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Cowboys/Saints thoughts

A few random thoughts on the Week 15 Saturday-night special between the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints. Dallas ended the Saints’ dreams of perfection with a 24-17 road win.

*This loss doesn’t really hurt the Saints. The Cowboys were a desperate team, and Dallas got most of its offensive traction via the pass, which we already knew was the Saints’ flaw. It remains to be seen whether that flaw is fatal for New Orleans in the long run.
*For Dallas, meanwhile, this is a huge win, because it stands in stark contrast to the historical December performances the ‘Boys have had. By going from Who Dat to How ‘Bout (as in How ‘Bout Them Cowboys), Dallas proved it can win a key game in December. Doing it on the road against a 13-0 team only adds to the credit banked by this victory. Most of all, Tony Romo played well, answering many of the critics who had been assailing him. Dallas still must build on this by beating Washington next week, but for now this is a key win.
*When I was at Pro Football Weekly, I asked why we didn’t include a Most Improved Player award among the year-end awards, a la the NBA. That’s when the magazine decided to institute such an award. And if I had a vote this year, Dallas WR Miles Austin would be the runaway frontrunner for it. No other player in the NFL this season has taken such a quantum leap into stardom.
*In our post choosing the best linebackers by jersey number, we gave Anthony Spencer of Dallas the nod at No. 93, but as we did we called it a tepid choice. Well, Spencer outplayed tepid in a big way Saturday, with two sacks, a fumble recovery, and a key pressure on the final drive. Then I read on Twitter (I think it was on Peter King’s feed, but I’m not sure) that some scouts say Spencer has been playing well all year. So I’d like to revise upward my assessment of Spencer’s value.
*Despite the win, Nick Folk has to go. He’s already survived one near-release, and few kickers (especially few as young as Folk) are able to withstand two. You can’t blame Romo’s holding for the late-game miss that kept Dallas from salting the win away. The Cowboys need someone more reliable than Folk has been this year. I’m not usually one to call for someone’s job, but facts are facts in this case.
*I’m not including fantasy football thoughts in this post because there weren’t any surprising performances. At this point in the fantasy season, lessons have to be huge to make an impact on your team, and there weren’t any of those monster pointers in this game.

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Thanksgiving leftovers

A few thoughts from the three Thanksgiving Day games, in which…
The Packers thumped the Lions 34-12
The Cowboys beat the Raiders 24-7
And the Broncos beat the Giants 26-6

*The Packers, who have now won three in a row, are a dangerous team. The Pack’s biggest shortcoming, the offensive line, seems to be improving a bit, and that allows a dangerous offense to show its explosiveness. Aaron Rodgers has premium targets in the ageless Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, and there is depth at receiver and tight end as well. If the Pack can protect – which will be a stern test against strong fronts like Minnesota has – it can put up enough points to pull an upset against a really good team. At 7-4, the Pack still has a chance to make some noise.
*On defense, Charles Woodson of Green Bay is still a premium player. It’s hard to believe he’s been a top corner for a decade already. His stat line on Thanksgiving – seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two interceptions, and one fumble – should win him player of the week honors.
*Detroit doesn’t have many premium players, but rookie S Louis Delmas probably is going to end up being one. He and Brandon Pettigrew, who was hurt in this game, both look to be high-pick hits from this year’s draft. Detroit needs a bunch more of those to make up the talent gap left by the Matt Millen disaster.
*Dallas isn’t a great team, but it’s a very good team that has the potential to scare some people. The X-factor is Miles Austin, who is a reliable target with explosive ability. That’s something not even Terrell Owens brought to Dallas last year. With Austin emerging, Tony Romo has a chance to avoid the late-season collapse that has plagued him thus far in his career.
*Felix Jones had a long touchdown, but I still don’t believe in him as more than a bit player. Tashard Choice may be the best back Dallas has, because Marion Barber isn’t quite the barbarian he was two or three years ago. The bigger problem for Dallas is the offensive line, which is big but is slow and getting slower. Oakland’s front got some good pressure on Romo, especially from second-year defensive end Trevor Scott, who had two sacks.
*Oakland has some good players. TE Zach Miller is a big-time player, as is stud CB Nnamdi Asomugha. The linebacker crew is decent, as is the front seven. But there is no consistency from many of the consistent players, and the quarterback play is so subpar that the team really doesn’t have a chance. If Jeff Garcia had really gotten a shot to start this year, he could have gotten six or seven wins out of this supporting cast. But too many guys in Oakland aren’t willing to compete on the level that Garcia would. Still, there are guys on this roster I’d take on my team.
*The Broncos caught a huge break from the schedule makers by getting a home game on a short week. That kind of home-field advantage was just what they needed to break their four-game losing streak. Credit goes to them for taking advantage, but don’t think this win solves all their problems. They still need to perform better week to week to make a playoff run. But if Kyle Orton gets healthy with a few extra days off, and if the defense can play more like it did Thursday night instead of how it played the four previous games, Denver still has a shot.
*The Giants have serious problems. Like the Cowboys, the Giants’ offensive line is declining. This group of five used to be an asset, but the guys up front are either getting old or have just been too beaten up, because they simply aren’t a top group anymore. That unit is going to need an infusion of youth via the draft or free agency in the offseason, and it may end up being a critical flaw for the Giants’ playoff hopes this year.

