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Divisional Round Sunday thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s divisional-round games. (For Saturday game thoughts, click here.)

Greg Olsen beats Lawyer Milloy for a touchdown

Chicago 35, Seattle 24
*The hero of the game was Bears TE Greg Olsen, who beat Lawyer Milloy for a 58-yard touchdown on the first series of the game to get the Bears going. Olsen got deep, and Jay Cutler hit him with a beautiful deep throw that was more impressive given the snowy, windy conditions. Olsen added a 33-yard catch that helped to set up the Bears’ second score, and his 113-yard first half was a huge reason the Bears jumped out to a big lead.
*Cutler played pretty well, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more. But he got lucky in avoiding the kind of critical mistake that has kept him from becoming an elite quarterback. At the end of the first quarter, Cutler threw a ball in the red zone that Seattle S Jordan Babineaux had in his hands but dropped. Instead of a pick 6, Cutler got another chance, and after he converted a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1, Chester Taylor scored a touchdown to give the Bears a 14-0. That could have been a huge turning point but instead ended up being the point when the Bears really turned on the faucet in the rout.
*Julius Peppers didn’t have a sack as the Bears built a 21-0 halftime lead, but he did snuff out Seattle’s third drive by drawing a holding penalty by rookie Seahawks OLT Russell Okung. Peppers has been an impact player all season, and his presence has helped the Bears’ D move back toward the great level this season.
*Overall, the Bears defense did a terrific job of snuffing out the Seahawks’ running game and of keeping receivers in front of them. The Cover-2 defense has fallen out favor in the NFL, and that’s in part because it’s not that flashy and doesn’t create a ton of sacks or turnovers. But the Bears show that how, with the right personnel (like DEs Peppers and Israel Idonije and LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs), it can still be quite effective.
*Matt Hasselbeck completed only 10-of-20 passes in the first half, but it wasn’t all his fault. Cameron Morrah, Brandon Stokley, and Golden Tate all saw chances for big plays go off their hands, and Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman also made good plays on the ball to break up passes.
*Matt Forte had a real nice game for the Bears, keeping the chains moving both on the ground and through the air. Forte isn’t Marshall Faulk (who will feature heavily in our Hall of Fame post soon), but he is a threat both running and receiving, and that makes him a dovetail fit with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Forte is a nice asset for the Bears to have.
*Raheem Brock continued his strong play with a sack in the first half that forced a fumble. Brock had eight sacks over the Seahawks’ last seven games (including playoffs).
*Devin Hester continued his game-changing play on returns with a 26-yard punt return to help set up Chicago’s second touchdown. Hester is a game breaker, and that’s crucial for a team that doesn’t have elite explosiveness on offense.
*The Seahawks kicked a field goal with 1:52 left to cut a 28-0 lead to 25 points. It made no sense to kick there, given that they still trailed by four scores. I understand Pete Carroll not wanting his team to get shut out, but that was a gutless call. But that wasn’t the worst coaching call of the game – those honors go to the Bears’ decision to have Forte throw a pass in the fourth quarter. That led to an unnecessary Seahawks touchdown.
*We asked on Twitter and Facebook Saturday night whether a Bears/Packers NFC championship game would be the biggest matchup ever between the long-time rivals. We don’t have the historical chops to answer that question (which we assume will show up across all media this week), but it will be a ton of fun to watch that rivalry on the big stage. During the game, we also Tweeted about classic Seahawks tight end names and the Tony Siragusa experiment by Fox. Follow along on Twitter for Football Relativity updates and other assorted fun!

