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Finding a Fit: Matt Hasselbeck

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

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

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

Matt Hasselbeck, via seahawksgab.com

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

Potential Fits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best fits

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

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

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

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FR: NFL 2010 Head Coaching Vacancies

Jason Garrett

Image via Wikipedia

The coaching carousel started spinning early this year, but now that the season’s over we want to compare all of the NFL head-coaching vacancies. We’ll do this using our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 marking the most attractive vacancy and 1 the least attractive. We’ll add in vacancies as they become available.

10 – Dallas Cowboys – Dealing with Jerry Jones, the league’s most involved (or is it meddlesome?) owner, is no picnic, but the Cowboys have a lot going right for coaching candidates. Tony Romo is an above-average or even borderline Pro Bowl quarterback, and the team is in good shape at the skill positions on offense and the front seven on defense. OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and NT Jay Ratliff are premium players on D, and on offense TE Jason Witten and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin provide the kind of star power that most teams don’t have. The new coach (which is apparently going to be Jason Garrett, held over after going 5-3 as an interim coach) will have to rebuild the offensive line and the defensive secondary, but having a specific hit list indicates that the roster on the whole is in decent shape. Plus, Jones has deep pockets and isn’t afraid to spend to acquire talent. Maybe Jones as GM would scare off some candidates, but Dallas is definitely a plum job for Garrett.

9 – none

8 – none

7 – Carolina Panthers – The Panthers fell apart in their final season under John Fox, and quarterback issues were to blame. Carolina believed that Matt Moore’s two successful late-season fill-in stints predicted success, but Moore failed, as did rookie Jimmy Clausen. As a result, the Panthers’ youth-is-served season flopped. But Carolina has the No. 1 overall pick, which could allow a new coach to build with a franchise quarterback, a la Steve Spagnuolo and Sam Bradford in St. Louis. A rookie QB would have a solid offensive line anchored by C Ryan Kalil and Pro Bowl OLT Jordan Gross, a stud receiver in Steve Smith, and a first-rate running game. While the passing game needs a lot more depth behind Smith, the situation is at least as good as what Bradford stepped into. On defense, the Panthers have a terrific player in MLB Jon Beason and other young and emerging guys such as DE Charles Johnson. All that is to say that the cupboard isn’t bare. The organization is respected around the league, and owner Jerry Richardson has traditionally provided everything a coach wanted – as long as a lockout wasn’t looming. Carolina likely will look for a younger coach, and whoever gets the gig will have a pretty good first shot at head-coaching success.

6 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are a team at a crossroads. Just two years ago, the Vikings had a raft of Pro Bowlers, but the team appears to be passing its peak as a whole. Guys like OG Steve Hutchinson and OLT Bryant McKinnie are declining, and DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams and CB Antoine Winfield may be cresting the hill as well. With RB Adrian Peterson and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings do have young, dangerous skill-position threats, but quarterback is a major question mark, even with rookie Joe Webb’s performance lately. The Vikings may have a year or two more of contention before a complete rebuild is necessary on the field, but that’s coming. Plus, the team’s stadium situation is bad, and a move could be in the offing. So while there’s talent in Minnesota, there are a ton of questions as well. They have kept Leslie Frazier, who went 3-3 as an interim coach. The interim-coach tag hasn’t been a harbinger of future success, but Frazier has been a top candidate for years, and he should be a good hire for the Vikings.

5 – Cleveland Browns – The Browns flushed Eric Mangini following his second straight 5-11 season with the team. Mangini’s team played hard, but it didn’t have enough playmakers, especially on offense. RB Peyton Hillis is a force, and he runs behind a solid offensive line led by OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. And Mangini transitioned the Browns to a 3-4 defense that had some punch, thanks to underrated finds like LBs Marcus Benard and Matt Roth. Rookie CB Joe Haden and S T.J. Ward had good seasons as well. So the Browns are better off now than they were two years ago. The new coach must upgrade the offensive punch, though, so that Cleveland goes from feisty to dangerous. The big question the new coach must answer is whether Colt McCoy is the future of the franchise at quarterback. If he is, an offense built around accuracy with upgraded targets outside is the answer. But if McCoy isn’t the answer, the rebuilding project looks much tougher. Team president Mike Holmgren also looms, and rumors persist that he wants to coach again. That shadow may be too large for some coaches. Cleveland isn’t a perfect job, but it isn’t a talent wasteland either.

4 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers suffered under Mike Singletary, who was a better motivator than plan-maker. That was especially true at quarterback, as the Niners vacillitated between Alex and Troy Smith. Neither is a long-term answer, and that’s the biggest problem in San Francisco. The offensive line is well stocked, as rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis started the whole year, but the skill positions are not. TE Vernon Davis is a legitimate weapon, and RB Frank Gore is proven but has a lot of miles on his tires. WR Michael Crabtree is a talent whose full potential is yet to be unlocked. But while questions persist on offense, on defense the Niners have a strong identity thanks to a 3-4 defense led by Patrick Willis. The cornerback position isn’t up to par, but a lot of pieces are in place.  The fact that the organization is unsettled with a new GM likely headed in is a mixed blessing; if the coach and GM work together like Atlanta’s group, for example, then starting completely over is the way to go. But coach and front office pulling in different directions would be a recipe for disaster. San Francisco has some appealing pieces, but they haven’t yet fit together, and without a long-term answer at quarterback it’s hard to see things melding quickly. That will be the pressing challenge for the new coach.

