For National Football Authority, we break down the effects of the Saints bounty suspensions. How will the Saints go on without linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith? How will the Packers adjust without defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove? And what about the Browns and Scott Fujita? Click here to read all about it.
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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.
As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the NFC edition; click here for the AFC edition.
Dallas is reloading – After their first playoff win in nearly 15 years, the Cowboys kept the band together for the most part. They cut OT Flozell Adams and S Ken Hamlin, but both players had hit steep declines. The draft class starred Dez Bryant, who will add a receiving weapon for an offense that emerged last year, and ILB Sean Lee, who could plug in if Keith Brooking starts to struggle. The Cowboys believe their time is now, and last year’s results were good enough that such a strategy is sound. Verdict: Right approach
New York Giants are reloading – The Giants started to fall off the table last year, both on defense and on the offensive line. But instead of starting a major overhaul, the Giants are trying a patchwork approach. The biggest changes are at safety, where C.C. Brown is out, and Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant are in. First-round DE Jason Pierre-Paul is a developmental prospect who should spice up a pass rush that struggled last year, and second-round DT Linval Joseph shores up the interior. It seems like the Giants’ team that won the Super Bowl is getting old, though, and we have to wonder if more aggressive changes were in order. Verdict: Wrong approach
Philadelphia is rebuilding – The Eagles, despite making the playoffs again last year, went on a major rebuilding effort in the offseason in an effort to set themselves up not just for 2010 but for the first half of the new decade. So Kevin Kolb replaces Donovan McNabb, LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell replace Brian Westbrook, and LB Ernie Sims and DE Darryl Tapp add to a defense that gave up CB Sheldon Brown and LB Will Witherspoon. Then the draft added a ton of players like DE Brandon Graham and S Nate Allen who could develop into building blocks. This is rebuidling on the fly, and the Eagles seem to be doing it well. While it may lead to a slight step back this season, it sets them up to continue being a model franchise. Verdict: Right approach
Washington is rebuilding – Now that the Mike Shanahan era has begun, the Redskins are doing a full overhaul on the roster. QB Donovan McNabb is the marquee signing, but guys like DT Maake Kemeoatu and OG Artis Hicks are significant as well. Washington didn’t have a ton of draft picks, but OT Trent Williams should become a building block. The Redskins added a bunch of veterans to try to speed the rebuilding process, especially on offense, and time will tell if that’s the right approach, but Washington needed change on offense badly. Verdict: Right approach
Chicago is reloading – The Bears were hamstrung into their reloading strategy by a couple of factors. First, Lovie Smith is on the hot seat, and so he needs to win now. Also, last year’s Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades took Chicago’s first two draft picks and forced them into the free-agent market for most of their help. Drafted S Major Wright could help immediately, but the big help will come from imports DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor. Given the situation the Bears had entering the season, they took the only tack they could. Verdict: Right approach
Detroit is rebuilding – The Lions continued to tinker with the back end of the roster and strategically add key pieces. In free agency, they brought in Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson to help Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford thrive. That strategy is no coincidence. Jahvid Best and Tony Scheffler also become offensive weapons who should make life easier for Stafford. Detroit has really upgraded its roster over the past few years, and while they’re still behind, respectability is on the horizon. Verdict: Right approach
Green Bay is reloading – The Packers continued their build-through-the-draft strategy, which means that they’re always adding players around the edges and keeping the core intact. The Packers again this year don’t have any significant free-agent additions, so it’s up to draftees Bryan Bulaga, Mike Neal, and Morgan Burnett to provide a talent infusion. But because the Packers have built so well through the draft for so long, this strategy can now sustain itself. Verdict: Right approach
