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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2011 Mock Draft

Since the lockout has made a mockery of the NFL offseason, posts have been sporadic this month. But now it’s time to make up for all that with our 2011 mock draft.

Don’t forget to enter the Football Relativity draft contest to match wits with all of our readers. As we break down the 32 first-round picks, remember that we’ve written extensively on many top the draft prospects in our draft category.

1. Carolina Panthers – QB Cam Newton, Auburn
No matter whom the draft experts have slotted first – DaQuan Bowers, Marcell Dareus, or Blaine Gabbert – we’ve always believed that Newton is the guy for the Panthers to take as long as they held onto this pick. Of course, there are many non-complimentary rumors about Newton’s personality and genuineness, but those rumors can’t disguise the fact that Newton has been a big-time winner in college. He is, as 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “plutonium-grade raw material.” And because of that, the Panthers have to take a shot on him. Yes, that means throwing off 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen, and yes, it means developing a guy who hasn’t played a pro style offense. But if Newton hits, he can be the next Ben Roethlisberger/Josh Freeman type of quarterback. That’s major upside that the Panthers have frankly never had at quarterback in franchise history.

2. Denver Broncos – DT Marcell Dareus, Alabama
This is a tricky spot in the draft. New Broncos team president John Elway doesn’t seem sold on Tim Tebow, and so Blaine Gabbert is in play. Plus, we bet the Broncos would be happy to trade down a spot or two or three if the Bills, Bengals, or Cards covets Gabbert. But our hunch is that eventually the Broncos will settle into taking the best defensive front-seven player in the draft, and that’s Dareus. Perhaps Patrick Peterson is a better overall player, but Dareus is the top defensive lineman in the draft, and he can play either tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. At his best, he can be a destructive interior force a la Kevin Williams, and the Broncos desperately need that kind of up-front player. The fact that Dareus can help speed their transition to a 4-3 defense only makes things better. This isn’t the sexiest pick, but Dareus will be an impact player at a position of dire need. That’s enough for the Broncos to pull the trigger.

3. Buffalo Bills – DE Von Miller, Texas A&M
Miller isn’t a perfect fit for the Bills’ 4-3 system, but he’s so good that it’s worth tweaking the system to feature his talents. Buffalo hasn’t had an elite pass rusher in ages – since the Bruce Smith years – so Miller certainly will fit in well there. The question is whether the Bills will pass on Blaine Gabbert to pick Miller. With Ryan Fitzpatrick around, the Bills have the flexibility to wait if they’re not head over heels in love with Gabbert, and our sense is that they’d far prefer Newton to the Missouri product. So instead of trying to make it work with a quarterback they don’t lust after, picking the best pass rusher in the draft (and one of the draft’s sure things) is more appealing option.

4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR A.J. Green, Georgia
The Bengals are another team in the quarterback hunt, although Mike Brown may be too stubborn to admit to himself that Carson Palmer really is going to sit out rather than play another year in Cincinnati. So Gabbert would be in play here, at least for a team that has a good grasp on reality. But given the fact that Brown refuses to even consider trading Palmer, the self-delusion seems to indicate that the Bengals may try to appease him by drafting Green. The motivation behind that move would be wrong, but the pick itself will work. Green is a phenomenal receiver with good size and speed and ridiculously great hands. With Chad Ochocinco likely headed out of town (for nothing, two years after the Bengals could have had two first-rounders for him) and Terrell Owens as a free agent, Green also fits a need area. Teaming Green with young receivers Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson would give the Bengals a true No. 1 wideout with the complimentary pieces already in place. Picking the sure-thing Green will work well for the Bengals, regardless of how they come to the decision.

5. Arizona Cardinals – QB Blaine Gabbert, Missouri
Gabbert was the trendy top pick a few weeks ago, but his stock has slipped in recent weeks, to the point that there are even rumors that the Cards would pass on him. Gabbert seems to fit the cookie-cutter mold for a franchise quarterback, which is great until you realize there is no mold. But Gabbert has nice tools, and he was generally productive in college. Maybe he doesn’t have the upside to be great, but he could be good, and that would be a major upgrade for the Cardinals. Arizona fell apart last year in large part because of horrific quarterback play. So we just can’t imagine Arizona not taking Gabbert if the opportunity presents itself.

6. Cleveland Browns – DT Nick Fairley, Auburn
The Browns are in a weird position in this draft. Because there are seven elite players, picking sixth guarantees a good result. But the natural pick at this point – Patrick Peterson – duplicates Cleveland’s first-rounder from last year, Joe Haden. Of course, a team can never have too many corners, but for a team as bereft of game-breaking talent as the Browns, picking Peterson would be a misallocation of resources. So for Cleveland, the decision comes down to taking Julio Jones, who’s not among the top 7 players; reaching for a pass-rusher with injury questions in DaQuan Bowers or Robert Quinn, or taking Fairley. Most people have dropped Fairley lower than this, but there aren’t many impact defensive tackles on earth, and Fairley can be one. He had a Warren Sapp type of impact for Auburn last year, and so he brings the kind of disruption to a defense that we normally associate with defensive ends. Fairley has some character questions, but those questions aren’t any more damaging than what Bowers or Quinn faces. If the Browns go with the best player available here, Fairley should be the selection.

7. San Francisco 49ers – CB Patrick Peterson, LSU
We’ve dubbed Peterson as the third sure-thing player in this draft, and he fits a need area for the Niners. San Fran has been looking for cornerbacks for a while, but the high-dollar Nate Clements isn’t living up to the price. So the chance to add Peterson and lock down one side of the defensive backfield will be too tempting to pass up. Peterson has unusual size for a corner, yet he still has good speed and cover skills. And if he ever gets the ball in his hands, look out. The Niners will be thrilled if the draft falls this way.

8. Tennessee Titans – QB Jake Locker, Washington
This is where things get crazy. I’m not a huge fan of Locker (as detailed here), but he is a major physical talent and a great kid. So you can see a team throwing its weight behind Locker as a potential franchise quarterback. And with Fairley off the board, a defensive end like Robert Quinn or DaQuan Bowers would be just as much of a risk as Locker at this point. Yes, taking Locker would be a reach, but our sense is that with so many QB-needy teams, Tennessee won’t have the option to take Locker in the second round, and it may actually cost less (in draft pick cost) to take him here than it would to trade back into the end of the first round to get him. Reports say that Tennessee has gotten comfortable with Locker as a future starting quarterback, and if that’s the case this is where they would have to get him. So while it’s a reach, we’re putting Locker here as the successor to the disappointing Vince Young era.

9. Dallas Cowboys – OT Tyron Smith, USC
It seems like every mock draft out there has the Cowboys taking Smith, the most talented of the offensive line group. It makes sense. Other than CB Prince Amukamara, none of the top players left on the board really fits a need, and it seems like the second-round DB options will be a little better than the O-line choices. Smith should be able to immediately step into the starting right tackle role, and he has a chance to develop into a top-flight left tackle if the Cowboys lose Doug Free via free agency.