3 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels didn’t just fail as a coach in Denver; he failed as an organizational leader with a plan. As a result, the Broncos’ wagon is hitched to Tim Tebow, and the team is missing draft picks because of trades for failed players like Laurence Maroney and Brady Quinn. Denver is a mess, and the new head coach will need significant front-office help to turn things around. Holdover QB Kyle Orton can play at an above-average level, and Tebow has unique skills that a coach could potentially develop. And the receiving corps has Brandon Lloyd, who broke out this year, and promising rookie Demaryius Thomas. Knowshon Moreno is also an asset if he can stay healthy, and the offensive line is in decent shape. But the defense is a complete mess, never making the transition to a 3-4. The secondary is full of older players like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins who won’t be able to perform at their traditional level for many more years. Denver ownership traditionally gives head coaches carte blance, but that came back to bite the Broncos with McDaniels, leaving a mess for the next coach. A defensive guru is probably the best fit, given the team’s massive needs on that side of the ball.

2 – Oakland Raiders – Tom Cable’s contract expires, and signs right now are that Al Davis will not exercise the option to keep him. That’s surprising, because Cable was able to lead the Raiders to finally snap a long string of double-digit-loss seasons this year. Cable went 8-8, running the table in the AFC West in the process. Oakland finally established an identity here as a rushing team behind Darren McFadden, who finally realized his potential, and Michael Bush. And the Raiders have a solid group of young receivers, led by Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and Zach Miller, despite the fact that ’09 first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey has been a disappointment. Jason Campbell is an average quarterback who can succeed with a strong running game. And on defense, the additions of Kamerion Wimbley and Richard Seymour in recent years has added punch to the pass rush that was much needed. Rookies Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston were big hits in their first years. And Nnamdi Asomugha is still one of the league’s best corners. So the Raiders finally have the arrow pointed upward, despite an inconsistent organization that vacilitates based on Davis’ whims. Cable is succeeding in it, as did Jon Gruden a decade ago, but the situation is not for everyone. That’s what gives Cable a chance of sticking around even after hanging in the wind.

1 – Cincinnati Bengals – Marvin Lewis’ contract expired in Cincinnati, and while it appears that he will stay in town, we included the Bengals. Lewis is apparently willing to walk away over some of the cost-saving ways in the dysfunctional land of the Bengals, most notably an indoor practice facility and the razor-slim scouting staff. It’s unclear whether those issues will be addressed to Lewis’ satisfaction. Cincinnati has talent on the roster, but that’s largely because they take character risks more often than just about any other team in the draft, not because of good scouting. As a result, when things are good on the field, the Bengals can keep the ball rolling, but when things go south, things fall apart quickly. It’s hard to imagine a coach changing that culture immediately, especially since owner/GM Mike Brown is set in his ways. Plus, Brown tends to be cheap off the field, which makes the working environment less appealing than in other places. Still, the roster offers hope. QB Carson Palmer hasn’t had his best year, but he’s still got a strong arm, and he can be a solution instead of a problem in the right system. And while the Bengals don’t have a ton of stars (aside from diva receivas Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who’s a free agent), they have a plethora of above-average players all around the field. A coach won’t get the control he craves in Cincinnati, but it’s possible to win there. The real challenge is to build consistency from year to year with a fragile locker room.

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A big Little, and other Week 15 transactions

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

The highlight transaction of the week came from a player who didn’t even see the field in 2010 – Rams DE Leonard Little, who retired on Wednesday. Little spent his entire 12-year career with the Rams, piling up 87.5 sacks. While he is primarily known for a drunk-driving incident in his second season that killed a woman, Little remained a Ram throughout his career. He was on the Rams’ Super Bowl winner in 1999 and made a Pro Bowl in 2003, which was one of his double-digit sack seasons. he didn’t play in 2010 and let the Rams know in December that he was hanging up his cleats after a solid career. You can compare Little’s career to the careers of other 2010 retirees in this updated post.

In this week’s other transactions…

Giants (put WR Steve Smith and LB Clint Sintim on injured reserve) – Smith, who has been battling a left knee injury, had to finally give up the ghost and go on injured reserve. It’s a loss to the Giants, but with Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham returning to health, at least it comes at a position of strength. Sintim is out for the rest of the season with a torn right ACL.

Vikings (put QB Tarvaris Jackson on injured reserve, add QB Patrick Ramsey) – Jackson suffered turf toe in his first start of the season Monday againts the Giants, and that injury ends not only his season but likely his Vikings tenure. Jackson has talent but has never been consistent enough to be a reliable starter. He could be a high-end backup QB somewhere in 2011, though. Ramsey comes on board to give the Vikings an emergency QB behind the injured Brett Favre and rookie Joe Webb.

