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Quarterback solutions for 2011

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

We’ll take a brief break from our playoff coverage to try and give some hope to the teams who landed outside of the final four. To do this, we’re going to break down the quarterbacks who may be available to switch teams this offseason. We’re going to break them down by categories so that you can see just how likely it is that your favorite team can land each guy.

If you have ideas of great matches between a quarterback and a team, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll talk about it.

We’ve also created a post of teams with quarterback needs to help you play a matching game.

Unrestricted Free Agents (Free to sign anywhere)
Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Alex Smith, Marc Bulger, Rex Grossman, Billy Volek, Seneca Wallace, Chad Pennington, Luke McCown, Charlie Frye, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey

First of all, cross Manning and Vick off your list. The Colts and Eagles will not let these franchise quarterbacks leave via free agency, unless something incredibly screwy happens with the new CBA (whenever it is signed). While Manning and Vick are unrealistic pipe dreams, the other guys on this list are on the market. Hasselbeck’s strong postseason play for the Seahawks likely increased his price tag, and he’s likely in line for a multi-year deal now, which may price him out of Seattle given the team’s investment in Charlie Whitehurst. The Seahawks say they want to keep Hasselbeck, but will they be willing to pay him $15 million-plus as a franchise player? We can’t buy that. Therefore, our hunch is that Hasselbeck is the one 2011 starter who could step in somewhere else – especially somewhere with a West Coast type of scheme like Minnesota or Cleveland – and provide an upgrade immediately. Collins and Bulger, both of whom were backups this year, are more of stopgap options. Collins played some in Tennessee with mixed results, while Bulger got a break from the beating he took in St. Louis by sitting behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Neither is a long-term answer, but both could provide competition for an average quarterback or serve as a placeholding starter for a team developing a young QB. Smith is the wild card of this group. He has talent, but it never worked out in San Francisco. But some team might choose to invest and take a look to see if he can step up his play in a more stable situation. Grossman is in the perfect situation in Washington because he’s been with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan longer than Donovan McNabb and seems to be favored over the higher profile QB. If Grossman wants another shot to start, now’s the time to leave after a solid end-of-season performance, but his best chance to succeed and maybe to start is with the Redskins. Volek showed flashes of ability in Tennessee years ago, and he could be a stopgap in Carolina, where the new coach and offensive coordinator saw him practice in San Diego. Wallace is a decent backup who can run the West Coast offense and also move around a bit, but aside from Cleveland president Mike Holmgren, few NFL types see him as more than a No. 3. Pennington was once a quality starter, but his shoulder’s in such bad shape that he’s just a No. 3 at this point. The other guys on this list are not starters but could provide some veteran assurance for a team looking for a third guy.

Limbo Free Agents (Players with four or five years of service who would be unrestricted free agents in a system like 2009 or before but not under the 2010 system)
Tarvaris Jackson (5), Bruce Gradkowski (5), Matt Leinart (5), Kellen Clemens (5), Brodie Croyle (5),  Drew Stanton (4), Tyler Thigpen (4), Matt Moore (4), Trent Edwards (4), Troy Smith (4)

These players may or may not be unrestricted free agents, and all are risky. Gradkowski has had the most success as a starter, making up for physical limitations with gutty play, and it appears he’s not a favorite of Al Davis in Raiderland. He could be a decent stopgap somewhere. Leinart never lived up to his billing in Arizona, but we could see him getting one more shot to compete somewhere. Jackson had his moments in Minnesota, but he was never consistent, and the Vikings have decided he’s not their quarterback of the future. Clemens showed some promise with the Jets before getting stuck, first behind Brett Favre and then behind Mark Sanchez. A change of scenery should provide a better opportunity than he’s had in three years. Croyle is nothing more than a backup. Thigpen had a long chance in Kansas City and a brief chance for the Dolphins this year, but his win/loss record is abysmal. Still, he may be a guy a team wants to bring in as a competitor for a starting job. Stanton had shown little promise until this year in Detroit, where injuries to Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill forced him into action. Stanton played well enough to at least move up from a No. 3 quarterback to a backup, and perhaps even enter a competitive environment. Moore and Edwards have had shots to start in Carolina and Buffalo, respectively, but both lost their jobs. They’re likely to fill in as backups instead of a starting candidates. Smith showed some spark in San Francisco this year, but he looks to be an energetic backup who can step up in a pinch instead of an every-week starter.

Restricted Free Agents (Players with three years experience who could move teams via offer sheet)
Dennis Dixon, Brian Brohm

Dixon, the Steelers’ backup, has had a couple of starting shots and has played OK. He’s not great, but someone might be enamored with his potential. If the Steelers don’t place a high tender on Dixon, he could be targeted. Brohm was a higher draft pick than Dixon, so an offer sheet is more unlikely. His Buffalo tenure has been uneventful.

Trade (These players are under contract in 2011)
Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton – UPDATE: Carson Palmer?

These names are more speculative, but they’re likely to be targeted to some degree or another. The Titans definitely want to be rid of Young, and if they can’t trade him, they’ll release him. At some point, some team will give up a late-round pick to get an exclusive shot at rehabilitating a former top-3 pick who has a winning record as a starter. McNabb may draw some interest as well, although he’s clearly in his decline phase and isn’t worth more than a mid-round pick. But with just one year left on his contract, don’t be shocked to see McNabb shopped. Like McNabb, Orton signed a one-year extension during the season, only to see the starting job go to a younger player during the year. Since Tim Tebow is longer for Denver than Orton is, the Broncos might consider dealing Orton at the right price – likely a mid-round pick. It’s unlikely that the Packers will deal Flynn, but after his solid debut start against the Patriots late this season he’ll be a dream answer for teams looking for a young starter. If the price gets high enough, the Packers might make a move. But the cream of this crop is Kolb, who has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable price. Certainly, the Eagles would prefer to keep Kolb to back up Vick, whose versatile style exposes him to more of an injury risk than other QBs. But if the Eagles were offered a first-round pick, they’d have to consider trading Kolb and letting young prospect Mike Kafka step in as their backup. That’s a move that Andy Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren used time after time in Green Bay to build draft equity. Kolb has shown enough in his starting stints to be considered an average NFL starter right away with the promise to emerge into even more.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL Free Agency, NFL trades

Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 12

Each week, we sort through the box scores to determine what fantasy football performances we should applaud, and which are merely frauds. As always, we’ll give more details about what each verdict means as we break it down.

In our two game thoughts posts this week, we have already analyzed several players:
Check out the Thanksgiving leftovers post for thoughts on QB Shaun Hill, WR Brad Smith, and RBs Chris Ivory, Maurice Morris, and Felix Jones
Check out the Jaguars/Giants post for thoughts on QB David Garrard, RB Brandon Jacobs, and WR Mario Manningham

Jay Cutler against the Eagles

Quarterbacks

Sam Bradford, Rams – Bradford threw for 300 yards for the first time in his career and tacked on three touchdowns without an interception in the Rams’ win over the Broncos. However, fantasy owners should remember that the Broncos’ defense is one of the league’s worst, which means Bradford is a questionable play, especially away from home, going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler had a nearly perfect game, throwing for 247 yards on just 21 attempts with four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles. The Bears have trimmed the turnovers out of their offense in recent weeks, and Cutler seems to be doing a better job dealing with protection problems in front of him. He’s a borderline top 10 fantasy quarterback who deserves lineup consideration in fantasy leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Toby Gerhart

Running backs

Toby Gerhart, Vikings – When Adrian Peterson went down, Gerhart, a rookie out of Stanford, stepped up with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. If Peterson misses a game, Gerhart is certainly worth a start in leagues of 10 teams or more. If Peterson is limited, then Gerhart would need to stay on your bench. Still, given Peterson’s uncertain status for Week 13, we’re clapping. Verdict: Applaud

Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, Panthers – Stewart returned from injury and ran for 98 yards in the Panthers’ one-point loss to the Browns. But Goodson still got the start, and he totaled 136 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Our sense is that Goodson is now a flex play in leagues of 12 teams or more, while Stewart is a flex option only in leagues that are at least two teams bigger. It’ll be interesting to see if both players can remain effective going forward. We’d bet on Goodson over Stewart if forced to pick just one Panther. Verdict: Applaud for Goodson, A fraud for Stewart

Mike Tolbert, Chargers – Tolbert, who has been a scoring machine, had another touchdown with the Colts but perhaps more impressively rambled for 103 yards as well. Whenever Ryan Mathews is out, Tolbert is a must-start, and even if Mathews returns Tolbert can be a solid flex play because of his nose for the end zone. Verdict: Applaud

Jacoby Ford

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears – Bennett, Cutler’s old college teammate, caught two touchdowns against the Eagles. Bennett is behind Johnny Knox in the Chicago receiver pecking order, but he’s worth a pickup as a guy who can step up as an emergency fantasy contributor. Verdict: Applaud

Davone Bess, Dolphins – With Chad Henne returning to the lineup, Bess immediately returned to fantasy relevance with six catches for 111 yards. Whenever Henne is playing, Bess should be in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Jacoby Ford, Raiders– Ford, a rookie receiver out of Clemson, had a monster game against the Dolphins, catching four passes for 108 yards and a score, returning a kickoff 101 yards for a score, and rushing for 13 yards as a little bonus. Ford has now had 100-yard receiving games in two of three games and has two kickoff returns on the year. From watching a lot of Ford’s games in college, we can tell you he has sprinter speed but also football smarts and toughness, despite his slight size. He’s a player on the come, so grab him now and see just how good he can be. Verdict: Applaud

Jordy Nelson, Packers – The Donald Driver injury situation has opened the door for the Packers’ backup receivers to step up, and this week it was Nelson, not James Jones, that was the productive one. But Nelson’s 61-yard day, which included a touchdown, is not something you can expect every week simply because of the Pack’s deep list of options at the position. Verdict: A fraud

Ben Obamanu, Seahawks – With Mike Williams sidelined by injury, Obamanu had a huge game with five catches for 159 yards and a score. If Williams misses next week’s game, Obamanu is worth a start. Regardless, he should be picked up as a potential hot hand going into the fantasy playoffs. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Billy Bajema, Rams – Bajema had two touchdowns against the Broncos, but he had just three total touchdowns. He remains behind Michael Hoomanawanui (who also had a TD catch) and Daniel Fells in the Rams’ tight end depth chart, and that means Bajema isn’t worth a claim. Verdict: A fraud

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November 29, 2010 · 5:36 pm

Football Relativity: Week One injuries

The injury list from Week One featured several devastating injuries that significantly impact teams moving forward. That made it necessary to analyze these injuries and how they impact teams moving forward. We’ll do that using our Football Relativity tool, placing the team with the most significant losses at the 10 level and teams that got off relatively easily at the 1 level. Note that a player going on injured reserve means he is officially out for the rest of the season.

10 – Packers – put RB Ryan Grant (torn ankle ligaments) and DT Justin Harrell (torn ACL) on injured reserve – Grant has been a solid workhorse back for the Pack since he first emerged in 2007, but torn ankle ligaments suffered against the Eagles in the opener will bench him for the rest of the season. Brandon Jackson, who was the Packers’ only backup tailback, gets the chance to replace him, and while Jackson has more speed than Grant he’s never really taken hold of opportunities before. Green Bay also added Dmitri Nance off the Falcons’ practice squad for depth. Harrell, a first-rounder back in 2007, has played in just 14 career games due to a variety of injuries. He finally looked healthy enough to contribute this season before he tore up his knee. His injury is another blow to a defensive line that had already lost Johnny Jolly for the season to a suspension.

10 (con’t) – Jets – put NT Kris Jenkins (torn ACL) on injured reserve – For the second straight year, Jackpot Jenkins suffered a knee injury that will bench him for the remainder of the season. It happened on the Jets’ sixth defensive snap, which is devastating for a player who makes such an impact and has worked so hard to overcome last year’s problem. Fill-ins Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha have proven they can play efficiently, but they’re not the game-changers that Jenkins is at his best. Signee Howard Green is another workmanlike player. And after two devastating knee injuries, Jenkins may even consider retirement. That would be a disappointing end to what has been a great career for the three-time All-Pro.

9 – Eagles – put FB Leonard Weaver (torn knee ligaments) and C Jamaal Jackson (torn triceps tendon) on injured reserve; QB Kevin Kolb (concussion) and LB Stewart Bradley (concussion) – The Eagles lost two starters in Weaver and Jackson. Weaver suffered a horrific ACL injury that puts a damper on the Eagles’ offense. He was not only a fullback but a power runner and explosive receiver. Mike Bell will have to step in in short-yardage situations, and  signee Owen Schmitt will do a lot of blocking. Jackson, a four-year starter who was returning from a knee injury, will miss the season with a torn triceps. Either rookie A.Q. Shipley or Mike McGlynn will take over for Jackson. Both Kolb and Bradley have concussions which could keep them out of at least this week’s game at Detroit. Given Michael Vick’s play last year, Kolb’s absence might not be a killer, but it’s still quite significant.

8 – Colts – S Bob Sanders (torn biceps tendon) – Sanders is out “indefinitely” and could miss the rest of the season, which is a blow to a Colts defense that is always different when Sanders is in the lineup. But since Indy has played without Sanders so often in recent years, this injury falls a bit down this list. Melvin Bullitt is a solid fill-in for Sanders, but he doesn’t provide the dynamic aspect that Sanders can.

7 – Lions – QB Matthew Stafford (separated shoulder) – It’s unclear how long Stafford will be out after separating his shoulder, but most reports indicate 2-6 weeks is a safe bet.  That’s a blow for a Lions team that had such hopes of building wins up this season, since Shaun Hill does not have the big-play potential that Stafford provides.

6 – Texans – put DE/OLB Connor Barwin (dislocated ankle) on injured reserve – Barwin, a 2009 second-round pick, was supposed to be an athletic freak of a pass rusher to help get to the quarterback and take pressure off of Mario Williams. But he suffered a gruesome dislocated right ankle in the season opener against the Colts and will miss the rest of the season. Barwin, who had 4.5 sacks as a rookie, will be replaced by signees Adewale Ogunleye and Ryan Denney, both of whom are solid players with some pass-rush ability but not Barwin’s potential for the dynamic.

6 (con’t) – Seahawks – put OG Max Unger (toe) on injured reserve – Unger, a former first-round pick, is one of the stabilizing forces on the Seahawks’ offensive line, but he’s on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Seattle has really had a lot of changes up front, including losing OL coach Alex Gibbs to retirement just before the season began. So missing one of the solid guys they have is a real blow.

5 – none

4 – Panthers – QB Matt Moore (concussion) – Moore suffered a concussion in the second half against the Giants, and it’s unclear right now about whether he’ll be ready to play this week at home against Tampa Bay. Losing Moore would be huge, because the Panthers need to salt away a win in this home game chance, and starting rookie Jimmy Clausen would inhibit their chances to do so. 

3 – Giants – TE Kevin Boss (concussion) – Boss suffered a concussion in the first quarter of the opener against the Panthers, and he’s already been ruled out for this week’s game against the Colts. That’s a blow not only because of the absence of Boss’ receiving and blocking skills but also because the Giants had only one other tight end, Travis Beckum, on the roster. They’ve promoted Bear Pascoe to give them a little more flexibility.