10. Washington Redskins – OLB Robert Quinn, North Carolina
The Redskins are really in a dilemma in this year’s draft. The trades for Donovan McNabb and Jammal Brown last year cost them third- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft, which will really make it difficult for Washington to address all of its needs. Washington has so few playmakers that they need an impact guy with their first pick. That points to two guys among the available options – WR Julio Jones and OLB Robert Quinn. Given the fact that Mike Shanahan’s best receivers in Denver – Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and even Brandon Marshall – were all mid-to-late draft picks or scrap-heap pickups, we’ll go the defensive route and give them Quinn as a counterpart to Brian Orakpo.

11. Houston Texans – DE Cameron Jordan, California
Once again, the Texans simply have to spend their first-round pick on defense. While they reportedly covet Patrick Peterson, he won’t be around without a trade-up. Prince Amukamara would make sense, but after spending a first-rounder on CB Kareem Jackson last year, picking a cornerback isn’t the best move unless it’s an exceptional prospect like Peterson. So the Texans need to turn their attention to the front seven and especially to the front line of their reworked 3-4 defense. With Mario Williams already in place as a pass-rushing fiend, the Texans need a two-way defensive end who can provide some push but also hold up well against the run. Two available players – Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt and Cal’s Cameron Jordan. We like Jordan’s upside better, so he’s the pick here.

12. Minnesota Vikings – OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
The Vikings have a glaring quarterback need, but unless they’re head over heels in love with Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder or Ryan Mallett, pulling the trigger on a QB here would be foolhardy. It seems like Colin Kaepernick in the second round might be a nice fit as a long-term answer at the position. So if not a quarterback, who should they draft? Our sense is that this is a line pick. Maybe an offensive tackle like Anthony Castonzo to replace Bryant McKinnie, or maybe a defensive end like DaQuan Bowers to replace departing free agent Ray Edwards. Bowers has more upside, but Castonzo could be a Steve Hutchinson-type of player for the Vikings, which would be a welcome change from McKinnie, who has been less than an ideal effort guy in recent years. That’s more of a need for the Vikes than defensive end, so we’ll point this pick toward Castonzo.

13. Detroit Lions – CB Prince Amukamara, Nebraska
The Lions’ rebuilding process is going well, and last year’s first-rounder Ndamukong Suh is an elite talent. Now they try to build onto their defense with another prime player. The secondary was a big-time weak spot last year, and so having Amukamara fall into their laps would be serendipitous. Amukamara is a quality cover man who will immediately become a No. 1 cover man, and his presence would help guys like Alphonso Smith slide down the ladder to spots better befitting their talents. He would be another nice piece for a team that should be making a playoff push soon.

14. St. Louis Rams – WR Julio Jones, Alabama
The Rams would be doing backflips if Jones slipped this far. He will be in play as early as pick 6 in Cleveland, and preeminent wideouts are hard to find. The position certainly has been troublesome for the Rams since the departures of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, and Jones would immediately become Sam Bradford’s top target. And getting Jones would let Mark Clayton (who’s expected to return) and Danny Amendola slip into better roles. The Rams could also spend a pick on a defensive linemen, and Mike Pouncey would also fit nicely, but Jones would be simply too appealing to pass up.

15. Miami Dolphins – C/OG Mike Pouncey, Florida
The Dolphins are in an interesting position in this draft. They need a quarterback of the future, but unless they fall in love with Ryan Mallett or another prospect, it would be a reach to take one here. They need a running back, but spending their only pick in the first two rounds on Mark Ingram wouldn’t really address needs long term. There are tons of defensive linemen and pass rushers on the board here, but with guys like Paul Soliai, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, and Jared Odrick, the Dolphins have lots of good young players in the front seven. Ultimately, a trade down is probably in their best interest. But if they stay in place, Pouncey would be a nice addition. Miami has solid terrific tackles in Jake Long and Vernon Carey, so they’re more likely to pull the trigger not on a tackle like Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi but on Pouncey, who is versatile enough to play any of the three interior positions and talented enough to step right in and make a difference.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars – DE DaQuan Bowers, Clemson
Bowers was once considered a potential first overall pick, and with good reason. But questions about his knee’s long-term health have dropped him down the board. But at some point, a contender who falls in love with Bowers’ massive potential will take the risk. Jacksonville seems like a good spot for that risk. The Jaguars have been building their lines in the last two drafts successfully, with OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britten two years ago and DTs Tyson Alualu and D’Anthony Smith last year. But while those moves have worked, defensive end has been a trouble spot, as former first-rounder Derrick Harvey hasn’t panned out, and free-agent Aaron Kampman didn’t make a huge splash either. Bowers would add elite talent and would ratchet up the scare factor for the Jags D several notches.

17. New England Patriots (via Oakland Raiders) – OLB Aldon Smith, Missouri
The Patriots rarely make the trendy pick, but the fact that they’ve had to rely on Tully Banta-Cain for outside pass rush in recent years highlights the fact that an impact pass rusher is a big-time need. Smith played as a smallish defensive end in college, but he could move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 to be a bigger, Willie McGinest-sized rusher for the Pats. The Pats could also take a five-technique defensive end like J.J. Watt or Ryan Kerrigan, but they have other options at those positions. Smith would add a unique element that’s not currently on the roster, and that’s why he’s the pick here.

18. San Diego Chargers – DE J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
It’s hard for a fan base to get excited about their favorite team picking a five-technique defensive end, but it’s imperative that teams pick them when they get a chance because they’re so hard to find. Watt fits the profile of that position to a T. He can provide the kind of stability up front that helps pass-rushers like Shaun Phillips and Larry English create havoc. That’s why Watt, more than outside players like Ryan Kerrigan or Adrian Clayborn, makes sense here. Note that the Chargers have been very aggressive about moving up to get their guy recently – with English, Ryan Mathews, and Eric Weddle, to name a few – so a trade up makes sense if A.J. Smith falls in love with a certain guy.

19. New York Giants – OT Nate Solder, Colorado
The Giants have long been strong in the trenches under head coach Tom Coughlin, but the offensive line is starting to show the cracks that come with age. Young OT William Beatty hasn’t really emerged as a difference-maker, so adding one of this year’s top tackles makes sense here. Solder is a big, physical specimen who has the potential to play either side, and his physical style makes him a better fit for Big Blue than Gabe Carimi.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
Clayborn’s stock has slipped because of a injury that occurred at birth that still impacts the strength in his right arm. As a result, Clayborn will have to lock in on one side of the defense. That lack of versatility is a drawback, but Clayborn can still provide a ton of pass-rush pop. After investing in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price last year, the Bucs need to step up their outside threats on defense, and Clayborn is the best option at this point to do that. Tampa Bay could also use a cornerback, but given the legal problems Aqib Talib and Tanard Jackson are facing, the Bucs can’t afford to gamble on Jimmy Smith at this point.

