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Finding a Fit: Matt Hasselbeck

We’re going to start a new series today that will allow us to keep talking football while the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

We start today with Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks quarterback who will hit free agency if it ever begins. With each of these entries, we’ll give a quick synoposis of who the player is at this point, and then seek to find a fit.

If you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Matt Hasselbeck, via seahawksgab.com

Synopsis: Hasselbeck is the only quarterback on the free-agent market this offseason who has the talent to be a playoff-quality starter. He has led the Seahawks to six playoff appearances, including one last year, and one Super Bowl in his 10 seasons with the team. While Hasselbeck isn’t the most physically gifted guy, he’s a quintessential West Coast offense quarterback who can spread the ball around and make enough deep throws to keep defenses honest. He’s also a solid locker-room leader who has the kind of personality that a team rallies around. At age 35, Hasselbeck is in decline (his last great season was in 2007), but with a better supporting cast than the Seahawks provided last year, he still could be an above-average NFL starter.

Potential Fits

Seattle – The Seahawks reportedly called Hasselbeck during the one-day lockout lift around the draft to reiterate the fact that they want him back. It makes sense, because Hasselbeck has been a solid starter for the team for a decade. But Seattle has a lot invested in Charlie Whitehurst – both in terms of money and draft-pick equity – and Hasselbeck may have been turned off by the lack of an earlier offer or by Pete Carroll’s decision to trade for Whitehurst last year. Still, though, Seattle is one of the few places where Hasselbeck could still be a two- or three-year starter, which has to enter into his thinking.

Arizona – The Cardinals didn’t draft a quarterback of the future this year, which means they’re hitching their developmental QB wagon to John Skelton and Max Hall for another year. So the Cardinals need a veteran. They’re rumored to prefer Marc Bulger, but Hasselbeck will at least be on their call sheet. With Hasselbeck in place, the Cardinals should be able to stabilize their horrific offensive performance from 2010, which could be enough for them to contend in the mediocre NFC West. But it’s not a West Coast system, which means that Bulger’s probably a better fit for the offense than Hasselbeck would be. Throwing to Larry Fitzgerald would be tempting, as would the chance to be a starter beyond 2011, but this isn’t a perfect fit for Hasselbeck.

Miami – The Dolphins don’t seem to be in love with incumbent starter Chad Henne, but they didn’t draft a replacement for him, and 2010 competitor Chad Pennington has fallen apart physically to the point that he’s no longer an option. Hasselbeck is good enough to push Henne and potentially to keep a team with a solid if unspectacular roster in the playoff hunt. Throwing to Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, and crew and playing behind a top-notch offensive line would be appealing to Hasselbeck as well. The system fit isn’t perfect, but Hasselbeck’s probably the best option for Miami if they want to add a vet who could potentially beat out Henne. That makes this fit an intriguing hypothetical.

Washington – Under coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins are a prototypical West Coast offense team. That’s a fit for Hasselbeck; however, the rest of the situation isn’t. The Redskins don’t protect quarterbacks very well, which is a warning sign for a QB like Hasselbeck who has had some injury problems of late, and they also have a young and unproven receiving corps. Plus, the Redskins seem to think more highly of holdover John Beck and free agent Rex Grossman than others do, which would discourage them from adding Hasselbeck. So even if the Skins jettison Donovan McNabb, as expected, we don’t see Hasselbeck fitting in as the veteran du jour.

San Francisco – Per @sportsbarbanter’s suggestion, the 49ers could be a nice fit for Hasselbeck if 2011 is the prime option. Hasselbeck would be a better bridge quarterback to incoming rookie Colin Kaepernick than incumbent Alex Smith, which could put the 49ers in position to contend for a division title. But if the 49ers are indeed committed to bringing Smith back, Hasselbeck will look elsewhere. He won’t want to compete for a starting job in a place where the QB of the future could surpass the winner within a year.

Minnesota – If Hasselbeck wants to be a bridge candidate, Minnesota makes far more sense. The Vikings run a West Coast style system under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and they have enough weapons – Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe, and of course Adrian Peterson – to be an attractive 2011 landing spot. The Vikings tend to be leaning toward throwing 2011 first-rounder Christian Ponder right into the fire, but if they call Hasselbeck, it’s worth his time to listen.

Tennessee – NFL.com’s Mike Lombardi made this suggestion, arguing that Hasselbeck would be a perfect stopgap while rookie Jake Locker develops. Hasselbeck could certainly do it, and new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s system relies on accuracy. But aside from Kenny Britt, the Titans don’t have elite receivers, and that makes us think moving to Nashville could yield nothing more than an average season for Hasselbeck. Thus, this isn’t Hasselbeck’s best stopgap landing spot.

Carolina – The Panthers are the other team with a rookie QB that could look for a placeholding veteran. But Carolina has even more motivation to start its rookie, first overall pick Cam Newton, from day one, which keeps this from being an attractive option for the veteran. Plus, Carolina’s receiving corps may be even worse than Tennessee’s, especially if Steve Smith raises a big stink and gets out of town. We put this fit in the no-chance category.

Oakland – The Raiders don’t seem like a perfect fit for Hasselbeck, but you never know what they’ll do. The deep-ball centric system doesn’t maximize Hasselbeck’s talents, but head coach Hue Jackson is a good enough play-caller that he could cater to the veteran. But with Jason Campbell already on board, and free agent Bruce Gradkowski a solid option to pair with him, the Raiders likely won’t find it worth it to pony up enough money to get Hasselbeck’s attention.

The best fits

1. Seattle – Hasselbeck’s best chance to start beyond 2011

2. Minnesota – Hasselbeck’s best chance for a great 2011 season

3. Miami – Hasselbeck’s best chance to be a multiyear starter if he wants a change of scenery

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RP: Coaching Trees Update

In the two-plus years that Football Relativity has existed, the most popular post we’ve ever done is our Coaching Trees research project. It has shown up in more searches and led to as much discussion as anything we’ve ever done. In this project, we broke down the influences of all the NFL head coaches to determine what the most prominent coaching trees were.

But there have been two head-coach hiring cycles since we put together the project. So we thought we’d update our coaching trees graphic and add the head coaches hired in the last two years. We’ve assigned 10 head coaches (nine permanent, one interim) to trees. Here’s why we added them where we did:

2010 hires
Pete Carroll – Carroll has bounced around enough that he’s hard to categorize. In many ways, a lot of his success is due to Monte Kiffin and Earle Bruce, whom he coached under in college. He coached under Bud Grant and then Jerry Burns with the Vikings and then worked as Bruce Coslet’s  defensive coordinator with the Jets before succeeding Coslet as head coach. After the Jets jettisoned him, Carroll went to work for George Seifert in San Francisco and then became coach of the Patriots. Of course, Carroll rebuilt his career with a great run at USC before moving to the Seahawks. We’ve included Carroll in the coaching tree of Grant and Burns, since they were the first ones to give him an NFL shot.

Chan Gailey – The career of Gailey, now head coach of the Bills, is a strange one, with key stops at then-Division II Troy State and also in the old World League of American Football. His last stop before getting his first head-coaching chance in Dallas was as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh under Bill Cowher, but we’ve included Gailey under his first NFL boss, Dan Reeves, whom Gailey worked for in Denver. We made that determination since Gailey is far more known for his offensive play-calling prowess than for his Cowher-esque defensive approach.

Perry Fewell – Fewell was only an interim head coach in Buffalo, but his repeated presence as a head-coach interviewee makes him worth including in this exercise. Fewell started his coaching career in college and got his first pro shot in Jacksonville, but it was Lovie Smith who gave him his best opportunity in St. Louis and Chicago. Since then, Fewell has been a coordinator in Buffalo and with the Giants, in addition to his interim chance with the Bills. He is the first branch off Lovie Smith, which makes him part of the massive Tony Dungy tree.

2011 hires
Leslie Frazier – We were tempted to include Frazier (and a couple of fellow 2011 hires) under Mike Ditka’s tree, since he (and Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh) all played for Da Coach. But instead, we’ve included Frazier under the Andy Reid tree. Frazier’s career started as head coach of Division III Trinity College, and then he coached at the University of Illinois. Then Reid brought Frazier in as the Eagles’ defensive backs coach. After four years in Philadelphia, Frazier got his first coordinator’s job with the Bengals under Marvin Lewis. Frazier also worked for Tony Dungy as the Colts’ DB coach before moving to Minnesota as Brad Childress’ defensive coordinator. Since Childress comes from Reid’s tree as well, we believe that this is the most appropriate place to include Frazier on our coaching tree chart.