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Jersey Numbers: Quarterbacks

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

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post. Now we move to quarterbacks, who wear numbers between 1 and 19.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 15 Quarterbacks

Over these midseason weeks, we have taken our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

We’ve already done this with the top 35 running backs and emerging running backs; with the top 35 wide receivers and emerging wide receivers; and with the top 10 tight ends and emerging tight ends.  Now we turn to the top 15 quarterbacks from our preseason draft board.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top quarterbacks who weren’t in our top 15 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Drew Brees, Saints – So far, too good. Brees has been ridiculous thus far this season with 14 passing TDs and two rushing TDs in six games, plus nearly 1,700 passing yards (283 per game). Those who made Brees the No. 1 fantasy QB haven’t been disappointed in the least. Verdict: Applaud

2. Tom Brady, Patriots – Tom Terrific had a bit of a slow start, but he has been gangbusters the last two weeks with 10 combined touchdowns. On the season, he has 15 passing touchdowns (2.5 per game) plus one via the ground. He is also passing for 290 yards per game, which is a great total. He’s back to being an elite fantasy quarterback. Verdict: Applaud

3. Peyton Manning, Colts – Before the season, we saw Manning slipping a notch below Brady and Brees. That hasn’t happened. Peyton has 15 passing touchdowns in the first six games of his season, and he’s averaging a whopping 313 passing yards per game. Once again, Peyton is the kind of quarterback who can carry a fantasy team. Verdict: Applaud

4. Kurt Warner, Cardinals – Warner’s total of nine touchdowns in six games is a little below the elite guys, but he’s throwing for 279 yards per game, which is more than fine. He’s not the fourth overall quarterback from a fantasy standpoint, but he’s an above-average starter, and that’s good enough for applause, even if it isn’t a rousing round. Verdict: Applaud

5. Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers was a revelation for fantasy owners last year, but so far this year he’s been a little more ordinary than extraordinary. The numbers are fine – 10 passing touchdowns and one rushing TD in six games, plus 298 passing yards per game, but that’s not enough to move him among the elite. Still, if you drafted Rivers to be an upper-to-mid level starting fantasy quarterback, you got what you wanted. Verdict: Applaud

6. Aaron Rodgers, Packers – Rodgers has gotten the crap beaten out of him behind a horrendous offensive line, but he’s still produced 11 passing touchdowns (plus a two-point conversion) and one rushing TD while averaging 283 passing yards per game. Those are numbers on par with Rivers and Warner, so you can’t really complain about what Rodgers has given you. He’s a young quarterback who continues to establish himself as a solid fantasy starter. The offensive line problems make you a little nervous going forward, but Rodgers has survived them so far. Verdict: Applaud

7. Tony Romo, Cowboys – Romo’s numbers aren’t as good as the other Rs (Rodgers, Rivers, and Roethlisberger), but he’s been OK with nine passing TDs, one rushing TD, and 275 passing yards per game. He’s more of a mid-pack fantasy starter than an upper-end guy, but that’s where we rated him. We won’t complain about his production. And now that Miles Austin is emerging, Romo might actually have an elite target again, which is a good sign going forward. Verdict: Applaud

8. Donovan McNabb, Eagles – McNabb’s injury history caused us to rate him a tier below the other elite producers, and that’s proven to be wise. He missed two full games, leaving fantasy owners in the lurch. When McNabb has played, he’s been fine – nine passing TDs, one rushing TD, and 192 passing yards pr game. But there are guys below him on this list – namely Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub – who have been better options even when you leave out the games McNabb missed. That has pushed McNabb to the borderline of fantasy starters, and that’s the reason we’ll give him a slight thumbs down. We just don’t feel wholly comfortable throwing our lot in with McNabb as a starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