21. Kansas City Chiefs – OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
This is a popular pick, since it’s clear to see the Chiefs’ gaping hole at right tackle, and Carimi seems to be around at this spot on just about every mock draft you see. But the pick makes a ton of sense. Branden Albert is a decent starting left tackle, but not dominant, and Carimi could either fill in the RT hole or take Albert’s job and force him to jump over there. Either move should help to stabilize the Chiefs’ front line.

22. Indianapolis Colts – DT Corey Liuget, Illinois
The Colts usually spend their top pick on offense. That strategy worked well as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark became stars playing with Peyton Manning, but more recent picks like Anthony Gonzalez and Donald Brown haven’t panned out. Last year, the Colts picked DE Jerry Hughes, who didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie. We see them going defense this year, in part because the top group of offensive linemen has been picked through in our mock draft, and in part because there’s such value along the defensive line, which is another huge need area. Liuget would be a three-technique, penetrating tackle; a widebody like Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson would also be an option.

23. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles always, always, always spend their first-round pick on a lineman. Given how the offensive line crew has been picked through a bit at this point, instead of taking guard Danny Watkins or OT Danny Sherrod, we’ll point the Eagles toward defense. Kerrigan is a nice player with a high motor who makes some plays but may not have the punch of some other prospects. Still, he seems like he could develop into a Kyle Vanden Bosch type of end, and that would be a terrific addition at this point. The fact that the Eagles hired Jim Washburn, the league’s best D-line coach, in the offseason makes picking a guy like Kerrigan even more attractive – because they can trust Washburn will get the best out of him.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Andy Dalton, TCU
Dalton is the flavor-of-the-month West Coast offense quarterback, and there have been enough rumors linking him to the Seahawks at 25 that some team will trade back into the first round to pick him. The Saints should get a premium to trade out of this spot so that Cincinnati or San Francisco – or another team that has kept its Dalton love quiet – can beat Seattle to the punch. We’ve already discussed how Dalton is our choice as the No. 3 QB in the draft.

25. Seattle Seahawks – QB Christian Ponder, Florida State
The Seahawks still need a quarterback, given the fact that Matt Hasselbeck is hitting the open market. Ponder is also a West Coast style quarterback, but he has a little more elusiveness and a stronger arm than Dalton. Ponder’s big question (as we detailed before) will be durability. But with OL cornerstones center Max Unger and OT Russell Okung in place, the Seahawks are better positioned to protect Ponder than many other teams.

26. Baltimore Ravens – CB Jimmy Smith, Colorado
It seems like the Ravens have a strong roster with two continually glaring holes in recent years – wide receiver and cornerback. Given the way the draft board breaks down, receiver isn’t going to be an option this year. So while the cornerback play was a bit better last year, Josh Wilson’s free agency leaves it as a need. Smith would really help in that area. Smith is an ubertalented cover man with a rough reputation, but Baltimore seems to have the veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in place to help Smith grow up more quickly. But he could end up being a home run pick, which would be a coup this late in the first round.

27. Atlanta Falcons – OG Danny Watkins, Baylor
The Falcons are solid across the board, and so they can afford to spend a first-rounder on a less premium position like guard to get a premium player. That’s what Watkins, an ex-firefighter, can be. With OGs Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and OT Tyson Clabo all facing free agency, adding depth up front is crucial for the Dirty Birds. Watkins could step in and start at a guard spot, which would give the Falcons some financial flexibility without losing performance.

28. New England Patriots – NT Phil Taylor, Baylor
The Pats are, as always, prime targets to trade out of the first round, especially if a team is gaga over Ryan Mallett (bad idea) or Colin Kaepernick. But if they stay put, they can add to their defensive line once again either with Muhammad Wilkerson, who would play defensive end in their system, or with Taylor, who would apprentice under Vince Wilfork on the nose. Given the fact that the Pats had success with Wilfork playing end last year, Taylor would be a better fit. Adding a sturdy defensive lineman and a pass rusher would make for a terrific first-round haul for the Pats – especially with the first pick in the second round in their pocket.

29. Chicago Bears – OLB Akeem Ayers, UCLA
The Bears could use an offensive lineman, but they don’t seem too high on Derek Sherrod, the one first-round-level prospect left on the board. So we have them turning to Ayers, a versatile outside linebacker who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme. Ayers would add youth to a linebacking corps held down by linchpins Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and Ayers seems to have the skills to play on the strong side instead of sitting behind one of the stars. Ayers is a physical freak whose performance on the field wasn’t always consistent, but his ability could be too much to ignore at this point.

30. New York Jets – DE Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple
The Jets need to add some depth in their front line on defense, given the departure of Kris Jenkins and the age of Shaun Ellis. Wilkerson, who has the skills to play as a defensive end in the 3-4 and also play inside in 4-3 sets, would add a nice piece for Rex Ryan’s attacking defense. The Jets could also look at Cameron Heyward in a similiar role, but Wilkerson’s a higher rated prospect.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers – OT Derek Sherrod, Mississippi State
The Steelers have been beset by offensive line injuries in recent years, and it would be wise to add a first-round talent like Sherrod instead of having to depend on a fill-in like Flozell Adams again. The other spot they could address is at cornerback, where big, physical Aaron Williams of Texas may be tempting as well.

32. Green Bay Packers – DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
The Packers are loaded on the defensive line because they have invested so heavily there in the draft. But with Johnny Jolly’s career likely over and Cullen Jenkins looking to hit the jackpot via free agency, adding a player at the position would be wise. Heyward can play as a defensive end and add a little bit of pass rush push at the position. He’s a better fit than Marvin Austin, more of a 4-3 defensive tackle.

Guys who we considered for first-round spots:

QB Colin Kaepernick
QB Ryan Mallett
RB Mark Ingram
DT Marvin Austin
CB/S Aaron Williams

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Freeze tags: Vick, Mankins, Harris

Mike Vick with Philadelphia

Franchise player Michael Vick of the Eagles. Image via Wikipedia

In the midst of labor strife that is growing more and more contentious,* NFL teams are starting to place franchise and transition tags on players. There’s no telling whether these tags will survive past the March 4 lockout deadline – it’s one of many matters of debate – but they are still newsworthy enough to discuss.

(*We’re not covering the ins and outs of the NFL/NFLPA negotiations on the blog, but we will be retweeting coverage we find helpful. Follow here if you’re interested.)