Eagles (put DE Brandon Graham on injured reserve, add DE Derrick Burgess) – Graham, the Eagles’ first-round pick out of Michigan, suffered a torn right ACL last week. To replace him, the Eagles bring back Burgess, who spent the first four years of his career as an Eagle. Burgess can still provide a bit of pass-rush pop on occasion and should be a nice fit in a limited role.

Dolphins (put OT Vernon Carey on injured reserve, add WR Kevin Curtis) – Carey, the Dolphins’ standout right tackle, is out with a knee injury. Curtis, the former Ram and Eagle, missed most of the season coming back from testicular cancer that was diagnosed late in the summer. Here’s hoping he completes his comeback with solid play down the stretch.

Texans (put DE Mario Williams on injured reserve, add DE Jarvis Green) – The Texans set down Williams, whose injury recover has been too slow to make it back this season. Green, a long-time Patriot most recently with the Broncos, fills his roster spot.

Titans (put C Eugene Amano and DT Tony Brown on injured reserve) – The bad gets worse in Tennessee, as the Titans lose two starters for the rest of the year.

Redskins (cut P Hunter Smith, add P Sam Paulescu) – Smith, a veteran punter who botched a potential game-tying extra point last Sunday against Tampa Bay, was released in favor of Paulescu. Smith had a lot of good seasons with the Colts, but as a Redskin his punting distance faded as he aged. So it makes sense for the Redskins to bring in a younger guy in Paulescu to see if he can handle the job. Paulescu has punted for four teams, most notably in a 10-game stint with the Cowboys.

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Jaguars/Giants thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. We already focused on the Thanksgiving Day games; now we turn our attention to the Giants’ 24-20 come-from-behind victory over the Jaguars.

The Jaguars, who had won three straight coming into the game, seemed to have this game under their control until a third-quarter interception gave the Giants new life. The win was huge for the Giants, who broke a two-game losing streak and some of the echoes of their recent late-season swoons, and it’s a big lost opportunity for the Jaguars as they try to unseat the Colts in the AFC South. After an extended look at the Jaguars, we don’t know if they’re a good team, but we’re certain they’re an above-average squad that has the potential to win nine games or more.

Mario Manningham scores for the Giants, via espn.com

On-field Perspective
*The Giants were playing without WRs Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks, but they still got big plays in the passing game from Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss. Eli Manning has a knack for making big plays in the clutch, and his two second-half TD passes were another example of that. Manning isn’t always clockwork efficient, but he tends to make the right play in the clutch, which is a great trait for a quarterback.
*The Giants didn’t create a massive pass rush for most of the game, although Justin Tuck and rookie Jason Pierre-Paul made some big plays late when the Giants started blitzing heavily. Still, the lack of a consistent pass rush is a question mark, since the Giants’ strong suit is supposed to be its front four. That question mark looms even larger because, by and large, the Giants weren’t able to exploit a Jaguars line playing without both starting tackles.
*Jaguars QB David Garrard is not a consistent passer, but he remains a threat to make plays with his legs, as he did on his incredible second-quarter touchdown. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, Garrard’s consistency waned in the second half, as an errant throw led to a Mike Sims-Walker bobble, which led to a Terrell Thomas interception. Garrard finished just 20-of-35, and he may have suffered a wrist injury on the final drive.
*Jacksonville has a fairly deep receiving corps, but Sims-Walker is inconsistent, and Mike Thomas’ only breakaway play was brought back by a penalty. We wondered why the Jaguars claimed ex-49er Jason Hill on waivers, but given Hill’s size we wonder if they’re trying to replace or at least inspire Sims-Walker to play with more consistency and reliability. MSW had a three-drop game in this one, and that kind of effort from him is far too familiar for the Jags.
*While the Jaguars’ passing game wasn’t sterling, their running game was. Maurice Jones-Drew (21 carries, 113 yards) kept the Jags in front of the chains, and backup Rashad Jennings (7 carries, 53 yards) did a good job, especially in the first half. Both guys are assets.
*As for the Giants’ runners, Brandon Jacobs (14 carries, 87 yards) looked better in this game than we’ve seen him in a while. Still, Ahmad Bradshaw (49 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards) is the breakaway threat who can also move the chains for the Giants, and despite his fumbling issues, we believe he should be getting more carries.
*Antrel Rolle was one of the Giants’ high-profile defensive additions in the offseason, but he was unnoticeable against the run and in pass coverage in this game. He did make a couple of nice plays on the blitz, including one shared sack with Tuck, but the Giants need more out of Rolle given his high price tag.
*Ross Tucker praised Jaguars rookie DT Tyson Alualu’s play, but no other Jaguars defenders really popped off the screen. The most impressive was probably LB Justin Durant, who had seven tackles and two passes defensed and was the one Jaguar we saw winning plays.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*Despite this game, we don’t believe that Jacobs is anything more than a flex option going forward. His 87-yard performance is pretty much the apex of what you can expect from him yardage-wise given Bradshaw’s consistency.
*Garrard isn’t consistent enough to trust as a fantasy QB. He has the potential to have big games, but he’s also going to hang around in this area (162 passing yards, 41 rushing yards, rushing TD) too often to help you win.
*Manningham is a fantasy starter as long as Smith and/or Nicks is out. Right now, he’s the only Giant wideout you can trust in your lineup.

