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Week 7 Transactions

Dallas Clark

Image by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. 

We’ll begin with the latest Colts injury and what it means. The Colts put TE Dallas Clark on injured reserve Friday with a wrist injury, meaning that he’ll miss the rest of the season. It’s a huge blow to the Colts, because Clark is a terrific receiver who is versatile enough to be in-line, in the slot, or even split out wide. He had more than 100 catches last season, and he’s one of the best red-zone targets in the league. Clark’s injury is the latest blow for a Colts team that is also without RB Joseph Addai and WR Austin Collie when they return from their bye next week. Those injuries limit how creative Peyton Manning can be in spreading the ball around, and it may allow defenses to key on WRs Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon. Maybe Anthony Gonzalez can return to significant action for the first time since 2008, but this is a troubling sign for the Colts. Those injuries, plus the problems at safety where Melvin Bullitt is on IR and Bob Sanders is out until December, make the Colts look vulnerable, even though they’re a solid 4-2. The Colts are hoping that this isn’t the year that injuries catch up to them, but right now it looks like the horseshoe on their helmets isn’t nearly lucky enough.

Jaguars (add QBs Todd Bouman and Patrick Ramsey, cut S Gerald Alexander) – With David Garrard and Trent Edwards hurting, the Jags brought in QB reinforcements and may be forced to start Bouman against the Chiefs this week. Alexander has started the last three games for the Jags at safety, but now he’s gone. Jacksonville has gotten rid of two starters, Alexander and Anthony Smith, in the last week or so. That’s a big indictment on how the secondary has played this year.

Texans (cut OT Ephriam Salaam) – With starting OLT Duane Brown returning from his four-game suspension, the Texans released the veteran Salaam.

Bengals (activate S Tom Nelson from the physically unable to perform list) – Nelson was a key backup last year and even started three games, and now he’s finally recovered enough from a knee injury to get off the PUP list and on the field to help the Bengals.

Bears (cut DE Charles Grant) – The Bears brought Grant in a few weeks ago, but they quickly came to the same conclusion that the Dolphins and Saints did – that Grant no longer has it. Chicago promoted DE Barry Turner from the practice squad to take Grant’s place.

Lions (add LB Bobby Carpenter) – Carpenter, a former first-round pick, has bounced from Dallas to St. Louis to Miami over the past several months, and he lost his gig with the Dolphins after some crucial special-teams mistakes. But given the Lions’ lack of LB depth, Carpenter will get a defensive shot in Detroit. He’s at least worth a look to the Lions.

Browns (put OT Tony Pashos and DE Robaire Smith on injured reserve) – Pashos and Smith, both starters, are now out for the season for the Browns. That talent loss is a blow for a team that doesn’t have enough premium guys on the roster.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency, NFL Injuries

Colts/Broncos thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, we turn our attention to the Mile High city, where the Colts put together a solid 27-13 victory over the Broncos.

Peyton Manning plays against the Broncos. Getty Images via espn.com.

On-field perspective

*The Broncos moved the ball up and down the field, at least through the air, but failed to get in the end zone in five red-zone trips. No matter how good Kyle Orton’s numbers look, he won’t be a quality quarterback until he finds consistency and success in that area.
*Orton did make some big plays down field, notably to Brandon Lloyd, who had a monster 169-yard game. In Lloyd, Gaffney, and rookie Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos have an unsung group of receivers that’s playing well. The group’s chance to become special lies in Thomas, who is fast as lightning and tough. He made great hustle plays both as a blocker for Lloyd and as a tackler on a Jacob Lacey interception return.
*Lacey and Kelvin Hayden (forced fumble) caused turnovers in the Colts secondary, but that group also allowed some big plays through blown contracts and missed tackles. That group could be a liability if the Colts struggle to generate pressure as they did in this game.
*In case you haven’t noticed, Peyton Manning is good. He wasn’t his sharpest in this one yet still threw for 300-plus yards and three TDs.
*Austin Collie really stepped up for the Colts when they needed him. Pierre Garcon and Anthony Gonzalez were out, and Champ Bailey did a good job on Reggie Wayne, but the Broncos (and especially Perrish Cox, who was filling in for Andre Goodman) had no answer for Collie, who went off for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Cox also fumbled a punt return that the Colts recovered and turned into a field goal, so it was not a good night for him.
*Manning is good, but neither running game in this contest was. For the Colts, Joseph Addai and Donald Brown showed little burst or escapability. For Denver, Laurence Maroney was pedestrian in his Broncos debut (12 carries, 24 yards), while Correll Buckhalter is dependable but nothing more. Denver really missed the injured Knowshon Moreno.

