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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

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

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

 

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

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

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

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

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

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

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

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

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

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

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

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

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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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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2010 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Tim Tebow and the value of intangibles, the Jimmy Clausen conundrum, how killer C.J. Spiller is, whether it was worth it for the teams that traded out of the first round this year, the guys we like (Jermaine Gresham on offense and Sergio Kindle and Eric Norwood on defense), and our research on what offensive positions and defensive positions are most likely to produce a superstar at the top of the draft.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Rams – QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
The Rams have passed on quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan the past two years, and so it’s no surprise that St. Louis has one of the most desperate quarterback situations in the league. With Marc Bulger now gone, St. Louis needs a quarterback to build around. Plus, with new ownership coming in this offseason, having a franchise quarterback that will sell tickets and, more importantly, hope is a good business strategy. So for all the off-the-field reasons, Bradford makes sense. But does he make sense on the field? We say yes. Bradford is tall (6-foot-4), and he’s put on enough wait in the offseason to make you believe he can stand up to a pounding. He can really throw the ball well despite his ’09 injuries, and he can pair in St. Louis with OLT Jason Smith (last season’s No. 2 overall pick) to begin to build a core on offense. And while the rest of the offensive line and the receiving corps is still painfully thin, Bradford can lean on Steven Jackson in 2010 to keep from being completely shell-shocked. The Rams have to take a quarterback soon to begin the building process, and Bradford checks all the boxes for a franchise-type guy. Taking a quarterback in the top 3 is always a risk, but Bradford is a risk the Rams simply must take.

2. Lions – DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Suh is quite possibly the best player in this year’s draft, and the Lions can afford to take him because they already have taken their shot at a quarterback by picking Matthew Stafford last year. With Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions have the makings of promise on offense, and now it’s time to start building on defense. Last year’s draft yielded two above-average defensive starters in OLB DeAndre Levy and S Louis Delmas, and Suh will become a playmaker on the interior of the defensive line. Suh can stuff the run, but even more he can penetrate into the backfield and create havoc as well. That combination is rare, and it’s what makes Suh such a great prospect for the Lions. He’ll roar in Detroit.

3. Buccaneers – DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
McCoy is above Suh on some draft boards, and the Oklahoma product has a more flash-forward style than Suh. That makes many scouts imagine McCoy as a new-era Warren Sapp, a three-technique defensive tackle that puts the teeth in the Tampa-2. Not nearly as many teams run that 4-3 zone-coverage scheme anymore, but the Buccaneers still do, and McCoy can make that scheme work. That, plus the fact that the Bucs drafted QB Josh Freeman in the first round last year, and plus the fact that the Bucs’ offensive line is at least average with a young player in Donald Penn at left tackle, makes whoever’s left between Suh and McCoy the logical and smart choice for Tampa Bay. McCoy could make an instant impact for the Bucs, and this franchise needs impact at any position in the worst way.

4. Redskins – OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma
After trading for Donovan McNabb, it’s obvious that the Redskins’ biggest need is now at left tackle. Chris Samuels is gone, and if Washington doesn’t get some help there, McNabb won’t make it through the season. So the question isn’t position but player for the Redskins. Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung is solid, but his upside is perhaps capped a bit. Other linemen like Williams and Anthony Davis of Rutgers are more talented and promising but far less consistent. Ultimately, the choice will come down to Okung and Williams, and we’ll break from the pack and pencil in Williams at this spot. Shanahan’s best offenses in Denver were stout at left tackle with Gary Zimmerman and Ryan Clady, and we should see the new Redskins boss take the same approach in Washington now. And since he trusts his coaching staff to get the most out of linemen, he’ll peg the third Oklahoma Sooner in the top four of this year’s draft.

5. Chiefs – S Eric Berry, Tennessee
Last year, the Chiefs reached to take a top-15 prospect in DE Tyson Jackson at No. 3 overall, and that leads some prognosticators to suppose that they’ll reach again to take Bryan Bulaga of Iowa at No. 5 this year. But since the Chiefs have a young left tackle in Branden Albert, we’re going to project that they’ll look for help at another position. That approach would lead the Chiefs to grab the best available player, and that’s Berry. Berry didn’t pop off the screen in Monte Kiffin’s cover-2 defense last year, but he was a standout the year before in a more traditional scheme. In Berry, Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel would get a Rodney Harrison-type of impact player in the defensive backfield. K.C. needs playmakers on defense, and Berry can be that splashy player who makes workmanlike guys like Jackson more effective.