Minnesota is reloading – The Vikings haven’t gotten much help through free agency, aside from CB Lito Sheppard, but this final-four team was close enough that a few tweaks could be enough. The Vikes had better hope this is true, because a draft class headlined by Chris Cook isn’t exciting, although Toby Gerhart and Everson Griffen could find roles. Verdict: Right approach
Atlanta is reloading – The Falcons made one of the big strikes of free agency by adding CB Dunta Robinson, who addresses a position of need for a team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time. First-round LB Sean Witherspoon adds a jolt to the defense as well. Those additions, combined with the fact that Atlanta hasn’t lost any significant players, will keep the Falcons in the hunt. Verdict: Right approach
Carolina is rebuilding – While the Falcons haven’t lost that much, Carolina purged a ton of veterans – losing Julius Peppers in free agency, trading Chris Harris, and cutting longtime stalwarts Jake Delhomme, Maake Kemeoatu, Na’il Diggs, Damione Lewis, and Brad Hoover. Carolina is going young, which also means going cheap. So Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen will battle at quarterback, and the defensive line will look completely different. The Panthers played well after a slow start, and so this step back hurts fans, but it’s better to rebuild a year early than a year late. Verdict: Right approach
New Orleans is reloading – The Super Bowl champs are trying to get back, and so they added Alex Brown to replace the disappointing Charles Grant and re-signed Darren Sharper to another one-year deal. They lose some important players like Mike Bell, Jamar Nesbit, and Scott Fujita, but none of those were core players, and that means the Saints should be in the mix yet again. Verdict: Right approach
Tampa Bay is rebuilding – The Buccaneers need a ton of help, and they’re aware of those needs. The draft brought DT help in Gerald McCoy and Bryan Price and WR help in Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. That’s not all the help the Bucs needed, but those two positions are now in development, as is quarterback with ’09 first-rounder Josh Freeman. The Bucs still have several more trouble spots to address, but at least they’re checking a few spots off the to-do-list. Verdict: Right approach
Arizona is rebuilding – The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, but they’ve undergone a pretty significant roster change this offseason. Gone are stars Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, and Antrel Rolle. In are QB Derek Anderson, who will compete with Matt Leinart, and OGs Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot, who will help the Cards move toward more of a run-first approach. On defense, rookies Dan Williams and Daryl Washington provide reinforcements. Arizona is trying to remake its image further, and it’s necessary with Warner’s quick release now in retirement. Verdict: Right approach
St. Louis is rebuilding – The Rams are in the midst of serious roster overhaul, and first overall pick Sam Bradford is at the center of it. To help Bradford, fellow rookies Rodger Saffold and Mardy Gilyard come aboard as well. In free agency, the Rams mainly played around the margins with guys like Na’il Diggs, Hank Fraley, and Fred Robbins, hoping these vets can keep them competitive as they develop younger talent. As bad as the roster was in St. Louis, rebuilding wasn’t a choice – it was a necessity. Verdict: Right approach
San Francisco is reloading – Mike Singletary has kept the Niners on the fringe of contention lately, and now the Niners are going for the jugular. First-round OTs Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati add the kind of physical nastiness that Singletary wants from his line, while Taylor Mays and Navarro Bowman add speed to the defense. Free-agent signee Travis LaBoy and trade acquisition Ted Ginn Jr. are the kinds of role players a team on the verge likes to add to keep moving forward. Alex Smith will have to come through for this to be the right approach for San Francisco, but we can understand why the Niners are making their bets this way. Verdict: Right approach
Seattle is rebuilding – The Seahawks seemed to get old suddenly over the past two years, and new head coach Pete Carroll has been incredibly proactive in trying to reverse that trend. Rookies Golden Tate, Earl Thomas, and Russell Okung could all start immediately, as the Seahawks try to replace the departed Nate Burleson, Deon Grant, and the retired Walter Jones. Most of all, the Seahawks tried to set up their future at quarterback by paying handsomely for Chargers third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst. It remains to be seen whether the Seahawks have picked the right guys in their rebuilding project, but for now we can at least give them credit for having a clear picture of just how bad the roster was. Verdict: Right approach
As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the AFC edition; the NFC edition is available here.