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Panthers/Rams Thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Given the paucity of top-level matchups this week, we turned our attention to St. Louis, because we wanted to see with our own eyes how the Rams’ rebuilding project is going. The Rams continued their strong home play in their 20-10 victory over the Panthers. St. Louis is now 4-4, including a 4-1 record at the Edward Jones Dome. We’ll focus our on-field thoughts on the Rams, since the Panthers are completely out of any sort of contention, but we will include some Panthers thoughts for fantasy football owners.

Rams LB James Laurinaitis returns an interception. Photo via espn.com

On-field perspective
*Sam Bradford is obviously the keystone of the Rams’ reclamation project, and he looked good in this game. He completed a high percentage of passes (25-of-32), and he avoided throwing an interception for the third straight game, although most of his throws were short passes or checkdowns. Part of the reason for that is that the Rams lack real breakaway receiving threats after injuries sidelined WRs Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton, while part of it is to protect Bradford and keep his confidence high. But Bradford did flash a big arm on a 33-yard out pattern to Brandon Gibson, and as he gets more comfortable at the NFL level we should see more intermediate and long passes from him. For now, though, the Rams have to be happy with Bradford’s development over the first half of his first season.
*The Rams’ defense is also developing impressively. Second-year MLB James Laurinaitis (pictured) had both an interception and a sack while also doing his normal yeoman work as a tackler.
*We were also impressed by fourth-year SS Craig Dahl, who forced a fumble and made his share of plays in coverage. Dahl, like fellow safety James Butler and DT Fred Robbins, played for Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo when he was a coordinator for the Giants, and they are helping Spagnuolo instill his kind of defense. With those vets and talented plays like DE Chris Long, CB Ron Bartell, and S O.J. Atogwe, the Rams have the building blocks for a solid defense.
*You have to love Steven Jackson’s willingness to play for the Rams despite a broken finger. Jackson is a tough runner and proved to be a tough player in this one. While Jackson only ran for 58 yards, his toughness and leadership are beyond question, and they left an impression on a young team that still has a chance in the mediocre NFC West.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Jackson is the only Ram who’s a consistent starter for fantasy purposes. If we had to choose a second option, we’d go with WR Danny Amendola, who had six catches and a touchdown. Amendola is an underneath option, which is why he averaged less than five yards a catch in this game, but he’s a decent bet to get in the end zone for the Rams, as he has two games in a row. Gibson, who had six catches for 67 yards, probably has the most potential of the current Rams’ wideouts, and he may be worth a speculative claim at this point.
*Bradford, meanwhile, is not a fantasy option despite throwing two touchdowns in this game. Because his yardage totals are so low, he’s very TD dependent, and the 20 points St. Louis scored in this game will likely be the normal output. In a keeper league, claim away, but for this year Bradford will find it hard to crack the top 20 among fantasy QBs.
*For the Panthers, Jonathan Stewart had a chance to prove his fantasy mettle with DeAngelo Williams sidelined, but Stewart struggled, averaging just over two yards per carry and finishing with just 38 yards from scrimmage. If Stewart can’t perform with Williams out, fantasy owners really don’t need to expect him to provide much if anything once Williams returns. After this game, we feel comfortable saying that Stewart is droppable in normal sized leagues of 12 teams or less. Given the Panthers’ struggles, WR Steve Smith is the only player worth being a fantasy starter, at least until Williams gets healthy.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 7

Week 7 featured many breakout fantasy performances. So which ones are signs of things to come, and which are merely one-week flukes? That’s the question we’re trying to figure out in Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud. As always, with each verdict we’ll provide context so that you know what it means.

Darren McFadden scores (again) against the Broncos. Photo via espn.com

Quarterbacks

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Since taking over as the Bills’ starter, Fitzpatrick has thrown for two touchdowns or more in all four starts. He had a huge game against the Ravens with four TD passes and 374 yards. He’s a little bit of a risk as a starter because he has two two-interception games and has thrown for less than 250 yards in his other three starts, but if you’re looking for a backup or for a fill-in starter, Fitzpatrick is a solid guy to take a risk on. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Moore, Panthers – Moore, who retook the Panthers’ starting QB job over the bye week, delivered 308 passing yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers’ first win of the year. But we need to see Moore deliver more often before we buy into him as a quality fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers – Blount was the Buccaneers’ leading rusher against the Rams with 72 yards, and he had 11 carries to four for Cadillac Williams. This may be the sign that the undrafted rookie out of Oregon has surpassed Williams on the depth chart. Regardless, this is the week to claim Blount, because he won’t be available for long. Verdict: Applaud

Darren McFadden, Raiders – McFadden was questionable entering the game after missing the last two games, but he returned with a vengeance, scoring four touchdowns in the Raiders’ rout of the Broncos in Denver. McFadden ran for 165 yards and had 31 receiving yards, and he immediately took over for Michael Bush as the Raiders’ feature back. He looks like a top-15 fantasy back if he can stay healthy the rest of the year. Verdict: Applaud