Ron Rivera – Rivera, like Frazier, played for the 1985 Bears, and his first shot at coaching was as a quality control coach for the Bears. But like Frazier, his first chance as an NFL position coach came in 1999 with the Eagles, when Andy Reid was hired. Both Frazier and Rivera learned from the late Jim Johnson at that time. After five years with the Eagles, Rivera moved back to Chicago to be Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator, but Rivera and Smith never meshed in terms of defensive style. That led Rivera to San Diego, where he worked as linebackers coach and then was promoted to spend three years as defensive coordinator under Norv Turner. We’re including Rivera, like Frazier, under the Andy Reid tree, and with both additions Johnson gets a nod for being a defensive influence.

Jim Harbaugh – Harbaugh played in the NFL for years, entering the league with the Bears under Mike Ditka before playing key roles in San Diego and Indianapolis. But his NFL coaching experience is limited to two years as the quarterback coach in Oakland under Bill Callahan after Jon Gruden left. Harbaugh then became a college coach before joining the 49ers this offseason. In truth, Harbaugh should be under his father Jack’s tree, but since we didn’t include his brother John there, we’ve added Callahan and then Harbaugh under Jon Gruden in the Mike Holmgren branch of the Bill Walsh tree.

Jason Garrett – As a coach, Garrett has worked for Nick Saban with the Dolphins and Wade Phillips with the Cowboys. But in many ways, he already had his offensive identity before working for either coach. So we’ve included Garrett in the tree of Jimmy Johnson, for whom he played for seven years in Dallas. Garrett was the prototypical third quarterback – a player-coach who seemed to know the offensive inside and out, which gave him the ability to keep things straight despite inferior physical talent for an NFL quarterback. At first glance, that’s what helped Garrett develop his coaching style, and so we put inside Johnson’s tree.

Pat Shurmur – Shurmur comes from a coaching family (his uncle Fritz was a long-time NFL defensive coordinator), but his coaching legacy falls under Andy Reid. After eight years as a college assistant under Nick Saban at Michigan State (and one more year at Stanford), Shurmur spent 10 years as quarterbacks coach under Reid. He got a promotion to move to St. Louis as offensive coordinator, which is where he got the Cleveland Browns job. Since Shurmur was hired for his West Coast offense credentials, he naturally fits as an offshoot of Reid more than Saban.

Hue Jackson – Jackson spent 14 years as a college coach before Marty Schottenheimer gave him his first pro shot as the running backs coach with the Redskins in 2001. Schottenheimer lasted just one year in Washington, but Jackson stayed under Steve Spurrier and got the offensive coordinator in Spurrier’s second year. Jackson then moved to Cincinnati as the wide receivers coach and then to Atlanta as the offensive coordinator in Bobby Petrino’s single season there. From there, he went to Baltimore as the quarterbacks coach and then to Oakland as the offensive coordinator, before the Raiders promoted him to head coach. Given Jackson’s nomadic career, we’ll include him in the Schottenheimer tree since Marty gave him his first pro opportunity.

Mike Munchak – Munchak, the new Titans coach, has spent his entire career with the Oilers/Titans franchise, first as a Hall of Fame player, and then as an assistant coach. And the Oilers/Titans had just one coach during that time – Jeff Fisher. So Munchak joins Jim Schwartz as a branch off of the Fisher tree, which falls under the Buddy Ryan tree.

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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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OP: Can the Wests be won at home?

One of the things you’ll see from time to time here at Football Relativity is our outlandish prediction. We’ll analyze things that seem far outside of the realm of possibility and try to decide if they’ll happen.

In this post, we’re going to look at two teams leading the West divisions – the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-1 Seattle Seahawks. The thing these teams have in common, besides first-place standings, is massive home-field advantages. But can these home-field advantages lead these teams to division titles? Let’s look at the facts and then try to predict the future for these teams this season – even if that prediction ends up being outlandish.

The Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start thanks to home wins over the Chargers and 49ers, along with a road win at Cleveland. Both home wins figured to be tough, at least when looking at the schedule before the season, so the Chiefs’ record is truly a surprise. While the Chargers and 49ers are slipping enough that we don’t want to read too much into these wins, the Chiefs have a lot more weapons than they did last year. Last season, the Chiefs claimed Chris Chambers off waivers from San Diego in a desperate attempt to add explosiveness to their offense. This year, that explosiveness is there in spades. Rookie slot receiver Dexter McCluster and TE Tony Moeaki have both proven to be dangerous targets (along with holdover Dwayne Bowe), and Thomas Jones adds some solid aspects to the running game while Jamaal Charles remains a threat to break a big run at any time. Those targets have helped Matt Cassel overcome a slow start. Suddenly, the Chiefs offense (under new coordinator Charlie Weis) is a legitimate NFL attack. And on defense, the addition of rookie DBs Eric Berry and Javier Arenas, along with bounceback efforts from former first-round disappointments DEs Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LB Derrick Johnson, have made the Chiefs scarier to face. Tamba Hali, one of the few Chiefs’ first-rounders who had performed OK in previous years, had three sacks last week, and Brandon Flowers continues to be a pretty good cornerback. New coordinator Romeo Crennel has pulled the right strings and made the most of the talent available, which is a good sign.

But will it last? Road games at Indianapolis and Houston after this week’s bye will probably drop the Chiefs to 3-2. But K.C. then has home games against Jacksonville and Buffalo, along with a winnable road games at Oakland and Denver, mean that winning six or seven of the first nine games is possible. If the Chiefs do that, steal another road game at St. Louis later in the season, and hold serve in five of their six remaining home games, they can get to 9-7 or even 10-6. That’ll be good enough to win the AFC West – to the point that we’ll now make the outlandish prediction that the Chiefs will in fact win their division.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 after a convincing home win against San Francisco and hard-fought win over San Diego this week. This week’s seven-point win is due to Leon Washington’s two kickoff-return touchdowns, which is something the ‘Hawks can’t expect to do every week. Seattle’s offense has been OK, as Matt Hasselbeck has been healthy (which will be easier going forward now that OLT Russell Okung is playing), and TE John Carlson has emerged as a dependable target. Seattle needs receivers to emerge, whether it be reclamation project Mike Williams, promising rookie Golden Tate, or someone else. They also need a run game that produces more. On defense, offseason additions Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons have provided some pass-rush punch, and rookie S Earl Thomas has two interceptions already. The Seahawks have added to their talent base this offseason, although they’re not as far along as the Chiefs are. Still, Pete Carroll has undoubtedly put of jolt of energy into this franchise and the players currently on the roster.

So where does that leave the Seahawks in terms of their division? Seattle is tied with Arizona with a 2-1 record, so the two games between the teams could mean a lot. Arizona is more talented than the Seahawks, but Seattle has more consistent QB play. For Seattle’s playoff hopes, this week’s trip to St. Louis is key, because it’s a winnable road game that can help the “Hawks get to nine wins. Trips to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and San Francisco could also prove fruitful, and if Seattle can win a couple of those and ride home-field advantage to wins against opponents they should beat, big things are possible in Seattle. They’ll likely be favored in every remaining game at home except for perhaps Atlanta’s visit.

But while the schedule looks good, our hunch is that the Seahawks’ lack of depth and premium players will cost them as the season goes along, and they’ll top out at eight wins. Maybe that’s enough to win a flagging NFC West, but our outlandish prediction still leaves Seattle out of the postseason picture.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

The reason FootballRelativity.com exists is to do away with the antiquated and inadequate power rankings and replace them with a tool that’s more useful in comparing teams. So each week during the season, we’ll compare where all 32 teams are relative to each other using the Football Relativity 10-point scale. We start now with our season preview, assessing where each team is in comparison to the others. If you disagree, let us know by leaving a comment or on Twitter.