6. Seahawks – OT Russell Okung, Oklahoma State
Like the Redskins, the Seahawks lost their long-time left tackle to retirement this offseason when Walter Jones came to the end of the road. So Seattle needs to fill that hole in this draft when it has two first-round picks. Perhaps the Seahawks chance it and wait till No. 14 to see if Davis or Bruce Campbell or even Bulaga is around, but the wisest course of action is to take the sure thing in Okung here and then find a playmaker like C.J. Spiller or Derrick Morgan at 14. Okung can be an anchor for Pete Carroll’s offense, and those guys simply don’t grow on trees. Seahawks fans should hope that Carroll, who’s calling the shots after being out of the NFL for more than a decade, realizes that and fills his massive OLT need ASAP.

7. Browns – RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
This is where the draft could get crazy quick. Berry is the guy who makes the most sense for the Browns, but if he goes off the board, then Cleveland will face some choices. Bryan Bulaga, the last of the three elite offensive tackles, doesn’t make sense, because Cleveland already has Joe Thomas. The Browns could look at a defensive playmaker, but neither Derrick Morgan nor Jason Pierre-Paul really fits the 3-4 system they run, and it’s too early for guys like Rolando McClain or Dan Williams who do fit. So we’ll give the Browns the best playmaker on the board in Spiller, who would add an element of explosiveness to Cleveland’s offense that isn’t there at this point. That explosiveness is the Browns’ biggest need, and Spiller’s the option most likely to provide it. Spiller is a safer bet than wideouts Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas, but like those players he can bring a jolt into the passing game. Plus, Spiller would be a huge upgrade at running back over Jerome Harrison, Chris Jennings, and his former college teammate James Davis, and he will help journeymen quarterbacks Jake Delhomme or Seneca Wallace have a far better chance of success in 2010. The Browns may pick a quarterback, but they seem more likely to do at the top of the second round than at this spot. Holmgren has made this kind of pick before, taking Shaun Alexander in the first round in 2000 with Seattle, and so we’ll make the unconvential call that leaves Spiller wearing an orange helmet in the pros just as he did in college.

8. Raiders – DE Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
Everyone seems to think the Raiders are going to do something crazy at this pick, and that’s certainly possible after last year’s Darrius Heyward-Bey fiasco. But last year, we heard of the Raiders’ love for HeyBey well before the draft, and there’s not similar buzz this year. So we’ll give Oakland a more conventional guy in Morgan, who’s the most complete 4-3 defensive end in this draft class. Morgan isn’t superfast, but he can get into the backfield and also hold up against the run. In a lot of ways, he’s like Richard Seymour, whom the Raiders traded their 2011 first-rounder for and then used the franchise tag on. The Raiders have a need at offensive tackle, but Bryan Bulaga isn’t their cup of tea, and it doesn’t seem that Al Davis has fallen for inconsistent specimens Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis. And while the Raiders could use a quarterback, the Raiders’ maven has refused to give up the ghost with JaMarcus Russell yet. That leads us to defense, where Morgan is a great fit.

9. Bills – QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
We’ve already discussed how we’re not huge Clausen fans, but he’s clearly a notch above other quarterback prospects like Colt McCoy or Tim Tebow. And given that quarterback is the Bills’ glaring need, it will be hard for them to pass up on Clausen here. Buffalo could still use a tackle like Bryan Bulaga or a pass rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. But most of the time, when a team has a desperate quarterback need, and there’s a quarterback available in the first round, the team can’t stomach the idea of passing on the chance to get him. So Clausen is the pick.

10. Jaguars – CB Joe Haden, Florida
The Jaguars would probably prefer to trade out of this spot, in part because they want to replace their traded first-round pick and in part because they have a hard time cutting the check for a top-10 selection. But in this spot, they have a chance to address their pressing need for secondary help. While Earl Thomas fits a more glaring position need at safety, Haden’s the better prospect by a fair amount. Haden could team with Rashean Mathis to stabilize Jacksonville’s secondary and set the rest of the defense up for success. Haden’s stock dropped a bit after a slow 40 time at the combine, but he’s a really good player who will play up to this lofty draft position. He’d be a win for the Jags at this point.