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – In the midst of the Broncos’ debacle against the Raiders, Moreno scored two touchdowns as a receiver and had 90 yards from scrimmage. The Broncos aren’t using Moreno enough to make him a top-20 fantasy back, but he should get enough chances to be a solid flex play most weeks. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Kenny Britt scores (again) against the Eagles. Photo via espn.com

Davone Bess, Dolphins – Bess had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. He’s now scored in three straight games, and he’s had at least five catches in five of six games this year. He’s a dependable fantasy starter in leagues where you start three wideouts or in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – Two weeks ago, we rated Bowe a fraud after a drop-filled game against the Colts. But Bowe has stepped up since then, and this week he had six catches for 53 yards and two touchdowns. Suddenly, he’s playing like a No. 1 receiver for the Chiefs, and that performance has made him a solid fantasy starter. Bowe is still a little bit of a risk because his inconsistency, but he’s also a high-reward play. That makes him worth starting. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt sat out the first quarter against the Eagles after a Friday morning bar fight, but he made up for lost time with seven catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He’s scored in five straight games, and despite some immaturity he’s emerging as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Titans. He needs to be in your starting lineup every week. Verdict: Applaud

Lee Evans, Bills – Evans didn’t have as many yards as teammate Steve Johnson (see below), but he did have 105 yards and three touchdowns against the Ravens. The seventh-year veteran, who has spent his entire career out of the spotlight in Buffalo, has scored the last two weeks, and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s presence has given all of Buffalo’s targets a little more potential. But we prefer Johnson to Evans at this point, making Evans a decent flex play during bye weeks but not much more. Verdict: A fraud

David Gettis, Panthers – Gettis had just 10 catches entering Sunday’s game, but he went nuts against the 49ers with eight catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. Gettis is a big, rangy receiver, and he seems to have surpassed fellow rookie Brandon LaFell (six catches, 91 yards) as the Panthers’ No. 2 receiver. And with Matt Moore returning as starting quarterback, the Panthers had passing-game success for the first time all year. But there hasn’t been much value in the Panthers’ offense aside from Steve Smith this season, so going crazy over Gettis isn’t wise. He’s only a pick-up in leagues with 14 teams or more. Verdict: A fraud

Steve Johnson, Bills – Johnson had eight catches for 158 yards and a score against the Ravens, and since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over as the Bills’ starter, Johnson has scored in every game. Not only is he a pick up – right now he should be a starter for your team. Verdict: Applaud

Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – In our Bengals/Falcons game thoughts, we talked about how both Owens and Ochocinco are decent second receivers in 12-team or larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – We discussed in our Bengals/Falcons game thoughts why Gonzalez is no longer a fantasy starter at tight end. Verdict: A fraud

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Week 5 & 6 Transactions

Shawne Merriman during the Chargers vs. 49ers ...

Image via Wikipedia

Each week we share insights, analysis, and opinions of the week’s transactions. Since we were out of town and unable to post at the end of this week, we’re giving you a double helping this week. To see previous posts, click here and start working back. 

By far, the most significant transaction was also the most arcane. By placing OLB Shawne Merriman on a unique injured reserve list, the Chargers basically cut the three-time Pro Bowler. Merriman won defensive rookie of the year honors and was dominant for the first three years of his career, but a knee injury in 2008 sidelined him for all but one game, and he hasn’t been the same since. “Lights out” had 39 1/2 sacks in his first three seasons but has just four sacks since his knee problem. That plummeting productivity, plus Merriman’s well publicized contract disputes and off-field issues, made him a pariah in San Diego. So this move fits with GM A.J. Smith’s scorched-earth negotiating and roster-management tactics. Still, it’s stunning to see such a whimpering end for Merriman in San Diego after he had such a dominant and exhilarating start to his career.

Chargers (add S Tyrone Carter and OLB Antwan Barnes, put OLB Shawne Merriman on injured reserve) – With Steve Gregory suspended, the Chargers added veteran safety Carter, who provides a veteran insurance policy in case Paul Oliver can’t hack it as a starter. Barnes, whom the Eagles traded for this offseason, got cut there, but he seems to fit a 3-4 defense like the Chargers run . He’ll fill Merriman’s roster spot.

Bears (add DE Charles Grant) – The Bears added Grant, the former Saint who couldn’t catch on with the Dolphins in the preseason and was playing in the UFL. Grant is a sturdy end who has provided pass rush in the past, and if he’s ready to play he could provide presence across from Julius Peppers. Grant replaces Mark Anderson, a rookie sack sensation who hasn’t done much since.

Texans (add DE Mark Anderson) – Anderson didn’t stay unemployed long, as he was snapped up by the Texans. Anderson has showed potential, but he needs to deliver. Houston helps a change of scenery will help him become a productive backup behind Mario Williams, Antonio Smith, and Adewale Ogunleye.

Panthers (claim WRs David Clowney and Devin Thomas on waivers, cut WR Dwayne Jarrett) – The Panthers finally cut ties with former second-round pick Jarrett, who was a bust on the field, after he was arrested for a second DWI. In his place, they added Thomas, whom the Redskins gave up on as a second-round bust, and Clowney, who got cut in a numbers game with the Jets. Like Jarrett, Thomas is a big target, but Thomas has more speed, and for a receiver-poor team like the Panthers he’s worth a shot. Clowney is probably more of a third or fourth receiver, but he’s good enough to add depth to a team whose only proven wide receiver, Steve Smith, is out with injury right now.