10 – Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl berth in Jim Caldwell’s first season, but we remain skeptical about whether Caldwell can maintain Tony Dungy’s level of excellence over the long term. For now, though, the Colts seem to be even stronger than they were last year. On offense, Peyton Manning remains the standard-bearer for NFL quarterbacks. He has elite targets in WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark, but Manning’s ability to bring others up to his level showed in how well he utilized young WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie last year. At running back, Joseph Addai had another good year, and Donald Brown figures to improve in his second year. The questions on offense are with the offensive line, which struggled in the Super Bowl. The Colts sought to get bigger on the line, but the line still isn’t full of big-time talents. C Jeff Saturday remains the heartbeat of that group. On defense, the Colts have big-time pass-rushers in DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and rookie Jerry Hughes could join them to create even more havoc. MLB Gary Brackett is a fireplug who makes plays to stabilize the middle of the defense, and the Colts have some good young corners in Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Kelvin Hayden. SS Bob Sanders returns after missing all but two games last year, and if he can stay healthy he and Antoine Bethea will be an elite safety combo. The Colts remain the league’s standard, and Manning always squeezes two or three more wins out of the team than expected. That’s a recipe for another Super Bowl run. 

10 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – The Saints celebrate their Super Bowl win by returning with a team that continues to be strong and scary. QB Drew Brees leads a prolific offense that’s efficient and explosive with a depth of targets unmatched in the NFL. Brees will spread the ball around to WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson; RBs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas; and TE Jeremy Shockey, plus others that get a star turn on occasion. But the guys who don’t get the star treatment they should are on the offensive line. ORG Jahri Evans may be the league’s best guard, and OLT Jermon Bushrod was so good as a fill-in last year that the Saints traded Pro Bowler Jammal Brown. That front five does a great job giving Brees time to thrive. On defense, the Saints give up some yards but make their share of big plays as well. MLB Jonathan Vilma is the heartbeat of the team, and he does a good job in coverage, and he’ll have to be more of a leader with Scott Fujita gone and Jonathan Casillas hurt at linebacker. Up front, the Saints have penetrating tackles in Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove and solid if unspectacular ends in Will Smith and Alex Brown, who replaces Charles Grant. The Saints lost FS Darren Sharper for the first six weeks, but ’09 first-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be a quality fill-in alongside Pro Bowler Roman Harper. CB Jabari Greer played quite well last year, and he leads a deep group that includes Super Bowl hero Tracy Porter and first-round pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints have a lot of pieces and great coaches in Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and they’ll stay aggressive as they seek to defend their title. They won’t give up the crown easily.

9 – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens are a chic Super Bowl pick, and with good reason. But there is one glaring issue – the secondary – that could hold them back. The Ravens lost CBs Domonique Foxworth and Walt Harris in the offseason, and Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are coming off ACL injuries. Training-camp trade acquisition Josh Wilson should help at that position, but the Ravens need Washington and Webb to play well too. Plus, Ed Reed is out for the first six weeks of the year, putting a lot of pressure on Dawan Landry and Tom Zbikowski at safety. Thankfully for Ravens fans, the front seven should provide enough pressure to keep the Ravens from having to cover for long periods of time. OLB Terrell Suggs is the pressure key, and fellow OLB Jarret Johnson is an emerging player. ILB Ray Lewis remains a playmaker and emotional keystone for the entire team, not just the defense. And up front, DE Haloti Ngata and NT Kelly Gregg are both plus players at their positions. If the secondary can hold up, the Ravens will remain one of the league’s most intimidating defenses. On offense, the Ravens can run effectively with Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain. That’s thanks in large part to a strong offensive line that includes emerging youngsters in OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither and OLG Ben Grubbs. So the Ravens put most of their effort in the offseason into the passing game, acquiring WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to complement Derrick Mason in what is now an experienced group. Those players should allow Joe Flacco to emerge into a top-flight passer. Baltimore has a lot going for it, and Super Bowl aspirations make sense. But they’re going to have to cover opposing receivers to get there.

9 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys get a lot of attention with their flashy offense, but it’s their defense that paces the team. OLB DeMarcus Ware is a frighteningly effective pass rusher, and fellow OLB Anthony Spencer finally emerged this year as a big-time threat on the other side. Those two, with ILBs Keith Brooking and Bradie James, make up a terrific linebacker corps. That corps is more effective because of a defensive line that features a preeminent nose tackle in Jay Ratliff and solid DEs in Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. In the secondary, CBs Terrance Newman and Mike Jenkins aren’t shutdown corners, but they’re solid. On offense, the Cowboys have a high-powered offense featuring both QB Tony Romo and the passing game and a three-headed running game featuring Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice. Romo has a bevy of targets including supersolid TE Jason Witten, ’09 breakout star WR Miles Austin, and rookie WR Dez Bryant. The offensive line has a fine center in Andre Gurode, but it needs ORT Marc Columbo to hold up and young OLT Doug Free to step up to keep the offense moving. The Cowboys have the pieces in place to contend for a home game in the Super Bowl, but they must prove they can win key games at the end of the season and in the postseason to do so. Dallas made a step forward in that department last year, but they must go further to contend with top NFC teams like the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

9 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – No team has looked better offensively in the preseason than the Packers, as QB Aaron Rodgers has built on his terrific ’09 performance to show he has developed into an elite quarterback. He has a terrific group of receivers to throw to in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and dynamic TE JerMichael Finley. The running game is solid with Ryan Grant. Offensive line was a problem last year, but once OTs Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton returned, things got a lot better. Both Tauscher and Clifton return this year, and if one declines because of injury or age, first-rounder Bryan Bulaga can step in. The Packers weren’t just great on offense last year; their defense became scary in Dom Capers’ new 3-4. OLB Clay Matthews had a terrific rookie season and developed into a pass-rushing threat, and Brad Jones was a revelation at the other outside spot. Green Bay is also solid at inside ‘backer with A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Up front, the Packers lost Johnny Jolly for the season, which means second-year man B.J. Raji needs to step up at nose tackle so that Ryan Pickett can move outside. Pickett and Cullen Jenkins give the Pack a burly front three. The question marks for Green Bay are in the secondary, where starters CB Al Harris and S Atari Bigby are both out for at least six weeks. FS Nick Collins is a solid player, but veteran CB Charles Woodson is the best player Green Bay has in the back four. He had one of his best seasons last year and must repeat that performance if Green Bay is to hold up defensively. Green Bay will be fun to watch, but a repeat performance for the defense, not the offense, is what will determine how far the Pack can go in 2010.

8 – Minnesota Vikings – For most of last season, everything went swimmingly for the Vikings. Brett Favre came in and had perhaps his best NFL season at age 40, and Sidney Rice emerged into a franchise-level receiver. Adrian Peterson continued to thrive, and the defense was dominant. But toward the end of the season, some chinks started showing up in the armor. Minnesota’s offensive line fell apart as OLT Bryant McKinnie fatigued and ORT Phil Loadholt hit the rookie wall. Peterson’s fumbling problems persisted. The secondary struggled in the absence of S Cedric Griffin and the injury-limited status of CB Antonie Winfield. The Vikings fought through those problems into the NFC title game, and if not for several mistakes, they would have beaten the Saints and gone to the Super Bowl. But a year later, their issues – especially the age-related ones – are more pronounced. Favre is battling an ankle injury, and he’s never had as efficient a season as he did last year. Can he possible repeat a 33-touchdown, seven-interception performance? Rice is out for at least half the season with a hip injury. Percy Harvin, a dynamic playmaker, has migraine issues that can pop up at any time. McKinnie is a year older, as is stalwart OLG Steve Hutchinson. Peterson still drops the ball, and the Vikes don’t have Chester Taylor as an insurance policy any longer. The pieces are in place for a dynamic offense, but the questions persist. On defense, the Vikings need older players DT Pat Williams and Winfield to hold up. They do have in-their-prime guys in DEs Jared Allen and Ray Edwards and DT Kevin Williams who will be big difference makers, and MLB E.J. Henderson is making a remarkable recovery from a broken leg last season. But the secondary is probably the weakest area on an otherwise talented roster. Minnesota could contend again, but things could also go south on them. The fact that the rest of their division is ascending is another concern. The Vikes remain a playoff team, but that’s now speculation instead of a shoo-in.

