Greg Trippiedi’s MVN Outsider Archive

Pre-Draft News and Rumors from around the Media-Sphere

Welcome to MVN’s coverage of the 2009 NFL Draft.

First some administrative things:  Process Points are back this year.  They will be structured a little differently this year.  The maximum points that you can earn by picking in the first half of the first round is 5 points.  In the second half of the first round, and the first third of the second round, it’s 4 points.  Between picks 42 and 64, the maximum points that can be earned are 3 points.  Unlike last year, I will be giving out partial points to those teams that I felt didn’t do as well as they could have, but avoided the big mistake.  We’re hoping that by making the system more flexible, it can be more accurate.  Trades can be worth either 2, 1, or no points this year.

The average score for process points for a team that has two picks in the first two rounds tends to be between 6-8 points.  Just a rule of thumb.

Draft Resources

MVN Top 150 Prospects

Trippiedi’s Most Recent 2-Round Mock

Anyway, using this space below, I will report and source any draft information that is relevant to the way things will break down starting at 4 PM.

Draft News  (Use F5 to refresh this post, as it will be updated frequently)

4/24 — The Detroit Lions and QB Matthew Stafford agree on a 6 year/74 million dollar deal with 41 million in guaranteed money.  The Lions will make Stafford the first overall pick.

April 25

12:41 — ESPN’s Michael Smith suggests that the Tackles will determine the flow of the draft.  He cites Seattle, Cincinnati, Oakland, Jacksonville, Green Bay, San Francisco, Buffalo.  The assumption is that all four elite tackles will go in the first eleven picks.  I think three will go, it’s hard to say if Michael Oher will be gone by the time the Bills pick.  He could be there for the Redskins or the Chargers.  Look for Eben Britton to the Vikings at No. 22, and if the Patriots don’t make a play for William Beatty at No. 23, there could be some trading action at the bottom end of the round from teams at the top who need tackles.

12:50 — Agent Drew Rosenhaus believes that Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin will be traded by the end of the day today.  Rosenhaus says that Boldin needs a new contract.

1:11 — NFL Network’s Kara Henderson reports that the Jaguars and Jets have a trade in place should “the player the Jets want still be on the board.”

2:52 — ESPN’s ticker shows that Bills GM Russ Brandon is against trading up using a package involving both of their first round draft picks.  The Bills pick 11th and 28th in the first round.

3:14 — NFL.com’s Steve Wyche reports that:

  • There is action regarding QB Mark Sanchez at the top of the draft.
  • QB Brady Quinn is almost certain to remain a Brown at the end of the day.
  • WR Braylon Edwards is likely to be dealt, but not to the New York Giants
  • WR Percy Harvin’s stock is back on the rise at the best possible time.

3:17 — QB Matt Cassel has agreed to a 6 year contract extension with the Chiefs worth 36 million dollars, or half of what Matthew Stafford is getting.

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Grading the 2009 NFL Draft by Process Points

Yesterday, we looked at some teams who did well and other who did poorly, but how did process points score the draft?

The average team scored 7 process points in this draft.  The best division, according to points was the AFC North with 41, closely followed by the AFC East (37), and NFC West (35).  On the low end, the worst division was the usually reliable NFC East (18), with the AFC West (20), NFC South (22), and AFC South (23).  The NFC North had pretty run of the mill haul, overall.

But since I know you are reading this to see how your team did, here are the 32 individual teams as graded by process points.  Remember, points only grade the activity on the first day.  Ultimately, the quality of the second day is all about results.

1. Cleveland Browns (18)
The Browns got the highest amount of points this year by, 1) trading down, and 2) making all their first day picks count.  Process points are a little biased to teams that front load all their picks, but the Browns should have gotten four quality starters to go along with the plethora of late day picks they build, and the three young players they got from the Jets.

2. New England Patriots (15)
Traded out of the first round, and got at least one point from me for all of their second round choices.  The trading down never really stopped, as the Pats now already pick three times in next years second round.  If nothing else, they have ammunition with which they can acquire any player in the NFL.

3. Denver Broncos (13)
Are you surprised they came out so high?    First, I think a lot of this grade is simple Jay Cutler effect.  They had a lot more picks to work with, and traded for two more picks along the way.  So with five picks representing a max of 20 points, plus two points for a good trade,13 isn’t exactly picking with great efficiency.  But if you look at the haul: Moreno, Ayers, Alphonzo Smith, Darcel McBath, and Richard Quinn, 13 points seems to make sense.  The secondary needed the most attention, and it got what it needed.