Buffalo is reloading – This isn’t the wisest approach, because the Bills didn’t have enough premium talent and haven’t been contenders. But instead of churning the roster in search of better players in the first year of Chan Gailey’s tenure as head coach, the Bills have largely stuck to the status quo this offseason. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm are still the quarterback options, and the Bills haven’t rebuilt an offensive line that struggled last year. The main additions – DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis – were designed to help the Bills move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. And the first round of the draft yielded a specialty player in C.J. Spiller whose best role is as a featured gamebreaker, not an every-down back. The Bills seem to be in denial about how lacking in talent they truly are, especially on offense. Verdict: Wrong approach
Miami is reloading – The Dolphins are closer to the surface than the Bills are, and so their decision to reload makes more sense. Trading for WR Brandon Marshall and signing OLB Karlos Dansby are the kinds of big strikes that teams close to the playoffs make to try to get over the top. The Marshall acquisition makes sense, since Chad Henne shows a ton of promise at quarterback and the offensive line is good enough to provide time for Henne-to-Marshall to become an elite combo. Dansby doesn’t make up for the loss of veteran pass rushers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but he is a playmaker who perfectly fits the Bill Parcells prototype. It’s hard to say whether these moves will put the Dolphins over the top, but we are comfortable asserting that the arrow is pointed in the right direction. Verdict: Right approach
New England is rebuilding – There’s a stigma to the word rebuilding, because often teams use it as a synonym for giving up. But it’s possible to rebuild without giving up, and that’s the Pats’ approach right now. While they’ve added veterans like Torry Holt, Gerard Warren, and Damione Lewis to fill bit roles, the larger picture shows that New England is trying to infuse youth into its defense with guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes, and into its offense with guys like Rob Gronkowski and Taylor Price. These are the players that will determine whether Bill Belichick’s second decade in New England gets off to a good start. But given the age of New England’s offensive and defensive fronts, rebuilding on the fly in the past two offseasons has been the right call. Verdict: Right approach
New York Jets are reloading – There’s not a team in the NFL headed in a win-now direction more than the Jets are right now. Their offseason additions are littered with veterans like Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor, all of whom are proven vets who should step in a lot quicker than draft picks would have. While draft picks Kyle Wilson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Joe McKnight should find roles quickly, it’s the veterans that will determine whether the Jets can get one step further and into the Super Bowl this season. Verdict: Right approach
Baltimore is reloading – The Ravens always do a good job in the draft, and that steady talent infusion over the years has put the franchise in position to keep things pointed in the right direction. But this year, the Ravens put the reloading into overdrive by trading for WR Anquan Boldin, who provides the No. 1 receiver the team has been missing since its move to Baltimore. While rookies Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones add depth on defense, the Boldin move is the one that sets the tone that this franchise is going for glory now. We can’t blame the Ravens for taking that tack. Verdict: Right approach
Cincinnati is reloading – Coming off the second division title of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals are looking to fill in holes and keep positive momentum. Antonio Bryant is supposed to be the complement to Chad Ochocinco that Cincy was missing without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and if he can’t perhaps Matt Jones or rookie Jordan Shipley or even first-round TE Jermaine Gresham can. In the draft, the Bengals continued to take talented guys with question marks in Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Ghee, and both are good enough to fill roles right away. And taking a shot on the talented but troubled Pacman Jones is the ultimate win-now move. The Bengals know they have something going, and so they’re going for it. Verdict: Right approach
Cleveland is rebuilding – The Browns know they’re in need of serious changes, as the hiring of Mike Holmgren in the offseason proved. So the team has made wholesale changes, not just at quarterback where Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy arrive, but across the roster. Veterans CB Sheldon Brown, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and OT Tony Pashos will help stabilize problem areas, but the team knows they’re not long-term solutions. Instead, the Browns are looking to build around youngsters like Joe Thomas and first-rounder Joe Haden as they try to start a new era in Cleveland. Verdict: Right approach
Pittsburgh is reloading – The Steelers have had a tumultous offseason, but the roster moves they’ve made are a sign that they still consider themselves contenders. Bringing back WR Antwaan Randle El, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, and QB Byron Leftwich shows that they don’t want much of a learning curve at work in training camp, and drafting C Maurkice Pouncey shows that they wanted immediate help in the first round. The approach is risky, but given how recently the Steelers won the Super Bowl, you can’t blame them for getting the band back together for one last hurrah. They can only hope that the Ben Roethlisberger issues don’t break up the band. Verdict: Right approach