8 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Patriots are loaded on offense and young on defense, which makes them a dangerous team. And if everything comes together, they could be dominant. Tom Brady returned to form last season following his ’08 injury, and now the Pats hope that WR Wes Welker can do the same. Welker is the short-range threat, while Randy Moss remains a devastating outside threat. Now the Pats add two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to give Brady even more options. The running game isn’t special, but with Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, and role players extraordinaire Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris, the Pats should be fine. There are questions up front, where Pro Bowl OLG Logan Mankins continues to hold out, but the fact that ORT Sebastian Vollmer emerged as a plus player last year helps. Defensively, the Patriots need youngsters to emerge as Vollmer did last year. Up front, losing Ty Warren was a blow, especially after last year’s Richard Seymour trade, but NT Vince Wilfork is still a preeminent run-stuffer. At linebacker, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, one of the few veterans, comes off a double-digit sack season. ILB Jerod Mayo needs to be more of a playmaker this year. In the secondary, the Pats have a lot of former high draft picks in Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty, Darius Butler, and Pat Chung, but aside from Meriweather none has really made an impact yet. The Pats are talented on defense, but that talent must turn into production for New England to return to its former status as a Super Bowl contender.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles didn’t just make changes in the offseason; they went for a intense youth movement that may cost them a win or two this year. But the overall talent level of the roster is terrific, and if they get solid play from first-time starting QB Kevin Kolb and other youngsters, they’re going to be a threat. Kolb has just two career starts, and it’s only fair to expect some inconsistency from him as he replaces Donovan McNabb. But much like how the Packers replaced Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers a year too early, the Eagles decided to make the switch sooner rather than later. Kolb has a deep and talented corps of receivers led by diminutive but speedy DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s a true difference maker who can take over a game on his own. He’s joined by Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant at wideout and Brent Celek at tight end to give Kolb above-average targets all the way across the field. At running back, youngster LeSean McCoy takes over for Brian Westbrook, and if McCoy can produce a solid running threat, Kolb’s job will be easier. Burly Mike Bell and fullback Leonard Weaver will also contribute in the running game. The Eagles changed some pieces on the offensive line, but if OLT Jason Peters plays up to his potential and C Nick Cole proves he’s healthy, they should be in good shape up there. On defense, the Eagles get MLB Stewart Bradley back from a knee injury, which should help against the run. They also brought in small but speedy OLB Ernie Sims and DEs Daryl Tapp and Brandon Graham (their first-round pick) to add some punch to the defense. Those players, plus holdovers Trent Cole and DTs Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, give the Eagles a top-flight front seven. In the secondary, the Eagles rely on CB Asante Samuel to play at a high level, and they hope rookie FS Nate Allen provides a deep threat. Maybe it will take another year for the Eagles to get all their young guys playing up to potential, but if it clicks this year, the Eagles could end up rebuilding on the fly at an efficiency level rarely seen in the NFL.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers’ offseason has been contentious, marked by the holdouts of WR Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill and the departure of franchise-changing RB LaDainian Tomlinson. But the Chargers still have loads of talent, which should be enough to put them over the top of a ragamuffin AFC West division. QB Philip Rivers is a top-10 quarterback who loves to lead and is a great triggerman, and even without Jackson he should be able to spread the ball around to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Of course, TE Antonio Gates remains not just a reliable receiver but a play-making one, which is why the Chargers willingly gave him a contract extension. At running back, rookie Ryan Mathews takes over for Tomlinson as the bellcow, with Darren Sproles fitting in as the pint-sized dynamo whose speed is a nightmare to defend. Without McNeill, the Chargers have questions up front on offense, but C Nick Hardwick is a quality pivot who can keep that line together. Defensively, the Chargers have lost a little of their fear factor with OLB Shawne Merriman declining, but Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and second-year man Larry English are a solid group of outside linebackers who can still create havoc. Up front, the Chargers finally bid farewell to NT Jamal Williams, who played well for many years but fought injuries in recent seasons. The secondary is a question mark, as the Bolts need former first-rounder Antoine Cason to develop similar consistency to Quentin Jammer at cornerback. While the Chargers may not have their best team in recent vintage, they still should have enough talent to get through the AFC West with a division title. But the lack of elite talent makes them less of a playoff threat than they have been in past years.

7 – Atlanta Falcons – Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, although last year’s winning season didn’t land them in the playoffs. It seems as though QB Matt Ryan’s minor midseason injury might have been the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Ryan is a solid player who steps up in key situations and has the team behind him, and he’s the guy the Falcons are building around. He has elite targets in WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, who is still as good as ever. RB Michael Turner also missed some time last year, but when healthy he’s a top-flight runner. Jason Snelling emerged as a good backup to Turner last year. The Falcons also have a solid offensive line with nasty run blockers on the right side in Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and a decent blind-side pass protector in Sam Baker. The Falcons have tried to upgrade their defense by adding big-money CB Dunta Robinson and first-round OLB Sean Witherspoon, and they have emerging young players in DE Kroy Biermann, S Thomas DeCoud, DT Jordan Babineaux, and MLB Curtis Lofton. This defense could be quite good, especially if DE John Abraham returns to his 2008 form as a pass-rusher and ’09 first-rounder Peria Jerry finally gets on the field at defensive tackle. The Falcons have a lot of good players, and if the defense comes together as it could they might challenge the Saints in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals broke into the playoffs last year thanks to a terrific defense and a solid running game. The question is whether Marvin Lewis and company can repeat playoff performances for the first time in franchise history. The defense is still a talented group, and it gets LBs Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers and DE Antwan Odom back from in-season injuries. Odom was setting the world on fire as a pass-rusher when he got hurt, and Maualuga and Rivers are the aggressive playmakers outside. Their pop is enabled by solid play from guys like MLB Dhani Jones and DTs Domata Peko and Tank Johnson. The Bengals also have two terrific corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom can cover effectively. That’s a stout defense if it can stay healthier than it did last year. On offense, the Bengals rode RB Cedric Benson’s renaissance season. Benson isn’t a breakaway runner, but he’s physical and dependable, which fits the Bengals’ new style. His offensive line isn’t full of big names, but guys like OLT Andrew Whitworth and ORG Bobbie Williams do their jobs well. Cincinnati focused its offseason on upgrading the passing game, and despite the Antonio Bryant misfire they did so. WR Chad Ochocinco returns after his best season in a few years, and Terrell Owens has something to prove. Both receivers are aging, but youngsters Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley are solid too. Plus, the Bengals drafted a receiving threat in the first round by picking TE Jermaine Gresham. QB Carson Palmer wasn’t at his best last year, and the question is whether that best is still in him or if he’s past his prime. The Bengals rarely seem to put all the pieces together, but the pieces are there for another playoff run or maybe even more. The question is whether you believe a usually dysfunctional franchise can actually function on all cylinders.

7 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans finally crossed the .500 barrier last year, but their 9-7 record wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. Now Houston must try to build on its success and finally get over the hump. One of the reasons the team finished with a winning record last year was QB Matt Schaub, who not only played at a high level but also stayed healthy for all 16 games for the first time in his Texans career. Schaub’s a talented passer who can produce as much as the elite quarterbacks in the league. He has a top-flight group of targets led by WR Andre Johnson, one of the league’s two best receivers. Johnson has had health problems in the past as well, but he stayed healthy in 2009. TE Owen Daniels was setting the world on fire until he tore his ACL at midseason last year, and his return this year may be slow at first. WRs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter give the Texans a deep group of receivers. At running back, the Texans have trouble picking a back, but it looks like Arian Foster is ready to emerge over Steve Slaton. Two signings in early September added depth, as Houston grabbed backup RB Derrick Ward and backup QB Matt Leinart. The Texans’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. On defense, the Texans hit a home run with ’09 first-rounder Brian Cushing, who landed in the Pro Bowl. But the outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games of the year, which is a big blow for Houston. Now the Texans must find playmakers elsewhere. DE Mario Williams is a talented pass-rusher who will make his share, but ’09 free-agent signee Antonio Smith and former first-round DT Amobi Okoye need to step up. At linebacker, MLB DeMeco Ryans is a great tackler but not a huge impact player. And in the secondary, the Texans lost CB Dunta Robinson and need rookie Kareem Jackson to be ready from Day One. Houston has talent, but defense is a big question, especially in Cushing’s absence. But expectations of a playoff berth weigh heavily on head coach Gary Kubiak, who needs a big season to return in 2011.