3 – Dolphins – DE Jared Odrick (broken right fibula) – Odrick, the Dolphins’ first-round pick, had become a starter at defensive end in the Dolphins’ reworked 3-4 defense. But he’ll miss at least the next two games with a broken leg. Odrick was replacing Philip Merling, who’s also out for the year, so this injury really tests Miami’s depth. Tony McDaniel can fill in as a starter, but Miami will be looking hard for someone to step into the rotation behind the fill-in for the fill-in.

2 – Bills – LB Paul Posluszny (torn MCL) – Posluszny, who has battled injuries throughout his career, suffered a torn MCL and will miss at least a couple of weeks. That’s a blow to a Bills defense that played OK in Week One but is still looking to adapt to a new 3-4 defense. The fact that the Bills are thin at linebacker only makes Posluszny’s absence more damaging.

1 – Steelers – OT Max Starks (ankle sprain) – There are conflicting reports about whether Starks will miss this week’s game at Tennessee with an ankle sprain, which is why this injury isn’t further up the list. But after losing Willie Colon for the season, Pittsburgh simply can’t afford to lose another tackle.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

Arian Foster against the Colts

Arian Foster breaks free against the Colts. Photo from abcnews.com

Most of the first week of the NFL season is done, and that means it’s time for pickups in fantasy football. But which performances from Week 1 should you trust? Each week, we’ll dig through some of the notable performances to find the ones you should applaud and the ones that are simply frauds to be ignored. With each verdict, we’ll discuss what it means in terms of your starting lineup and your league’s waiver wire.

Quarterbacks

Derek Anderson, Cardinals – Anderson got off to a good start as the Cardinals’ quarterback, throwing for 297 yards and a touchdown. His completion percentage was just above 50 percent (22-of-41), and that’s going to be the issue with Anderson. But he has enough of an arm and good enough targets that he’ll pile up some yards and touchdowns. If you need a fill-in quarterback or a new backup, Anderson is a decent option, especially in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Shaun Hill, Lions – With Matthew Stafford knocked out of Detroit’s game against the Bears with a shoulder injury, Hill came in and completed 9-of-19 passes for 88 yards with a touchdown. Hill is a serviceable quarterback, and so he won’t drag down the stock of Calvin Johnson while he fills in for Stafford over the next several weeks, but Hill himself isn’t a fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but the Bengals’ emphasis on the pass was mostly a result of falling behind 31-3. Don’t count on 50 pass attempts from Palmer each week, and don’t move him into the top 10 at quarterback. He’s still a fantasy backup. Verdict: A fraud

Michael Vick, Eagles – It’s uncertain at this point whether Eagles starter Kevin Kolb will miss any additional games with the concussion he suffered in Week 1, but if he does Vick is once again a fantasy option. Vick threw for 175 yards and a touchdown and ran for 103 yards against the Packers, showing that he’s back to the form that made him an interesting fantasy play back in the day. Vick’s worth grabbing if Kolb is your starter, and he’s worth a speculative claim for other owners depending on Kolb’s condition. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Matt Forte, Bears – Forte averaged less than three yards a carry with 17 carries for 50 yards, but he had 151 yards receiving with two touchdown catches. His receiving skills add a lot of value, and if the Bears’ new Mike Martz offense starts clicking, Forte’s going to be a solid starter. One caveat: Forte had good games last year against bad teams like the Lions, Browns, and Rams, but he didn’t do much against anyone else. So wait one more week before making Forte a no-questions starter in your league. Verdict: A fraud

Arian Foster, Texans – The hottest RB sleeper this season proved his mettle early with a monster 231-yard, three touchdown day. He’s a fantasy starter in every league and could end up being  a top-10 back by the end of the season. Give yourself a hand if you bought the hype. Verdict: Applaud

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis had the Browns’ only rushing touchdown against Tampa Bay, and he had as many carries as ostensible starter Jerome Harrison. Hillis finished with 65 yards from scrimmage, and it seems reasonable to expect 50 yards or so a week from Hillis. It seems like it’s going to be worth grabbing Hillis as a RB sleeper to see how he develops down the line. We never bought Harrison as a fantasy starter, and Hillis’ presence makes that suspicion seem well-founded. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jackson, Packers – Ryan Grant suffered an ankle injury against Philly, and Jackson stepped in and had 63 yards on 18 carries. If Grant misses time, Jackson’s good enough to be a flex option in leagues of 12 teams or more. He’s worth a claim given Grant’s injury. Verdict: Applaud

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – There was a lot of worry about Jones-Drew’s health over the last two weeks of the preseason, but he showed up with 23 catches for 98 yards in the 24-17 victory over the Broncos. That’s good reassurance for owners who took the shot and drafted MoJo despite the questions. Verdict: Applaud

Darren McFadden, Raiders – With Michael Bush out of action, McFadden had a solid fantasy game with 150 total yards and a touchdown. He’s still got to beat Bush out to be worth a starting spot, and that’s the reason we’re not clapping yet, but if you have McFadden on your bench this is a positive sign. Verdict: A fraud

Wide receivers

Steve Breaston, Cardinals – In his first game as a starter after the departure of Anquan Boldin, Breaston stepped up with a huge game – seven catches for 132 yards. That performance means that Breaston’s status as a No. 3 fantasy receiver, which seemed questionable when Derek Anderson first took the starting job, is secure. Verdict: Applaud

Mark Clayton, Rams – In Clayton’s first game in St. Louis, he established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiver with 10 catches for 119 yards. He won’t put up those kinds of numbers every week, but he’ll produce enough to be a No. 4 fantasy receiver. His change of scenery has really boosted his fantasy stock. Verdict: Applaud

Austin Collie, Colts – Collie finished with 10 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Texans, keyed by a 73-yard catch late. His numbers allow us to contend as we have throughout the offseason that Collie will end up being more fantasy relevant than Pierre Garcon. Verdict: Applaud

Hakeem Nicks, Giants – Nicks is now a top-20 receiver after a three-TD game, as we detailed in our Panthers/Giants post. Verdict: Applaud

Mario Manningham, Giants – We talked in our Panthers/Giants post about how Manningham is worth a pickup in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Lance Moore, Saints – We talked in our Saints/Vikings post about how Moore looks to have a bigger role in 2010 than he did in 2009. Although he finished the game with just three catches for 23 yards, he’s worth putting on your watch list. But for now, don’t worry about a claim unless you’re in a monster league of 14 teams or more. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Ochocinco piled up 12 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown as the Bengals tried to come back from a huge deficit. More notably, he had 12 catches to Terrell Owens’ seven. We still believe Ochocinco is the more valuable fantasy receiver than Owens and that Ochocinco is the Bengals’ receiver you want to be starting. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Thomas, Jaguars – Thomas had six catches for 89 yards against the Broncos, while Mike Sims-Walker went without a catch. It’s entirely possible that Thomas, not MSW, will end up being the Jags’ No. 1 fantasy receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Washington, Titans – Washington had a big game against the Raiders with 88 receiving yards, including a 59-yard touchdown. But we’re not ready to predict that kind of production from Washington on a weekly basis. He’s likely to be an inconsistent producer who puts up big numbers on occasion but not often enough to find a spot in your lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Wes Welker, Patriots – If you had any doubt about Welker’s health after last year’s ACL injury, his eight-catch, 62-yard, two-touchdown performance should set your mind at ease. He’s once again a no-brainer fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Williams, Seahawks – Seattle’s big reclamation project panned out in Week One, as Williams had four catches for 64 yards against the 49ers. He’s worth owning as a fantasy backup in leagues of 12 teams or more, but don’t get carried away and start Williams yet. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – Lewis had just two catches against the Broncos, but they both went for touchdowns. Our sense is that Lewis isn’t a top-10 fantasy tight end, but he could end being a top-15 tight end and a nice injury or bye-week fill-in. If you had Kevin Boss, Lewis is a solid replacement. Verdict: Applaud

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – We talked in our Saints/Vikings post about what Shiancoe’s performance means. He should be a starter in all leagues with a dedicated TE spot at this point. Considering we had Shiancoe outside our top 10 at the position before the season, that’s worth a hand clap. Verdict: Applaud

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FR: 2010 trades

In this post, we’re comparing all the trades made in the NFL during the 2010 offseason. We’ll update the comparison as we go through the offseason, but we’re starting with the three major trades from the opening weekend of free agency. The 10 level is reserved for the most important trades, and the 1 level will eventually be for the swaps we include simply as a matter of record.