Fantasy football perspective
*Before the season, we believed that Austin Collie would be more valuable than Pierre Garcon to fantasy owners. Garcon didn’t play in this game, but Collie scored for the third straight week and finished with career highs in catches (12) and yards (171). Collie doesn’t get a ton of respect from fantasy owners, but even when Garcon plays Collie is a top-30 wideout who can be a No. 3 receiver in 10-team leagues.
*Of all the backs on the rosters of these two teams, Moreno is the only one I could imagine starting with most confidence, and he’s injured. Maroney’s change of scenery doesn’t change his shortcomings, and Addai’s attractiveness for fantasy owners is based completely on situation, not ability.
*Both Lloyd (169 yards) and Gaffney (12 catches, 140 yards) went over the century mark for the Broncos, but Lloyd’s inconsistency makes us leery of putting him in a lineup. With byes coming up Gaffney becomes a depth play, but Thomas is still the Bronco with the most fantasy upside.
*Orton, meanwhile, is on a hot streak numbers-wise right now, to the point that he’s fighting to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback. You can start him with confidence.

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Filed under Football Relativity

FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Quarterbacks

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. Check out the running backs here and the wide receivers here.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a quarterback, that means throwing/scoring 35 touchdowns and 4,500 yards. For quarterbacks, that includes guys who make their way onto Tiers 1A, 1B, or 1C.

No-brainers

Drew Brees, Saints – Brees continued his dominant play in New Orleans, passing for 4,388 yards and 34 touchdowns. He’s thrown for at least that many yards in his four years as a Saint, and he has thrown 34 touchdown passes in each of the last two years. Brees also added two rushing TDs last year to cement his dominance. Brees has a ton of targets, so even an injury to his top target Marques Colston won’t substantially damper his fantasy ceiling. Brees’ phenomenal performance puts him at the head of the class for fantasy quarterbacks, and makes him an A-Team guy. Out of a group of quarterbacks with closely bunched stats, Brees stands above the pack.

Close calls

Aaron Rodgers, Packers – In his second year as a starter, Rodgers took a step forward, going from 4,038 passing yards to 4,434 and from 28 touchdown passes to 30. That step forward is the difference between a good fantasy quarterback (which there are a bunch of, as you’ll see) and an A-Team guy. The underrated thing that sets Rodgers above the pack is his ability to run. Last year, he ran for 316 rushing yards and five touchdowns, after running for 207 yards and four touchdowns in ’08. Those rushing stats last year gave him the equivalent of a 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown season, which are ridiculous quarterback numbers. And since Rodgers has run the ball well two years in a row, we can consider it part of his arsenal and not a fluke. If you’re wondering what separates Rodgers from the quarterbacks below him on the list, it’s those running stats.

Peyton Manning, Colts – Manning has long been the elite fantasy quarterback, but this year our first instinct was to knock him off of the A-Team. But Manning’s numbers – exactly 4,500 passing yards and 33 touchdowns – were basically the A-Team borderline last year. And although those are actually Manning’s best season numbers since his record-setting 2004 season, Manning can do it again. With top targets in Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark and emerging youngsters in Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, Manning suddenly has the best group of targets he’s had since Brandon Stokely, Wayne, and Marvin Harrison were in place. At age 34, Manning is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he has enough of his prime left to include him on Tier 1C for one more year.

Just missed

Matt Schaub, Texans – Schaub has as much fantasy upside as any quarterback this year aside from Brees, and he proved last year that when he stays healthy he can put up huge numbers – 4,770 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. Schaub has perhaps the most talented wideout in the league in Andre Johnson, and top-flight TE Owen Daniels returns as well to add to a deep group of receivers. So in a vaccuum, Schaub is a Tier 1 guy. But injury history keeps Schaub off the A-Team, since last year was the first time in his three years as a starter that he played more than 11 games. Schaub will put up huge numbers when he plays, but the nagging concern that he won’t play enough drops his fantasy stock ever so slightly.