Thus far, three high-profile players – QB Michael Vick of the Eagles, LB David Harris of the Jets, and OG Logan Mankins of the Patriots – have received the franchise tag. Under the current rules, this tag guarantees them one-year salaries equal to the average of the top five at their position and prevents other teams from signing them without a trade. There are two kinds of tags: an exclusive tag, which guarantees more money on the one-year tender and prohibits a player from negotiating or signing with another team, and a non-exclusive tag, which offers a guaranteed one-year tender but also guarantees a team two first-round picks if the tagged player signs a long-term contract with another team.

Also, PK David Akers of the Eagles got the transition tag, which guarantees him a one-year salary equal to the average of the top 10 at his position, and gives the Eagles the right to match if he signs a free-agent contract elsewhere.

Below are some thoughts on these players and their importance to their teams. Once the franchise-tag deadline passes, we’ll compare all the franchise and transition players using our Football Relativity tool.

QB Michael Vick, Eagles (exclusive franchise tag) – It’s no surprise that the Eagles tagged Vick, because they didn’t want to risk losing him after the gamble they made signing him off the scrap heap paid off handsomely. Vick emerged as not just the Eagles’ starter but as a dynamic force this season, throwing for 21 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and running for nine TDs. Despite missing four games, Vick was an elite player, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors and contending for MVP during the season. Vick has grown as a passer, surpassing his career-best in completion percentage in 2010 (62.6 percent) by a long shot. He’s in his prime, and the Eagles appear prepared to give him the kind of megadeal that franchise QBs tend to get. The Eagles will need to keep Kevin Kolb or develop Mike Kafka as a backup, because Vick gets hit more than most QBs and will miss some time, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to keeping Vick.

ILB David Harris, Jets (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Harris hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity in his career – he has yet to make a Pro Bowl, for example – but he has emerged as an elite 3-4 inside linebacker. He’s sturdy against the run and dangerous against the pass, and he’s able to blitz at times as well. He is the heart of the Jets’ defense, and so the team franchised him instead of WRs Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards, among others. It’s a good move, because Harris can become the Ray Lewis of their defense, providing stability and impact inside while allowing the players around him to make the splashier plays on the blitz in the Jets’ uberaggressive scheme.

OG Logan Mankins, Patriots (non-exclusive franchise tag) – Mankins sat out the first half of the season rather than play on a restricted free-agent tender, yet he still made the Pro Bowl. He’s become an all-star regular based on his physical play inside. Mankins, a former first-round pick, expressed his desire for a trade last year, but he may be more apt to accept a $10-million-plus one-year deal for 2011 than he was to risk his health for a $1.5 million deal in 2010. It’s hard to imagine that any guard would be worth this kind of money, but the Patriots clearly don’t want to lose Mankins, and they’re willing to pay for him to play. The question is whether Mankins will let bygones be bygones and move forward from this point.

PK David Akers, Eagles (transitioned) – It took Akers a couple of years to establish himself in the pros, but once he did he has become an 11-year stalwart at kicker for them. He’s made five Pro Bowls, including the last two, and was an all-decade kicker for the 2000s. The Eagles clearly trust Akers, despite a couple of misses in the playoffs this year. For a contender, paying a few million dollars to keep a trusted kicker is a worthwhile investment, and it’s not uncommon for kickers to get tagged, because it’s not prohibitively expensive to do so, and this seems like a shrewd move for the Eagles. Akers, meanwhile, continues to kick at a high level, and he deserves to cash in.

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Pick ’em – Divisional round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We’ll try to rebound from a below-par first weekend with this week’s picks.

Hines Ward and the Steelers take on the Ravens once again

Pittsburgh -3 vs. Baltimore – The Steelers and Ravens resume their physical and aggressive series with a game at Heinz Field. And while the overall series has been even recently, the truth is that the Ravens’ last two wins came only when Ben Roethlisberger was out. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers are on a winning streak against Baltimore, even though most of the games have been close. That’s what we expect in this one. The Steelers’ defense, while not at full strength, will have Troy Polamalu back, and he’s the biggest difference maker on either team, even over Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. And the most dynamic offensive player on either team, even above the great Ray Rice, is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch this season. So despite the Ravens’ fine performance last week, and despite Joe Flacco’s strong postseason record away from Baltimore, the Steelers are the pick. Pick: Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13

Atlanta -3 vs. Green Bay – The Packers are the trendy pick to win the NFC at this point after their win in Philadelphia last week. And while that win was terrific, it’s not like it was a blowout. Green Bay missed a key opportunity for a touchdown when James Jones dropped a beautiful Aaron Rodgers pass just before the half, and it took two missed field goals and a late interception to seal the game. Maybe Green Bay would be a realistic favorite if they still had guys like JerMichael Finley and Nick Barnett on the field, but the truth is that Green Bay isn’t good enough to dominate anyone. And it may have been forgotten during the bye week, but the Falcons are a fine team. They have a strong running game, a ridiculously good receiver in Roddy White, and a defense that can both stop the run and create pressure with John Abraham. The Falcons don’t have many weaknesses, and their strong play is even better in the Georgia Dome. We’ll buck the trend and stick with the home team in this one. Pick: Atlanta 24, Green Bay 20

Chester Taylor and the Bears host the Seahawks

Chicago -10 vs. Seattle – The Seahawks took off last week in an upset win thanks to a career performance from Matt Hasselbeck and a top-flight game plan from Pete Carroll and his staff. The question is whether they can replicate that kind of performance two weeks in a row. Yes, the Seahawks won in Chicago earlier this year, but in that game the Bears went 0-12 on third-down conversions and played without Lance Briggs. The Bears have picked up their play offensively in the second half of the season, protecting Cutler better and becoming more efficient. This isn’t the same team the Seahawks beat. Most of all, the Bears’ defense has played well all season, and we think they can stop Hasselbeck, Marshawn Lynch and company. We have no question the Bears can win the game, and we’ll put them past the double-digit spread as well. Pick: Chicago 31, Seattle 17

New England -9 vs. N.Y. Jets – Rex Ryan and the Jets have been talking big all week, but the last time they faced the Patriots they got blitzed 45-3. The Jets are better than that, but we still expect the Patriots to knock them off again. Tom Brady has been spectacular all season, and even more so since the Randy Moss trade. That trade completely changed how the Jets defend the Pats, because Darrelle Revis can’t sit on Moss all game. Now the Patriots’ passing game is versatile enough to avoid Revis without losing much of and edge. Plus, the Patriots run the ball better than they have in five years thanks to Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets’ running game looked good this past week at Indianapolis, but QB Mark Sanchez was far too inconsistent. He’s going to have to raise his game for the Jets to have a chance, and we don’t think he can be explosive enough to keep the Jets close to the Pats on teh scoreboard. Pick: New England 35, N.Y. Jets 20

Last week: 1-0-1 college, 1-3 pro, 2-3-1 overall
Season: 55-62-3 college, 56-65-5 pro, 111-127-8 overall

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s wild-card games. (For a look at Saturday’s games, click here.)