9. Matt Schaub, Texans – Everybody knew that Schaub could put up numbers if he stays healthy, and thus far this season Schaub has done both of those things. The results have been stunning – in 7 games, Schaub has 16 passing touchdowns and is throwing for 296 yards per game. Those numbers actually are a little better than what even Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are producing. The injury risk is still there, but owners are getting so much upside for taking that risk right now that it’s more than worth it. Verdict: Applaud

10. Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler’s gross numbers have been OK so far – 11 passing TDs, a two-point conversion, and a rushing TD in seven games, plus 207 yards per game – but he’s not a fantasy starter when you compare him to guys below him on the list like Ben Roethlisberger (or guys off the list like Joe Flacco). Cutler still has upside, and his receivers are improving, but right now he hasn’t earned this ranking as a starting fantasy quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

11. Matt Ryan, Falcons – Ryan’s numbers are OK – 11 passing touchdowns and one rushing TD in six games, plus 227 passing yards per game. If you’re starting Ryan in a larger league, you have a lower-level starting quarterback, but that’s what this ranking foretold. Ryan hasn’t exceeded our expectations, but he has met them, and he should continue to do so with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez on board. Verdict: Applaud

12. Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer’s 5-touchdown game against the Bears this week makes his numbers look much better. On the whole, in 7 games he has 13 passing touchdowns, a two-point conversion, and a rushing touchdown, plus 230 yards per game. Those numbers, like Matt Ryan’s, are OK for a marginal starter in a larger league or for a top-quality backup. Palmer’s performance has been more up and down, but on the whole he was ranked pretty much in the right spot. Verdict: Applaud

13. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – Big Ben has been better than a fantasy backup this year, with 11 passing TDs and two rushing touchdowns plus 295 passing yards per game. The Steelers are relying on Big Ben’s big arm much more this year than they have in past years, and his corps of targets is better than ever. He’s a fantasy starter now, and that means he’s surpassed the ranking we gave him before the season. Verdict: Applaud

14. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Injury risk caused us to rank Hasselbeck lower than we thought his production might merit this season, and that caveat saved us from an even bigger mistake. In the four games he’s played in, he has seven passing touchdowns and 182 passing yards per game, but that’s just OK, even at this level. Plus, his offensive line is still beaten up, which doesn’t bode well. If you have a marginal quarterback and Hasselbeck as your backup, you’re not feeling too secure right now. And that means we must give him a thumbs down in fantasy terms. Verdict: A fraud

15. Brett Favre, Vikings – It was hard for us to decide where to rank Favre before the season, and we finally settled at this spot – a mid-level producer among NFL starters. He’s been a little better than that with 12 touchdowns in seven games plus 240 yards per game. Favre is still only a marginal fantasy starter, but given this rating he’s lived up to expectations. So the 40-year-old Spanx gets a hand clap. Verdict: Applaud

 

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Cowboys/Broncos thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week 4 game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Denver won the game 17-10.

