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Week 8 moves

We do a weekly update on major NFL transactions. We include signings, releases, and also players who are put on injured reserve, because they are lost for the year. You can check out the Week 7 transactions here and work your way back through the season.

Additions

Chiefs (claim WR Chris Chambers on waivers, sign CB Travis Daniels) – The Chiefs pounced when their division rivals the Chargers cut Chambers, a quality receiver for a long time who seems to have lost a step or a grip or something. Chambers is probably still good enough to play for the Chiefs, though he’s not better than current No. 2 and No. 3 receivers Bobby Wade and Mark Bradley. Daniels, a former Dolphin and Brown who was among the Chiefs’ final cuts in September, comes in to add depth in the secondary after the Chiefs had to put S Jarrad Page on injured reserve for the rest of the season after suffering an injury in practice last week.

Broncos (add CB Ty Law) – Law isn’t the game changer he was back in his days with the Patriots, but last year he was an effective half-season player for the Jets. He kept himself in good shape last season, so it’s fair to assume he’ll be ready to play pretty much right away for the Broncos this year. He adds depth to a cornerback group that includes superstar Champ Bailey as well as Andre Goodman and rookie Alphonso Smith.

Buccaneers (add PK Connor Barth and Mike Mickens) – The Buccaneers tried to make two upgrades, signing Barth to replace Shane Andrus and signing Mickens to replace Marcus McCauley. As bad as the Bucs are, these moves won’t make the difference, but churning the roster looking for someone who can help now or in the future isn’t a bad plan.

49ers (add CB Keith Smith) – Smith, who spent the last five seasons with the Lions, adds depth to a secondary that will be without CB Nate Clements for several weeks. To make room for Smith on the roster, the Niners cut WR Micheal Spurlock.

Subtractions

Colts (put LB Tyjuan Hagler and CB Marlin Jackson on injured reserve) – You can read much more of the impact of these injuries in this post on the Colts. Indy promoted LB Cody Glenn from the practice squad to take Hagler’s roster spot and signed DE Josh Thomas, who played for the team over the past five years, to fill Jackson’s place on the 53-man roster.

Seahawks (cut RB Edgerrin James and CB Travis Fisher; put S C.J. Wallace on injured reserve) – James, who signed with the Seahawks just before the season, averaged just 2.9 yards per carry over the first seven games of the season. This is just about the end of James’ solid career. He did pile up just enough yards in Seattle to move into the top 10 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, so that’s a positive to his lackluster Seahawk tenure. The Seahawks also cut Fisher, who had served as a backup corner, and put Wallace, a special-teamer, on injured reserve. By making these moves, Seattle cleared space to promote three players from the practice squad – WR Mike Hass, S Jamar Adams, and CB Roy Lewis. That will allow the Seahawks to get a look at these young players and see if they might fit as roster pieces going forward.

Texans (put TE Owen Daniels on injured reserve) – Daniels, one of the top three or four tight ends in the league, was having a great season before he suffered a torn ACL against Buffalo last week. He’s now gone for the season, which is a huge loss to the Texans’ prolific passing game. It will likely take a better effort from wide receivers Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones to make up for Daniels’ absence, because the Texans don’t have another tight end who is anywhere close to Daniels as a receiver. To replace Daniels on the roster, the Texans promoted DE Jess Nading from the practice squad.

Patriots (cut OG Kendall Simmons) – The Pats took a chance on Simmons, the long-time Steeler who was trying to come back from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered last season, but Simmons never found a role in New England and his only game action came on special teams.

Falcons (put S Jamaal Fudge and LS Mike Schneck on injured reserve) – The Falcons put two more guys on injured reserve this week. Schneck was a reliable long snapper for the Falcons over the past several years. To replace him, the Falcons signed Bryan Pittman, who snapped for the Texans for many years. To replace Fudge, Atlanta added Charlie Peprah.

Bengals (cut OG Scott Kooistra) – Kooistra had been a backup for the Bengals since Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincy in 2003, but he had just one start during his tenure. His roster spot was taken by FB Fui Vakapuna, but his departure more likely means that rookie first-rounder Andre Smith is getting closer to playing.

Rams (cut WR Tim Carter) – Carter, a former Giant, never latched in St. Louis after arriving there earlier this season. If he can’t cut it in that mediocre receiving corps, he has little hope of hooking on elsewhere in the league.