Tony Romo, Cowboys – Romo has had elite fantasy seasons, with 36 touchdowns in ’07 and 26 in just 13 games in ’08. Last year, he had a career best in passing yards with 4,483, but that came with just 26 touchdowns. Other numbers like interceptions and quarterback rating suggest that Romo is entering his prime, and the emergence of Miles Austin as a No. 1 target along with the presence of Jason Witten and the addition of Dez Bryant are good signs. But because of Romo’s touchdown slip last year, we’re going to keep him off the A-Team. He has the potential to end up with the elite guys at the end of the year, but owners are wiser to slot Romo on Tier 2 for now.

Tom Brady, Patriots – After missing almost all of the 2008 season with a knee injury, Brady returned with a big season in ’09 with nearly 4,400 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. With Randy Moss in place, Brady has a top target, but Wes Welker’s late-season injury takes away a huge part of the Pats’ passing game. And behind Moss and Welker, the Pats have an inexperienced crew of receivers that could struggle enough to limit Brady’s fantasy numbers. Brady’s still a fine quarterback, and he proved last year that he’s healthy, but the situation around him limits his fantasy upside this year to about the numbers he posted last year. And those numbers put him on Tier 2, not with the A-Team on Tier 1.

Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers is a terrific quarterback on the field, but owners saw last year that he’s not among the fantasy A-Team. After throwing 34 touchdowns in 2008, Rivers slipped down to 28 last year. Plus, Rivers’ yardage total topped out at 4,254, which puts up a notch below the Brees/Rodgers/Manning/Brady/Schaub level. Rivers is a good fantasy starter, and he has good targets in Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates. But Rivers is clearly a Tier 2 guy who slips below the elite fantasy producers at the position.

Brett Favre, Vikings – Despite all the offseason hand-wringing about his status, the king of separation anxiety had a terrific fantasy season with 33 passing touchdowns, 4,200 yards, and just seven interceptions. Spanx turned Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe into elite fantasy performers, and his young receivers should only be better this year. Favre’s absence during offseason work is a small concern, and at age 41 entering the season Favre could pretty quickly slip in his performance level. For that reason, we’ve got to look at Favre’s 2009 numbers as an outlier and slot him at the end of Tier 2 instead of among the A-Team for 2010.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – Of course, Roethlisberger can’t be an A-Teamer since he’s facing a three- or four-game suspension entering the season. But his numbers from ’09 – 4,328 yards and 26 passing touchdowns (plus two rushing scores) despite missing a game – nearly put him on the A-Team. Big Ben is a Tier 3 quarterback because of his suspension, but we wanted to note here that he could post Tier 1-caliber numbers once he returns to the field in October.

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Fantasy Football: The A-Team of Wide Receivers

It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1 players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the Tier 1 guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at wide receiver. You can check out the running backs here and the quarterbacks in an upcoming post.

Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. For a receiver, that means someone projected get at least 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, or the equivalent in fantasy points. The A-Team at receiver includes players on Tier 1A, 1B, and 1C of our draft board.

No-brainers

Andre Johnson, Texans – Johnson put up his second straight 1,500 yard season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns in ’09. He’s a catch monster who has triple-digit receptions in three of the past four seasons, and last season he hit the century mark yet still averaged 15.5 yards per catch. The touchdown total is perhaps a tad lower than ideal, but it’s still a no-brainer to make Johnson the top-rated wideout and a member of the A-Team as a Tier 1B entrant.

Close calls

Randy Moss, Patriots – For all of his accomplishments, Moss isn’t the yardage producer that Johnson is. Moss has only broken the 1,500-yard mark once in his career, and that was back in 2003 with the Vikings. But Moss is the best receiver in the league at finding the end zone. He’s had an eye-popping nine double-digit touchdown seasons in his 12-year career, including all three of his campaigns in New England. At age 33, Moss could start slowing down a bit, and if his touchdown rate slows he can quickly plummet down draft boards, but given his sterling performance in New England and his contract-year motivation, we’ll include Moss as a Tier 1C receiver and part of the position’s A-Team.