The Jets celebrate against the Patriots

N.Y. Jets 28, New England 21
*We were as surprised as anyone by the Jets’ ability to come out and stop the Patriots’ offense. The fact that David Harris picked off Tom Brady on a screen pass was a sign, given that Brady hadn’t thrown an interception in the second half of the season. New York continued to befuddle Brady through the game, and that was a big factor in allowing the Jets to build a lead that they never relinquished.
*One of the biggest reasons that the Patriots’ offense struggled was that the Jets were able to create pressure on Brady all day. Shaun Ellis led the charge with two sacks, but across the front Gang Green hit Brady time after time.
*There were heroes all over for the Jets, from Ellis to Santonio Holmes (who showed again that he loves to step up in the postseason). But you have to give Mark Sanchez credit for playing one of his best games of the year against a team that bedeviled him in the regular season. Sanchez threw three TD passes and hit perfect throws to Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery. If Sanchez can make 3-5 big-time throws a game, he gives the rest of a talented Jets roster a chance to do its job and win.
*The Jets continued to run the ball effectively in this game. That’s been an underrated reason for their playoff run.
*The Patriots have now lost three playoff games in a row, the last two at home. That’s going to lead to the question of whether something is missing in New England. The truth is that a young defense that played well in the regular season wasn’t able to step up to the challenge once the brightest lights were on. Plus, the fact that the Patriots hadn’t faced much adversity on the field over the second half of the season made it more difficult for the youngsters to rise to the occasion when trouble arrived in this game. Perhaps those issues can be resolved with experience, but it’s something that Bill Belichick must turn around if the Patriots are going to return to Super Bowl contention.
*It’s easy to why the Patriots took a shot on a fake punt late in the first half, but their inability to convert after Patrick Chung’s fumble was crucial. It sent the Jets into the locker room with a 14-3 lead, instead of the 7-3 lead they likely would have had if the Pats had simply punted. But the fact that the Pats couldn’t get anything going added a sense of desperation that caused them to a chance that they didn’t really have to take.
*Rex Ryan, meanwhile, has a team that isn’t always pretty in the regular season but that shows up in the playoffs. With four playoff wins (all on the road) in two seasons, Ryan has definitely given the Jets an attitude of refusing to give up or bend their knee to anyone. Ryan isn’t a conventional coach, and he isn’t a championship coach yet. But his unique style definitely is working for his squad.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL games, NFL playoffs

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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FR: 2009 NFL Draft review

After putting out first (and second) thoughts on the draft, and sharing some local knowledge, we now want to take time to compare each team’s draft class to each other. Because draft grades are just as useless as power rankings, we’re going to do this the Football Relativity way. We’ll compare each team’s haul to the others, with the best hauls at 10 on the scale and the worst haul at 1.

10 – Patriots – The Patriots traded down (as usual), but they got a load of talent. Second-rounders DT Ron Brace and CB Darius Butler were great picks, and I expect S Patrick Chung and OT Sebastian Vollmer to become starters as well. Then there’s third-rounder Brandon Tate, who was a first-round talent before a knee injury and a reported positive drug test dropped his stock. There are at least three and maybe five hits there, not even considering the guys they picked later. Plus, New England amassed two extra second-round picks next year. This was exactly the kind of draft a veteran contender needs to restock and continue moving forward.

9 – Jets – This was a completely opposite draft from New England’s, but just as effective. The price to move up to get QB Mark Sanchez was right, and the Jets showed enough gumption to pay it. (I actually think the Jets might have ended up paying less in the trade to move to 5 than they would have to move to 8.) Sanchez sets the Jets up long term, which is the best thing you can do in a draft. Shonn Greene is a good running back, and given Leon Washington’s impending free agency and Thomas Jones’ contract squabble, that could quickly become a position of need for Gang Green.

8 – Giants – Jerry Reese has quickly established himself as a good drafter, and he did a good job again. First-rounder  WR Hakeem Nicks has a world of talent and produced at a high level in college, and he’s at a need position. The question is whether the pressure to replace Plaxico Burress overwhelms Nicks and hinders his development. Getting OT William Beatty and OLB Clint Sintim in the second round was really good value and fortifies the Giants’ biggest strengths. Both should be starter-caliber down the line. Ramses Barden is a huge receiver who is an intriguing prospect, and fourth-round Andre Brown could end up replacing Derrick Ward as fire in the RB troika. The Giants will continue as one of the league’s deepest teams with this draft class.

8 (con’t) – Eagles – For a team that didn’t have third- or fourth-round picks, the Eagles had a surprisingly deep draft. First-rounder Jeremy Maclin is a really good WR prospect and could combine with DeSean Jackson to finally give the Eagles a good (if smallish) receiving corps. Second-rounder LeSean McCoy provides depth at running back that is essential because of Correll Buckhalter’s departure and Brian Westbrook’s tendency to get dinged. Fifth-round TE Cornelius Ingram is an intersting prospect if he can overcome a knee injury, and CB Macho Harris was a productive college player. There’s not a lot of line help here, but because the Eagles usually focus there, it’s OK to go away from that for a year.

8 (con’t) – Rams – The Rams didn’t do anything fancy, but they got a massive talent infusion that was sorely needed. OT Jason Smith could end up being the best player in the draft, and second-round LB James Laurinaitis will become the cornerstone of the defense. That’s a great start. On the second day, the Rams got a developmental corner in Bradley Fletcher and a defensive tackle, Dorrell Scott, who should be in a rotation right away and could eventually anchor the defense. All in all, it was a great weekend for St. Louis.

7 – Ravens – While some have questions about Michael Oher, the worst-case scenario for him is that he’s an above-average right tackle. That’s a good find at 23. OLB Paul Kruger (second round) and ILB Jason Phillips (fifth round) will fit into this defense as well. All in all, another solid haul from a team that’s annually one of the best on draft day.