Browns (cut PK Billy Cundiff and CB Anthony Madison) – Cundiff had served as a fill-in for the injured Phil Dawson, who is now ready to return. Madison had mainly played on special teams for Cleveland.

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 10 Tight Ends

Over these midseason weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

We’ve already done this with the top 35 running backs and emerging running backs and with the top 35 wide receivers and emerging wide receivers. Now we turn to the top 10 tight ends from our preseason draft board.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top tight ends who weren’t in our top 10 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Jason Witten, Cowboys – As the Cowboys have struggled, Witten has been perhaps the biggest victim. He has 259 yards receiving, which is OK for a player who’s already had a bye, but just one touchdown. He’s not the No. 1 overall tight end that we expected before the season, but he is still a guy you must start each and every week. So as a starter going forward, we’re going to clap, despite the disappointment those who drafted him high must have. Verdict: Applaud

2. Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark has always been a terrific fantasy producer, but thus far this year he’s taken it to another level. With Anthony Gonzalez missing so much time, Clark has stepped up into an even bigger role in the offense, and the results are stirring. Even though he’s had his bye, he leads all tight ends with 441 yards (that’s 84 yards per game) and he also has two touchdowns. He deserves not just applause but a standing ovation. Verdict: Applaud

3. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – In his first year in Atlanta, Gonzalez has proven he still has it as a top-tier fantasy tight end. His yardage total of 267 is a little lower than usual (just 46 yards per game), but he does have three touchdowns, all in the Georgia Dome. Those touchdowns make Gonzalez still a reliable fantasy tight end for those who invested a high draft pick in him. Verdict: Applaud

4. Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates has quietly piled up a whopping 419 yards on the season (that’s 70 per game), and although he has just two touchdowns, he’s still one of the top fantasy producers at tight end. Owners might wish that the Chargers looked to Gates more in the red zone, but they can’t complain about finally having him healthy and productive once again. Verdict: Applaud

5. Greg Olsen, Bears – We figured that Olsen would emerge as Jay Cutler’s favorite target, and so we moved him up to the top of the second tier of tight ends. So far, that has been a dicey move. Olsen is producing fantasy points because he has three touchdowns in the first six games, but he has just 151 yards. That 25 yards-per-game average has to go up, and if Olsen keeps getting in the end zone it this will turn out OK for fantasy owners, but it’s still hard to make ourselves clap for Olsen because we expected so much before the season. Still, Olsen is a solid fantasy starter, and so we’ll clap. Verdict: Applaud

6. Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels was the other tight end we put in the second tier, and that has paid off. Daniels has been a terrific yardage-producer in recent years, and he’s done that again with 374 yards through six games (that’s 62 per game). But after scoring just two touchdowns last year, he already has four in ’09. That’s a huge blessing for Daniels owners who find themselves with one of the most productive fantasy tight ends around. Verdict: Applaud

7. Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley, like Daniels, is a long-time top receiver who saw his touchdown total dive in ’08. That trend appears to be continuing in ’09. He has 311 yards (52 per game) and 2 touchdowns, which is OK production, but given the Redskins’ problems at quarterback and their widespread offensive line injuries, fantasy owners have to be worried about whether Cooley can continue to produce starting-caliber numbers going forward. Given how good a player Cooley is, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but this is a close call. Verdict: Applaud

8. Dustin Keller, Jets – We figured that Keller, who had a nice rookie season with Brett Favre as his quarterback, would prove to be Mark Sanchez’s safety net this year. Plus, the Jets didn’t have top receivers, and so Keller figured to help fill in that gap. But the addition of Braylon Edwards and Sanchez’s recent meltdown have limited Keller’s fantasy production. He’s averaging just 31 yards per game (187 total) and has just one touchdown, and things don’t look to be getting better soon. If you have Keller as a starter, it’s time for a change. Verdict: A fraud

9. John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson’s numbers look OK, with 294 yards (59 per game) and two touchdowns. But since his six-catch, 95-yard, two-touchdown game in Week 1, Carlson hasn’t had more than 55 yards in a game. We don’t like that trend, and that leads us to pass on Carlson as a fantasy starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

10. Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – In a lost season in Tampa Bay, Winslow has emerged as a solid threat for the Bucs. He has 286 yards (47 per game) and four touchdowns, which is solid for tight ends. Since Winslow is the only thing going in Tampa, it seems like he can keep producing no matter who’s at quarterback for the Bucs. As a result, we’ll continue to recommend Winslow as a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

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Filed under Applaud/A Fraud, Fantasy Football, Football Relativity

FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys– It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets – New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns – The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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Fantasy Football: Valuing Tight Ends

One of the most difficult things I face every year in putting together my fantasy football draft board is valuing tight ends properly. Part of this is because of the peculiarity of the leagues I play in. Two of the three leagues include tight ends with wide receivers, and so very few tight ends are worthing of starting in the WR/TE position. But the other league requires a tight end starter.

So I thought I’d go through the top tight ends and compare them as fantasy options using the football relativity scale. On this scale, 10 is a tight end who is an elite fantasy player, and 1 is a tight end who’s only worth owning in leagues of 12 teams or more that require a tight end starting every week. We’ll indicate on the scale the levels where the tight ends are also starters at WR/TE positions and where tight ends are worth owning as backups in WR/TE leagues.

One more note before we begin: you can follow all of our previous fantasy football articles by following the fantasy football category here on the blog.

10 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten is a catch machine. He had 81 catches for 952 yards following a 96-catch, 1,145-yard season in ’07. But he had just four touchdowns last year, which was a mid-pack figure for tight ends. But with Terrell Owens gone, Witten is by far the most dependable receiving option in Dallas, and you can reasonably expect that Witten gets some of the red-zone looks that Owens demanded in previous years. That means that last year’s numbers are on the low end of what you can expect from Witten in ’09, and his TD numbers should go up as well. He’s the surest thing among fantasy tight ends in 2009 and should be the first one off the board.

10 (con’t) – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark has long been one of the best touchdown producers among tight ends, crossing the goal line 30 times in the last five years. He had 77 catches for 848 yards and six scores last year, putting him near the top of the tight end category in terms of catches and yards. With Marvin Harrison gone, you have to figure that Clark will be a little more frequent target for Peyton Manning, and that should help to stabilize his production and make him more valuable as a fantasy option. The only negative on his profile is the fact that he’s been dinged enough to miss games each of the last three years, Still, Clark is one of the top 2 tight ends from a fantasy perspective for 2009.

9 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – Gonzalez is an all-time great who might end up being the all-time greatest tight end. He’s had at least 95 catches for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, which shows you that he’s not losing any steam. He also still has great leaping ability in the red zone, as his 10-touchdown ’08 campaign attests. The only question with Gonzalez is what kind of role he’ll find in his new home in Atlanta this year. The Falcons have a stud receiver in Roddy White and a big target in Michael Jenkins, and the two of them may take a play or two away that Gonzalez had gotten in the red zone in his K.C. days. Gonzalez is still a tight end stud and a legitimate starter in WR/TE leagues as well. He just doesn’t quite have the sure-thing quality that Witten and Clark appear to have going into the ’09 season. But if you are the third to take a tight end, you’re still going to be set up for big success.

8 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates has been a fantasy stud for years, but even though he played all 16 games in ’08, he finished with a lower-than-usual 60 catches for 704 yards. He still scored eight touchdowns, which was second among tight ends, but even that was his lowest TD total in five years. His fantasy value is as much from touchdowns as from receiving yards, and with Vincent Jackson emerging, there’s not a need for the Chargers to target Gates every time in the red zone any more. So it seems like Gates’ fantasy impact is starting to wane just a bit. Still, while there are some questions, Gates is still the fourth-best tight end on fantasy draft boards, and he’s still a No. 3 starter at WR/TE in a 12-team league.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a starter in 10-12 team leagues with a combined WR/TE position.*

7 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels is the newest guy to break into the ranks of fantasy starters. Did you know that he’s averaged 66 catches and 815 yards in each of the last two seasons? Those are elite numbers. The only negative is his touchdown totals – he had five in his rookie season but just five combined in his last two seasons. Daniels should put up big numbers again in ’08, and if his touchdown numbers inch up, he could truly join the elite receivers. Of course, for that to happen, QB Matt Schaub must stay healthy, which is a question. So for now, Daniels is a supersolid starter as a tight end in fantasy leagues, and he’s a quality backup and spot starter in WR/TE leagues. And if his TD rate starts gaining speed, his value will shoot up.