On-field
*The Cowboys have a lot of quality offensive weapons. In fact, with their offensive line and their stable of backs, Dallas should be a run-first juggernaut, much like the Panthers were last year. But you have to wonder whether coordinator Jason Garrett is willing to move that way as a play-caller. But a run-first approach would feature Marion Barber and Tashard Choice (as well as Felix Jones, when he gets healthy again) and allow Roy Williams to be a down-field threat and Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett to be mid-field threats via play-action. This kind of approach best fits the Cowboys’ offensive line as well, because they would be able to use their size to their advantage. It would also cover up the lack of depth Dallas has at wide receiver behind Williams.
*Moreover, leaning into their running strengths would allow the Cowboys to take pressure off of Tony Romo, who isn’t playing up to his physical gifts right now. He made killer mistakes that cost the Cowboys a Denver touchdown and a scoring chance of their own, but Romo was precise throwing the ball most of the time. He’s good with no pressure on him but seems to wilt under the pressure too often. If the Cowboys ran more, it would take some pressure off Romo and perhaps let him get his feet back under him.
*This is my first extended look at the Broncos’ defense, and I’m more impressed than I thought I’d be. OLB-DE Elvis Dumervil, who had his seventh and eighth sacks of the season, is quick and determined on the pass rush. The one thing the Broncos’ front seven has is speed, and that made for a bad matchup in pass protection for Dallas’ huge but slow offensive line in pass-rush situation. But Dallas’ line did a good job on several screen passes of making outside blocks to spring big plays.
*Rookie OLB Robert Ayers, one of Denver’s first-round picks this year who plays beside Dumervil on many passing downs, is downright tiny and will have to put on weight to be a force, but he is quick off the edge.
*The play Knowshon Moreno made on his second-quarter touchdown catch shows why the Broncos wanted to draft him even though he didn’t fit a need. Moreno is extremely talented, and Denver could build its offense around him if it wanted. It just doesn’t seem as though Josh McDaniels wants a run-first team revolving around a bell-cow back. Of course, Correll Buckhalter is a good player as well, so using both guys makes sense. But Denver could and should get more out of Moreno.
*Denver’s passing game, though, is less than the sum of its parts. Part of that is because Kyle Orton is OK but not special as a quarterback. He’s not able to utilize WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal the way strong-armed Jay Cutler was last year.
*Brandon Marshall can cause his share of trouble, but you saw at the end of the game why the Broncos haven’t cut the cord. Marshall’s leaping catch and then double-cutback run for the game-winning touchdown was a jaw-dropping play, and it indicates just how talented Marshall is.
*It’s not fair that Denver’s Matt Prater gets to kick off at altitude eight times a year. Combine his strong leg with the Mile High altitude, and you get the strange sight of Dallas RS Miles Austin standing five yards deep (in the stranger sight – the diamond-patterned end zone) to receive the kick. Prater becomes a field-position weapon for the Broncos on kickoffs in home games like this one.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*There are few things better as a fantasy owner than watching Marion Barber run as hard as he did and push the pile into the end zone as he did on his first-quarter touchdown. He’s a hard-nosed runner who’s a sure-fire starter as long as he’s healthy. The problem with his running style is that it keeps him from being healthy all the time.
*I like the skill set of both Broncos RBs, Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, but neither seems to be enough of a focal point to make them fantasy starters week to week. But both are good players, and they’re worth having on your roster because they’re decent options if you get in a bye-week or injury-caused pinch.
*I wouldn’t want to have to rely on any of the receivers from this game. For Dallas, Roy Williams simply isn’t a true go-to guy, which means Dallas won’t rely on him. And the other receivers – Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin, and Sam Hurd – are as unimpressive as any 2-3-4 combo in the league. Even Jason Witten, a terrific player, is losing numbers because defenses can focus on him – to the point that I might start looking for a replacement if I owned him. For Denver, Orton’s not able to make full use of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, and so their numbers suffer as well. None of these receivers, as talented as Williams or Marshall or Royal are, are among the top 20 fantasy wideouts, and only Marshall can make an argument to be in the top 25. He’s worth a shot in most leagues because he can break a big play, but I wouldn’t center my team around him.

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FR: 2009 Season Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Valuing Quarterbacks

As we continue our fantasy football coverage, we wanted to specifically break down the quarterback position. So we’re going to do a football relativity comparison of quarterbacks from a fantasy perspective. The 10 level is for elite fantasy quarterbacks; the 1 level is for a quarterback who is barely an ownable backup in 10-team leagues. We’ll indicate other values of each level throughout the comparison.

For our other fantasy football coverage, click on the fantasy football category here on the blog or check out this post for an archive of subjects.

10 – Drew Brees, Tom Brady – We’ve covered these quarterbacks in this earlier post. They are top-25 players regardless of position. They are legitimate second-round picks in any league, and if one of them is picked just before you, take the other one before he’s gone.

9 – Peyton Manning – We also covered Manning in this post as well as in this post.  He is a top-35 player regardless of position. He’s just below Brees and Brady but is still worth consideration starting in the third round in most leagues.

8 – Kurt Warner – We covered Warner to some extent here, and suffice it to say that he’s a fantasy stalwart as long as he stays healthy. That injury risk keeps us from rating Warner with the top 3, but that also gives him some upside if you can grab Warner just before the three Rs (not reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic but Rivers, Rodgers, and Romo). No matter what, Warner is a guy you should be excited to start. He’s a great value starting in the fourth round, but he may not make it that long in all leagues.