7 (con’t) – Texans – I liked the pick of OLB Brian Cushing in the first round. He’s the kind of player who can help take the Texans’ defense to the next level. (Remember, the Texans already have front-line playmakers like DEs Mario Williams and Antonio Smith and DT Amobi Okoye, plus LB DeMeco Ryans.) Connor Barwin seems to be a fit too, and as a pass-rush specialist, he’ll provide immediate value. Antoine Caldwell is a solid offensive lineman as well. And people raved about TE James Casey’s athleticism, so he’s an interesting fifth-round pick to watch.

7 (con’t) – Bengals – Cincinnati took a lot of home-run swings in this class – OT Andre Smith, ILB Rey Maualuga, DE Michael Johnson among them. If all three hit, this is a franchise-making class. But there’s a chance (not huge, but not miniscule either) that all three could miss. So I can’t put this class at the top of the list. Still, this is a needed talent infusion. I liked the pick of TE Chase Coffman at the end of the third round; he could start right away. P Kevin Huber will also step right in, because the Bengals cleared out their other punters right after the draft.

7 (con’t) – Packers – Green Bay is switching to a 3-4 defense, and unlike some other switching teams (this means you, Denver), they tried to actually fill the holes in their D that this switch creates. B.J. Raji is the nose tackle that makes this kind of defense stout against the run, so he made sense at No. 9 overall. I don’t love Clay Matthews as a prospect, but he can play outside ‘backer and rush the passer while also dropping into coverage, so it made sense for Green Bay to deal back into the end of the first round to get him. They still need the DeMarcus Ware type of pass rush phenom to really make the D click, but you can’t get everything at once. Green Bay also got some interior OL help in the form of second-day picks T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith. This is a solid, need-driven draft that doesn’t have elite talent but that does have good players who will help in ’09 and beyond.

7 (con’t) – 49ers – I’ve documented my love for Michael Crabtree, and so of course I’m going to rave about the fact that the Niners got him at No. 10 overall. San Fran also got an extra first-round pick next year, which is great value but prevented this class from being truly stocked. Third-round RB Glen Coffee will help relieve Frank Gore, while fifth-round LB Scott McKillop will be a solid two-down player. And seventh-round DT Ricky Jean-Francois is a talent who underperformed this year but who could emerge once again.

6 – Bills – I think that Brian Orakpo was a better player than Aaron Maybin, so I didn’t love the fact that the Bills opted for Maybin. But most people think that Eric Wood (28th overall) and Andy Levitre (2nd round) will become offensive line starters inside. I would have preferred a tackle at 28 instead of Wood, but if he becomes a solid starter, that’s OK. All in all, this was a solid draft, but it didn’t have the pop that would have helped after the Jason Peters trade.

6 (con’t) – Jaguars – OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton provide help at a huge need area right off the bat, and I like the fact that Jacksonville overloaded there. Free-agent acquisition Tra Thomas signed a one-year deal, so by 2010 both Monroe and Britton could be starting. The Jags also needed wideouts, and they drafted three, including Mike Thomas, who is probably the best prospect. He was a good fourth-round value. This looks to be a solid draft class.

6 (con’t) – Lions – The Lions did what they had to do in opting for QB Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick and signing him before the draft. He’s the best QB talent in this class; now it’s on him to develop and the Lions to coach him up. TE Brandon Pettigrew should help that development as a safety-valve receiver and blocker. Louis Delmas should be a starting safety, and Derrick Williams should be an eventual starter at wide receiver. I would have preferred the Lions to get some more OL help, but they had so many needs that every pick makes sense. This is an infusion of talent that will help, although the Lions need several more booster shots before they’re healthy again.

6 (con’t) – Cardinals – The Cards have secretly been a team that has drafted well over the past several years, and they followed that trend again this year. First-round RB Beanie Wells should be a starter complementing Tim Hightower right away. Arizona was lucky that he fell to them. Third-round S Rashad Johnson is the real deal as well. DE Cody Brown helps to replace the departed Antonio Smith and Travis LaBoy, and I’m intrigued to see how OT Herman Johnson’s massive size translates to the NFL. Lots of hits once again in Arizona.

6 (con’t) – Steelers – This was a typical Steelers draft – not flashy but full of solid players. Ziggy Hood is a good value as a defensive lineman, and OL Kraig Urbik steps into the team’s biggest need area. Seventh-round C A.Q. Shipley could end up as a starter, and pretty soon. Add two corners (Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett) to another need area, and you have a draft class that allows Pittsburgh to continue moving forward.