Miles Austin, Cowboys – In one of the most shocking breakouts we’ve ever seen, Austin went from being a fourth receiver for the Cowboys to being an undeniable No. 1 receiver. It started with a 10-catch, 250-yard day against Kansas City in Dallas’ fifth game, but Austin kept it up over the rest of the season and finished with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive, but even more eye-popping is what Austin did over the last 12 games, which projects to a 101-catch, 1,652-yard, 13-touchdown pace over a full 16-game season. Nothing else in Austin’s background or career suggested this kind of fantasy dominance, so the call on him for 2010 comes down to whether he can maintain this top-level production despite the presence of Roy Williams and rookie Dez Bryant, among others. And our take is that Austin will do just that. We’re including Austin on the A-Team and making him our No. 3 receiver overall as a guy who ekes above Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne on his way to Tier 1.

Just missed

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – After two 1,400-yard seasons, Fitzgerald came back to earth a little in ’09 with 1,092 yards. But he did have a career high in touchdowns with 13, leaving him with A-Team quality numbers once again. The questions about Fitzgerald are not about his talent but about his quarterback, with Matt Leinart replacing Kurt Warner. That figures to put a bit of a drag on Fitz’s numbers, which is just enough to knock him off the A-Team. We’d rather draft Fitzgerald as a Tier 2 receiver with upside than overdraft him by including him on the top tier.

Reggie Wayne, Colts – We’ve long included Wayne as a Tier 1 receiver, but the numbers don’t consistently back that up. Last year was only the fourth of his career with 1,200 yards and at least nine touchdowns, and he’s never had more than 12 touchdowns while only passing 1,310 yards once. That keeps him from having the upside potential that Moss has because of touchdowns or Johnson has because of yards. Plus, the emergence of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon last year meant that the Colts aren’t looking at Wayne as often. So Wayne falls to Tier 2 instead joining the A-Team.

DeSean Jackson, Eagles – After a solid rookie season, Jackson blew up last year in a big way, with nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns (9 receiving, 1 rushing, and 2 on punt returns). There may not be a player in the league more prone to bust a big play than Jackson, who averaged an amazing 18.6 yards per catch last season. Jackson’s catch total won’t blow your mind, but he should be in the 1,200-yard-from-scrimmage neighborhood again this season, and if he can score 10 touchdowns or more he’ll be a Tier 1 producer. But with the Eagles changing from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, we can’t quite project Jackson to fully reach his upside, even though we’re tempted to do so. For now, we’ll keep Jackson near the top of Tier 2, and we’ll reserve the right to move him onto the A Team at a later date.

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Johnson has perhaps the best physical gifts of any receiver in the league, and so fantasy owners drool over his potential year after year. That potential hasn’t changed, and Megatron’s 2008 campaign with 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns points to it. But last year, Johnson had just 1,057 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. He missed two games, which plays into things, and rookie Matthew Stafford struggled with injuries and interceptions as a rookie. So it wasn’t all Johnson’s fault. But while Johnson has the upside to join Tier 1, there are enough minor hiccups around him that he falls just below that mark. Maybe Megatron will transform into a no-doubt A-Teamer in 2010, but we can’t project him there right now.

Brandon Marshall, Dolphins – Marshall has passed the century mark in catches the last three years, and last year he scored double-digit touchdowns for the first time. But while his Denver numbers were just enough to match Tier 1 performance, it’s hard to project him reaching the same heights in his new home in Miami. The Dolphins’ more conservative offense should leave Marshall closer to 80 catches than 100, and that puts him on Tier 2. While there’s no player more fitting of being BA on our A-Team, the numbers don’t justify casting Marshall in that role.

Roddy White, Falcons – Since his breakout 2007 season, White has been a consistent fantasy producer, piling up at least 1,151 yards in each season and topping out with 11 touchdowns last season. But even with the development of QB Matt Ryan, White’s upside seems to be right around the borderline for Tier 1. And inclusion in the A-Team can’t rely solely on the best-case scenario. White is a quality fantasy receiver who fits well on Tier 2, but he’s not among the elite.