Todd Heap of the Ravens vs. Eric Berry of the Chiefs

 

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7
*Ray Rice didn’t find a ton of room running the ball for the Ravens (17 carries, 56 yards), but he did a great job in the passing game, as usual, with five catches for 42 yards and a score. It seems like Rice needs two or three steps to get going, but once he does, he’s elusive and hard to corral. He’s the best offensive player the Ravens have. But Baltimore got great performances out of TE Todd Heap (a franchise postseason record 10 catches for 108 yards) and WR Anquan Boldin (five catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), among others.
*Because the running game wasn’t thriving, the Ravens had to rely on Joe Flacco, and he did a good job getting the ball to receivers on crossing routes. The Ravens didn’t make a ton of throws outside, but Flacco killed the Chiefs on inside plays as he threw for 265 yards and two scores. Flacco has now made the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is 4-2 in the postseason despite not having a home playoff game yet.
*Matt Cassel only threw seven interceptions all season, but he threw three in this game, including two early ones that doomed the Chiefs. Cassel still has a bright future, but right now the Chiefs don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome these kinds of mistakes.
*Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles made a huge play for the Chiefs with a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and his hustle play after a Cassel interception in the third quarter forced a fumble that Charles recovered. But Charles’ second-quarter fumble really stifled the Chiefs’ momentum when they had a 7-3 lead.
*Despite the loss, this might have been the day that Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali became a national star. After finishing second in the league this season with 14.5 sacks, Hali had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens, and a third-quarter pressure forced a field-goal attempt.
*Ray Lewis is already a star for the Ravens, and he showed why in the third quarter with a hit on Dexter McCluster that forced a fumble and led to a field goal. He also had a late sack. Lewis isn’t quite as active as he once was, but he’s still an asset and a physical force. So is Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks in the game and provides a consistent pass rush.
*Despite the loss, the Chiefs have a bright future, and it’s thanks in large part to their first-round picks. On defense, Hali, rookie S Eric Berry (four passes defensed), LB Derrick Johnson (huge stop in a first-quarter goal-line stand), and DE Glenn Dorsey all played well – all are former first-rounders. And on offense, OLT Branden Albert held up pretty well. The one first-rounder who went missing was WR Dwayne Bowe, who had a terrific year but didn’t make an impact at all in this game, going without a catch.

Packers 21, Eagles 18
*Aaron Rodgers had a terrific game – throwing for three touchdowns that should have been four had James Jones not dropped a beautiful deep throw just before the half – but the revelation for the Pack was rookie RB James Starks, who ran for 123 yards after recording just 101 in the regular season. Starks is a big, physical runner who got more from his chunks than Brandon Jackson ever could. (Give Jackson credit, though, for great patience that turned a screen pass into a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.)
*Michael Vick had a good but not great game for the Eagles. He threw for 292 yards, but aside from one chunk late in the game, he couldn’t get DeSean Jackson free for a big play. (Jackson was battling an injury.) Vick also threw a critical interception late in the game as he tried to bring the Eagles back. Vick ran for 33 yards, but Green Bay’s decision to spy on him with Charles Woodson kept the quarterback from breaking free very often. The Packers also sacked Vick three times, which was an accomplishment.
*One of the things that makes Green Bay so dangerous is its depth of receivers. Greg Jennings, the Pack’s best outside man, had just one catch, but Rodgers still threw for 180 yards and moved the team effectively. Rodgers’ willingness to spread the ball around definitely paid off in this game.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle – As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia – This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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Filed under Football Relativity, Pick 'em, preja vu

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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The 2009 All-Jersey Number Team

Over the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed the best players in the league at each position by jersey number. Now we’re combining those lists to create our 2009 all jersey-number team. From 1 to 99, here are the best players at each jersey number.

To see how we selected our finalists, you can review the jersey number project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this postand quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this postand kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post and linebackers in this post and defensive backs in this post.

1 – PK Neil Rackers, Cardinals

2 – QB Matt Ryan, Falcons. Other position winner: P Dustin Colquitt, Chiefs

3 – PK Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots. Other position winner: QB Derek Anderson, Browns

4 – QB Brett Favre, Vikings. Other position winner: P Andy Lee, 49ers

5 – QB Donovan McNabb, Eagles. Other position winner: P Mike Scifres, Chargers

6 – QB Jay Cutler, Bears. Other position winner: PK Joe Nedney, 49ers

7 – QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. Other position winner: P Jason Baker, Panthers

8 – QB Matt Schaub, Texans. We originally gave the position nod to Matt Hasselbeck, but as Hasselbeck continues a steep decline, we’re switching to an ascending player in Schaub. Other position winners: QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks; PK Ryan Longwell, Vikings

9 – QB Drew Brees, Saints. Other position winner: P Shane Lechler, Raiders

10 – QB Eli Manning, Giants. Other position winners: WR Santonio Holmes, Steelers; PK Nate Kaeding, Chargers

11 – WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals. Other position winners: PK Sebastian Janikowksi, Raiders; QB Daunte Culpepper, Lions

12 – QB Tom Brady, Patriots. Other position winner: WR Marques Colston, Saints

13- QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals. Other position winner: WR Johnny Knox, Bears

14 – WR Brandon Stokely, Broncos. Other position winner: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills

15 – WR Brandon Marshall, Broncos. Other position winners: QB Seneca Wallace, Seahawks; P Craig Hentrich, Titans

16 – WR/RS Josh Cribbs, Browns. Other position winner: QB Charlie Batch, Steelers

17 – QB Philip Rivers, Chargers. Other position winners: WR Braylon Edwards, Jets; PK Shayne Graham, Bengals

18 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts. Other position winners: WR Sidney Rice, Vikings; P Jeff Feagles, Giants

19 – WR Miles Austin, Cowboys

20 – S Ed Reed, Ravens. Other position winner: RB Thomas Jones, Jets

21 – CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders. Other position winner: RB LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers

22 – CB Asante Samuel, Eagles. Other position winner: RB Matt Forte, Bears

23 – RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins. Other position winners: CB DeAngelo Hall, Redskins; WR Devin Hester, Bears

24 – CB Darrelle Revis, Jets. Other position winner: RB Marion Barber, Cowboys

25 – RB Ryan Grant, Packers. Other position winner: S Ryan Clark, Steelers

26 – CB Antoine Winfield, Vikings. Other position winner: RB Clinton Portis, Redskins

27 – RB Ray Rice, Ravens. Other position winner: CB Rashean Mathis, Jaguars

28 – RB Chris Johnson, Titans. Originally, we opted for Adrian Peterson over Johnson, but as Johnson continues his historic season, and as Peterson continues to struggle, we’re going to make a switch. Other positional winners: RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings; S Gibril Wilson, Dolphins