Saints (add RB Julius Jones, cut RB DeShawn Wynn) – With injuries keeping Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush out, the Saints added Jones in Week 6. (Jones had been released by the Seahawks when they acquired Marshawn Lynch.) Jones replaced DeShawn Wynn and joined Ladell Betts in a fill-in backfield. Jones isn’t a special back, but he at least gets what’s there and provides a bit of a physical threat.

Rams (promote WR Danario Alexander) – With Mark Clayton now out for the year, the Rams promoted Alexander to add depth at receiver. They have hopes that Alexander can develop into a contributor and not just a fill-in.

Colts (add S Aaron Francisco, WR Kenny Moore) – To address injuries, the Colts added two veterans. Francisco comes in to help fill in for Melvin Bullitt, who’s out for the year with injury. Bullitt was replacing Bob Sanders, so the Colts have tapped out their depth at strong safety. Moore helps fill in for injuries that are slowing Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, and Anthony Gonzalez.

Vikings (add CB Frank Walker) – The Vikings added Walker, a veteran who has bounced around the league, to provide depth after losing Cedric Griffin to another torn ACL.

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Panthers/Giants thoughts

Let’s talk about the season-opening contest between the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers, the first NFL game at the new Meadowlands Stadium. We’ll talk about it from an on-field perspective and from a fantasy football perspective. The Giants won a mistake-plagued game 31-18.

Hakeem Nicks 26-yard TD pass

Hakeem Nicks 26-yard TD catch. Photo from Newark Star-Ledger

On-Field Perspective
*The Giants are now a deep-passing team. The offense struggled to be efficient running the ball, but via the pass Eli Manning hit some big plays to Hakeem Nicks (including two long touchdowns), Mario Manningham, and Steve Smith. That’s not the way the Giants have traditionally played, but the way the Giants have built their team has enabled this to be the best way to move the ball.
*The Panthers’ offense moved at times with QB Matt Moore, but Moore also showed a lack of accuracy and poor decision-making. Moore threw three interceptions, and both of his second-half picks were of the blatant variety.

*The Panthers’ defense looked stronger up front than it was last year, despite the losses of stalwarts like Julius Peppers, Maake Kemeotau, and Damione Lewis. The front four is deep and young, and those guys make plays. It showed not just in pass rush but also in the way Carolina locked down the Giants’ running game in the first half.
*At linebacker, the Panthers are playing without Thomas Davis, but that injury has put Dan Connor into the lineup at middle linebacker. Connor can make some plays, as he proved with a first-half sack. He and Jon Beason are something to build around at that position.
*While the Panthers’ unheralded defensive front seven stepped up, Carolina’s pass defense struggled. Although FS Charles Godfrey two interceptions off tipped balls, he appeared to drop some assignments that led to big plays in the first half.
*The Giants’ pass rush needs to be back in full force this season if the team is going to contend, but the front four didn’t generate much pressure in the first half. In the second half, though, the Giants figured out how to get to Matt Moore, especially when the Panthers were in last-ditch-effort mode in the fourth quarter.
*The Giants’ secondary had three interceptions, including one by CB Terrell Thomas, who had a terrific game. Thomas looks to be an aggressive corner who can be a great fit in press coverage.
*Panthers rookie DE Greg Hardy is a player, and the punt he blocked in the fourth quarter that resulted in a safety and his forced fumble later in the period are  a sign of things to come for this impressive sixth-rounder.
*I’ve never seen a facemask like the one Giants DT Chris Canty wears. He must really not like being poked in the face.

Fantasy Football Perspective
*While the Giants have a deep receiving corps, Nicks is the player most likely to catch a deep pass. It should be no surprise that Nicks was on the receiving end of two long touchdowns in the first half. He looks like he’s moved into being a starting-caliber fantasy receiver in all leagues. Meanwhile, WR Mario Manningham (who had four catches for 85 yards) looks like he’s still going to have a pretty significant role and should be owned in leagues of 12-teams or more.
*New Panthers QB Moore isn’t going to put up monstrous numbers, and his turnover tendency in this start is distressing, but he’s proficient enough to help WR Steve Smith maintain his fantasy value. Smith is still a pretty safe bet to have 75 yards receiving most weeks, as he did in this one, and he’ll catch his share of touchdowns as well.
*Both Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs got their share of carries for the Giants, but it’s clear that Bradshaw’s role as a starter will mean he gets more touches. While the numbers weren’t there for Bradshaw in this game, going forward he retains far more fantasy value than Jacobs. Bradshaw had the longest run of the game, a 39-yarder, and also had a goal-line touchdown.
*With the Giants relying on their deep passing game more this season, Manning is going to make a run at the bottom half of the top 10 among fantasy quarterbacks. His production may be a little up and down because of how boom-and-bust long plays are, but Manning will have his share of long TD passes to buoy his fantasy stock.

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FR: 2010 NFL Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Starting wide receivers

Who do you trust? When it comes to fantasy football, trust is a huge issue. A dependable every-week starter is like gold, because he can limit lineup decisions, matchup questions, and heartburn.