6 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley had a strange fantasy season last year. He had career highs with 83 catches for 849 yards, but he had just one touchdown after scoring at least six in each of his first four seasons. Cooley has surpassed 700 receiving yards in each of his last four seasons, so he’s a safe starting tight end, and if his touchdown total moves back up to five or more, he could pass Daniels and even come close to the four elite tight ends. But I’m a little skeptical about that given Jason Campbell’s uneven performance thus far in his career. The reason Cooley lands below Daniels is that I trust Matt Schaub more than I trust Campbell. Still, Cooley is a starting tight end in all leagues and a worthy backup in leagues with a WR/TE position.

5 – Greg Olsen, Bears – Olsen, a former first-round pick, continued to take steps forward in his career in ’08. He went from his rookie totals of 39 catches for 391 yards and two scores to improved sophomore stats of 54 catches for 574 yards and five scores. A similar gain in ’09 would make Olsen a top-five tight end. A gain is possible, because new Bears QB Jay Cutler is much better than the Bears’ former starter Kyle Orton. But remember that Olsen is sharing TE duties with Desmond Clark, another quality pass catcher, and even though the Bears run a lot of two-TE sets, that still should hold Olsen’s numbers down. We can project enough of a gain for Olsen to make him a sure fantasy starter and a backup in WR/TE leagues. But projecting more right now would be getting your head out over your skis.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as the equivalent of a fourth or fifth option at WR/TE in leagues without a tight end position. Therefore, they should not be backups in 10-12 team WR/TE leagues.*

4 – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow may be the most physically gifted tight end in the league, and he has been really productive in the last two years. He had 171 catches for nearly 2,000 yards and eight TDs in ’06 and ’07 combined, and in just half a season last year he still had a whopping 43 catches for 428 yards and three TDs. He moves from a pass-first Cleveland system to Tampa Bay, which would seem to be more of a run-first scheme with lesser quarterbacks. So that could cause a dip in his numbers. We still expect at least 500 yards and four touchdowns, which makes Winslow a tight end starter. He also has upside to do more than that. If you’re picking a fantasy TE starter late and Winslow is there, take a shot and hope for the best. But don’t reach for this talent in such an uncertain situation.

4 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a strong rookie season in Seattle with 55 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. And he did that with Matt Hasselbeck missing much of the season. Hasselbeck’s returns will help Carlson’s numbers, but the arrival of T.J. Houshmandzedah could hurt a little. So pencil Carlson in for 500 yards and four touchdowns, make him one of the last TE starters picked in your draft, and hope that Carlson exceeds expectations in ’09 like he did in ’08. Carlson is a safe pick with some upside, which is what you want with a late-round pick.

4 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – There are actually two Zach Millers playing tight end in the league this year, so if you want this Miller, make sure to draft correctly on your computer system. Oakland’s Zach Miller took a step forward in his second season, increasing his catch total from 44 to 56 and his yardage total from 444 to 778. He only had one touchdown, which limits his fantasy value. But Miller probably will pass 700 receiving yards again in ’09, and if he can move his touchdown total up, he’ll move from being a marginal fantasy starter to a solid one. Given the Raiders’ problematic offense, it’s hard to project that TD jump, which is why Miller ranks down here. But he’s the best weapon Oakland has aside from Darren McFadden, and that fact should help Miller’s numbers remain solid.

*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a tight end starter in 10-team leagues. The players below should be seen as backups except in larger leagues.*

3 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe was one of the breakout fantasy players of 2008, as his seven touchdowns and nearly 600 yards made him an elite fantasy tight end. That touchdown total, though, seems a bit out of whack given the fact that Shiancoe had just 42 catches, and so prudency demands we expect that TD total to take a bit of a dive. The Vikings’ unsettled QB situation (obligatory Brett Favre mention) is troubling as well. I can see Shiancoe amassing 400 yards and three touchdowns without a lot of trouble, and he does have the capability to do more. But he’s not good enough to put him in the top 10 at the position in fantasy terms. He misses that plateau, although not by much.