5 – Titans – The Titans didn’t need a lot of immediate help, so this draft is about filling in cracks instead of filling chasms. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a good prospect who will probably need a couple of years, but he’s a talent at a spot where the Titans haven’t had enough skill over the years. DT Sen’Derrick Marks is probably the guy out of this class the Titans most need to play immediately. He’s a talent, but his production hasn’t been ideal. But given the Titans’ strong coaching staff and especially DL coach Jim Washburn, he’s worth the risk. TE Jared Cook is a good prospect, and RB Javon Ringer is good insurance in case LenDale White doesn’t keep his weight down.

5 (con’t) – Redskins – The reason you don’t trade future first-round picks is that you never know when a player the caliber of DE Brian Orakpo will fall to you. The Redskins patience was rewarded with the best DE in the draft and a guy who should provide a solid pass rush for years to come. There’s not a wealth of depth in this draft because of pre-draft trades, but getting a premium prospect in Orakpo keeps the Redskins pretty high in the comparison.

5 (con’t) – Bears – The Bears were one of two teams without a first-day pick, but they did much better on the second day than Dallas did. Third-round DT Jarron Gilbert is a talent who needs coaching, and the Bears have one of the league’s best DL coaches in Rod Marinelli. (Bad head coach, great position coach) Wide receiver was Chicago’s biggest need area, and Joaquin Iglesias is a good prospect there, while Johnny Knox is an intriguing sleeper. Fourth-round CB D.J. Moore is undersized, but he was a terrific college player who I believe will contribute as a starter eventually, a la current Bear (and former fourth-round pick) Nathan Vasher. This is a solid class of second-day prospects.

5 (con’t) – Falcons – This is another draft that isn’t sexy but that is very functional. DT Peria Jerry will help inside, and S William Moore is a talent who is a potential starter if he gets good coaching and responds to it. I like fourth-round DE Lawrence Sidbury as a John Abraham-lite pass rusher, especially given Abraham’s tendency to miss time. Even the last two picks, LB Spencer Adkins and DT Vance Walker, could contribute in the Falcons’ system. There isn’t great impact here, but the Falcons continue to fill out their roster.

5 (con’t) – Saints – The Saints didn’t have a lot of picks because of trades for Jonathan Vilma and Jeremy Shockey, but they used the picks they did have on defense. First-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be the best cornerback out of this class, and he’s big enough to play either corner or safety. New Orleans needs him to emerge as a corner, in part because fourth-round FS Chip Vaughn is a potential starter as well. If the Saints get two secondary starters out of this few picks, that’s good work.

5 (con’t) – Seahawks – Getting Aaron Curry at No. 4 was a boon for Seattle, and second-rounder Max Unger is an immediate starter as well. While these guys don’t play high-impact positions, they will become core players. Third-round receiver Deon Butler steps into a need area as well. Not having fourth- or fifth-round picks limits the depth of this class, but Seattle did well with its first three selections.

4 – Dolphins- Vontae Davis was probably the most talented corner in the draft aside from Malcolm Jenkins, although he didn’t play to his talent last year. Still, at the bottom of the first round, he’s a good pick. I don’t know what to think about the Pat White selection in the second round. What’s White’s upside? The Dolphins already think that Chad Henne is their quarterback of the future, so White is blocked there. Can White really be a starting receiver? The fact that Miami drafted Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline in the middle rounds would indicate that the Dolphins don’t think so. So are we looking at White as a Wildcat-offense specialist? I might be wrong, but I don’t think that niche role is worth a high second-round pick.

4 (con’t) – Vikings – This was another risky draft class. First-rounder Percy Harvin has blinding speed, and could be a game-breaker. But he’s not a true wide receiver, and his off-field concerns make him a question mark. The Vikings will have to tweak their schemes to really maximize Harvin’s talents. Second-round OT Phil Loadholt is a load who can play right tackle, but there are comportment questions about him as well. CB Asher Allen was good but inconsistent in college, while fifth-round LB Jasper Brinkley battled injuries in his college career. It’s hard to tell whether this class will end up being great or disappointing, so we have to leave them in the middle for now.

4 (con’t) – Colts – RB Donald Brown is a good player, and the Colts had some need there because of Joseph Addai’s tendency to get dinged up. But the Colts are trying to alter their defensive system, and they didn’t get enough help there. DT Fili Moala has a reputation as a bit of an underachiever, but he and Terrance Taylor at least provide size inside. The Colts need P Pat McAfee needs to win the job right off the bat after letting Hunter Smith leave. This isn’t an eye-popping draft, but there is some help here.