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FR: Super Bowl 44 potential playmakers

As we did last year, we’re going to play relativity with Super Bowl 44’s best playmakers. After pegging Santonio Holmes as the Steelers’ top option last year, we want to repeat our success. As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

10 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts, and QB Drew Brees, Saints – In somewhat of a no-brainer, we’ll put both Manning and Brees as the playmakers most likely to make an impact on Super Sunday. In a game that figures to be high-scoring, both quarterbacks will need to play at a high level in order for their teams to keep up in what figures to be a track meet. And the fact that both quarterbacks are so freakin’ good makes the chances of that happening quite high. Your Super Bowl MVP will almost certainly come off of this level of the comparison.

9 – WR Reggie Wayne, Colts and S Darren Sharper, Saints – Wayne hasn’t had a huge playoff season, but against the Saints’ cornerbacks he should have much more of an opportunity to break free. The stage is set for Wayne to have a big game and establish himself once and for all and take the leap from Pro Bowler to one of the NFL’ s elite receivers, as Larry Fitzgerald and Hines Ward have done in recent Super Bowls. Sharper, meanwhile, is at the crux of the Saints’ attempt to force turnovers. He’s been one of New Orleans’ biggest ballhawks, and if the Saints are going to take the ball away from the potent and reliable Colts offense, Sharper is the most likely candidate to do so.

8 – DE Robert Mathis, Colts, and MLB Jonathan Vilma, Saints – With Dwight Freeney hurting, Mathis becomes the key guy in Indy’s pressure game. If Mathis can provide enough of a pass rush to at least force a double-team, then he enables other players to generate pressure and also keeps an extra receiver out of pass patterns. If that doesn’t happen, Brees will be shooting fish in a barrel. Vilma is the centerpiece of the Saints’ defense, and he’ll need to match Manning audible-for-audible. Vilma had a key audible against the Vikings that led to a turnover, and if he can make that kind of call in this game, he will put the Saints in the running.

7 – TE Dallas Clark, Colts and RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Clark is option 1A for the Colts, and he delivers in that role, making catches down the seam and even making some long plays to spark the offense. He’s going to test Saints SS Roman Harper in coverage. On the other side of the ball, Thomas may be the Saints’ somewhat secret weapon. He’s a between-the-tackles runner capable of bleeding the clock and thus keeping Manning off the field. If Thomas can do that against a Colts defense that is far from a Brickyard wall, the Saints will be in far better position to win.

6 – WR Marques Colston, Saints and FS Antonie Bethea, Colts – Colston is the Saints’ most consistent receiving threat, although he’s not the big-play guy that Robert Meachem or Devery Henderson are. Still, Colston will be the guy most frequently on the receiving end of chains-moving plays from Brees. Bethea is a play-making safety who’s probably the Colt most likely to pick Brees off. Bethea emerged as a Pro Bowl player this year, and with Bob Sanders missing the season Bethea has made the biggest impact in Indy’s back end.

5 – WR Austin Collie, Colts and DE Raheem Brock, Colts – Our hunch is that Collie will be more of a factor than fellow breakout receiver Pierre Garcon in this game because Reggie Wayne is more set up for success. Collie is a fine slot receiver who has the ability to get deep on occasion. Brock is the Colts’ do-everything defensive lineman who can play across the line but will likely have to focus on the right end in this game to spell Dwight Freeney. If Brock can provide solid play as usual, that’s good, but making an impact play or two would be a monstrous plus for the Colts.

4 – WR Pierre Garcon, Colts and WR Robert Meachem, Saints – We get the feeling that Garcon’s in line for just 2 or 3 catches in this game, but one of them could easily be a 30-yarder that makes a splash. That has been what Meachem has done all season for the Saints – providing big plays more often than not in games. The Saints will need Meachem to do just that in this one if they are to keep up with the Colts’ offense.

3 – DE Dwight Freeney, Colts and WR Devery Henderson, Saints – Our hunch is that Freeney will play despite his aching ankle, but in a limited amount of plays. But if he can generate a pass-rush presence in 10-15 plays, he can still help the Colts. Still, the impact of this truly great player will be unfortunately muted in the biggest game of the year. Henderson is a deep threat who has more speed than Colston or Meachem but less consistency. Still, he will find himself open deep at least once in this game. The question is whether Brees will get the ball there and whether Henderson will complete the catch.