7 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – Two years ago, the Dolphins were a surprise team that went from one win to the AFC East title. Last year, the Dolphins slipped back a bit, finishing 7-9 and falling behind the Patriots and Jets in the division. But this year, the Dolphins will be in the AFC East mix a bit, and picking them to win the division could end up being prescient. The Dolphins get Ronnie Brown back to join Ricky Williams in a running game that’s among the league’s best. Both backs are talented, and they get to run behind a terrific offensive line led by elite OLT Jake Long and terrific ORT Vernon Carey. The line is physical and mean, fitting the Bill Parcells/Tony Sparano philosophy perfectly. And now the Dolphins have a big-time passing threat after they traded for Brandon Marshall in the offseason. Marshall’s presence will allow other receivers like Davone Bess (who had a terrific 2009 season) and second-year man Brian Hartline to fit into roles they’re better suited for, giving the Dolphins depth. That’s important for second-time starter Chad Henne, who struggled at times last year but came on at the end of the year. Henne has good potential, and if he can limit interceptions he adds a dimension that the Dolphins have not yet had in Sparano’s tenure. On defense, the Dolphins lost famous OLBs Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but rookie Koa Misi and ex-CFL import Cameron Wake have a ton of talent and younger legs at the position. Rookie DE Jared Odrick joins young NT Randy Starks to upgrade the defensive line in the 3-4, and Karlos Dansby becomes the man at middle linebacker who will help to stuff the run and in pass coverage. If Dansby plays at his Arizona level, he’ll be a big-time upgrade. The secondary has given the Dolphins trouble recently, but second-year CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have talent and now some experience. The Dolphins have a solid roster full of Parcells guys, and Sparano has proven to be an effective implementer of the Parcells philosophy. The fruits will show this year as the Dolphins leap back over the Jets and back into the postseason.

7 (con’t) – New York Giants – The Giants fell apart last year after a promising start, and their often vaunted defense ended up being a liability instead of a strength. Injuries to MLB Antonio Pierce and S Kenny Phillips were partly to blame, but other defenders played far below their normal level. Pierce is now retired, but the Giants brought in ex-Titan Keith Bulluck to fill that spot. Bulluck is coming back from knee surgery, but if he’s healthy he’s a rangy player who is an asset in pass coverage. At safety, Phillips is back and joined by Antrel Rolle, the ex-Cardinal who has incredible size and speed. Rolle will help stabilize the back of the Giants’ D. Now the question is whether Big Blue’s vaunted front four can rebound. That means DE Osi Umenyiora must rebound after a poor season last year, as must DT Chris Canty, a free-agent signee last year. Umenyiora joins fellow DEs Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in what should be a powerful pass-rushing group. On offense, the Giants became a passing team last year, in part because of the emergence of WR Steve Smith. Smith is a dependable mid-range target who could join with second-year man Hakeem Nicks, a deep threat, to give the Giants a top-flight group of receivers for QB Eli Manning. The Giants’ run game is in flux, as Brandon Jacobs fell apart last year and must prove he’s not done, while Ahmad Bradshaw moved into the No. 1 role. Up front, the Giants’ offensive line that has played together for so long looks like it might need some freshening up, perhaps from young OT William Beatty. The Giants have talent, but their lines must perform well for that talent to result in wins. The good news for Giants fans is that such performance has happened before and could happen again.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets have big dreams last year, but those dreams are more influenced by their three-game playoff run than their 16-game regular season, in which they were just barely above average. The Jets have upgraded their talent, especially on offense, where WR Santonio Holmes should be a No. 1 receiver for QB Mark Sanchez after his four-game suspension. Holmes should overtake Braylon Edwards outside, and TE Dustin Keller inside can stretch the field up the middle. The Jets also expect RB LaDainian Tomlinson to help Sanchez, although our belief is that Tomlinson is done and that rookie Joe McKnight is more likely to make an impact. Thomas Jones is gone, so the Jets will rely on Shonn Greene to carry the load in the running game. Greene showed he has the talent to do so in the playoffs last year; now he must show he can last a full 16-game season. The skill-position players are blessed to have a talented offensive line in front of them led by C Nick Mangold and OLT D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Gang Green must fill in for veteran OLG Alan Faneca, probably with rookie Vladimir Ducasse. On defense, the Jets will be dangerous once again with head coach Rex Ryan’s attacking scheme. OLB Calvin Pace will miss a few early games with injury, but Jason Taylor will help fill in at that spot. But the Jets’ pass-rush also uses ILBs Bart Scott and David Harris, who are both terrific, versatile players. Harris was the unsung hero of the defense last year. Up front, NT Kris Jenkins returns, which means the Jets will hold up even better against the run. DE Shaun Ellis helps against the run and the pass. The Jets also have an elite cornerback in Darrelle Revis, who held out throughout the preseason but wil be on the field for Week One. He’s a game-changing cover guy who will allow the Jets to help imported cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson (their first-round pick) when necessary. SS Jim Leonhard is a smart player who knows what Ryan wants to do and does it well. The Jets have tons of talent, and Ryan imbues them with tons of swagger, but thoughts of Super Bowl contention seem premature, especially because of Sanchez’ rookie struggles last year. Sanchez needs to make not just one leap but two for the Jets to be elite this year, and that’s hard to project. Instead, another fight for a playoff berth seems likely.

7 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Things are looking up in San Francisco, where the talent level is back up and so are expectations. Unlike the Bill Walsh era, this group of 49ers is built on defense and physical play, in the mold of head coach Mike Singletary. San Francisco’s 3-4 is physical and solid, led by ILB Patrick Willis, who is one of the league’s best players of any position. But Willis isn’t alone in the front seven. NT Aubrayo Franklin helps keep blockers off of Willis, and DEs Isaac Sopaoga and Justin Smith do a good job against the run. The Niners’ pass rush isn’t devastating, although OLB Manny Lawson has his moments. In the secondary, underrated FS DaShon Goldson is a playmaker. The cornerback position has some questions. On offense, the Niners sought to upgrade their physical nature with first-round picks ORT Anthony Davis and OLG Mike Iupati. Iupati especially looks ready to break out as a rookie. Frank Gore remains a play-making running back, and TE Vernon Davis emerged as an elite player last year. If WR Michael Crabtree can emerge, the Niners will have their best set of skill-position players in years. The question is whether QB Alex Smith, who played OK last year, remains a league-average quarterback or improves to be more than that. Even if Smith is just average, the Niners have enough talent to contend with and probably pass the Cardinals in their division. It’s time for San Francisco to break through for a playoff berth, and the roster is primed for that next step.

6 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but their hopes for a third straight January appointment are dimming because of a severe talent drain. QB Kurt Warner retired, while S Antrel Rolle, WR Anquan Boldin, and LB Karlos Dansby left for other teams. The tale of the Cardinals’ season will be told by how they replace these players. It’s not going well at quarterback, where former first-rounder Matt Leinart has lost the starting job to Derek Anderson, an inconsistent passer who will make some big plays and some terrible ones as well. The ratio of dynamic to dumb plays will determine Anderson’s effectiveness, and he’s only gotten that ratio right in one year in his career. Anderson will have a fine stable of receivers, even with Boldin gone. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the two or three best receivers in the league, and Steve Breaston is ready to emerge as a starter. Early Doucet will step up to give Arizona a dangerous three-wide set once again. The run game is in good hands with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt may use Warner’s retirement as the impetus to move toward a more run-heavy attack. New OLG Alan Faneca, who played with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh, has the veteran wiles to help with that if he can last another full season. The Cardinals’ offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to block for the run and to keep quarterbacks largely upright. On defense, the Cardinals have an elite defensive end in Darnell Dockett and an emerging one in Calais Campbell. Those guys give Arizona more up-front pass rush than most 3-4 teams. At linebacker, the Cards will miss Dansby’s athleticism, but they hope free-agent addition Joey Porter and rookie Daryl Washington help to create pressure. FS Adrian Wilson is a ballhawk in the back end, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has emerged as a quality corner. The Cards still have some top-level talent in Dockett, Wilson, and Fitzgerald, but the question is whether the QB questions will scuttle the season. Arizona won’t need much from Anderson to contend in the punchless NFC West, but if Anderson starts turning the ball over, things could turn ugly and reverse the foundation Whisenhunt has built.