Houston is reloading – The Texans are coming off their first winning season, and their offseason approach demonstrates that they think more is in the offing. Unhappy CB Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but first-rounder Kareem Jackson can step in and start. He used the same terminology in college that he will in Houston, and that will ease his transition. The Texans kept WR Kevin Walter and added rookie Ben Tate to a RB group that was problematic at times last year. These moves preserve the status quo and give the Texans a chance to build on their modest ’09 success. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the status quo scenario work. Verdict: Right approach
Indianapolis is reloading – The Colts made a few more changes than normal, letting DE Raheem Brock, CBs Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, and OG Ryan Lilja go, but in terms of additions they continued to do what they usually do and build through the draft. Sometimes Indy’s rookies contribute immediately, but more often it’s the second- and third-year players who start to flourish the longer they’re in the system. When a team gets that approach going, the smartest thing to do is to keep the train rolling. And since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian are such good conductors, the train continues to roll along. Verdict: Right approach
Jacksonville is reloading – The Jaguars have a long cut list this offseason, but aside from DT John Henderson none of them were core players. Meanwhile, the Jaguars signed veteran DE Aaron Kampman and traded for MLB Kirk Morrison to add veteran experience to the front seven. On offense, it’s status quo, as the Jags rely on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and a young corps of receivers and linemen. This team was barely on the cusp of contention last year, so reloading seems like a strange course, and the success depends on whether Garrard can be a top-10 NFL quarterback or just a league average starter. We’re skeptical, and so we disagree. Verdict: Wrong approach
Tennessee is rebuilding – The Titans embarked on a rebuilding project by saying goodbye to stalwarts like Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They also seem to be willing to let Kevin Mawae go. That means youngsters like Derrick Morgan and Rennie Curran will need to take on bigger roles. With Vince Young at the helm and Chris Johnson on the run, the Titans now have a young offensive corps, and they’re trying to move the same way on defense. That makes sense, even though holes in the secondary make it appear like the rebuilding project isn’t yet done. Verdict: Right approach
Denver is rebuilding – The Broncos continue to chase away the vestiges of Mike Shanahan’s era and move to Josh McDaniels’ desired future. So at wide receiver, Brandon Marshall is out and Demaryius Thomas is in. At quarterback, Jay Cutler is long gone, and Tim Tebow is on the horizon. On the offensive line, Ben Hamilton is gone and Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are in. Meanwhile, the defensive overhaul continues as the Broncos tried to supplement the new 3-4 defense that fell apart in the second half of last year with NT Jamal Williams, DE Jarvis Green, and ILB Akin Ayodele. At some point, Denver will have to spend its highest draft picks on defense to make the rebuilding project stick. But at this point, McDaniels has changed so much that there’s nothing the Broncos can do but go all out on their rebuild. Verdict: Right approach
Kansas City is rebuilding – The Chiefs still have a long way to go in the rebuilding project that began last offseason and that now continues this offseason. S Eric Berry is the prize of this year’s crew, with fellow SEC products Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas also slated to become key contributors. Most of the veteran additions, notably Ryan Lilja and Thomas Jones, are designed to keep the Chiefs from being abysmal as the talent infusion takes effect. There’s still a long way to go in Chiefs land, but at least they’re on the right path. Verdict: Right approach
Oakland is reloading – The Raiders never admit that they’re in the doldrums, but it actually makes some sense this offseason. The defense has a lot of good pieces, and adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston in the draft and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves via trades should help the front seven’s performance go up a level. But the biggest change is on offense, where Jason Campbell gives the Silver and Black a qualified pro quarterback who will prepare and take advantage of the talent outside. Campbell’s not great, but he’s better than average, and that should allow Oakland to make the most of its other talents. A run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question, and that makes just win, baby, the right approach – finally – for the Raiders. Verdict: Right approach
San Diego is reloading – The Chargers know that they have talent, and so they once again used the offseason to get pieces that will push them over the top. Paying a ransom for first-round RB Ryan Mathews demonstrates this approach, and the Chargers also added cornerback depth with Nathan Vasher, who knows coordinator Ron Rivera’s system. Is it enough for a team that’s been on the cusp a painfully long time? Reloading as the Chargers are is the only way they’re going to find out. Verdict: Right approach
As the free-agent market opens (midnight eastern Friday morning), I thought I’d list the cream of the crop (as I see it) at every position. I’m not a scout, so I probably am leaving some people out, but here’s a pretty good list by position. I’ve only included players that are unrestricted on the market, so that eliminates all the restricted free agents as well as the franchise players.
Quarterback – Chad Pennington (Mia.), Jake Delhomme (Car.) – Pennington is the only quarterback in the market I’d consider as an option for a training-camp competition, because he’s consistent and accurate, but Delhomme could find a similiar role.