10 – Eagles trade QB Donovan McNabb to Redskins for second-round pick (37th overall) and conditional third- or fourth-round pick in 2011 – The Eagles opted to end the McNabb era by dealing him to their NFC East rivals in Washington. This says a lot about what the Eagles think about McNabb right now. (Chris Mortenson brough up the fact that the last time this happened was when the Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to the Bills, and the Pats knew when they made that deal that Bledsoe was falling off the cliff.) They’re obviously not scared of playing McNabb twice a year, because it’s not like the Redskins paid a premium for McNabb. In fact, instead of getting a Jay Cutler windfall for McNabb, Philly accepted a deal much like what the Patriots got for Matt Cassel last offseason – an early second-round pick (37th overall) and either a third- or fourth-rounder in 2011. So Philly takes a fair but not exorbinant deal to send away McNabb, who led them to one Super Bowl and five conference championship games in his 11 seasons there. Still, McNabb was never fully embraced by Eagles fans. I was there at the 1999 draft when McNabb, drafted third overall, was roundly booed by Eagles fans who had been bussed into New York by a sports-radio station that had called for Philly to select Ricky Williams. But McNabb proved well worth that pick, becoming easily the best of the five first-round quarterbacks that year and a top-level leader for the Eagles. At age 33, McNabb doesn’t have many of his prime years left, but he certainly played at a quality level throughout the ’09 season. In Washington, though, he faces the obstacles of a mediocre offensive line and receiving corps, along with a running back trio of Clinton Portis, Willie Parker, and Larry Johnson that may be completely cooked. The Redskins do have good tight ends, and the fourth overall pick now figures to go toward an offensive tackle like Russell Okung, which will help. But at best, McNabb takes a team that was headed for five or six wins with Jason Campbell to eight or nine wins max. He can’t solve all the Redskins’ roster problems. The Eagles, meanwhile, now cast their lot with Kevin Kolb, who played well in two starts last year and now gets the chance Aaron Rodgers got in Green Bay two years ago. If Kolb is ready, as Rodgers was, the Eagles will benefit from this move within two years. Kolb steps into a good situation with young receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek, so the Eagles now look set in the passing game into the middle of the decade. That’s a good thing, even if the Eagles are making the move to their new quarterback a year early. But it’s pretty clear that Philly wasn’t going to re-sign McNabb, and so getting something for him now makes sense. They can only hope that McNabb doesn’t exact his revenge twice this fall and cost them a playoff spots, or else the fans will absolutely revolt against Andy Reid and his regime. On paper, this trade makes sense for the Eagles, but on the field McNabb could make it look foolish if he can keep his play at its current level over the next 3-4 years.

9 – Cardinals trade WR Anquan Boldin and fifth-round pick to Ravens for third-and fourth-round picks – The Ravens filled their biggest need by dealing for Boldin, who always played tough and performed well for Arizona but never seemed satisfied with his contract. Boldin isn’t the fastest receiver as a deep threat, but he has a knack for piling up yards after the catch and making big plays that way. Plus, he’s not afraid to go over the middle and get hit – as he proved when he broke his face in a 2008 game against the Jets. For the Ravens, who have talent just about everywhere except wide receiver, it’s a no-brainer to give up two mid-round picks for a lead receiver in his prime. Boldin provides Joe Flacco with a go-to guy and takes pressure off the rest of a tall and fast but inconsistent receiver corps. He’ll be an upgrade over Derrick Mason and well worth the extension the Ravens gave him to make his contract worth $28 million over four years with $10 million in guaranteed money. Arizona didn’t maximize Boldin’s value, but they can afford to lose him with the emergence of Steve Breaston and Early Doucet. And in what looks to be a rebuilding year, having extra picks in a deep draft won’t hurt. It’s a shame to lose Boldin, but that’s the best move for management of resources.

9 (con’t) – Broncos trade WR Brandon Marshall to Dolphins for second-round picks in 2010 and 2011 – Marshall is as talented as any receiver in the league, but Denver tired of his petulant behavior and finally cut ties. Marshall’s troubles are connected to but not totally explained by his desire for a new deal, and with $24 million guaranteed in his new five-year, $50 million contract. If that’s the case, the Dolphins will be thrilled. They’re counting on Marshall to be a no-doubt No. 1 receiver, the kind of player the Fins haven’t had since Paul Warfield. At age 26, Marshall is entering his prime, and few receivers in any era have had three straight 100-catch seasons as Marshall has. Marshall gives young Miami QB Chad Henne a target that will speed his development, and Marshall’s presence will help guys like Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo move into roles that better suit their talents. On the field, this is a home run for Miami that makes the Dolphins a contender in the AFC East and beyond. Marshall just has to behave off the field. For Denver, getting two second-round picks for Marshall is fair value in today’s market. (For instance, the Ravens paid less to get Anquan Boldin.) Denver wanted to get rid of Marshall’s troublemaking, but they will struggle to replace his talent. Losing Jay Cutler and Marshall over the past two years has taken much of the explosiveness out of Josh McDaniels’ offense, and no scheme will completely replace it. Now guys like Eddie Royal, Jabar Gaffney, and Kenny McKinley must emerge. Maybe one of those guys will be a revelation, but we doubt it. If Denver adds a draft pick like Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, this deal will make more sense. Until then, we can’t call it addition by subtraction.

8 – Steelers trade WR Santonio Holmes to Jets for fifth-round pick – Holmes hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet in his four-year career, but his postseason breakout two winters ago, which culminated in a Super Bowl 43 MVP trophy, signifies that his on-field career is on the upswing. Holmes backed up his star turn with a career-high 79 catches and 1,248 yards last season, and it appeared that he was on track to replace Hines Ward as the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver. But off-the-field issues persisted, and the Steelers learned that Holmes was subject to a four-game suspension to start the 2010 season. So with Holmes entering a contract year, the Steelers decided they weren’t going to pay him big bucks and that they wanted to get something – anything – for him in return. It’s much like the call the Steelers made to let Plaxico Burress, another first-round pick, go despite his on-field promise a few years back. The Jets hope that Holmes can have the impact in green in New York that Burress did in blue. Holmes is more consistent than Braylon Edwards in terms of catching the ball, and he and Edwards combine to give Mark Sanchez quality deep threats that will scare defenses. If the Jets can get Holmes to walk the straight and narrow, this trade will be a big win for them. Regardless, by paying just a fifth-round pick (No. 155 overall) for a player in the final year of his contract, the Jets are taking on little risk. The Steelers now look to Mike Wallace, who had quite a nice rookie season, to step up opposite Ward. That’s feasible, but Pittsburgh no longer has an heir apparent to Ward as their No. 1 receiver. Maybe they get one in this year’s draft, or maybe there’s another plan in place. But trading Holmes, while it may be a solid organizational decision, isn’t going to upgrade the Steeler passing game.