4. Detroit Lions (13)
Last year, the Falcons came out third in process points because I gave the Falcons full points for Matt Ryan, despite being lukewarm on the pick itself.  I’m no more warm on Stafford this year, but for process points to work, I have to reward for team who take the best player on their board against all other options (i.e. Aaron Curry comes cheaper).  This was how the process was supposed to run.

5. Seattle Seahawks (12)
The Seahawks were second in points last year, now fifth this year, so if the system works, you’d think they would return to the top of the league soon.  Of course, in back to back years, the Seahawks have traded down, and then traded up in the first day.  Last year, it netted John Carlson, and this year, Max Ungar, both very good value picks.  The difference?  Last years pick, DE Lawrence Jackson, will likely be an average players.  This years pick, Aaron Curry, has a shot to be one of the greatest.

6. Miami Dolphins (11)
A lot of teams who were at the top in points last year are sticking around.  Vontae Davis and Sean Smith will make for great building blocks in the secondary.  QB Pat White is more intriguing than anything else.  Coming to Miami makes sense for him, and he’ll be given a fair shot to win the QB job next year when Chad Pennington’s contract expires, but the Dolphins probably could have best used that pick elsewhere.

7. Green Bay Packers (11)
When talking about teams who won the draft, I totally forgot about the Packers.  B.J. Raji is a defensive game changer at NT, and it’s a great steal to get him there at No. 9.  But what really made the day was the aggressive trade to go up and get Clay Matthews to be the key cog in the 3-4 defense at LB, while AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett man the middle of the defense.  The trade got two points, and Matthews should be scheme-adaptable enough to make it work.

8. Buffalo Bills (9)
The Bills draft was a little odd, and though they made four picks in the first two rounds, I’m not sure they were best used.  C Eric Wood is the most solid prospect in the class, and filled a need position, interior line.  But trading up for G Andy Levitre was a but perplexing.  Is he the right guard?  Where does FA signee Geoff Hangartner fit in?  I don’t know if the Bills have a philosophy to draft a CB every year, but they should have waited on CB Jarius Byrd.  And then there’s spectacular DE Aaron Maybin, who might only enjoy success as an early career third down pass rusher.  He doesn’t seem to have the build to hold up at the next level.

9. Cincinnati Bengals (9)
Rey Maualuga just made so much sense for a defense that needed the on field leadership to make the next jump, and was probably the best “fit” in the entire draft, after Jason Smith to the Rams.  Andre Smith is less of a good fit, but a much more imposing talent.  The key to this entire draft class will be based around his ability to handle the LT position, because he’s the only guy on the roster who might be able to do it once Levi Jones is traded or released.

10. St. Louis Rams (9)
Jason Smith was the best possible pick for the Rams, who badly needed his infusion of talent on the OL, and all of a sudden, and OL of Smith, Bell, Jason Brown, Incognito, and Barron isn’t awful.  This is especially good for Barron, who is in a contract year and will need to prove to the team that he can improve.  James Laurinaitis is the sideline to sideline backer the Rams need to play behind the DL they’ve spent time rebuilding.

11. Carolina Panthers (8)
Everette Brown figures to be a direct replacement in the defense for Julius Peppers, once he is no longer part of the team, and they only have to pay him at second round prices.  It will cost them their second rounder next year, but the points are rewarding for the proactive strategy.  CB Sherron Martin should directly replace Ken Lucas in the defense.  The Panthers draft shows that it’s not uncommon to see a normal type draft haul even if you are short-changed in picks.

12. Baltimore Ravens (8)
A strong BPA led draft produced two players with pro bowl potential: OT Michael Oher and DE/LB Paul Kruger.  Kruger is particularly interesting becuase he seems like a better fit in the 4-3 defense, but the Ravens have never been shy about taking any sort of talent, and finding the best spot for it in their own defense.  But the real story is Oher, who the team traded up for.  Oher is a well-established run blocker who could have played for any team on it’s left side, but thanks to the presence of third year franchise LT Jared Gaither, Oher will man the right side for the Ravens, who only sport one player over the age of 26 on their line: 33 year old Matt Birk, a pro bowl Center.

13. Houston Texans (8)
I gave full process points to the Texans for LB Brian Cushing, even though I would not have taken him there.  I thought he made a lot of sense for the Texans because of the relative inconsistency of MLB Demeco Ryans, who has two years remaining on his rookie contract, and hasn’t had been productive since 2006.  The Texans have a lot of young LBs, and might decide to go with Xavier Adabi instead of Ryans, and Cushing can play in the middle if/when that happens.  Connor Barwin is a fun prospect who can either play DE or LB wherever he is needed.