11. Broncos (from Bears) – WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
The Broncos under Josh McDaniels have become a tricky team to predict, because McDaniels is so confident in his abilities as an evaluator and coach that he’ll do the unconventional. He traded Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, and last year in the draft he took Knowshon Moreno in the first round even though he had added several running backs in free agency. With Marshall gone, the Broncos need a No. 1 receiver, and while Dez Bryant is the consensus No. 1 wideout Thomas might be the Broncos’ choice. Bryant is a more complete player than Thomas, and he was more accomplished at the collegiate level. Plus, Thomas suffered an offseason injury that limited his workout time. But Thomas is a physical freak with amazing speed, and while he’s raw he can develop into the kind of breakout receiver that Marshall was for Denver. We think the wiser pick would be for the Broncos to upgrade their 3-4 defense as they continue to build personnel for that defense, but while Dan Williams or Rolando McClain would fit, we believe McDaniels will get his way and get another exciting tool for his offense. So we’ll reach a bit with the Broncos and project Thomas here.

12. Dolphins – NT Dan Williams, Tennessee
After acquiring Marshall, the Dolphins can now go big by upgrading their defensive line. And that leads them to Williams, who is sturdy enough to play on the nose in the 3-4. That’s a rare trait, and we saw with B.J. Raji last year that nose tackles are premium players who shoot up the board in the draft. Williams could replace Jason Ferguson, an aging player who will miss the first eight games of the season under league suspension, and help to stabilize a Dolphins’ defense that slipped a bit last year after solid play in 2008. Bill Parcells loves big players, and they don’t come bigger than Williams in this year’s draft class.

13. 49ers – DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida
Pierre-Paul is a boom-or-bust type of prospect, but the upside is so huge that a team in the teens like the 49ers will feel compelled to pull the trigger and take him. Pierre-Paul has the size to play defensive end in the 4-3 and the speed to play from a two-point stance in the 3-4, and that versatility could allow him to become a Terrell Suggs type of player in the best-case scenario. The 49ers have a sturdy defense, but they lack the pass-rush pop that JPP could provide. With Mike Singletary at the helm, the 49ers also may figure they have the coaching to make the most of talented players, with Vernon Davis’ emergence last year as proof positive. This would be a risk, but with two first-round picks, the 49ers should take a shot this year to add a premium talent with at least one of them. And that points to JPP with one of their first two picks.

14. Seahawks (from Broncos) – WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
The Seahawks are bereft of playmakers, and so with one of their two picks they have to get some explosiveness. That could mean a pass rusher, but in this scenario the value is with Bryant, an elite talent who will need a little TLC to develop. Pete Carroll can provide that kind of atmosphere, and if he does Bryant could really thrive. He could become a No. 1 receiver who can make big plays down the field while also providing a dependable option on third downs. And while there are concerns about Bryant’s background and upbrining, he’s not a bad guy. Instead, like Michael Oher last year, he came from such a bad situation that his maturity process will naturally be slower. But a former college coach like Carroll can really help Bryant, and the payoff would be huge. This is probably about the best situation for Bryant off the field, and he would really fill a need for the Hawks on the field.

15. Giants – MLB Rolando McClain, Alabama
The Giants have gotten old quickly both on the offensive line and in the front seven on defense. So there are a lot of ways that Big Blue can go at this spot. A lineman like Bryan Bulaga, Mike Iupati, or Maurkice Pouncey would make a ton of sense, but we’ll project them to look at the other side of the ball and add a defensive leader instead. McClain is not an elite athlete, but he’s an incredibly heady player who leans into a leadership role. He would immediately step into the MLB spot vacated in New York when Antonio Pierce was released in the offseason. This would be a need pick, but the Giants have a lot of needs if they want to keep their window of opportunity open in the next couple of years. McClain can contribute right away and help them do just that.

16. Titans – DE Brandon Graham, Michigan
After losing Kyle Vanden Bosch and bidding adieu to Jevon Kearse in the offseason, the Titans have a pressing need for a pass rusher. Thankfully for them, they also have one of the best defensive line coaches in Jim Washburn, who has helped guys like Kearse and Albert Haynesworth – both picked around this spot in the first round – emerge into prime-time players. Our hunch is that the Titans give Washburn another swing this year, and given the way the draft has gone Graham is the best prospect available to them. Graham is a DE-OLB tweener who might fit a 3-4 defense more quickly, but his pass rush skills are valuable in any system. If the Titans take Graham (or any other defensive lineman), the player should consider himself lucky to be able to work under such good coaching. We trust the Titans to make the most of this pick.