7 – Chargers trade CB Antonio Cromartie to Jets for a conditional 2011 third-round pick – Cromartie’s lack of consistent effort and off-the-field peccadillos wore on the Chargers, and they decided to part with the talented cornerback. That’s a loss, although one that may help San Diego’s locker room. He now goes to the Jets, where he’ll play across from Darrelle Revis and have a chance to turn his gambling style into turnovers. Cromartie is a good fit for Rex Ryan’s defensive attack, but with just one year on his contract he’ll need to be motivated instead of sulking about not having a long-term deal. San Diego will have to be patient, but getting a third-rounder in 2011 (that can turn into a second-rounder if Cromartie excels) is pretty good value for a player with Cromartie’s off-field issues.

6 – Browns trade QB Brady Quinn to Broncos for FB Peyton Hillis, 2011 sixth-round pick, and conditional 2012 pick – The Browns traded a 2008 first-rounder in 2007 to acquire Quinn in the first round in 2007, but Quinn never got a full shot at the starting job with the Browns. Derek Anderson exploded for a Pro Bowl season in 2007, leaving Quinn on the bench. He got the starting job midway through the 2008 season but was sidelined by a finger injury, and last season he started and then was benched, and by the time he returned to the lineup his opportunities to start were limited. With just 12 starts in three years, it’s too soon to call Quinn a bust, although he probably does need a change of scenery. He gets one in Denver, where he will back up Kyle Orton in 2010 but could be the long-term starter for the Broncos if Orton returns for just one year. The trade is a no-brainer for the Broncos, who give up Peyton Hillis, a running fullback who is like Philly’s Leonard Weaver but less effective. Denver also surrendered a 2011 sixth-round pick and a conditional 2012 pick that maxes out in the fourth-round. If Quinn ever becomes a starter in Denver, the deal’s a steal, and if he’s just a backup for the Broncos, it’s still good value for Denver. Maybe Cleveland pictures Hillis as a running back who can share the starting load with Jerome Harrison, but that seems to be a pipe dream. Cleveland sold Quinn for a few dimes on the dollar, and if they did so because they love Hillis, it’s a huge mistake.
(For more thoughts on Cleveland’s faulty trade philosophy, check out this post.)

6 (con’t) – Browns trade OLB Kamerion Wimbley to Raiders for third-round pick – Wimbley was a four-year starter for the Browns, but after notching 11 sacks as a rookie he had just 15.5 in the next three years. But he’s still a good 3-4 outside linebacker, and the Twitter buzz has said that Wimbley has improved in coverage as well. Oakland gave up a third-rounder for Wimbley, and whether the Raiders try him at defensive end or outside linebacker in their 4-3, Wimbley will be better than whoever they would have taken there. Eric Mangini seems so attached to his guys in Cleveland that he’s trying to get rid of anyone who was in town before him, regardless of talent or production or potential. He’s giving up a good player in Wimbley, and that talent drain just can’t be stemmed by a third-round pick, even in a good draft. It’s another example of how the Browns fail to maximize value in trades. Meanwhile, it seems like Oakland actually made a savvy deal here. Who knew that was possible?

6 (con’t) – Chargers trade QB Charlie Whitehurst to Seahawks for a swap of second-round picks worth 20 spots and a 2011 third-round pick – The Seahawks are paying handsomely to take a shot on Whitehurst, the former Clemson quarterback who hasn’t thrown a pass in four NFL seasons. Granted, Whitehurst has been behind a top-flight starter in Philip Rivers and a solid backup in Billy Volek, but with no NFL results it’s hard to imagine giving up 20 spots in the second round and a third-rounder in 2011. Having to pay Whitehurst, who was a restricted free agent before signing his tender to make the deal possible, $10 million over two years makes the price even harder to swallow. Still, that’s what the Seahawks have done for the 6-foot-4 Whitehurst. Having covered Whitehurst in college a little, I’ve seen his reputation for toughness, and I’ve seen his physical skills. But quarterback in the NFL is such a mental deal that’s it’s nearly impossible to project whether or not this will work. But say this for the Seahawks – they paid handsomely for Matt Hasselbeck when he had thrown just 29 passes in his career, and Hasselbeck has been well worth the investment for Seattle. It’s hard to predict that lightning will strike twice, but for a team that didn’t have a quarterback of the future before this trade, the chance that lightning will strike twice is worth the price. It seems like a reckless gamble for Seattle, but it still could turn out well for them.

5 – N.Y. Jets trade S Kerry Rhodes to Cardinals for fourth-round pick and 2011 seventh-round pick – Rhodes proved to be a versatile playmaker with the Jets on the blitz and in coverage, but he wasn’t enough of a big hitter for Rex Ryan’s tastes. So the Jets deal Rhodes away for a mid-round pick, which is decent return for a guy who was in and out of the starting lineup for them. For Arizona, Rhodes is a godsend, because he replaces the released Antrel Rolle at a far more reasonable price, and he can combine with Adrian Wilson to let the Cards continue to have an elite pair of safeties. And after gaining a fourth-round pick in the Anquan Boldin deal, trading a fourth-rounder for a proven veteran makes even more sense.

5 (con’t) – Seahawks trade DE Darryl Tapp to Eagles for fourth-round pick and DE Chris Clemons – Instead of signing Tapp, who was a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet and potentially surrendering a second-rounder for him, the Eagles worked out a trade for Tapp and then signed him to a three-year extension. Tapp hasn’t been a huge sack producer in his four-year career, and he has only been a part-time starter the last two years, but he still appears to have pass-rush potential. The Eagles, who run a more aggressive scheme, believe Tapp can blossom across from Trent Cole. Seattle gets a fourth-rounder in exchange for Tapp along with Clemons, who has had only one big sack season in his six-year career. Still, Clemons can at least be a rotation end for Pete Carroll’s revamped defense. Seattle didn’t get a second-round pick, but it got a decent haul for a player who wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

5 (con’t) – Eagles trade CB Sheldon Brown and LB Chris Gocong to Browns for LB Alex Hall and fourth- and fifth-round draft picks – Brown is the latest in a line of Eagles cornerbacks that got upset by their role and paychecks, and like Lito Sheppard he’s now gone. Brown wasn’t as good as Asante Samuel, but he has been a consistent starter for Philly. He now moves to Cleveland, where he will get a chance to be Cleveland’s No. 1 corner. Brown isn’t a true shutdown corner, but he’s solid and will get physical when needed. He’s an upgrade for Cleveland. Gocong started 11 games at outside linebacker last year but was little more than a placeholder there. Now he moves to Cleveland’s 3-4, which may be a better fit for him. New Browns GM Tom Heckert knows the Eagles’ talent well, so when he projects Gocong, a former defensive end, as an outside linebacker, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Hall is just a special-teams player (although he has promise) to replace Gocong on those units, so the real value Philly got in this deal was the fourth- and fifth-round picks. That’s not great return for a starting cornerback, so for once it seems like the Browns were the shrewder trading partner.

4 – Seahawks trade QB Seneca Wallace to Browns for 2011 conditional late-round pick – With Brady Quinn traded and Derek Anderson released, the Browns signed Jake Delhomme and traded for Wallace. In the Wallace deal, Mike Holmgren does it again. When he first arrived in Seattle, he traded to get Matt Hasselbeck, the backup with his former team the Packers. Now Holmgren, the Browns’ new football boss, trades for Wallace, who had been Hasselbeck’s backup with the Seahawks. Cleveland can only hope this deal turns out that well. Wallace probably should be just a backup, because in Wallace’s fill-in starting shots he hasn’t been more than ordinary. But he knows the system Holmgren’s dictating the Browns to run, and that may make this trade end up being significant. Seattle, meanwhile, moves on and gets a seventh-rounder in 2011 that could become a sixth if Wallace excels.

