year with offensive linemen, but the stakes (and dollars) are bigger at QB. (Cassel has signed a contract guaranteeting him $14.65 million, while Andrews and Starks were in the $7 million range.) The Pats will be investing a huge sum in quarterbacks, and Cassel’s decision to sign the tender means a trade is now unlikely. (A team would have to be under the salary cap enough to take the full hit on that contract.) But Cassel does provide insurance in case Tom Brady suffers a setback, and the Patriots retain the option to trade Cassel after the season. (Thanks to Mike Lombardi, we know that Cassel is someone who will not be an unrestricted free agent next offseason unless there’s a new agreement between owners and players.) The wisdom of this move is more than a 4, but the impact during the 2009 season likely won’t be, which is why Cassel falls where he does on this relativity scale.

4 (con’t) – TE Bo Scaife, Titans – Tennessee might have tagged PK Rob Bironas for the second straight year, but the Titans got a contract done just under the wire. So instead, they tagged Scaife, who was their leading receiver last year with 58 catches. The cost isn’t severe – $4.46 million – so it’s a good move. Scaife isn’t a game-changer, but he’s dependable. And because he’s depended on, he’s worth a tag.

3- P Michael Koenen, Falcons – Koenen has developed into quite a weapon for the Falcons. He was the king of no-return punts this year, as the Falcons allowed just 49 punt return yards all season. (That’s a league record.) Koenen’s leg strength is also a boon on kickoffs (he had 16 touchbacks), which allows the Falcons to use veteran kicker Jason Elam’s reliability on field goals without wasting a roster spot on a kickoff-only specialist. Koenen’s net-yardage speciality makes him one of the top punters in the league, so it’s fair – and smart – for the Falcons to pay him as such.

3 (con’t) – LB Leroy Hill, Seattle – I first watched Hill when he was a redshift freshman at Clemson making more plays than a backup usually does. He continued exceeding expectations and became an immediate starter in Seattle despite being only a third-round pick. Hill hasn’t gotten the pub of fellow ‘backer Lofa Tatupu, but he has been a defensive stalwart nonetheless. But the $8.3 million guarantee the Seahawks are making to keep Hill is quite steep for a player who is only solid and not spectacular. This tag will only make sense for Seattle if they can reach a long-term deal with Hill.

2- PK Shayne Graham, Bengals – Graham is a consistent kicker (85.6 percent field goals in his career), and he has found a home in Cincinnati after bouncing around as kickers often do at the beginning of their careers. Graham is a good kicker, but he’s not a game-changer. But given the Bengals’ free-agency status – and WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s vocal desire to leave – it makes at least a little sense to keep the guy who wants to stay. But Graham, while a good kicker, isn’t so much better than the rest of kickers that he deserves to be paid as a top-five guy. So this is a marginal move for a team that must make some serious upgrades in free agency to move forward.

1- OT Max Starks, Pittsburgh – Starks was a backup entering last offseason, but the Steelers gave him a tag worth almost $7 million. He ended up starting 11 games at left tackle when Marvel Smith got hurt. This year’s tag guarantees Starks $8.45 million. But here’s the thing – Starks isn’t starter quality. As a stopgap, he’s at least above putrid, but not much more than that. The Steelers have a ton of free agents on their line this offseason, so it makes sense to keep someone. But I get the feeling that Starks isn’t a solution now, nor will he ever be. He’s simply not worth the cost.

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