29 – CB Leon Hall, Bengals. Other position winner: RB Joseph Addai, Colts

30 – S Mike Brown, Chiefs. Other position winner: FB John Kuhn, Packers

31 – CB Cortland Finnegan, Titans. Other position winner: RB Jamal Lewis, Browns

32 – RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars. Other position winner: S Eric Weddle, Chargers

33 – RB Michael Turner, Falcons. Other position winner: CB Charles Tillman, Bears

34 – RB Ricky Williams, Dolphins. Other position winner: S Dominique Barber, Texans

35 – CB Zack Bowman, Bears. Other position winner: RB Jerome Harrison, Browns

36 – S Nick Collins, Packers. Other position winner: RB Brian Westbrook, Eagles

37 – S Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins. Other position winner: FB Jason McKie, Bears

38 – S Dashon Goldson, 49ers. Other position winner: RB Samkon Gado, Rams

39 – RB Steven Jackson, Rams. Other position winner: CB Brandon Carr, Chiefs

40 – TE Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings. Other position winners: RB Brian Leonard, Bengals; S Marquand Manuel, Lions

41 – S Antoine Bethea, Colts. Other position winners: FB Lorenzo Neal, Raiders; TE Spencer Havner, Packers

42 – S Darren Sharper, Saints. Other position winner: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

43 – S Troy Polamalu, Steelers. Other position winner: RB Darren Sproles, Chargers

44 – TE Dallas Clark, Colts. Other position winners: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants; S Jarrad Page, Chiefs

45 – FB Mike Sellers, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Leonard Pope, Chiefs; DB De’Von Hall, Colts

46 – RB Ladell Betts, Redskins. Other position winners: TE Daniel Fells, Rams; LB Vinny Ciurciu, Lions

47 – FB Lawrence Vickers, Browns. Other position winners: S Jon McGraw, Chiefs; LB Brit Miller, 49ers

48 – S Chris Horton, Redskins

49 – FB Tony Richardson, Jets. Other position winners: LB Zack Follett, Lions; DB Rashad Johnson, Cardinals

50 – LB Curtis Lofton, Falcons. Other position winner: OG Ben Hamilton, Broncos

51 – LB Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers. Other position winner: C Dominic Raiola, Lions

52 – LB Ray Lewis, Ravens

53 – LB Keith Bulluck, Titans

54 – OG Brian Waters, Chiefs. Other position winners: LB Andra Davis, Broncos; DE Quentin Groves, Jaguars

55 – OLB Terrell Suggs, Ravens. Other position winners: DE John Abraham, Falcons; C Alex Mack, Browns

56 – LB Brian Cushing, Texans

57 – LB Bart Scott, Jets. Other position winners: C Olin Kreutz, Bears; DE James Wyche, Jaguars

58 – DE Trent Cole, Eagles. Other position winner: LB Karlos Dansby, Cardinals

59 – LB London Fletcher, Redskins. Other position winner: OG Nick Cole, Eagles

60 – OT Chris Samuels, Redskins. Other position winner: DT Joe Cohen, Lions

61 – C Nick Hardwick, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Gerard Warren, Raiders

62 – C Casey Wiegmann, Broncos

63 – C Jeff Saturday, Colts

64 – C Jake Grove, Dolphins. Other position winner: DT Kedric Gholston, Redskins

65 – OG Andre Gurode, Cowboys

66 – OG Alan Faneca, Jets. Other position winner: DT DelJuan Robinson, Texans

67 – C Jamaal Jackson, Eagles

68 – C Kevin Mawae, Titans. Other position winner: DE Jonathan Fanene, Bengals

69 – DE Jared Allen, Vikings. Other position winner: OT Jordan Gross, Panthers

70 – OG Leonard Davis, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Kendall Langford, Dolphins

71 – OT Michael Roos, Titans. Other position winner: DE Kroy Biermann, Falcons

72 – DE Osi Umenyiora, Giants. Other position winner: OT Vernon Carey, Dolphins

73 – OG Jahri Evans, Saints. Other position winner: DT Jimmy Kennedy, Vikings

74 – C Nick Mangold, Jets. Other position winners: OLB Aaron Kampman, Packers; NT Jacques Cesaire, Chargers

75 – NT Vince Wilfork, Patriots. Other position winner: OG Davin Joseph, Buccaneers

76 – OG Steve Hutchinson, Vikings. Other position winner: NT Jamal Williams, Chargers

77 – OT Jake Long, Dolphins. Other position winner: NT Kris Jenkins, Jets

78 – OT Ryan Clady, Broncos. Other position winner: DE Jacob Ford, Titans

79 – NT Ryan Pickett, Packers. Other position winner: OT Jeff Otah, Panthers

80 – WR Andre Johnson, Texans. Other position winner: TE Bo Scaife, Titans

81 – WR Randy Moss, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Owen Daniels, Texans

82 – TE Jason Witten, Cowboys. Other position winner: WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs

83 – WR Wes Welker, Patriots. Other position winner: TE Heath Miller, Steelers

84 – WR Roddy White, Falcons. Other position winner: TE Benjamin Watson, Patriots

85 – TE Antonio Gates, Chargers. Other position winner: WR Chad Ochocinco, Bengals

86 – WR Hines Ward, Steelers. Other position winner: TE Todd Heap, Ravens

87 – WR Reggie Wayne, Colts. Other position winner: TE Brent Celek, Eagles

88 – TE Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Other position winner: WR Isaac Bruce

89 – WR Steve Smith, Panthers. Other position winner: TE Daniel Graham, Broncos

90 – DE Julius Peppers, Panthers

91 – DE Will Smith, Saints. Other position winner: OLB Tamba Hali, Chiefs

92 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos. Other position winner: DT Albert Haynesworth, Redskins

93 – DT Kevin Williams, Vikings. Other position winner: OLB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys

94 – OLB DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys. Other position winner: DE Aaron Schobel, Bills

95 – OLB Shaun Phillips, Chargers. Other position winner: DT Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons

96 – OLB David Bowens, Browns. Other position winner: DE Tyler Brayton, Panthers

97 – NT Kelly Gregg, Ravens. Other position winner: OLB Calvin Pace, Jets

98 – DE Robert Mathis, Colts. Other position winner: LB Brian Orakpo, Redskins

99 – OLB Jason Taylor, Dolphins. Other position winner: DE Andre Carter, Redskins

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Jersey Numbers: Linebackers

This is our next to last post choosing the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post. Now we move to linebackers, who can wear numbers in the 50s and the 90s with a few exceptions. If a number is omitted, it’s because no linebacker who has played this season wears those digits.

46 – Vinny Ciurciu, Lions – Ciurciu is the only linebacker currently wearing 46. He has played in six games this year, seeing most of his action on special teams. Now with his fourth team, Ciurciu also has a good locker-room nickname (see the bottom of the linked post).

47 – Brit Miller, 49ers – Miller is the only linebacker currently wearing 47. The rookie out of Illinois has played in two games this season.