4 (con’t) – Browns trade DT Corey Williams and seventh-round pick to Lions for fifth-round pick – Williams was a force in Green Bay’s 4-3, but after the Packers traded him to the Browns he never really fit in the 3-4 system in Cleveland. Now he returns to his native defense to play alongside an elite defensive tackle that is all but certainly coming Detroit’s way in the draft. Williams’ clogging presence will allow either Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy to slash into the backfield and maximize early return on the second overall pick. For Cleveland, saving money and moving toward more players who fit Eric Mangini’s defense make this trade sensible, if not stunning.

4 (con’t) – In a three-way trade, Eagles trade fifth-round pick to Broncos, Broncos trade TE Tony Scheffler and seventh-round pick to Lions, Lions trade LB Ernie Sims to Eagles – The Broncos unloaded another unhappy player in Scheffler, a field-stretching tight end who didn’t block well enough for Josh McDaniels’ tastes. (The fact that Scheffler was Jay Cutler’s running buddy probably didn’t help either.) So Scheffler goes to Detroit, where he’ll be the pass-catching complement to ’09 first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew. That could actually be a nice contrast for the Lions that deepens the threats for Matthew Stafford. This is another in a line of depth-building trades for the Lions. As Scheffler enters Detroit, Sims, a former top-10 pick, leaves. Sims is a mobile but small linebacker who didn’t really fit Jim Schwartz’s style, but the undersized linebacker will fit just fine with the Eagles. Given the injury to Stewart Bradley last year, the Eagles needed another good option at middle linebacker, and Sims can do that better than a fifth-round choice would have. So Denver dropped an unhappy guy, and Detroit and Philly got players who should help. That ends up being a win-win-win for all.

3 – 49ers trade QB Shaun Hill to Lions for 2011 seventh-round pick – After signing David Carr, the Niners signalled that they were committed to giving Alex Smith one more shot to establish himself as a starter. Given that situation, it’s no surprise that they tried Hill, who always seemed to be able to outdo Smith in practice. Now Hill moves to Detroit as a backup to Matthew Stafford. Hill isn’t the most physically talented quarterback, but he’s a gamer who rallies the offense around him and usually performs well. Those are great traits in a backup quarterback. The Niners didn’t get much in return for Hill, so it appears they tried to do right by him by letting him find a better situation. Hill, meanwhile, went from battling a former No. 1 overall pick (Smith) to being replaced by a former No. 1 overall pick (Carr) to backing up a former No. 1 overall pick (Stafford). That’s a strange piece of trivia, especially for a player who wasn’t drafted.

3 (con’t) – Seahawks trade OG Rob Sims and a seventh-round pick to Lions for DE Robert Henderson and a fifth-round pick – Sims has been a starter two of the past three years in Seattle, but he didn’t fit the system that new OL coach Alex Gibbs is bringing. Gibbs has always favored smaller, quicker lineman, and that’s not Sims’ m.o. So Sims moves to Detroit, where he looks to be a starter right away at left guard. That’s worth a fifth-round pick to the Lions, who continue to try to shore up the middle of their roster. Getting another solid starter is a plus for Detroit. Henderson has yet to play in the league, but the Seahawks have seen something worth a seventh-round flier from him.

3 (con’t) – Dolphins trade WR Ted Ginn Jr. to 49ers for fifth-round pick – After acquiring Brandon Marshall, it was clear the Dolphins had no further plans for Ginn, who was the team’s first-round pick (ninth overall) in Cam Cameron’s single ill-fated year. Ginn has great speed, but he’s small, and his hands have shown to be unpredictable. But for a fifth-round pick, he can become San Francisco’s return specialist and a third or fourth receiver behind Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. In that role, Ginn has value, as he showed on returns for Miami. The Dolphins recoup a draft pick out of the deal, admitting that Ginn was a bust, but they can rest easy knowing that Marshall is in the fold.

3 (con’t) – Rams trade DE Adam Carriker to Redskins for swaps of draft positions in fifth and seventh rounds – The Redskins didn’t have to give up a pick to acquire Carriker, a former first-round pick who had a strong rookie season but hasn’t been able to be productive or all that healthy since. Carriker was kind of stuck between end and tackle in the Rams’ 4-3 defense, and that means he could be a good fit as a defensive end in the 3-4 system the Redskins are now running. This is basically a surrender for the Rams, who obviously would have cut Carriker had they not traded him, and it’s a shot worth taking for the Skins.

2 – Falcons trade CB Chris Houston to Lions for sixth-round pick and swap of fifth-round picks worth 17 draft positions – After signing Dunta Robinson to a high-dollar contract, the Falcons didn’t really have a role for Houston, and so they traded him in order to add some draft value. If they can hit on one of those picks, the deal will be worth it, but regardless the Falcons save a bit of money on a guy who lost his role on the team. But Houston is still a prospect who will get a chance to prove himself in Detroit. As the Lions continue to seek to upgrade their talent, they need to take shots like this to see who pans out. Houston should be a top-3 corner in Detroit, and he could emerge into a decent player. That’s better upside than the sixth-rounder he gave up.

2 (con’t) – Buccaneers trade QB Byron Leftwich to Steelers for a seventh-round pick – With a Ben Roethlisberger suspension looming, the Steelers brought back Leftwich, who did a good job for them as a backup back in 2008. Leftwich proved last season that he’s not starter-quality, but he’s a good locker room guy who will provide enough of a challenge to keep Dennis Dixon sharp for early-season starts. That’s worth a seventh-round pick. The Bucs, meanwhile, are now all-in with Josh Freeman, and Josh Johnson proved last year that he’s an NFL-quality backup. They could still use a grizzled vet, but those guys are available on the market at a cheaper price than what Leftwich was slated to make on his semi-starter contract from last year.

2 (con’t) – Jaguars trade DE Quentin Groves to Raiders for fifth-round pick – Groves and Derrick Harvey were the Jags’ top two picks two years ago in the draft, but neither turned into the pass-rushing defensive end the Jags were hoping they would be. After adding Aaron Kampman in the offseason, Jacksonville ran out of room for Groves to develop. Now he lands in Oakland, where he will have another shot to develop. Groves no longer has the promise that fellow Raiders acquisition Kamerion Wimbley has rushing the passer, but it’s worth a fifth-round shot for the Raiders to see if Groves is a complete bust or just a guy who needs a change of scenery.

1 – Eagles trade WR Reggie Brown to Buccaneers for 2011 sixth-round pick – Brown once looked like an emerging receiver in Philadelphia, but he fell down the depth chart as the Eagles added youngsters DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant. Since Brown, who had just 27 catches in the last two years combined, wasn’t going to get much run, it makes sense for the Eagles to go ahead and get something back for him. In Tampa, Brown’s speed is a necessity, especially now that Antonio Bryant is on the way out. With the motley collection of receivers the Bucs have, Brown could end up starting for them. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s worth a future sixth-rounder.

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Jersey Numbers: Quarterbacks

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, 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. Now we move to quarterbacks, who wear numbers between 1 and 19.

1 – None – Sorry Warren Moon and Jeff George, but no significant quarterback in the NFL is currently wearing No. 1.