17. 49ers (from Panthers) – OT Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
After taking a pass rusher with their first pick, we have the 49ers flipping to the offensive line with their second pick. Bulaga, who some are pointing to as a potential top-5 pick, would be great value here. Bulaga isn’t a premier left tackle, but he can play there in a pinch, and he could settle in at right tackle and thrive. Bulaga plus Joe Staley would give the 49ers bookend tackles that will stabilize their line and help the offense grow. Another offensive lineman like Maurkice Pouncey or Mike Iupati would make sense too, but our hunch is that the Niners won’t pass on Bulaga twice.

18. Steelers – OG Mike Iupati, Idaho
The Steelers have a pressing offensive line need, especially on the inside, so taking Iupati would be a nice fix. Iupati is probably going to project more as a mauling guard than a nimble-footed tackle at the NFL level, but he has enough chance of playing outside that he’ll find himself a first-round pick. Some have compared Iupati to Steve Hutchinson, which is incredibly high praise, but if Iupati can be 75 percent of what Hutchinson is, he’ll be a great mid-first-round pick.

19. Falcons – S Earl Thomas, Texas
Thomas is a terrific safety, but the fact that he’s undersized could put a cap on his draft stock. Still, Thomas is likely to step in and be an immediate starter and asset at safety, even for a quality team like Atlanta. The Falcons are trying to upgrade their defense, and Thomas or his Texas teammate Sergio Kindle would do just that. A pass rusher would look good too, but it appears unlikely that one of the premium guys will slip this far. So we suggest that the Falcons will draft for value and happily grab Thomas.

20. Texans – RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State
The Texans are on the cusp of breaking into the playoffs, and the one piece they’re missing is a top-flight running back. Mathews is just that. He has size and speed and explosiveness, and scouts drool about all he can bring to a team. Maybe the Texans should be looking at a cornerback to replace Dunta Robinson, but our hunch is that Gary Kubiak and his staff will look for an over-the-top guy like Mathews instead of trying to fill in a gap somewhere.

21. Bengals – TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
The Bengals haven’t had a top-flight tight end in what seems like forever, but given their new run-first bent on offense, it makes sense for them to add a counter-punch option like Gresham. We’ve made our respect for Gresham known, and we think he can be a great mid-field option between Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant. If Gresham can step in and make an impact in the passing game, the Bengals’ good offense could get a little bit better and make Cincy a playoff contender once again.

22. Patriots – OLB Jerry Hughes, TCU
It’s always hard to predict what the Patriots will do, but with a first-rounder and three second-rounders this year, New England needs to add some pass-rush punch. Hughes can do just that. He’s more of a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 defense end, but he can get to the quarterback, and Bill Belichick is certainly smart enough to maximize the skills of a player like Hughes who has strengths but is a fit in only certain schemes. New England could easily go in another direction, but a high-character guy like Hughes seems like the kind of guy that Belichick would invest a pick in.

23. Packers – OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers
The Packers made a great transition to the 3-4 defense last year, thanks in large part to rookies B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and Brad Jones. Suddenly, the Packers look set on defense, and that means it’s now time to turn their attention to their offensive line. That unit was awful last year until Mark Tauscher returned from retirement and Chad Clifton recovered from injury, but those veteran tackles aren’t going to last forever. So picking a high-upside player like Davis makes sense. Green Bay won’t need Davis immediately, and they can wait and hope that Davis’ work ethic catches up to his talent as he interns under Clifton and Tauscher for a year.

24. Eagles – C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
There are myriad rumors about who the Eagles want and how they want to trade up, but here’s the bottom line – since Andy Reid came to town, the Eagles almost always go big with their first-round pick. And when you survey the offensive and defensive linemen available at this point, Pouncey is the best. Pouncey’s gotten a lot of pub in the weeks leading up to the draft, and some have speculated that he’s going to go in the teens, but it’s hard to see a center/guard who’s good but not great going that high. Instead, this spot seems about right. Our guess is that Philly would be happy to add Pouncey to stabilize the interior of a line that slipped a bit last year.