In this post, we’re going to identify which wide receivers you can trust as starters on a weekly basis this year. This exercise will help us identify the top 15-20 players at the position. We’ve already identified three elite WRs and six more who are just below that level. Now we’re starting at WR 10 and seeing who’s dependable and who’s not. We’ll do this using our applaud or a fraud tool, and as we do, we’ll indicate whether receivers are a part of the bottom of Tier 2, Tier 3, or the top of Tier 4. Wideouts are listed alphabetically.

Anquan Boldin, Ravens – We assessed Boldin’s new situation in Baltimore in this post and said that his numbers will rise in ’09. Considering that he had 84 catches for 1,024 yards and five total touchdowns, that’s a big statement. But we expect Boldin to take over for Derrick Mason as the Ravens’ No. 1 option and to develop a nice rapport with maturing QB Joe Flacco. Boldin fits at the bottom of Tier 2 as a top-12 receiver in his new home in Baltimore. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After two solid seasons, Bowe had a star-crossed season last year, drawing a four-game suspension from the league at one point and falling out of favor with his own team at other times. At this point, Chris Chambers, not Bowe, may be the No. 1 receiving option in Arrowhead. That doesn’t mean that Chambers has more fantasy value than Bowe, but it does mean that Bowe slips to No. 3 fantasy receiver status. There’s just too much risk to depend on him for more than that. He’s a nice upside play at the bottom of Tier 3, but investing more is just too risky. Verdict: A fraud

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant is clearly the top rookie receiver, but is he a dependable starter for fantasy teams? With Miles Austin on board as an elite receiver, we see Bryant as more of a 60-catch, 800-yard receiver than a guy with huge numbers. Bryant’s explosive enough to score 8-10 touchdowns on that quantity of touches, but that’s a bit of a risky expectation. Bryant’s training camp ankle injury, which shouldn’t linger into the season, also adds to the risk because it could slow Bryant’s development. But we still like Dez’s upside. So slot Bryant in as a No. 3 fantasy receiver, not a starter, so that you can enjoy his upside instead of fretting about rookie inconsistency. Verdict: A fraud

Marques Colston, Saints – The only reason Colston doesn’t join the top-9 receivers is that he plays for an offense that spreads the ball around. Still, with 70 catches last year, Colston piled up 1,074 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite the presence of other threats like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, Colston is clearly the Saints’ best option, and that should translate to 70-75 catches again. With those numbers, he’ll once again produce plenty for fantasy owners to merit a top-12 spot  among fantasy receivers and a comfortable spot on Tier 2. Verdict: Applaud

Michael Crabtree, 49ers – A lengthy holdout kept Crabtree off the field for the first five games of his rookie season, but he still finished up with 48 catches for 625 yards and two scores. That 70-catch, 900-yard pace is quite impressive for a rookie. With a full year of training camp and offseason work under his belt, Crabtree should take a step forward and become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the 49ers. While Vernon Davis will remain a red-zone threat, Crabtree should develop into a 1,000-yard receiver who is a No. 2 fantasy receiver who has the upside to be even more. He slides onto the bottom of Tier 2 because of that upside. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Greg Jennings has surpassed Driver as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver, but Driver has still been in the 70-catch area the last two seasons in that role, and he’s proven he can be a 1,000-yard receiver in this situation. So expecting 1,000 yards and six touchdowns is wise, even as Driver enters his 12th pro season. Those numbers will put Driver on Tier 3 and make Driver a potential fantasy starter in leagues of 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – Harvin had a pretty remarkable rookie season. While we expected him to be a triple threat receiving, rushing, and returning (as he was), we didn’t expect him to be as polished a receiver as he proved to be. Brett Favre looked for Harvin in the red zone, leading to six touchdown catches (to go with two kickoff returns for scores). But the 60-catch, 790-yard receiving line was surprising, and it makes sense that Harvin will improve those numbers in his second season. Sidney Rice is still the best fantasy option in the Vikings’ receiving corps, but Harvin is a Tier 3 player with big upside. If you wanted to start Harvin in a 12-team league, we wouldn’t argue because of that potential. Verdict: Applaud

Santonio Holmes, Jets – We discussed Holmes’ new home in the Big Apple in this post, making the clear assertion that Holmes’ numbers will sink because of the four-game suspension he faces as the season opens. But it’s important for fantasy owners to remember that Holmes is coming off a terrific season with 79 catches for 1,248 yards and five touchdowns. He has come into his own as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for an NFL team, and he’ll have the chance to do that with the Jets. Once he gets on the field, he’ll put up fantasy starter numbers. That causes us to put him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Vincent Jackson, Chargers – Like Holmes, Jackson is also facing a suspension to begin the season, though his is just three games. But VJax is also threatening to hold out until the final six games of the season, which would obviously be a huge negative for fantasy owners. We’ll set the holdout issue aside for now as we evaluate him to show how clearly Jackson is a top-12 fantasy receiver. With 68 catches for 1,187 yards and nine touchdowns last season, Jackson proved he was a reliable fantasy starter who could anchor a fantasy receiving corps. Whenever Jackson returns to the field, he’ll be an automatic starter. He’s a Tier 2 receiver for now, but if the holdout issue isn’t rectified by the time you draft, move Jackson to the bottom of Tier 3 as a precaution. Still, he’s worth a draft pick no matter what his status is. Verdict: Applaud