2 – Matt Ryan, Falcons – Two young quarterbacks wear No. 2, and Ryan, who is the future of the franchise in Atlanta, is an easy choice over JaMarcus Russell, who apparently cannot be the future of the franchise in Oakland. Other notable 2s: Brian St. Pierre, Cardinals; Chris Simms, Broncos, Sage Rosenfels, Vikings

3 – Derek Anderson, Browns – Anderson is no good and is having an even worse year, but he’s the only quarterback who has seen the field this season that wears No. 3, so he wins this by default. But you can go ahead and expect Anderson to lose to a kicker or punter in the final jersey number comparison. Other notable 3: Matt Moore, Panthers

4 – Brett Favre, Vikings – There’s no question that Favre is not only the most significant No. 4 currently playing now; he may be the best No. 4 in the history of the league. Part of that is that 4 was never a popular number before Favre, and part of it is of course Favre’s longevity and production. Other notable 4: Kevin Kolb, Eagles

5 – Donovan McNabb, Eagles – When McNabb first started wearing No. 5, it seemed like a bit of a novelty for a quarterback. But now this is a popular number. Still, McNabb remains the standard-bearer, both for his current play and his long and storied career. But it’ll be interesting to see how long McNabb can hold off up-and-coming Joe Flacco to keep the claim on 5. Other notable 5s: Kerry Collins, Titans; Trent Edwards, Bills, Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders

6 – Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler narrowly wins this number’s honors over rookie Mark Sanchez, simply because Cutler has a little longer pedigree. At the end of the year or next year, the decision could be different. Other notable 6: Pat White, Dolphins

7 – Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – Big Ben wears 7 in honor of John Elway, one of the greatest 7s of all time. Now Roethlisberger is writing his legacy at the number with two Super Bowl titles very early in his career. The fact that Big Ben seems to be emerging as a passer is a sign that his career may actually be starting an upswing just now. Other notable 7s: Matt Cassel, Chiefs; Chad Henne, Dolphins; Byron Leftwich, Buccaneers; Matt Leinart, Cardinals; Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings; Michael Vick, Eagles

8 – Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – This was a tough call. Matt Schaub of the Texans is having by far a better year than Hasselbeck, but Hasselbeck has a much better career at this point. So we’ll side with experience over the present, knowing full well that we might want to flip the tables on this number very soon. Other notable 8s: Kyle Orton, Broncos; David Carr, Giants; Brian Hoyer, Patriots

9 – Drew Brees, Saints – Brees may be for the early 2010s what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were for most of this decade. He’s at the top of his game, piling up numbers with great accuracy and providing great leadership to boot. And if he can get a Super Bowl ring this year, his status will only grow. As good as Dallas’ Tony Romo, Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer, and Jacksonville’s David Garrard are, they aren’t in Brees’ league. Other notable 9: Matthew Stafford, Lions

10 – Eli Manning, Giants – Manning isn’t a perfect quarterback, but he’s good and he’s won his share of games and then some. That’s enough to earn him the 10 spot over declining players like Marc Bulger of St. Louis and Chad Pennington of Miami. Other notable 10s: Matt Flynn, Packers; Brady Quinn, Browns; Vince Young, Titans; Troy Smith, Ravens

11 – Daunte Culpepper, Lions – There are no current star quarterbacks wearing 11, so we’ll give this honor to a former star in Culpepper who has started a couple of games this year. Other notable 11s: Josh Johnson, Buccaneers; Alex Smith, 49ers; Mark Brunell, Saints; Kellen Clemens, Jets

12 – Tom Brady, Patriots – It’s an easy call to give the honors at 12 to Brady, who’s already got the resume of an all-time great. Plus, Brady continues to perform at the highest of levels. He remains the real deal. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a good quarterback, but he’s outside Brady’s echelon. Other notable 12s: Brodie Croyle, Chiefs; Kyle Boller, Rams; Josh McCown, Panthers; Jim Sorgi, Colts

13 – Kurt Warner, Cardinals – This is another easy call, as Warner is playing at a high level 10 years after he burst on the scene in St. Louis. His career has been a little up and down, but at his best there are few better than Warner. Other notable 13: Shaun Hill, 49ers

14 – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Fitzpatrick isn’t great, but he’s the only QB wearing 14 who has even played this year. Dan Fouts must be ashamed.

15 – Seneca Wallace, Seahawks – This is another slow number, as Wallace and Washington backup Todd Collins are the only quarterbacks wearing 15. We almost gave this to Tim Tebow in advance, but we’ll stick with NFL players for now.

16 – Charlie Batch, Steelers – At least we had a choice at 16 between Batch, the former Lions starter who’s now Big Ben’s backup, and Tyler Thigpen, who had some good games in K.C. last year before going to the Dolphins via trade this year.

17 – Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers isn’t on the Brees-Manning-Brady level, but he may be the best of the next batch of quarterbacks. He’s productive and continuing to grow as a leader and late-game threat. Other notable 17s: Jason Campbell, Redskins; Jake Delhomme, Panthers

18 – Peyton Manning, Colts – There’s no question here that Manning is by far the best 18 not only at quarterback but at any position in the league. No player is doing more to elevate his team this season than Manning, who is carrying his team to the top of the pack once again.

19 – NONE – No quarterbacks are wearing 19 this year either. Apparently young QBs need to see more Johnny Unitas highlights.

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Wild Wideout Wednesday

Two huge news items regarding NFL wide receivers Wednesday. San Francisco and first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree finally agreed to a contract, ending the last holdout from this year’s NFL draft. Then the Browns traded WR Braylon Edwards to the Jets for WR Chansi Stuckey, LB Jason Trusnick, and third- and fifth-round draft picks. Here are some thoughts on both moves, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective

On-field perspective

Many observers and analysts considered Crabtree the best receiver in this year’s draft (including Crabtree himself), but the Raiders took Darrius Heyward-Bey over Crabtree with the seventh pick. Crabtree went 10th the 49ers but continued to insist he deserved to be paid as the top receiver entering the league this year. That led to a stalemate between the Niners and Crabtree, with the would-be rookie threatening to sit out the entire season. But with the Niners coming on, Crabtree came on board and signed a six-year contract in which the final year is voidable. It will take Crabtree time to learn the offense, but later this season he could be an impactful addition to the Niners’ playoff push. His route-running and run-after-the-catch ability meshes well with QB Shaun Hill’s accuracy, and that could create more big plays than the Niners’ offense is currently capable of. It remains to be seen how long it will take Crabtree to become a good pro, but it seems safe to say that he will become a good NFL player at some point.

Edwards, a former top-3 draft pick, only had one season in which he fully lived up to his potential in Cleveland. In that season, 2007, he was a big-time receiving threat with 80 catches for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs. He has great size and speed, but his hands are sometimes questionable. That was certainly the case last year, when he fell to 55 catches for 873 yards and three scores. Edwards also was reportedly unhappy in Cleveland, and Chris Mortenson tweeted that Edwards was the source behind many of the “problems” and “grievances” that had been filed against head coach Eric Mangini. Because Edwards wasn’t on board, Mangini and the Browns dealt him away – just as they dealt away their other top offensive playmaker, Kellen Winslow, in the offseason. With Edwards gone, the Browns will have to rely on rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi to step up as receivers. Chansi Stuckey, the third or fourth receiver with the Jets who came over in the trade, could help, but he’s not a long-term answer. In addition to Stuckey, the Browns got special-teams stalwart Jason Trusnick and third- and fifth-round picks. That’s not great return for Edwards, who might have drawn a first-rounder from the Giants or Titans before the draft if Cleveland had traded him then. This is another example of Mangini assigning more value to guys he previously coached and getting inadequate value in a trade – just as he did in the Mark Sanchez draft-day deal. For the Jets, this deal could answer their biggest question – an outside receiving threat. Jerricho Cotchery has been good, but he’s more of a possession guy than a gamebreaker. Having Edwards and Cotchery, along with TE Dustin Keller, gives the Jets a chance to build a passing game around rookie QB Sanchez. Edwards longed for the spotlight of a big city like New York, but we’ll have to see if he can perform at a level to make that spotlight shine instead of glare. If he continues dropping passes frequently, he could get run out of the Meadowlands in an ugly scene. But at this price, the trade is a no-brainer for the Jets, who have a chance to build a special offense.