49 – Zack Follett, Lions – Follett is the only linebacker currently wearing 49. The rookie out of Cal has played in nine games this year, mostly on special teams.

50 – Curtis Lofton, Falcons – Lofton, a second-year middle linebacker, has emerged as a tackle machine for the Falcons. His growth allowed the Dirty Birds to let stalwart Keith Brooking leave via free agency, and now it’s Lofton who will lead Atlanta’s defense for years to come. Lofton is tied for second in the NFL with 118 tackles. We give him the nod over OLB Mike Vrabel, who had great years in New England and is now a veteran leader in Kansas City. Other notable 50s: Russell Allen, Jaguars; James Anderson, Panthers; K.C. Asiodu, Rams; Antwan Barnes, Ravens; Eric Barton, Browns; Monty Beisel, Cardinals; Rocky Boiman, Steelers; Diyral Briggs, 49ers; Isaiah Ekejiuba, Raiders; Vernon Gholston, Jets; A.J. Hawk, Packers; Erin Henderson, Vikings; Lance Laury, Seahawks; Matt McCoy, Buccaneers; Marvin Mitchell, Saints; Rob Ninkovich, Patriots; Ernie Sims, Lions; David Thornton, Titans; Erik Walden, Dolphins; Philip Wheeler, Colts; Will Witherspoon, Eagles

51 – Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ruud has emerged as a do-everything middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, and he’s one of the few bright spots on the team’s defense. He’s fifth in the league with 113 tackles and also has six passes defensed. He gets the nod over Jonathan Vilma of New Orleans, who may be better in pass coverage. Also worth mentioning are long-time veterans Keith Brooking of Dallas, James Farrior of Pittsburgh, and Takeo Spikes of the 49ers; youngsters Jerod Mayo of the Patriots and Paul Posluszny of Buffalo; and injured Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu. Other notable 51s: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens; Akin Ayodele, Dolphins; Tim Diles, Chargers; Ryan Fowler, Jets; Tony Gilbert, Falcons; Alex Hall, Browns; Clint Ingram, Colts; Ben Leber, Vikings; Corey Mays, Chiefs; Joe Mays, Eagles; Gerald McRath, Titans; Brady Poppinga, Packers; Dan Skuta, Bengals; Chaun Thompson, Texans

52 – Ray Lewis, Ravens – This is a loaded number that features Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers in Carolina MLB Jon Beason, San Francisco MLB Patrick Willis, and Jets ILB David Harris, but Lewis gets the nod for his long, productive career that continues at a very high level. Other notable youngsters include rookie Clay Matthews of Green Bay, Kirk Morrison of Oakland, Daryl Smith of Jacksonville, and injured Browns ILB D’Qwell Jackson. Other notable 52s: Xavier Adibi, Texans; Eric Alexander, Patriots;  Michael Boley, Giants; Cody Brown, Cardinals; Jonathan Casillas, Saints; Channing Crowder, Dolphins; Chris Draft, Bills; Larry English, Chargers; Cody Glenn, Colts; Chad Greenway, Vikings; David Herron, Chiefs; Abdul Hodge, Bengals; D.D. Lewis, Seahawks;  Rocky McIntosh, Redskins; Jamar Williams, Bears; Coy Wire, Falcons

53 – Keith Bulluck, Titans – Bulluck has long been the emotional leader of the Titans’ defense, and he remains a solid sideline-to-sideline player. His three interceptions tie him for the lead among linebackers, and his 10 passes defensed place him second at the position. He’s also among the top 10 in tackles for linebackers. That’s enough to give him the nod over Atlanta’s Mike Peterson, another long-time, solid performer. Other notable 53s: Marcus Buggs, Bills; Derrick Burgess, Patriots; Khary Campbell, Texans; Na’il Diggs, Panthers; Moise Fokou, Eagles; Clark Haggans, Cardinals; James Holt, Chargers; Thomas Howard, Raiders; Larry Izzo, Jets; Rashad Jeanty, Bengals; Bryan Kehl, Giants; Niko Koutouvides, Buccaneers; Paris Lenon, Rams; Jameel McClain, Ravens; Tyrone McKenzie, Patriots; Steve Octavien, Cowboys; Nick Roach, Bears; Matt Roth, Browns; Mark Simoneau, Saints; Bryan Smith, Jaguars; Reggie Torbor, Dolphins; Jeff Ulbrich, 49ers; Demorrio Williams, Chiefs

54 – Andra Davis, Broncos – This number lost its stalwart when Brian Urlacher of Chicago was knocked out for the season. So among a group of solid if unspectacular inside linebackers, we’ll give Davis the nod for his contributions (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) in reinvigorating the Denver defense. Other contenders were Chargers ILB Stephen Cooper and Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch. Other notable 54s: H.B. Blades, Redskins; Jasper Brinkley, Vikings; Prescott Burgess, Ravens; Bobby Carpenter, Cowboys; Brandon Chillar, Packers; Blake Costanzo, Browns; Kenwin Cummings, Jets; Zac Diles, Texans; Troy Evans, Saints; Andre Frazier, Steelers; Jonathan Goff, Giants; Nic Harris, Bills; Geno Hayes, Buccaneers; Gerald Hayes, Cardinals; Will Herring, Seahawks; Freddie Keiaho, Colts; DeAndre Levy, Lions; Stephen Nicholas, Falcons; Jeremiah Trotter, Eagles; Tracy White, Eagles; Sam Williams, Raiders

55 – Terrell Suggs, Ravens – This is a tough call, because Suggs has just 3.5 sacks this season and has missed three games. But on the whole, he’s the most complete linebacker at this position, because he can be a dynamite pass rusher and also do well against the run and in coverage. I’d rather have Suggs that Miami OLB Joey Porter, who has eight sacks thus far this season, or Chicago’s playmaking WLB Lance Briggs, who stars in the featured position in the old Tampa 2 defense the Bears run. Other solid vets wearing 55 include Detroit’s Larry Foote and Denver’s D.J. Williams, while youngsters Clint Session of Indianapolis and James Laurinaitis of St. Louis deserve mention as well. Other notable 55s: Jon Alston, Raiders; Patrick Bailey, Steelers; Desmond Bishop, Packers; Alvin Bowen, Redskins; Stewart Bradley, Eagles; Ahmad Brooks, 49ers; Danny Clark, Giants; Dan Connor, Panthers; Scott Fujita, Saints; Stephen Hodge, Cowboys; Kawika Mitchell, Bills; Kenny Onatolu, Vikings; Keith Rivers, Bengals; Justin Rogers, Chiefs; Junior Seau, Patriots; Reggie Walker, Cardinals; Jamaal Westerman, Jets