6 (con’t) – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers’ offseason has been a story of departures. Long-time leaders like Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover are gone, leaving a roster littered with young players. But head coach John Fox is still in town, as is an offense that runs the ball better than any other O in the league. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both blue-chip backs, and their presence allows the Panthers to run 30-40 times a game without wearing out a back. The offensive line, led by OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah and C Ryan Kalil, is designed to block for the run, and it does that well. While the run game isn’t a question mark, the passing game is. Matt Moore, who is 6-2 in two late-season stints as a starter, takes over for Delhomme, and if Moore plays even at an average level, the Panthers become dangerous. But assuming the average from Moore is dangerous, especially after his preseason performance. Moore will have one top target in Steve Smith, who is still one of the most explosive receivers in the league, but the rest of the targets are either unproven or disappointing. On defense, the Panthers will miss Peppers, but young defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown (along with veteran Tyler Brayton) have looked good in the offseason. Sixth-round pick Greg Hardy has been impressive as well. At linebacker, the Panthers are without Thomas Davis for at least the first six weeks of the season, which is why Jon Beason moves from middle ‘backer to the outside. That allows Dan Connor to play in the middle, which could be a boon. CB Chris Gamble is a top-level player who doesn’t get a ton of pub, and S Charles Godfrey is emerging. Despite all the departures, the Panthers still have their share of elite players, which makes them dangerous. The question is how Moore will perform and whether he will have enough good people to throw to. If both answers are yes, the Panthers could make a playoff run once again.

6 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – In Pittsburgh, the big story all offseason has been Big Ben, and Roethlisberger’s season-opening suspension will impact the Steelers’ chances. Fill-in QBs Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are lacking – Leftwich in release speed and Dixon in experience – and that will cost the Steelers at least one September win. Leftwich injured his knee in the preseason finale, so it looks as though Dixon will get the call to open the season, and that’s probably better for the Steelers. But once Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers’ passing game should be dangerous with stalwarts WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller and ’09 rookie surprise Mike Wallace stepping in for Santonio Holmes. The Steelers also have a talented back in Rashard Mendenhall. The big question on offense, at least once Roethlisberger is back on the field, is how the offensive line will perform. The loss of ORT Willie Colon for the season really stings, and even with the addition of first-rounder Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers could struggle up front. On defense, the story isn’t an absence but two returns – S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. Polamalu is what makes the Steelers’ defense special, and when he was out last year the team was vulnerable. Smith is a solid five-technique player up front who stabilizes the run defense. OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley return to lead a zone-blitz pass rush that will cause quarterbacks trouble, but if the pass rush lags the Steelers’ cornerbacks are vulnerable. If Roethlisberger were going to be around the whole season, we would probably promote the Steelers a level or two and predict the playoffs. But his absence, coupled with big offensive line problems, means that the Steelers will miss out on double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

6 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – In Jeff Fisher we trust. Fisher has been the Titans coach longer than they’ve been the Titans (he dates back to the Houston Oiler days), and he always seems to squeeze the most out of the talent on his team. Fisher always has a strong, tough team, and this year is no different. RB Chris Johnson is the star on offense after his 2,000-yard season, and he has the advantage of running behind a solid offensive line led by terrific tackles David Stewart and Michael Roos. Vince Young has once again seized the quarterback job, and the Titans have a good sense of how to use his talent and mask his deficiencies. When Young does throw the ball, TE Bo Scaife and WR Kenny Britt are solid targets. Defensively, the Titans lost another famous defender in Keith Bulluck this offseason, but they will still be tough. Tony Brown and Jason Jones have emerged as play-making defensive tackles, and DL coach Jim Washburn always seems to develop prospects into players. The defense lacks eye-popping players, although MLB Stephen Tulloch is solid. And in the secondary, Michael Griffin is an underrated safety, and Cortland Finnegan brings a physical aspect to corner. The Titans don’t have a lot of flashy players other than Johnson, and that limits their upside, but as always they’ll be a tough opponent each week, and they’ll be in the playoff race until the season ends.

5 – Oakland Raiders – The Silver and Black proclaims a commitment to excellence, but confusion has overtaken excellence in past years. It seems like the Raiders have righted the ship a bit now, but you have to wonder whether the franchise’s generational sins will bubble up and halt the positive movement. The reasons for optimism start on defense, where the Raiders have built up an impressive group of talent. Most fans know DE Richard Seymour, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, and rookie MLB Rolando McClain, but the Raiders have some more promising players in DE Matt Shaughnessy and OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has had an awesome preseason after coming over from Cleveland. The Raiders look like they can get to the passer, and if McClain helps to clean up the run defense, this group will be stout. On offense, new QB Jason Campbell at least provides stability, something that JaMarcus Russell never did. Campbell has talented backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden and emerging young receivers in TE Zach Miller and WR Louis Murphy. If rookie bust Darrius Heyward-Bey emerges, the Raiders suddenly get scary on offense. The line is a problem, as Oakland lacks top-level blockers, and that could end up scuttling a Campbell-led offensive resurgence. There’s a lot to like in Oakland, but the history makes us skeptical. Still, in a weak AFC West, it’s in the realm of possibility for the Raiders to jump into the playoffs.

5 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – It’s a new day in D.C., as Mike Shanahan comes in and seeks to keep Daniel Snyder from meddling. Thus far, Shanahan appears to have been successful. Shanahan’s big move was bringing in QB Donovan McNabb, who should provide stability at a position that has been a trouble spot for the Redskins. As importantly, the Redskins added rookie OT Trent Williams and ex-Pro Bowl OT Jammal Brown to protect McNabb. Those additions were good, but the Redskins’ gaggle of grizzled graybeards at other positions may not be. RBs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker and WR Joey Galloway join Clinton Portis and Santana Moss in a march of the aged experienced at the skill positions. At least the Redskins have two good tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Those offensive questions at least have a positive answer as a possibility. On defense, the outlook is more dour. Obviously, the Albert Haynesworth controversy has blanketed the offseason, but Haynesworth is still the best playmaker the Skins’ D has. Maybe second-year OLB Brian Orakpo can build off a Pro Bowl rookie season so that Washington isn’t as reliant on Haynesworth, but until he does Albert’s still the BMOC. OLB Andre Carter and ILB London Fletcher are productive but aging, and CBs Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall aren’t coming off their best years. S LaRon Landry, another high draft pick, hasn’t really delivered on his promise either. Shanahan has an odd roster full of some talent but even more aging players, and the way NFL players decline makes this approach questionable. Maybe he catches lightning in the bottle, but our hunch is that the Redskins will be more competitive than last year but not good enough to fight into the playoffs.

4 – Chicago Bears – The Bears finished 7-9 last year, but that was a little bit of a mirage because they played most of the league’s cupcakes and won two meaningless games to end the season. Still, the record led to changes for Lovie Smith’s team, most notably the addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Bears hope that Martz’s wide-open offense will unleash QB Jay Cutler’s potential, but it’s just as likely that it leaves Cutler battered and leads to even more interceptions than the 26 Cutler gave away last year. Cutler has a young and promising receiving core led by Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, but TE Greg Olsen could get lost in Martz’s offense. More importantly, the offensive line that struggled last year could really collapse under the pressure Martz’s system will put on it. OLT Chris Williams is finally at his natural position, which should help, but the right side of the line is a massive question mark. RB Matt Forte tries to rebound from a sophomore slump, but if he doesn’t, Chester Taylor is ready to turn a timeshare into his job. Defensively, the Bears added Julius Peppers, who should provide more pass rush than the departed Alex Brown. If Peppers can free up DT Tommie Harris, who has lost his Pro Bowl form, or another lineman like Mark Anderson, the Bears could get teeth on defense again. LB Brian Urlacher returns, and he and Lance Briggs will make their share of plays. But safety is a big question mark unless rookie Major Wright emerges, which means that the Bears have coverage problems despite solid CBs Peanut Tillman and Zack Bowman. The Bears have talent, but cornerback and offensive line questions make a jump toward the playoffs improbable. And with Lovie Smith’s lame-duck status, if things start going bad, the bottom could fall out.