4 (con’t) – Chiefs – DE Tyson Jackson was a little bit of a reach, but he’s a good prospect at a need area. Still, I don’t see a lot of impact from him. Solid play, yes, but not impact. (Think Ty Warren, not Richard Seymour.) Jackson and second-rounder Alex Magee should fill DE spots in the Chiefs’ new 3-4. Fourth-round CB Donald Washington could be a steal, and he’s certainly the Chiefs’ best second-day prospect. Trading for Matt Cassel was the right move for K.C., but that deal thinned out this draft class significantly. So these players will help, but the Chiefs are so talent-starved that they still need more.

3 – Raiders – Everyone is pounding the Raiders’ draft, but there are a couple of teams I thought did less with more picks. First-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey is a huge talent, and while he would have been on the board at 17 and didn’t have to be taken seventh overall, he’s at least a legitimate first-rounder. Fourth-round WR Louis Murphy is a sleeper who could team with Heyward-Bey to revitalize the Raiders’ receiving corps – and that’s necessary. Picking three D-linemen should help. Plus, the Raiders get a brownie point from me for drafting defensive linemen named Slade (Norris) and Stryker (Sulak).

3 (con’t) – Chargers – I don’t love first-round pick Larry English, a small DE who will have to move to outside ‘backer, but I can see why the Chargers made that pick given Shawne Merriman’s contract and injury situation. But why not Robert Ayers instead of English? The lack of a second-round pick (which they dealt during last year’s draft) really hurts the depth of this class. Canadian DT Vaughn Martin is an interesting prospect to watch.

3 (con’t) – Panthers – The Panthers have been traditionally one of the league’s best drafting teams, but they’re in a dangerous Boolean thread of trading next year’s first-rounder for a current pick. It worked out OK last year, because Jeff Otah played well and the pick was 28th overall. But Everette Brown, whom they picked in the second round, isn’t a dominant player like Otah is. Brown is a good defensive end, but ideally he would play across from Julius Peppers instead of trying to replace him. Beyond that, DT Corvey Irvin fills a need but was a bit of a reach, and RB Mike Goodson doesn’t seem to fill a huge need. Sixth-round OG Duke Robinson has character questions, but in the sixth round you’re not finding a better talent. Given the losses Carolina had on their line, Robinson will be an important backup right away. The Panthers will get some players out of this draft, but it’s not up to their usual standards.

2 – Broncos – I fundamentally disagree with the Broncos’ approach in this draft. They needed defensive help, especially in the front 7, yet DE/OLB Robert Ayers was the only pick in that area. He’s a good fit, but what about defensive tackle (which was completely overlooked)? RB Knowshon Moreno was a luxury pick for a team with a lot of necessities. He’ll be a good pro, but he’s not taking this team from 8-8 to 10-6, much less any further. Alphonso Smith is a good corner, but he won’t replace Champ Bailey because of his height. The Broncos need Smith, Darnell McBath, and David Bruton to stabilize the secondary, but only Smith is a core player there. I do like fifth-round WR Kenny McKinley as a sleeper. There’s talent in this class, but on the whole this draft just didn’t make sense for a team that should be remaking its post-Jay Cutler identity. (Read the first thoughts post for what I think this class says about Josh McDaniels.)

2 (con’t) – Cowboys – Like the Bears, Dallas didn’t have any first-day picks, but in Dallas’ case my eyes didn’t pop at the picks they did have. It didn’t help that their first pick, OLB Jason Williams, felt like a reach. I’d be surprised if there’s more than one or two starters in this group. They did draft the most interesting kicker in David Buehler, who absolutely tore it up at the combine.

2 (con’t) – Buccaneers – I’m not a Josh Freeman believer, but the Bucs are. I won’t pound them for dealing  a sixth-round pick to move up two spots to get him. But given the massive overhaul the Bucs are doing on defense, they could have used more help on that side. We’ll see if Roy Miller or Kyle Moore contribute on the defensive line. Watch seventh-round WR Sammie Stroughter as a potential sleeper. The bottom line is that this draft class will rise and fall with Freeman, and because I think he’ll fall, the Bucs fall to the bottom of this comparison.

1 – Browns – Simply put, the Browns didn’t get enough value for the fifth overall pick, and it seemed like they were scared to pick in the first round. The guy they ended up with, C Alex Mack, should start, but how much of an impact can he have at that position? For a team that needs a lot of help, Mack doesn’t provide it. The Browns gave up on top-5 talent too easily because they didn’t want to pay financially, and that will end up costing them in the long run. Then to make things worse, I thought WR Brian Robeskie was a reach at the top of the second round. Only the picks of WR Mohammed Massaquoi and LB Kaluka Maiava keep this class from being a total failure.

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