2 – DE Will Smith, Saints and RB Joseph Addai, Colts – Smith is the Saints’ best pass rusher, and he’s most likely not only to get a hit on Manning but also to force a backfield fumble like he did against Percy Harvin in the NFC title game. We don’t expect Addai to play a huge role in this game, but as the Colts’ reliable veteran running back he’ll have a role in blitz pickup and as an outlet receiver.

1 – PK Matt Stover, Colts and RB Reggie Bush, Saints – While New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley hit the big field goal in the NFC title game, but we figure that Stover, a 20-year veteran who is playing for a franchise other than the Ravens/Browns for the first time, is more likely to hit a fourth-quarter pressure kick in this one. And we include Bush here not because we expect him to have a big role but so that you know we haven’t forgotten about him. He’s more likely to make a mark via punt return than on offense in this one, from what we foresee.

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Championship Game Thoughts

Thoughts on the AFC Championship game, in which the Colts beat the Jets 30-17, and the NFC Championship game, in which the Saints beat the Vikings 31-28 in overtime.

*The Colts showed their moxie by coming back from a 17-6 deficit without panic. The touchdown Peyton Manning led before the half completely flipped the momentum, sparking the comeback. That’s the second time in the playoffs that Manning has led such a drive (with the permission of a coaching staff that isn’t afraid to let him try).
*Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon had to step up in this game because Reggie Wayne was vacationing on Revis Island, and they did. Both went over 100 yards in the game. Their emergence is what has taken the Colts offense from good to great.
*The Jets got off to a great start, and so did Mark Sanchez, but once they fell behind it was pretty clear that Sanchez didn’t have the weapons to return. Sanchez is a winner and a gamer, and his personality is a great match for Rex Ryan. But New York needs more explosiveness – even in games when Braylon Edwards actually makes the big catch.
*Bart Scott gets more pub, but David Harris is the best linebacker the Jets have. He showed that with 11 tackles and 2 sacks in this game, which was confirmation of his fabulous play all year.
*Props to Jim Caldwell, whom I predicted before the season would kill the Colts. He hasn’t done that, and he may get a George Seifert-esque Super Bowl title out of it.

*In the Saints/Vikings game, the moment everybody will remember is Garrett Hartley’s clutch kick. But the Brett Favre interception at the end of the fourth quarter – which was so reminiscent of his overtime pick in the NFC title game in Green Bay two seasons ago – is what I’ll remember. I don’t know why, but I saw this pick coming, both before the game and in the moment (just ask my wife). This is the reason that Favre will be remembered as a great quarterback but not as the greatest of all time, no matter what the stats say. Favre was only briefly the best QB in the league – he took the mantle sometime at the end of John Elway’s career and was surpassed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady a few years later. His mistakes in key moments are part of his legacy, for good or for ill.
*As for the Saints, they survived against a good Vikings defense because their defense pressured Favre and forced turnovers. Forcing six fumbles (recovering three), and adding two crucial interceptions, is why they’re going to Miami. CB Tracy Porter and LB Jonathan Vilma each forced a fumble and had an interception, and the fumble Will Smith forced in the fourth quarter led to the Saints’ final touchdown. That opportunistic defense has been key for New Orleans all season, and it was good to see it show up on the big stage.
*For a game with just one total sack, both Favre and Drew Brees got beaten up throughout the game. The Vikings’ D-line is the best in the league because all four starters (and some of the reserves too) are too much to handle. But despite the pressure, Favre and Brees both still made big-time plays. Both are terrific quarterbacks.
*Adrian Peterson showed up in this big game, although his fumbling problems ended up being crucial. But he’s a huge talent who can be the centerpiece of the offense.
*Of all the stars in the Saints’ offensive attack, the brightest on Sunday was Pierre Thomas. Not only did he score two touchdowns; his overtime kickoff return was a huge key to setting up the game-winning field goal. Thomas is often overlooked, but he’s a nice back to have to complement Reggie Bush. And the way that Thomas held onto the ball when Chad Greenway put his helmet on it on the 4th-and-1 dive in overtime saved the game.

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