4 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – We’ve been very clear over the past year and a half that we don’t agree with Josh McDaniels’ clear-cutting approach to changing the Broncos’ roster to fit his style, and the end of last season shows why. Denver started the season 6-0, but a lack of talent, especially on defense, showed itself as the Broncos collapsed down the stretch. Now Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler have left town, turning one of Denver’s 2009 strengths into a 2010 question mark. QB Kyle Orton is fine – a league-average quarterback – but his targets are subpar. Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd, and Eddie Royal aren’t a dynamic group of receivers, and Denver’s one breakaway threat, RB Knowshon Moreno, is fighting injuries in training camp. At least the offensive line features premium players in OLT Ryan Clady and ORG Chris Kuper. The defense also struggles with the lack of playmakers. Free-agent signings NT Jamal Williams and DE Justin Bannan will fortify the defensive line, but OLB Elvis Dumervil’s injury is a killer. Unless former first-rounders Jarvis Moss and Robert Ayers show a lot more performance than they have thus far, Denver will struggle to generate a pass rush. The secondary has talent, but CBs Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman and safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill are all old in NFL terms, which leads to questions about their ability to maintain top-level performance through the second half of the season. Denver’s roster is too much of a mish-mash for us to predict that the Broncos will gallop to the playoffs, even in the weak AFC West.

4 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – The Matt Millen era is long gone in Detroit, and the new regime under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew has revitalized the roster to the point that the Lions should move forward this year. The Lions have added not only premium talents like QB Matthew Stafford, S Louis Delmas, TE Brandon Pettigrew, and rookies DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best; they’ve also added helpful role players like OG Rob Sims, WR Nate Burleson, and TE Tony Scheffler. Detroit still needs help in the middle of its roster, but things are getting better. Stafford will love adding Burleson and Scheffler to Calvin Johnson, one of the few good draft picks from Millen’s reign, and Best adds electricity at running back that the Lions haven’t had in years. The offensive line is still a question mark, though, unless veteran OLT Jeff Backus can hold up. On defense, Suh and veteran additions Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams transform the front four for the better, but the back seven lacks punch beside Delmas. One more good draft will put the Lions in great shape, but for now Lions fans can expect more wins from a franchise that’s really headed in the right direction.

4 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags bounced back and forth between this level and the level above, and we were tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt based on their young offensive line and receivers. But those positives couldn’t outweigh the massive questions the Jags have on defense. Maybe rookie DT Tyson Alualu becomes an interior force, and maybe veteran DE Aaron Kampman comes over and not only provides a pass rush himself but also inspires first-round bust Derrick Harvey to do the same. Maybe addition Kirk Morrison becomes a playmaker at linebacker. Maybe Reggie Nelson reemerges at safety, and maybe Rashean Mathis reestablishes himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback. But that’s too many maybes for our taste. On offense, the Jaguars hit with rookie OTs Eben Britten and Eugene Monroe last year, and that helps Maurice Jones-Drew and the running game. And the young corps of receivers led by Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas showed flashes of promise last year. But QB David Garrard hasn’t taken the step into being an above-average quarterback, and that limits Jacksonville’s hopes as well. In a division with the superb Colts, potent Texans, and physical Titans, Jacksonville just doesn’t have enough special qualities to compete. And that’s not good news for hot-seat head coach Jack Del Rio.

3 – Cleveland Browns – It was out with the old, in with the new for the Browns this offseason, although new head honcho Mike Holmgren didn’t through Eric Mangini out with the bathwater. So now Mangini heads up a team that showed some fight in December last year. They did that without a lot of premium talent – except for OLT Joe Thomas and maybe C Alex Mack.  Those two, plus OLG Eric Steinbach, make the line a plus for the Browns, which may explain the success of RB Jerome Harrison late last season. Harrison will have to fight off youngsters James Davis and Montario Hardesty for carries this year. Two more second-year players, Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, must produce at receiver for the Browns, who have a new quarterback in ex-Panther Jake Delhomme. No one’s better in the locker room than Delhomme, but he must avoid interceptions to help the Browns’ offense turn around. The offensive X-factor is Josh Cribbs, a stud kick returner who needs to get the ball 10 times a game on offense. He’s the best playmaker the Browns have, and it’s not close. On defense, the Browns get ILB D’Qwell Jackson back this season, and OLBs Matt Roth and Marcus Benard were nice finds last year. None of them is a stud pass rusher, but with them and massive NT Shaun Rogers, the Browns have a solid front seven. The secondary adds Sheldon Brown and first-rounder Joe Haden at cornerback, which should help. If the Browns had a few more playmakers and an easier division, we might be a bit more bullish, but this roster is more solid than it was last year, and that means a run at .500 is possible if Delhomme keeps it together.

3 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has lit up the Pacific Northwest with his optimism, and he has done a number on the Seahawks’ roster as well. It remains to be seen if Carroll can thrive as a program-builder at the NFL level, because so few guys have done that well, but the early signs are positive. Rookies WR Golden Tate, OLT Russell Okung, and S Earl Thomas add a ton of talent to a team that really needed it, but the ‘Hawks roster had fallen so far that 2010 will still be a struggle. QB Matt Hasselbeck needs to stay healthy to provide stability for an offense with a few playmakers, but Charlie Whitehurst is lurking as a starter in 2011 or perhaps before. The quarterback will have quality targets in TE John Carlson and RB Justin Forsett, and maybe WR Mike Williams is rejuvenated. But the line, even with the addition of Okung and solid young ORG Max Unger, is nothing special unless trade acquisition Stacy Andrews returns to his best. There are questions on offense, but there are problems on defense. Thomas and fellow rookie CB Walter Thurmond provide a talent infusion in the secondary, and MLB Lofa Tatupu returns. But the front four looks like one of the worst in the league, and that’s going to cause problems against the passing game. Carroll appears to have the Seahawks flying in the right direction, but the talent problem was far too deep to be fixed in one offseason.

3 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The pirate ship ran aground last year, as rookie head coach Raheem Morris fired both coordinators he had hired before the end of the season, and the talent level bottomed out. The Bucs did show some fight in late-season wins over the Saints and Dolphins, and that is a sign of hope. More importantly, the team has added some players who help – especially on defense. Rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price have the potential to put teeth back in the Tampa 2 defense, and if they do then the playmakers around them – LB Barrett Ruud, CB Ronde Barber, and S Tanard Jackson – will be set free to succeed. The front four was the defense’s weak point last year, so McCoy was the perfect first-round pick. On offense, the Bucs have a longer way to go, but second-year QB Josh Freeman showed more polish than expected last year, which is a great first step. He has a premium target in TE Kellen Winslow, and rookie WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn could develop with Freeman. Williams has looked great in training camp. The run game relies on the resurgent Cadillac Williams, and the offensive line features a solid left tackle in Donald Penn. The Bucs should be feisty throughout the 2010 season, and if youngsters like Freeman, Mike Williams, and McCoy develop, the Bucs could be terrors on the high seas again before long.

2 – Kansas City Chiefs – Some pundits are touting the Chiefs as a surprise team in 2010. We don’t see it. Head coach Todd Haley is an Xs-and-Os guru, but his personality seems to bring more inconsistency and uncertainty to the franchise than organization. And his management style can’t address the roster deficiencies the Chiefs have. QB Matt Cassel is just OK, and he plays behind an offensive line that doesn’t compare to the Chiefs’ great lines of the 1990s. Left tackle Branden Albert, a former first-round pick, like Cassel is fine but unspectacular compared to others at his position. The Chiefs have a dynamic running back in Jamaal Charles, and addition Thomas Jones is dependable, but the combo isn’t good enough to carry a whole offense a la DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. At receiver, the Chiefs have big targets in Chris Chambers, who was revitalized after arriving in K.C. at midseason last year, and Dwayne Bowe, but Bowe’s consistency and mindset leaves the Chiefs hanging too often. On defense, former top-5 overall picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven’t set the world on fire at defensive end, and the only pass-rush threat the Chiefs have is Tamba Hali. Rookie safety Eric Berry may develop into a playmaker, and CB Brandon Carr is developing into a quality player, but unless Berry is the second coming of Troy Polamalu he can’t turn a defense around himself. The bottom line on the Chiefs is not that they have bad players, but that they don’t have exceptional players. And too many OK players means the arrow still isn’t pointed up at Arrowhead.

2 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Last year, the Rams were as bereft of talent as any team in the league. But we can sell at least a little bit of hope in the Gateway city heading into this year. Sam Bradford, of course, is the paragon of most of this hope, and the preseason has hinted that he can deliver on his franchise-quarterback promise. Bradford has a fine running back in Steven Jackson, and the offensive line in front of him should start to show the effects of adding young OTs Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith in the draft as well as C Jason Brown and OG Jacob Bell in free agency. But Donnie Avery’s injury exacerbated the Rams’ lack of depth at receiver. It’s a big hole for the offense, even if Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, and rookie Mardy Gilyard do have some promise. The Rams hope September acquisition Mark Clayton can add some veteran dependability at the position. On defense, the Rams have some nice pieces in MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe, but they lack impact players on the front line, and without a pass rush, an NFL defense can’t excel. So receiver and defensive line need to be the next items on the rebuilding hit list. But at least Rams fans can take hope in the fact that with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, things are finally moving in the right direction.