Fantasy Football perspective

Crabtree is not a great prospect for this year, because it will take him at least a month or two to adjust to the offense. If you’re in a keeper league, he’s worth a speculative claim. His presence also bumps Shaun Hill’s value up just a bit.

The Edwards deal has many more fantasy football ripples. Edwards has about the same value with the Jets as he had in Cleveland, although it would be no surprise if his numbers jumped a bit because he’s happier in the system. He’s still a marginal starting receiver in 10- or 12-team leagues. Cotchery, who had become a solid fantasy starter, will likely take a step back to being a No. 3 fantasy receiver, because Edwards will take away some targets. Sanchez’s value increases a bit, but he’s still a fantasy backup, not a starter. In Cleveland, whatever sleeper value Derek Anderson had takes a hit, simply because he doesn’t have many good options to throw to. The best might be Massaquoi, who had 8 catches for 148 yards last week after Anderson entered the lineup. He and Robiskie are the upside guys who are probably worth claiming this week as the receiving corps sorts itself out. Josh Cribbs, the returner extraordinare, could find a few more plays as well, which could make him an emergency fill-in. Stuckey, like Mike Furrey, is an OK receiver on the field who doesn’t have real fantasy value.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week One

Each Monday, we’ll look at 3 teams that are rising, sinking, and floating in our Football Relativity comparison. We’ll update the full comparison tomorrow.

Rise – San Francisco 49ers – At the last minute, I put the 49ers in the playoffs in my season predictions. That was a statement about their competitiveness and also their division. But now I’m wondering if I should have put them above the Cardinals in the NFC West. The Niners are a tough team with a solid quarterback in Shaun Hill, and they’re going to be a tough out each and every week. Mike Singletary’s club is on the way to a solid season.

Sink – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were the club I removed from the playoffs to put the Niners in. I thought the Panthers would remain competitive as long as Jake Delhomme didn’t melt down like he did in the playoffs last year. But Delhomme repeated his collapse with four picks and a fumble, and that squashed the Panthers’ hopes. Now I believe that either the Panthers are done or Delhomme is. It needs to be the latter.

Float – New Orleans Saints – Everyone was going crazy over Drew Brees’ 6-TD performance, and with good reason. But giving up 27 points to Detroit did nothing to alleviate my concerns about their defense. They won’t shoot up the comparison until we see better things from that unit.

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Draft recap

For the past 15 years, I’ve taken part in the CFFL. I’ve written about this long-time league in the pages of Pro Football Weekly, and now I’m going to write here. I thought that maybe my thoughts on my draft in this 12-team league would be instructive about drafting philosophy and value.

In this 12-team league, I drafted No. 6 overall, so I was in the middle of every round. The league gives scoring for touchdowns and yardage points every 30 yards rushing/receiving and every 50 yards passing. I think this draft is good because there aren’t a lot of wasted pick. Because everyone knows what he’s doing, it’s a good test of drafting skill and strategy.

First round – RB Matt Forte, Bears (6th overall)
I was thrilled to get Forte in the first, given that he was one of five Tier 1A players on that list. I was afraid that pick was going to be Chris Johnson or Slaton, neither of whom is dependable enough for me despite their potential. Forte is dependable and productive.

Second round – WR Greg Jennings, Packers (19th overall)
In the second, I felt like I needed a top-8 receiver, and I went with Jennings over Steve Smith. I haven’t loved Jennings in the past, but his numbers are good, and I believe in QB Aaron Rodgers, so it made sense there as well. Jennings probably has less downside that Smith too because he doesn’t rely on Jake Delhomme to get him the ball.

Third round – RB Thomas Jones, Jets (30th overall)
Jones in the 3rd was a solid but unspectacular. I was hoping Ryan Grant got there, but he didn’t, so I took the best back on that tier that I could. The other option at this point was Darren McFadden, but I figured Jones was probably safer to produce.

Fourth round – WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seahawks (43rd overall)
Houshmandzadeh was just before a tier dropoff, so I felt like that was a wise pick at this point. I don’t have the sexiest receivers, but I do have two guys I should be able to start every week, so that’s good, especially given how the receiver position really drops off after the first 15 guys or so.

Fifth round – RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (54th overall)
Stewart in the fifth seemed like value to me. If he does what he did last year (800 yards and 10 touchdowns) he has flex value, and there’s upside if the role becomes closer to 50-50 than it was last year.

Sixth round – QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals (67th overall)
I don’t love Warner as a top-4 QB because of the injury risk, but he was the 7th QB taken, and at this point I felt like the value was too good to pass up, especially given who the other QB options on the board were. If Warner does anything close to what he did last year, like even 80 percent of his numbers, I’m in good shape given this draft position.

Seventh round – WR Lance Moore, Saints (78th overall)
Lance Moore is a guy I like as a top-30 receiver, and I felt like he was good value here. I think given my first two wideouts, Moore is a quality No. 3 receiver.

Eighth round – RB Leon Washington, Jets (91st overall )
Leon Washington was a little bit of a reach, but he protects Jones and has some value on his own as a flex option too. Strangely, the best-case scenario for my team may be if Jones gets hurt or gets benched and Washington becomes a 1200-yard, 12 TD guy. That would be OK with me, but with Jones and Washington I should have a decent chance of having a top-15 back in the end. Given the fact that I was drafting in the middle of rounds, that’s a good result.

Ninth round – TE Greg Olsen, Bears (102nd overall)
Olsen is a guy with big upside. I think 800 yards and 8 TDs is possible, and so I wanted to take that shot on him as a backup receiver. This league doesn’t force us to start a tight end, so I think there’s value in Olsen as a receiver strictly. As I refined my draft bard, Olsen ended up No. 5 on my tight end list, above guys like Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels.

Tenth round – RB Glen Coffee, 49ers (115th overall)
This is a flier. Coffee is a promising back without a lot of opportunity right now. If he gets a chance, whether by injury to Frank Gore or some other way, he’ll deliver. That’s worth a bench spot.

Eleventh round – WR Steve Smith, Giants (126th overall)
Steve Smith (NYG) is just a guy at receiver, but he is decent depth. Given the fact that I took chances on Moore and Olsen, I felt like taking a safer guy who can deliver a couple of yardage points in an emergency was smart.

Twelfth round – PK John Carney, Saints (139th overall)
Carney may not be the kicker in New Orleans all year, but he’s got the first four games, and with that offense he’ll score. I’ll make a change later if needed, but give me a kicker with a good offense now and I’m good. I took a kicker earlier than usual, but I felt like there were a bunch of WR options left, and I thought any backup QB left was about the same.

Thirteenth round – WR Josh Morgan, 49ers (150th overall)
Morgan could end up being the No. 1 receiver in San Francisco. I figured he was worth a shot here just in case he steps up in a major way.

Fourteenth round – San Diego defense (163rd overall)
I waited on defenses and am happy with the result. With Shawne Merriman back and the addition of Larry English, the Chargers will create a lot of sacks, which to me is the biggest cause of turnovers. Plus, I get Antonio Cromartie’s returns, which is a good thing. I like this pick but will be willing to play waiver-wire defenses throughout the season.

Fifteenth round – QB Shaun Hill, 49ers (174th pick)
I have no idea why i suddenly went 49er-crazy at the end with Coffee, Morgan, and Hill, but those guys do have upside. Hill could be a top-15 QB if he keeps that job, so I figured I’d take a shot at upside. Still, because I waited, backup QB is a spot I may look to upgrade via trade or on the waiver wire.

 
I don’t love my team, but I like it, and I feel like I made smart picks. Just ended up with more old guys than I would prefer. We’ll see how it plays out

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