14. Arizona Cardinals (7)
The Cardinals didn’t feel the need to move around, and thusly, got 100% of their possible process points.  LB Cody Brown is a major steal who will put pressure on Karlos Dansby to get a long term deal done.  RB Beanie Wells fills two major issues with this team: 1) Wells keeps second year guy Tim Hightower from having too much of a responsibility in the offense, and 2) allows the Cards to make a move with RB Edgerrin James to free up cap space.

15. Atlanta Falcons (7)
The selection of Peria Jerry with the 24th pick is really inspired.  Jerry is an immediate help defensive 3-technique who should improve the interior pass rush exponentially.  I thought the pick of S William Moore was more need based, as they needed a defensive replacement for Lawyer Milloy, but I thought they used a strong process to grade him.

16. San Francisco 49ers (7)
Full pointage for the Michael Crabtree pick, and lets face it, had they selected anyone else, I would have docked them points for passing on the better player.  The other two points came from a trade out of the second round that netted them a first in next years draft.  When you get a guy like Crabtree, it frees up your picks to be spent to maximize value, precisely what the Niners did.  They’ll be a force by 2010.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars (7)
I questioned where Eben Britton will fit in given the selection of Eugene Monroe in the first round, but it’s hard not to see them as a bookend tackle tandem by the 2011 season.  Both are strong prospects and unlike last year, the Jaguars look to have reinforced their offense strongly with these picks.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers (6)
The Steelers have this ability to be patient in the draft regardless of what is happening in front of them.  DE Ziggy Hood netted them all four possible points for a need based value pick, and then they added two more points for trading out of the 64th pick and still landing who they likely would have taken at 64 in the middle of the third.

19. New York Giants (6)
Didn’t like Hakeem Nicks at all.  I just don’t see the element of separation that others do in Nicks’ game.  I also don’t see how he is going to get on the field with Hixon, Steve Smith, and Mario Manningham in front of him.  But the selections of Clint Sintim and William Beatty give the Giants the highest process points total in their division.

20. Tennessee Titans (5)
Most of these points come from Rutgers WR Kenny Britt who I think has the best chance of all the late first round receivers to be successful, and plenty of confidence to boot, but I thought DT Sen’Derrick Marks was a major reach who simply was taken to try to plug into Albert Haynesworth’s spot in the defense instead of building a new defensive philosophy.

21. Philadelphia Eagles (5)
I only gave two points to the Eagles for Maclin because I don’t see where he fits in on this team.   He seems like DeSean Jackson lite, without the ability to run the entire route tree.  They aren’t going to use him on kick returns, having just traded for Ellis Hobbs, and I don’t see any other role for him.  RB LeSean McCoy on the other hand, could have been the steal of the draft.  He’s every bit as strong a compliment to Brian Westbrook as anyone in the draft, and I think he’ll have a great career in Philly.  Drafting two underclassmen on the first day is a bit out of charcter for Andy Reid.

22. New Orleans Saints (5)
Only had one action on the first day, in which they got a huge steal in CB/S Malcolm Jenkins.  Didn’t pick in the second round because of a questionable trade for TE Jeremy Shockey.

23. Washington Redskins (5)
Only had one action on the first day, in which they got a huge steal in DE Brian Orakpo.  Didn’t pick in the second round because of a questionable trade for DE Jason Taylor.

24. Kansas City Chiefs (4)
Only had one action on the first day, in which they got a unique prospect in DE Tyson Jackson.  Didn’t pick in the second round because of a questionable (yet, inspired) trade for QB Matt Cassel.

25. Indianapolis Colts (3)
Donald Brown was a great scheme fit, if not a very good value, at No. 27.  The Colts made a perplexing trade up for DT Fili Moala in round two, even though Moala was likely to have been there at the end of the round.  Moala himself is an interesting, but again, not very special prospect.  It was a perplexing move for a team who feels that defensive tackles are only as good as the guys next to them.

26. Minnesota Vikings (3)
Minnesota is maybe the one team in the entire NFL who should have stayed the heck away from WR Percy Harvin.  Minnesota’s offensive struggles have nothing to do with a lack of playmakers, only to do with a lack of guys who can move the chains and extend drives.  Harvin does nothing to solve that, and isn’t even a natural receiver.  RT Phil Loadholt was a much, much better pick, and is a good scheme fit for the Vikings.