25. Ravens – DE Jared Odrick, Penn State
The Ravens rarely swing and miss in the draft, even when they draft for need. So even though we think they’ll address their defensive line depth with this pick, they won’t reach. Instead, they’ll stay put and grab Odrick, who’s probably the prototypical 3-4 end available this year. With Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards leaving via free agency, the Ravens need depth there, and Odrick can provide the kind of solid play that allows Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to get aggressive on the pass rush. Odrick would be a great fit in Baltimore.

26. Cardinals – OLB Sergio Kindle, Texas
The Cardinals have lost a ton of front-seven players over the last two seasons, and now it’s time to replenish the cupboard. Kindle is the kind of versatile player who can do the things Karlos Dansby did, plus provide a pass-rush punch. He’d be a great complement to Joey Porter and could emerge into a team leader in the vein of Dansby. We’ve made our affinity for Kindle known, and Arizona would be a place for his promise to shine.

27. Cowboys – DE Tyson Alualu, California
Alualu is a fast-rising prospect, in large part due to his ability to play defensive end in the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys are stocked across the board, so they can afford to look for the guy they like the best, and Alualu’s size and tenacity fits. He can plug in and play the five-technique to allow DeMarcus Ware and the emerging Anthony Spencer to continue to wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

28. Chargers – CB Kyle Wilson, Boise State
It only makes sense for San Diego to spend its first-round pick to replace Antonio Cromartie, whom they traded in the offseason. Since none of this year’s cornerback class behind Joe Haden is great, our guess is that several of them will end up clumped at the end of the first round and beginning of the season. Wilson is a solid player who had a good Senior Bowl week and also a solid college career. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he’s good enough to thrive in a pressure defense like San Diego runs.

29. Jets – OLB Sean Witherspoon, Missouri
The Jets have been among the most aggressive teams in the offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to fill some of their biggest needs. That puts them in position to draft the best player left. A tackle like Bruce Campbell or Anthony Davis may make sense to eventually replace Damien Woody on the right side, but our guess is that Rex Ryan tries to reinforce his defense. Witherspoon is a standout player who has enough pass-rush pop to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but he’s also good in coverage. That kind of versatility will make Ryan drool in the war room and could land Witherspoon with Gang Green.

30. Vikings – CB Kareem Jackson, Alabama
The Vikings have a loaded roster, but the one place where they can use an upgrade is in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty from Rutgers would be one option, but we’ll point instead to Jackson, who is a proven player from a top-notch program who can step in and serve as a quality starter for the Vikes, and therefore help them continue to move forward in the NFC. While some prognosticators have the Vikings pulling the trigger on Tim Tebow here, we think more immediate help is in the offing.

31. Colts – OT Vladimir Ducasse, Massachusetts
Colts president Bill Polian made no secret about the fact that he was unhappy with the play of his team’s offensive line in the Super Bowl, and as proof of that conviction he cut starter Ryan Lilja soon after. So it makes sense that Indy will spend its first-rounder on a lineman. We’re projecting Ducasse over Roger Saffold or Charles Brown, but any of those players would make sense for Indy as it attempts to keep its Peyton-powered offense running smoothly.

32. Saints – TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
The defending Super Bowl champions could use help at safety from a guy like Taylor Mays or at cornerback from a guy like Patrick Robinson, but our hunch is that Sean Payton gets some more help for his high-powered offense. Gronkowski is a dynamic tight end who’s even more physical than Jeremy Shockey. The Saints used several different tight ends last year in Shockey, Darnell Dinkins, David Thomas, and Billy Miller, so we can see that it’s a big part of their offense. Gronkowksi could usurp one or even two portions of that role and make the Saints even more explosive. That sounds to us like the kind of approach Payton would want.

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RP: Drafting NFL superstars – defense

Which positions in the draft give a team the best percentage chance of drafting a superstar? Let’s find out in this post about defense. (For offensive players, check out this post.)

Last year leading up to the draft, we took on the project of analyzing which positions in the draft had the greatest boom and bust percentages in two posts (offense and defense). But as we did that project, we realized that there is another level we need to analyze. In the top 16 of the draft (top half of the first round), teams aren’t merely looking for good players – they’re looking for great players. So we are looking at superstar percentages by position this year.