Greg Jennings, Packers – After a phenomenal ’08 season, Jennings stepped back just a bit in ’09, going from 80 catches to 68 and from nine touchdowns to four. That limited Jennings’ fantasy impact, but he still was a valuable player with 1,113 yards. Despite that fall, we’re bullish on Jennings’ 2010 prospects, expecting him to put up starting-quality numbers on a weekly basis. We’re putting him on Tier 2 once again and expecting him to be a solid if not sure-fire fantasy starter in all leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – Ochocinco had a renaissance year in his first year with his new game, scoring nine touchdowns on 72 catches with 1,047 yards. Those numbers are more reasonable expectations for 8-5 than the 90-catch level he had for five years between ’03 and ’07. Even with Terrell Owens and rookie Jermaine Gresham in town, Ochocinco is still the Bengals’ best target, and he should hit 70 catches and 1,000 yards once again. There is some downside because of age and the targets around him, but Ochocinco is still a good investment at the top of Tier 3 as a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Terrell Owens, Bengals – While Ochocinco is a good bet in Cincy, T.O. isn’t as good an option for fantasy owners. Owens is starting to slow, and although his 55-catch 2009 season was partly a product of the Bills’ terrible quarterbacks, Owens’ decline was an issue as well. We expect Owens to be in the 55-60 catch area this year as well, and that means he’s a Tier 4 receiver and a backup for fantasy owners. Get your popcorn ready, but don’t try to make a full meal out of what should be a snack. Verdict: A fraud

Sidney Rice, Vikings – Back in the old days when I worked at Pro Football Weekly (the late 90s), traditional wisdom held that most receivers broke out as fantasy performers in their third season. That’s what Rice did, going from 46 catches in his first two years combined to a terrific 83-catch, 1,312-yard, eight-touchdown season. Rice is a big receiver who isn’t superfast but who has enough speed to get downfield, and he and Brett Favre developed a great rapport. Rice is the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver, and he’s a legitimate fantasy starter on Tier 2. With Rice and Percy Harvin, the Vikings are more set at wide receiver than they’ve been since the Cris Carter/Randy Moss glory years. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Sims-Walker emerged last year as Jacksonville’s top wideout, and his end-of-season numbers – 63 catches for 869 yards and seven scores – were great helps to fantasy owners. Aside from being made inactive on game day against Seattle, Sims-Walker was a dependable threat for the first two-thirds of the season. A warning sign, though, was the fact that he had two catches or fewer in four of his last five games. That inconsistency is enough for us to put Sims-Walker on Tier 3 instead of Tier 2, but we still believe he’s a good bet as a fantasy starter in leagues with 12 teams or more. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Giants – Like Sidney Rice, Smith was a third-year breakout player, putting up a whopping 107 catches for 1,220 yards with seven touchdowns. He emerged as the lead receiver in a talented Giants receiving corps that includes Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. Smith isn’t the biggest receiver, but his dependable hands make him a stalwart going forward, and that’s going to pay off for fantasy owners. While 100-plus catches is an outlier season, expecting 80 catches for 1,000 yards from Smith is safe, and that makes him a valuable fantasy starter atop Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Steve Smith, Panthers – The other Steve Smith had a down season in Carolina, although a lot of that was due to the horrendous quarterback play Jake Delhomme provided for most of the season. Still, Smith produced 65 catches for 982 yards and seven touchdowns. Now Smith must break in Matt Moore as his starting quarterback, and that could limit his numbers again. Plus, an offseason flag-football broken arm is hampering his offseason work. But despite all those issues, Smith is still a fantasy starter who should be in the 70-catch range with around 1,000 yards and 6-8 touchdowns. Draft him on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Hines Ward, Steelers – We addressed how the changing situation around Ward affects him in this post. What we can’t neglect to mention is how good Ward’s numbers were last season – 95 catches, 1,167 yards, six touchdowns. And now that Santonio Holmes is a Jet, Ward is once again the Steelers’ clear No. 1 receiver. That means Ward is a dependable fantasy option once again, at least once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. The fact that Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon will throw to Ward for the first month of the season keeps Ward off Tier 2, but we’ll include him on Tier 3 as an acceptable starter for fantasy owners. Figure on 80 catches for 1,000 yards and enjoy Ward’s production in your lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker has been a catch machine since joining the Patriots, and his 123-catch season last year was his third straight with more than 110. His 1,348 yards was a career high as well. Sure, Welker had only five touchdowns, but he was still a reliable point producer week after week for fantasy owners. Then came the injury, as Welker tore his ACL in the season finale. His recovery has been amazing, as Welker is already back at practice, and it appears Welker will be on the field to start the season. Of course, knee injuries often hinder production for the first year players are on the field, and so Welker still has question marks. But his quick recovery makes Welker a fantasy starter on Tier 3. It’s a remarkable comeback for a remarkable player. Verdict: Applaud

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