27. Dallas Cowboys (2)
Traded down, ended up getting punked by the Bears anyway when they got DE Jarron Gilbert ahead of the Cowboys.  Then the Cowboys reached on LB Jason Williams, who went to Western Illinois.  I though the late round picks were pretty good, but that doesn’t matter in the points.

28. Chicago Bears (2)
Got a good deal to move down with Seattle out of the first round.  That’s all she wrote for the day, as their entire draft day haul was basically just Jay Cutler.

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2)
Traded up for Josh Freeman, even though the Broncos were never considering him (reportedly), and had just selected Knowshon Moreno with their first pick.  Freeman is a good prospect in a bad situation in Tampa.  The OL and running game will be his best friends, but I’d sit him while they develop some receivers to help him out in 2010.  No second round pick, it was traded for Kellen Winslow, who will be a help to a young QB.

30. New York Jets (2)
From the Jets perspective, they didn’t give up very much to go get QB Mark Sanchez, and the PSL’s that he will sell are nearly as important as the games he will or wont win.  But process points grade entirely on football-related outcomes, and the expectations for Sanchez as the no. 5 overall pick almost certainly exceed the quality of player he actually will be.  Sanchez’ success as a rookie depends heavily on the development of TE Dustin Keller, and of a second receiver, whoever that may be.  Right now, Sanchez is not the player the Jets think they are getting, and it will be up to them to develop him into the player they need.  Until then, process points takes no prisoners.

31. Oakland Raiders (2)
A creative team could find ways to turn Darrius Heyward-Bey into a number one type receiver, but only creativity the Raiders have showed in the last five years tends to be tied to losing.  For the Raiders, it’s a disaster of a pick.  Now, they got a really good deal from the Patriots to trade down in the second round, but took S Mike Mitchell at least two rounds too early.  The Raiders tend to make hilarious assumptions that in today’s era of a incredibly publicized draft process, that they’ll find the pro bowlers that no one else knows about.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mitchell become a league average safety, and help the Raiders win a game or two, but finding a player like that in the second round isn’t hard.

32. San Diego Chargers (1)
Yes, process points actually put the Chargers below the Raiders. Whereas the Raiders picked up two free draft picks for moving down to the Patriots’ pick in the middle of the second round, the Chargers did not move anywhere, didn’t have a second round pick, and ended up using their only first day pick on LB Larry English in the middle of the first round.  I don’t know where they are planning to play Larry English, but I think he sits as a rookie.  When a team is looking exclusively to the best player available, it makes sense to look at players that can help you win now as well as in the future.  English doesn’t help the Chargers win now, and I just see Jason Babin when I look at him.  I wouldn’t be shocked if he never makes an impact in the NFL.

The Chargers have the roster to easily overcome, and could get a great contribution from English.  I’m just not optimistic on their draft.

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NFL Top 150: NFL Outsider’s Final 2009 Big Board

This is a complete listing of the 150 best NFL Draft prospects, their positions, their schools, and an NFL comparable player.  Enjoy!