Here’s the methodology: We looked back over the drafts from 1997 to 2008, analyzing the first 16 picks in each draft. We charted how many players were drafted at each position, and then we picked the guys at each position that have become superstars. We left out the 2009 draft, since it’s too soon to indicate that any of those players are superstars. After we make our calls about who the superstars are and find a percentage, we’ll list guys who we left off the borderline of superstars. We did this so that you can change percentages on your own if you disagree with a call about who’s a superstar and who’s not.

We also refigured the bust percentages from last year’s post on defense and included them below, for the sake of analysis.

Defense ends/Pass rushers
Superstar percentage: 18 percent
Updated bust percentage: 35 percent (7 of 20)
Total picks: 28
Superstars: DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Jevon Kearse
Not-quite-superstars: Mario Williams, Shawne Merriman, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, John Abraham, Greg Ellis, Grant Wistrom, Peter Boulware
What we learned: Defensive end has been a trouble spot in the past, but as more teams move to the 3-4 defense and look for the Ware or Suggs types to serve as designated pass rushers, it seems as though teams are having a little better luck. But this year’s draft crop features more pure 4-3 ends like Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul, while the 3-4 pass rushers like Brandon Graham are not as highly rated. Jared Odrick fits as a 3-4 end, which is a need position that led to Tyson Jackson being overdrafted last year. But because there’s no Ware/Suggs/Merriman type, this crop of defensive ends feels a little riskier than the crew in recent years.

Defensive tackles
Superstar percentage:
17 percent
Updated bust percentage: 38 percent (8 of 21)
Total picks: 24
Superstars: Haloti Ngata, Kevin Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Richard Seymour
Not-quite-superstars: Tommie Harris, Ty Warren, John Henderson, Marcus Stroud, Corey Simon, Anthony McFarland
What we’ve learned: Defensive tackle has always been a risky proposition, and only few of the players drafted that high have turned into game-changers. So it’s interesting to think, based on that historical perspective, about how highly Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are rated this year. History says one, if not both, will struggle, but evaluators are in love with both players. We like both players, but the superstar percentage is a question mark we’ll raise. Oklahoma’s Dan Williams, who can play inside in a 4-3 or a 3-4, could also jump into the top 16 in this year’s draft.

Linebackers
Superstar percentage: 11 percent
Updated bust percentage: 0 percent (0 of 12)
Total picks: 18
Superstars: Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher
Not-quite-superstars: Jerod Mayo, Thomas Davis, Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, Lavar Arrington, James Farrior, Julian Peterson, Keith Brooking, Takeo Spikes
What we learned: No position has been a safer bet at the top of the draft than linebacker, which features a bust percentage of 0. But there aren’t many true game-changers in this crew either. It’s hard for a linebacker to go from a highly productive tackling machine to a game-changing impact player unless he’s a pass rusher, which accounts for the difficulty in moving up to the superstar level. So Rolando McClain and Sergio Kindle appear to be very safe picks in the teens, but teams should wonder whether they’ll break through to be impact players. We think Kindle can make that jump because his pass-rush ability, but McClain seems to be more solid than spectacular to us.

Cornerbacks
Superstar percentage:
25 percent
Updated bust percentage: 17 percent (2 of 12)
Total picks: 20
Superstars: Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister, Charles Woodson, Shawn Springs
Not-quite-superstars: Dunta Robinson, Terrence Newman, Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer
What we learned: The cornerback bust percentage isn’t that daunting, and the reward for taking a player that highly can be huge, as the superstar percentage attests. Unfortunately, there’s not a Bailey/Woodson level talent in this year’s draft. The top cornerback, Joe Haden, is probably closer to the Newman/Trufant/Jammer class. All of those guys have had good careers, but they don’t reach shut-down corner status. Still, the history suggests Haden is a pick with reasonable risk and achievable reward.

Safeties
Superstar percentage:
25 percent
Updated bust percentage: 14 percent (1 of 7)
Total picks: 8
Superstars: Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu
Not-quite-superstars: Antrel Rolle, Roy Williams
What we learned: Safety isn’t often a position that moves into the top 10, with Rolle, the late Taylor and his successor LaRon Landry as notable exceptions. But there have been a couple of superstar hits at the position, which should encourage teams who are enamored with Eric Berry’s potential this year. Positional dynamics could push Earl Thomas out of the top half of the first round, but he too has the change to be an above-average safety for a team. There’s not a lot of history here, but it’s enough to suggest that Berry can be a nice investment, especially if he falls to pick 5 or below.

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