7 – Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo – This group, which you just heard are called the three Rs, are pretty equivalent fantasy players this year. That means you should draft the third of them, not the first, because the third guy could actually go almost a full round later than the first. All three are legitimate fantasy starters this year that you should feel good about. You shouldn’t need to play matchups with these guys for the most part either, which will allow you to wait on your backup quarterback. That puts the three Rs between 40 and 50 on the draft board. Note that Rivers and Rodgers were also covered in this post.

6 – Donovan McNabb – McNabb is the last guy we feel comfortable calling a sure-fire starter in most fantasy leagues. Below this point, you’re going to want to play matchups to try to get the most production week by week. McNabb has better options than he has had in recent years with the emergence of DeSean Jackson and the addition of Jeremy Maclin, although his receiving corps is young. But he has the chance to see some swing passes and screens turn into big-yardage plays, which helps. After the top 60, McNabb becomes a good value.

*Players above this point can be considered every-week starters in most leagues. Players below this point should not be considered every-week starters in leagues of 10 teams or smaller. They should be matchup and/or spot starters.

5 – Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan – Schaub has some of the best weapons in the league in Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, Steve Slaton, and Kevin Walter. That’s as good a foursome as there is in the league. Schaub had 15 touchdown passes (plus two scoring runs) in just 11 games last year, so if he can stay healthy he’s a candidate to throw 25 touchdowns and be a legit fantasy starter. But he hasn’t stayed healthy in his career, which makes him a part-time fantasy starter instead of an old reliable. Ryan had 16 touchdown passes with one TD run as a rookie, and you can imagine those numbers ticking up in his second year. The addition of TE Tony Gonzalez will be the biggest factor that should push Ryan over the 20-TD plateau. Ryan’s numbers won’t make him an every week starter, but they should make him a good matchup option most weeks.

4 – Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Hasselbeck – Cutler was covered earlier in this post, while Hasselbeck was covered in this post. Cutler’s numbers made him a legitimate fantasy starter last year (25 TDs, 4,500 yards), but in his move from Denver to Chicago he had a downgrade in receiving targets and a more conservative offense to play in. Expect 18 touchdowns from him, and draft him as a matchup guy who has good upside if the Bears have a receiver emerge. Palmer had three years as a fantasy stud before missing most of the ’08 season. He too has upside if he shows he’s healthy, although the change from T.J. Houshmandzedah to Laveranues Coles is at least a minor downgrade. Houshmandzedah is now with Seattle, which should help Hasselbeck bounce back from his ’08 injury. Hasselbeck had been a consistent fantasy force until the injury, and so he’s a good option here. Big Ben has had only one big fantasy season (2007), so he’s more of a matchup guy than a fantasy starter. Big Ben kind of has the mantle that Troy Aikman used to have as a quarterback who’s much better in real football than in fantasy football. Getting two of the four guys from this level and playing matchups while you hope one of them emerges could end up being a strategy that pays off handsomely.

*Players above this level are factors as matchup plays in most fantasy leagues. Players below this level are generally backups only in most leagues.

3 – Matt Cassel, Eli Manning – Cassel was covered earlier in this post as well as in this post. He has potential and should be in a pass-friendly offense, and he has decent targets to throw to, but behind a worse offensive line his numbers won’t be as good. Still, Cassel has some upside and is at least an interesting backup to have. Like Big Ben, meanwhile, Eli Manning is better on the field than on the stat sheet. He’s hit 20 touchdowns just once in his career, and his best receiver (Plaxico Burress) is now gone. So Eli is not much more than a bye-week fill-in as a fantasy quarterback. The good news about him is that he won’t bottom out and you can count on 16-18 touchdowns from him. That certainty makes him an acceptable backup late in fantasy drafts.

2 – Kyle Orton, Trent Edwards – Orton was covered earlier in this post as well as in this post. He had fantasy backup numbers last year, and he has better targets in Denver, but there’s still a question as to whether he can legitimately be a 20-touchdown passer. So he’s a low-level backup quarterback with a little upside. Edwards has wonderful targets in Terrell Owens and Lee Evans, but he threw just 11 TDs (with three rushing TDs) last year. That number should increase, but not to the 20 TD level. If you want to take a gamble with your backup quarterback, Edwards is worth a flier, but don’t rely on him as more than that.

1 – David Garrard – Garrard, who had 15 passing TDs and two rushing TDs last year, has an all-new receiving corps – which isn’t really a good thing. If you’re stuck at the end of the backup-QB train, Garrard is a better option than Chad Pennington and a safer option than Shaun Hill or Joe Flacco. But that doesn’t make him a good option.

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