Running back – Thomas Jones (NYJ), Chester Taylor (Minn.), Ladell Betts (Wash.) – At age 32, Jones shouldn’t get a long-term deal, but he’s a fine option for 2010. Taylor is a good fit in two-RB sets because he’s a good blocker and receiver who can also carry the load when necessary. Both are better at this point than recent releases and fellow over-30 running backs LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Jamal Lewis. Betts becomes an under-the-radar choice as a No. 2 back after being released by the Redskins.
Wide receiver – Antonio Bryant (TB), Derrick Mason (Balt.), Kevin Walter (Hou.), Nate Burleson (Sea.), Terrell Owens (Buff.), Torry Holt (Jax.), Kassim Osgood (S.D.) – Bryant is wildly inconsistent, but he’s the only guy in this group with the potential of being a No. 1 receiver. Mason is still a dependable guy who fits as a No. 2 receiver, and Walter can make some plays in that kind of role as well. Burleson is a little too up-and-down to be a No. 2, but he is a nice option. Owens’ skills are declining to the point that he’s barely a No. 2., and the same is true for Holt. Osgood, a special-teams ace, never got much run at receiver for the Chargers, but he’s big and fast, which may lead someone to give him a chance he hasn’t yet had in the NFL.
Tight end – Ben Watson (NE), Brandon Manumaleuna (SD) – Watson is inconsistent, but he can be a passing-game threat. Manumaleuna is a big, sturdy blocking tight end who would fit as a nice piece with Mike Martz’s new Chicago system or perhaps a Wildcat team.
Center – Kevin Mawae (Tenn.), Casey Rabach (Wash.) – Mawae and Rabach are both veterans who still perform acceptably but won’t get long-term deals. Still, a team with a short-term need has options.
Guard – Bobbie Williams (Cin.), Rex Hadnot (Cle.), Stephen Neal (NE), Keydrick Vincent (Car.) – Williams is a big guard who’s good in the run game and OK in pass protection. At age 33, he’s not in his prime, but he’s got a few good years left. Vincent, who started the last two years in Carolina, is a similar player whose performance is a tick below that of Williams. Hadnot isn’t great, but he’s still a good player who is an acceptable NFL starter. Neal is undersized compared to the other massive guards in this group, but he’s still an above-average player as well. None of these guys will get overpaid, but a couple of them at least should get multi-year deals.
Offensive tackle – Mike Gandy (Ariz.), Chad Clifton (GB), Barry Sims (SF), Tra Thomas (Jax.) – There’s little to no tackle help to be found, as Clifton and Thomas are on their last legs and Sims is a fill-in at best. Gandy is probably the best option. He’s started at left tackle for the Cardinals the last three years, and while he’s better in the run game than in pass protection, he gets by. And at age 31, he’s still an acceptable starting option going forward.
Kicker – Neil Rackers (Ariz.), Shayne Graham (Cin.) – Neither Rackers nor Graham had his best year, but both have been solid in recent campaigns. They could provide an upgrade for teams with inconsistent young kickers. Cundiff
Defensive ends (4-3) – Julius Peppers (Car.), Aaron Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tenn.), Charles Grant (NO), Adewale Ogunleye (Chi.), Leonard Little (STL), Tyler Brayton (Car.), Ryan Denney (Buff.) – This is perhaps the most stacked position in free agency, and Peppers of course is the class of the group. Although he’s 30, he’s still a premium pass rusher, and as a player who has been known for so-so effort, he could be reinvigorated by a change of venue. He’ll get the biggest deal in this free agent market. For teams that miss out on Peppers, Kampman and Vanden Bosch are nice options. Both still have a little pass rushing juice and are sturdy vs. the run. Grant never lived up to his potential as a first-rounder, but he has talent and could get a look as a fresh-start candidate. Ogunleye is a formerly productive pass rusher who has moved into the solid but unspectacular part of his career, while Little is probably just a situational pass rusher at this point. Brayton is a solid run-stopper but not much of a sack man. Denney is like Brayton but even older.
Defensive ends (3-4) – Dwan Edwards (Balt.), Justin Bannan (Balt.), Jarvis Green (NE), Vonnie Holliday (Den.) – The Ravens reportedly want to keep both Edwards and Bannan, who are key rotation players on their front 3, but it’s likely that at least one of those guys will get a big deal elsewhere. Edwards could be one of the big winners in this free-agent market. Green and Holliday are veterans who are solid 3-4 ends and great options for teams looking to fill a rotation spot.