3 (con’t) – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller, a Jets’ first-round pick in ’08, had a strong rookie season, totaling 48 catches for 535 yards and three touchdowns. If he makes the kind of second-year jump that Greg Olsen and Zach Miller did, Keller would be a fantasy starter. But the fact that the Jets are breaking in a rookie quarterback could hold Keller back just a little. Keller is a talent, and Mark Sanchez has a better arm than Brett Favre had at the end of the ’08 season. But for safety’s sake, we’ll project Keller to match his ’08 numbers and hope for some upside instead of expecting more and getting less.

2 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a quality tight end who is remarkably consistent. He’s had at least 34 catches but not more than 48 in each of his four seasons; had at least 393 yards but not more than 566 in all four seasons; and had at least three touchdowns every year as well. Miller has shown some touchdown productivity in the past, but he had just three last year, which I think is a sign of things to come because Santonio Holmes has finally emerged as a proven No. 2 receiver for the Steelers. So Miller is a safe backup tight end, but he doesn’t have the fantasy upside that a guy like Keller has. In a huge league, Miller’s an OK starter if you’re among the last to take a tight end, and he’s a perfectly good fill-in if your starting tight end has a bye or gets hurt. But at this point, we know what Miller is – and that’s not an elite fantasy tight end.

2 (con’t) – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey is a huge talent at tight end, and he has had monster numbers in past year. Last year, despite missing four games, he still had 50 catches for nearly 500 yards. But there are strikes against him. First, he didn’t score a touchdown last year in his first season as a Saint. Second, he is no Saint, as off-the-field problems are frequent enough to make fantasy owners nervous. Third, he is injured often enough – he’s never played all 16 games in a season – that you can’t rely on him. If he played all 16 games in New Orleans, he could be a top-5 tight end. But the chances of that happening are slim enough to downgrade Shockey. He’s a classic boom or bust pick, which means he’s worth taking late but not worth taking early. I wouldn’t rely on Shockey as a starter, but he’s the kind of guy worth having as a backup tight end if your team requires you to carry one. Just be prepared for a roller-coaster if you take him.

2 (con’t) – Brent Celek, Eagles – If there is one tight end who’s going to take a leap out of obscurity in ’09, it’s Celek. He played in every game and started seven for the Eagles last year, totaling 27 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown in part-time duty. Now, with L.J. Smith gone, we can expect Celek to have the kind of season Smith used to have in Philly – something like 300-500 yards and three TDs. But there’s upside for even more production than that here, and that makes Celek an intriguing fantasy backup.

2 (con’t) – Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss replaced Shockey with the Giants last year and had a solid season, catching 33 balls for 383 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a good season for a fantasy tight end, but it’s not enough to pencil Boss in as a fantasy starter this season. His touchdown total is out of whack compared to his catches, which means it’s wiser to expect him to have more like three scores in ’09. He’s a solid backup, but there is more upside with up-and-coming players like Carlson and Keller and Zach Miller that you should opt for before considering Boss.

1 – Tony Scheffler, Broncos – Scheffler has been a fantasy sleeper in his first two seasons, with at least 40 catches and at least 549 yards in each season. He’s also averaged 4 touchdowns a year through his three-year career. But while Scheffler has talent, he is going to be hurt by his situation as much as any fantasy player this year. The departure of Jay Cutler takes away Scheffler’s best friend on and off the field. Moreover, Scheffler’s down-the-field style doesn’t seem to fit the Josh McDaniels offensive system we saw in New England in recent years. Scheffler’s good enough to get 300 yards regardless of system, but he’s a backup until we see him prove that he can thrive without Cutler in McDaniels’ new system.

1 (con’t) – Bo Scaife, Titans – The Titans used their franchise tag on Scaife this offseason to make sure they kept him after his 58-catch, 561-yard season. But it’s hard to see Sciafe matching those numbers in ’09. The Titans drafted rookie Jared Cook, a pass-catching tight end who will take at least a few opportunities away from Scaife. And even with all of Sciafe’s catches, he has never had more than two touchdowns in a season. For fantasy owners, Scaife is just a fill-in. He’s a guy who’s better on the NFL field than he is in fantasy scoresheets.

1 (con’t) – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was once an elite fantasy tight end, but injuries and changes in Baltimore’s offense have limited his impact. Even though he started every game last year, he had just 35 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Ravens have added L.J. Smith to the roster, which could limit Heap’s numbers even more. It’s hard to see Heap as a fantasy factor this year; we’re including his name here just so you know we didn’t forget.

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