56 – Brian Cushing, Texans – It’s hard to imagine giving a rookie like Cushing the honor at a highly populated number like this one, but Cushing has earned it. He’s sixth among linebackers with 116 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a safety. That’s huge impact that earns him the nod over Shawne Merriman of San Diego, who isn’t the same after last season’s knee injury, pass-rushing stud LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh, and solid all-around players Nick Barnett of Green Bay and Bradie James of Dallas. Other notable 56s: Colin Allred, Titans; Charlie Anderson, Dolphins; Robert Ayers, Broncos; Quinton Culbertson, Panthers; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Saints; Justin Durant, Jaguars; Keith Ellison, Bills; Tavares Gooden, Ravens; Tyjuan Hagler, Colts; E.J. Henderson, Vikings; Leroy Hill, Seahawks; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs; Akeem Jordan, Eagles; Kaluka Maiava, Browns; Scott McKillop, 49ers; David Nixon, Raiders; Chike Okeafor, Cardinals; Rod Wilson, Buccaneers

57 – Bart Scott, Jets – New Jets head coach Rex Ryan brought Scott with him from Baltimore as a high-dollar free agent to be the emotional leader and scheme expert in the middle of Gang Green’s defense. Scott has played fine for the Jets, but over the year it’s been fellow ILB David Harris who has emerged as a top-tier player. Still, Scott gets the nod over veteran Dhani Jones of Cincinnati and David Hawthorne, who’s having a terrific season as a fill-in starter at middle linebacker for Seattle. Other notable 57s: Stanley Arnoux, Saints; Kevin Bentley, Texans; Chase Blackburn, Giants; Ricky Brown, Raiders; Victor Butler, Cowboys; Chris Chamberlain, Saints; Jon Corto, Bills; Jordon Dizon, Lions; Keyaron Fox, Steelers; Chris Gocong, Eagles; Mario Haggan, Broncos; Adam Hayward, Buccaneers; Jordan Senn, Panthers; David Veikune, Browns; Matt Wilhelm, 49ers

58 – Karlos Dansby, Cardinals – It’s hard to imagine a better physical specimen at outside linebacker than Dansby, who is a leader on a strong Cardinals defense. He gets the nod over Gary Brackett, an undersized middle linebacker at the heart of the Colts defense. Other notable 58s: Marcus Benard, Browns; Quincy Black, Buccaneers; Thomas Davis, Panthers; Marques Harris, Chargers; Robert Henson, Redskins; Rey Maualuga, Bengals; Slade Norris, Raiders; Antonio Pierce, Giants; Scott Shanle, Saints; Tim Shaw, Bears; David Vobora, Rams; Jason Williams, Cowboys; Pierre Woods, Patriots

59 – London Fletcher, Redskins – Fletcher doesn’t have ideal size, but year after year he is a leader, a reliable tackler, and a playmaker, no matter what team he’s playing for. He’s a great success story as an undrafted player. He gets the nod over Julian Peterson of Detroit and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Other notable 59s: Spencer Adkins, Falcons; Jovan Belcher, Chiefs; Angelo Crowell, Buccaneers; Aaron Curry, Seahawks; Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens; Heath Farwell, Vikings; Larry Grant, Rams; Gary Guyton, Patriots; Ramon Humber, Colts; Brian Iwuh, Jaguars; Brandon Johnson, Bengals; Landon Johnson, Panthers; Brad Jones, Packers; Cato June, Bears; Stanford Keglar, Titans; Ashlee Palmer, Bills; Brandon Siler, Chargers; Pisa Tinoisamoa, Bears; Gerris Wilkerson, Giants; Brandon Williams, Cowboys; Wesley Woodyard, Broncos

74 – Aaron Kampman, Packers – Kampman, who moved from defensive end to outside ‘backer this season as Green Bay implemented a 3-4 defense, kept his old D-lineman number. Kampman didn’t have a great transition season, with just 3.5 sacks in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. But he’s still a good player, and he’s the only linebacker wearing 74, so he merits a mention.

90 – No linebackers wearing 90 have played a game this season.

91 – Tamba Hali, Chiefs – Hali is emerging as a solid pass rusher in Kansas City, with 7.5 sacks thus far this season. He gets the nod at this number over Cameron Wake, Miami’s CFL import who has 5.5 sacks in his first NFL season.

92 – Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – In one of the toughest calls of this whole project, we’re going with Dumervil, the NFL leader with 15 sacks, over 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison of Pittsburgh. Both guys play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and both add the fright factor to their respective defenses. But while Harrison may be a better player in pass coverage, Dumervil is having a defensive player of the year caliber campaign in Denver, and so for 2009 we have to opt for him. Other notable 92s: Bertrand Berry, Cardinals; Hunter Hillenmeyer, Bears

93 – Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer has been a disappointment at outside ‘backer since the Cowboys made him a first-round pick three years ago, but as a full-time player he gets the nod over Jason Trusnik, who has moved into the starting lineup in Cleveland after a midseason trade from the Jets.

94 – DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys – Ware is a preeminent pass rusher with nine sacks this year and 62.5 in five seasons so far. Also deserving mention is Lawrence Timmons, an emerging inside ‘backer for the Steelers. Other notable 94s: Arnold Harrison, Browns; Marques Murrell, Jets; Jyles Tucker, Chargers

95 – Shaun Phillips, Chargers – In a close call, the nod here goes to Phillips, a pass-rushing outside ‘backer who has seven sacks for San Diego, over Cleveland OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has 6.5 sacks. The six fumbles Phillips has forced was the determining factor. We’ll also shout out to Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson, another emerging pass-rusher. Other notable 95s: Tully Banta-Cain, Patriots; Ali Highsmith, Cardinals

96 – David Bowens, Browns – Bowens came with Eric Mangini from the Jets to Cleveland. He has long been an above-average pass-rushing outside ‘backer, and he has five sacks in that role this season. He gets the nod over declining Patriot Adalius Thomas. Other notable 96s: Omar Gaither, Eagles; Andy Studebaker, Chiefs

97 – Calvin Pace, Jets – Pace missed the first four games of the season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension, but since returning he has continued to provide pass rush off the edge with six sacks. Other notable 97s: Clint Sintim, Giants; Pierre Walters, Chiefs

98 – Brian Orakpo, Redskins – Orakpo, Washington’s first-round pick, has 11 sacks in his rookie season, including four last week against Oakland. That’s the kind of defensive jolt Washington was hoping for when it drafted him. Other notable 98s: Shawn Crable, Patriots; Parys Haralson, 49ers; Darrell McClover, Bears

99 – Jason Taylor, Dolphins – Taylor spent most of his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has seamlessly made the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker over the last few years. After a slow season in his one campaign in Washington, Taylor has six sacks this year for Miami, giving him 126.5 in his 13-year career. Other notable 99s: Kevin Burnett, Chargers; Paul Kruger, Ravens; Manny Lawson, 49ers; Bryan Thomas, Jets; Jeremy Thompson, Packers

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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