Defensive tackles (4-3) – Tank Johnson (Cin.), Damione Lewis (Car.), Jimmy Kennedy (Minn.), Fred Robbins (NYG) – Johnson is well known for his legal problems, but he was on his best behavior last year in Cincinnati, and he played well too. He’s the best 4-3 tackle on the market by far. Kennedy, a former bust with the Rams, showed some flashes as a backup tackle who can slash into the backfield on occasion. Robbins is more of a fill-in who could fit as a fourth tackle at a veteran minimum salary. Lewis, a late cut, is a pretty productive slashing tackle but is more effective as a backup than a full-time starter.
Nose tackles (3-4) – Jason Ferguson (Mia.), Hollis Thomas (Car.), Maake Kemeoatu (Car.), Jamal Williams (SD) – All of these guys are long in the tooth, but they can plug the nose. With so many nose tackles franchised this year, this is a scarce position, and that may help their marketability. Kemeoatu is the youngest of the group, but he’s coming back from a major Achilles injury. Williams and Ferguson are more accomplished, but health and age are big concerns.
Outside linebackers (3-4) – Joey Porter (Mia.), Jason Taylor (Mia.), Tully Banta-Cain (NE), Derrick Burgess (NE) – The outside pass rushers are all veterans. Porter had 26.5 sacks over the past two years and is still a quality pass rusher. Taylor has slipped a little below that level, but he’s still a quality situational rusher. Banta-Cain had just 12.5 sacks in his first six seasons, but he had 10 for the Patriots last year in what was either a breakout season or a fluke. Some team may outbid the Patriots hoping for the former. Burgess is the consolation prize in this group.
Linebackers – Karlos Dansby (Ariz.), Gary Brackett (Ind.), Keith Bulluck (Tenn.), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Scott Fujita (NO) – Dansby is another prize in this market. He’s a 3-4 inside backer who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the 4-3, and he’s a playmaker with great range at both spots. He’ll get a huge deal somewhere. Brackett is more of a system player, but he’s an impactful 4-3 middle linebacker despite being undersized. Bulluck has been a terrific weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 for many years, but at his age he’s starting to slip. Still, he’s a good starting option who would also be a great leader. Fujita isn’t the athlete Bulluck is, but he’s also a starting-quality player. Pierce has been a top 4-3 middle ‘backer, but injuries are a huge concern. But if he can pass a physical, he can help a team.
Cornerbacks – Dunta Robinson (Hou.), Leigh Bodden (NE), Lito Sheppard (NYJ), William James (Det.) – Robinson has talent, but his production last year didn’t match his franchise-player salary. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he is a talent who will make good money. Bodden had a solid year with New England, repeating some of the success he had in Cleveland. His year in Detroit was a bust, but on the whole he’s proven his worth. James is a veteran who’s good enough to start, although he’ll need help over the top. Still, corner desperate teams could do worse than James. Sheppard is a talent who thinks more of himself than his play merits, but he’s still a top-3 cornerback for most teams if he’s willing to take a role instead of star.
Safeties – Antrell Rolle (Ariz.), Ryan Clark (Pitt.), Darren Sharper (NO), Mike Brown (KC), Jermaine Phillips (TB) – Rolle is a big-time play maker with great range and great size who is hitting the market because his contract is outsized. But he’s one of the few impact players on the market, and that should lead to a pay day. Clark is a big-hitting strong safety who has limited range but still has made big plays for the Steelers in recent years. Sharper had a big impact on the Saints in ’09, but his age makes a long-term contract unwise. Still, Sharper can help. If a team is looking for veteran wiles but can’t get Sharper, Brown and Phillips are options.
As we analyze the NFL’s final four, we thought we’d look at the most significant building philosophy of each remaining team. This was Chase’s idea put through a little bit of a filter. It’s interesting to see that there’s not just one way to build a team, as you’ll see below.
Key strategy: Second day of the draft – Obviously, Peyton Manning is the key acquisition for the Colts, and he was the first overall pick in the draft. But with so many guys paid so much money, building depth on the second day of the draft is crucial. And the Colts have done this with OTs Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem, WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, LB Clint Session, S Antoine Bethea, and DE Robert Mathis are all second-day draft picks who have developed into above-average players. Bethea and Mathis are even more than that – among the better players at their positions in the league. Those reinforcements are complimented by rookie free agents like CB Jacob Lacey, DT Antonio Johnson, and an all-time classic, C Jeff Saturday, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl center despite not being drafted.