1 – Buffalo Bills – First, the good news for Bills fans: Rookie RB C.J. Spiller looks like a phenomenon, and he joins Fred Jackson in a talented backfield. Plus, FS Jarius Byrd made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after compiling nine interceptions. Both players appear to be better than average at their positions. But if you look across the rest of the Bills’ roster, it’s hard to find any standouts. The offensive line is a mess, even with high draft picks spent on Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. The quarterback situation is convoluted, and no matter whether Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Brian Brohm starts, none of them will be better than a league-average quarterback. The offense has Lee Evans but no other passing game threats. And the defense lacks playmakers. Second-year man Aaron Maybin needs to emerge as a pass-rushing threat in the team’s new 3-4, and the Bills need free-agent signee DE Dwan Edwards to stabilize the line up front. Chan Gailey’s a create play-caller with head-coaching experience, and the  Bills tend to play hard, but there’s just not enough talent in upstate New York to expect more than four or five wins – especially in a tough AFC East. With no upside, we have no choice but to put the Bills at the bottom of our comparison.

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Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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Fantasy Football: Rookie receivers

Last season was a surprising one for fantasy football owners, because the conventional wisdom failed. In the past, only truly elite rookie receivers were able to step in and make enough of an impact to be relevant for fantasy owners. But last season, many rookies – from Minnesota’s Percy Harvin to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks to Tennessee’s Kenny Britt to Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace to Indy’s Austin Collie – made fantasy impacts. So it’s worth fantasy owners’ time to take a closer look at this year’s crop of rookie receivers.

Now that we’ve broken down rookie running backs and their fantasy stock this season, we’re going to turn our attention to receivers – both wideouts and tight ends. In this post, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to indicate which receivers are worthy of being drafted. If a receiver is worthy of being drafted, we’ll indicate where in the post.

Just a reminder before we begin – you can search all our fantasy football coverage in this category.

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant was the hot receiver name going into the draft, and he’s Jerry Jones’ pet pick as the Playmaker 2.0. But what kind of fantasy option is he? Obviously, Miles Austin has emerged as a No. 1 receiver both on the field and on fantasy scoresheets. But Tony Romo has spread the ball around, and Bryant immediately becomes a better option than Patrick Crayton and the disappointing Roy Williams. Don’t get your head out over your skis too much on Bryant, because Austin and Jason Witten are still ahead of him in the pecking order. But a 60-catch, eight-TD season is well within the realm of possibility for Bryant, and that makes him a No. 3 fantasy receiver in 10- to 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Broncos – After the Broncos sent Brandon Marshall out of town, they rebuilt their receiving corps with two rookies.  Thomas, a first-round pick, is a speedy outside threat who played in such a run-heavy offense that he may face an adjustment period to the NFL. Decker was a super-productive receiver at Minnesota who has good size and runs good routes, but he’s recovering from a foot injury and sat out OTAs. That’s enough for us to rule out Decker on draft day, although we believe he could be a pick-up during the season. Thomas, meanwhile, is worth a shot as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver simply because the Broncos have so few other options that are attractive in Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokely, and Jabar Gaffney. Verdict: Applaud for Thomas; A fraud for Decker

Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Buccaneers – Like the Broncos, the Buccaneers overhauled their receiving corps in the offseason, and now Benn (a second-round pick) and Williams (a fourth-round pick) look like they have clear shots to starting berths. Holdovers Sammie Stroughter, Reggie Brown, and Michael Clayton aren’t great shakes, while Benn and Williams are both big talents. The question is whether an offense helmed by second-year QB Josh Freeman can produce enough numbers to make Benn and Williams fantasy producers and whether both rookies can emerge at the same time. It’s hard to answer those questions definitively, but the talent is good enough with both guys that we’d recommend drafting either Benn or Williams as your No. 5 receiver and seeing how well they emerge. Verdict: Applaud for both Benn and Williams.

Golden Tate, Seahawks – Tate, a second-round pick, is Pete Carroll’s handpicked receiver to be the Seahawks’ big-play threat. That’s something that the Seahawks don’t have with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch. Matt Hasselbeck has had success in Seattle, and Nate Burleson (a similar player to Tate) had some good numbers in the offense. So Tate is a great option for fantasy owners as a bench guy with lots of upside. As a No. 4 or No. 5 receivers, Tate is a great investment. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, Panthers – There’s plenty of opportunity for Carolina’s two third-round picks, because after Steve Smith the Panthers don’t have a proven receiving threat. The tricky thing is figuring out whether LaFell or Edwards will step ahead of the other receivers, and if so what that means for fantasy owners. I reserve the right to amend this guess after visiting Panthers training camp, but the guess for now is that Edwards will find more of a role as a slot receiver as well as a return man, and that will make him a top-60 receiver, while LaFell will fall just below that level. That makes Edwards draftable in 12-teams league and LaFell a guy I’d rather follow as a early-season claim. Verdict: Applaud for Edwards; A fraud for LaFell

Mardy Gilyard, Rams – Gilyard, the first pick in the fourth round of April’s draft, fell into an ideal situation to emerge as a fantasy receiver. After being a big-play guy at Cincinnati, Gilyard is probably the best receiving option the Rams have after Donnie Avery. Granted, the Rams’ passing game will struggle this season with rookie Sam Bradford sure to get plenty of snaps, but Gilyard could still be a 40-50 catch guy who provides value and some upside as a No. 5 receiver in leagues with at least 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – We discussed McCluster in our rookie RB post because he could have RB eligibility in some leagues. As strictly a receiver, McCluster looks to be a 40-catch guy who could end up being in the top 60 at the position in fantasy terms if he finds the end zone enough. So if you’re in a 12-team league or larger, McCluster could be worth a final-round shot, just to see how much of a role he earns. Verdict: Applaud

Damian Williams, Titans – Williams, a third-round pick, goes into a Titans offense that turned rookie Kenny Britt into a fantasy factor last year. But that receiving group is deeper than it was last year because of Britt’s emergence alongside Justin Gage and Nate Washington. That means Williams will struggle to find targets and end up below the draftable level for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Jordan Shipley, Bengals – Shipley was a do-everything slot receiver at Texas, and the third-round pick could find a similar role in Cincinnati. But we see another rookie as the better prospect for fantasy relevance with the Bengals (see below), and because of that view we see Shipley as more of a bit player. That will prevent him from having draft-worthy fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers – Sanders, a third-round pick by the Steelers, has an opportunity to step into a No. 3 receiver role in Pittsburgh behind Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. And fantasy owners know that role was fruitful for Wallace last season. But given the Steelers’ miserable QB situation in the first quarter of the season, our thought is to pass on Sanders in the draft and watch him as a pick-up prospect, especially once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – We raved about Gresham in the pre-NFL draft process, and he landed in a fantasy friendly offensve in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t gotten a lot of tight end production in recent years, but that’s been more of a personnel issue than a system issue. Gresham is a terrific receiver who should be the third receiving option behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, and that may be enough to find top-20 value at tight end. So in larger leagues, Gresham is worth drafting, and in keeper leagues he’s also worth a look because he could develop into a top-8 tight end within a couple of seasons. Verdict: Applaud

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Patriots – The Patriots cleared out their tight end corps in the offseason and drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez while signing only veteran Alge Crumpler, who’s mostly a blocker at this point in his career. New England has produced some tight end numbers under this offensive system, but they’ve usually been spread out among several players. If you had to pick one Pats tight end to draft in fantasy leagues this year, it would be Gronkowski, but he’s unlikely to break into the top 20 at tight end since it’s such a deep position at this point. So unless you’re in a mega league or a strong keeper league, neither Gronkowksi or Hernandez is draftable. Verdict: A fraud

Ed Dickson, Ravens – Dickson’s a nice prospect at tight end for the Ravens, but with Todd Heap still around, there’s not much room for Dickson to be a fantasy force this season. He’ll be on draft boards at some point in his career, but not this year. Verdict: A fraud

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