Significant strategy: First-round hits – Manning, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Reggie Wayne, and TE Dallas Clark are all premium players – that’s an incredible hit record. RB Joseph Addai isn’t at that superstar level, but he’s a very good player too.
Key waiver pickups: OG Ryan Lilja, DT Daniel Muir – Lilja started all 16 games at left guard this year, while Muir has emerged as a key player in the DT rotation this year.
Least significant strategy: Signing free agents – The only unrestricted free agent signee currently on the Colts’ roster is PK Adam Vinatieri, and he’s not even active. The Colts scour the market for castoffs, not for high-dollared players, because they do such a good job of hitting on superstars in the first round. They have no players acquired by trade either. It’s all about the draft and rookie free agents for the Colts.
Key strategy: Big splash – No team in the NFL has tried to make more big splashes than the Vikings. Signing Brett Favre is the latest example, but there are many others – OG Steve Hutchinson, the highest-paid guard in league history at the time; CB Antoine Winfield, who was a big-dollar signing from the Bills back in 2004; and DE Jared Allen, who was the prize in a huge trade with Kansas City last offseason. Those big splashes seem a bit strange in a medium market like Minnesota, but they’ve gone a long way toward giving the Vikings a corps of superstars.
Significant strategy: Draft success – Like the Colts, the Vikings have done a good job on the first day of the draft, finding stars like RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and stalwarts like LB Chad Greenway, CB Cedric Griffin, TE Jim Kleinsasser, and OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt.
Key free-agent signings: Free agency – The Vikes have hit not just on the big splashes but on other free-agent signings like DT Pat Williams, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, RB Chester Taylor, S Madieu Williams, and PK Ryan Longwell. Those guys are important players who, in the case of Williams and Shiancoe, have become important contributors to the team’s core group.
New Orleans Saints
Key strategy: Free agency – The Saints signed QB Drew Brees in free agency, and that in itself is reason to make this the key strategy for the team. The Brees signing was the most important free-agent signing of the last decade and will end being on par with Green Bay’s signing of Reggie White as an all-time signing if Brees eventually leads the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. But Brees isn’t the only key free-agent signing by the Saints – S Darren Sharper and CB Jabari Greer were significant upgrades to the Saints’ secondary this offseason that made a huge difference throughout the season and last week, and LB Scott Fujita has been a great low-cost signing since he joined the team in 2006.
Significant strategy: Draft – Not only have the Saints found premium players early in the draft – RB Reggie Bush, DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Will Smith, DE Charles Grant, and WR Robert Meachem were all first-round picks, and S Roman Harper and CB Tracy Porter were second-rounders. All play key roles. But the Saints have also found value in the mid-rounds with OG Jahri Evans and OT Jermon Bushrod, and they made one of the best seventh-round picks of all time in WR Marques Colston.
Key trade acquisitions: LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Scott Shanle, TE Jeremy Shockey – Vilma is an impact player, and Shanle is a starter. Shockey provides another key target when he can stay healthy.
New York Jets
Key strategy: Trading up on draft day – The Jets traded up in the draft to acquire of their most important players: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Darrelle Revis, and ILB David Harris. Revis is the Jets’ best player, and Harris is the best player in a stacked linebacker corps. and Sanchez is a key part of the future as well. In addition, playoff revelation Shonn Greene was acquired via trade-up in the third round of the ’09 draft. The aggressiveness that Mike Tannenbaum has shown on draft day has paid off in big ways for Gang Green.
Significant strategy: Free agency – The Jets have a ton of high-profile free agents – LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard this year joined guys like OLB Calvin Pace, OG Alan Faneca, and OT Damien Woody. All are vital players for this team.
Key draft picks: C Nick Mangold, OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, TE Dustin Keller, WR Jerricho Cotchery – Mangold, a late first-rounder, is the best center in the league right now, and Keller has been one of the team’s best offensive weapons in the offseason.
Key trade acquisitions: RB Thomas Jones, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Lito Sheppard – Jones has paid off big for the Jets, while Edwards and Sheppard have had their moments more inconsistenly since joining the Jets this season.
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