Rank Position Player Name School Grade NFL Comparable Player
1 DT B.J. Raji Boston College 1st Haloti Ngata
2 LB Aaron Curry Wake Forest 1st Lance Briggs
3 OT Jason Smith Baylor 1st Jason Peters
4 WR Michael Crabtree Texas Tech 1st T.J. Houshmandzadeh
5 OT Michael Oher Ole Miss 1st Walter Jones
6 TE Brandon Pettigrew Oklahoma State 1st Heath Miller
7 DE Brian Orakpo Texas 1st Andre Carter/Matthias Kiwanuka
8 CB Malcolm Jenkins Ohio State 1st Quentin Jammer
9 DE Tyson Jackson LSU 1st Richard Seymour
10 OT Eugene Monroe Virginia 1st Chad Clifton
11 RB Chris Wells Ohio State 1st Larry Johnson
12 C Alex Mack California 1st Matt Birk
13 OT Andre Smith Alabama 1st Leonard Davis
14 RB LeSean McCoy Pittsburgh 1st Frank Gore
15 LB Rey Maualuga USC 1st Antonio Pierce
16 LB Clay Matthews USC 1st James Farrior
17 LB James Laurinaitis Ohio State 1st Jonathon Vilma
18 DT Peria Jerry Mississippi 1st Cornelius Griffin
19 DE Everette Brown Florida State 1st Trent Cole
20 CB Vontae Davis Illinois 1st Chris Gamble
21 WR Brian Robiske Ohio State 1st Reggie Wayne
22 RB Knowshon Moreno Georgia 1st Fred Taylor
23 QB Mark Sanchez USC 1st Matt Hasselbeck
24 WR Derrick Williams Penn State 1st Deion Branch
25 WR Darrius Heyward-Bey Maryland 1st Donald Driver
26 DT Evander Hood Missouri 1st Corey Williams
27 CB Alphonzo Smith Wake Forest 1st Antoine Winfield
28 LB Clint Sintim Virginia 1st Ernie Sims
29 DE Robert Ayers Tennessee 1st Alex Brown
30 C Eric Wood Louisville 1st Nick Hardwick
31 OT Eben Britton Arizona 1st Jon Tait
32 CB Sean Smith Utah 1st Nate Clements
33 LB Brian Cushing USC 2nd Rocky McIntosh
34 S Louis Delmas Western Michigan 2nd Ryan Clark
35 CB Darius Butler Connecticut 2nd Al Harris
36 RB Donald Brown Connecticut 2nd Joseph Addai
37 WR Kenny Britt Rutgers 2nd Bernard Berrian
38 QB Matthew Stafford Georgia 2nd Kerry Collins
39 OT William Beatty Connecticut 2nd Khalif Barnes
40 G Duke Robinson Oklahoma 2nd Sean Locklear
41 RB Andre Brown North Carolina State 2nd Maurice Morris
42 TE Jared Cook South Carolina 2nd Alge Crumpler
43 DE Alex Magee Purdue 2nd Aaron Smith
44 LB Connor Barwin Connecticut 2nd Kamerion Wimbley
45 LB Larry English Northern Illinois 2nd Jarrett Johnson
46 TE James Casey Rice 2nd Chris Cooley
47 DT Ron Brace Boston College 2nd Kris Jenkins
48 WR Jeremy Maclin Missouri 2nd Donte Stallworth
49 DE Paul Kruger Utah 2nd Robert Geathers
50 S David Bruton Notre Dame 2nd Nick Collins
51 S Rashad Johnson Alabama 2nd Madieu Williams
52 CB Victor Harris Virginia Tech 2nd Corey Webster
53 CB Mike Mickens Cincinnati 2nd Marcus Trufant
54 QB Graham Harrell Texas Tech 2nd Marc Bulger
55 WR Percy Harvin Florida 2nd Lance Moore
56 QB Josh Freeman Kansas State 2nd Jake Delhomme
57 QB Pat White West Virginia 2nd Chris Simms
58 LB Darry Beckwith LSU 2nd Will Witherspoon
59 RB Rashad Jennings Liberty 2nd Jamal Lewis
60 OT Jamon Meredith South Carolina 2nd Ryan Harris
61 TE Cornelius Ingram Florida 2nd Marcedes Lewis
62 TE Chase Coffman Missouri 2nd Greg Olsen
63 C Antoine Caldwell Alabama 2nd Shaun O’Hara
64 CB Kevin Barnes Maryland 2nd Charles Tillman
65 S Patrick Chung Oregon 3rd Gibril Wilson
66 DE Jarron Gilbert San Jose State 3rd Demetric Evans
67 DT Vance Walker Georgia Tech 3rd Kedric Golston
68 DE Michael Johnson Georgia Tech 3rd Will Smith
69 DE Aaron Maybin Penn State 3rd Darryl Tapp
70 RB Javon Ringer Michigan State 3rd Pierre Thomas
71 G T.J. Lang Eastern Michigan 3rd Josh Beekman
72 TE Shawn Nelson Southern Miss 3rd David Martin
73 OT Gerald Cadogan Penn State 3rd Flozell Adams
74 LB Scott McKillop Pitt 3rd Barrett Ruud
75 CB Sherron Martin Troy 3rd Rashean Mathis
76 DT Fili Moala USC 3rd Damione Lewis
77 DE Lawrence Sidbury Richmond 3rd Mark Anderson
78 RB Cedric Peerman Virginia 3rd Dominic Rhodes
79 QB Stephen McGee Texas A&M 3rd Seneca Wallace
80 WR Mike Thomas Arizona 3rd Steve Smith (NYG)
81 WR Mohammad Massaquoi Georgia 3rd Justin Gage
82 OT Xavier Fulton Illinois 3rd Jon Stinchcomb
83 G Andy Levitre Oregon State 3rd Justin Smiley
84 C Max Ungar Oregon 3rd Jeff Faine
85 LB Jason Phillips TCU 3rd D’Qwell Jackson
86 DE Kyle Moore USC 3rd Adewale Ogunleye
87 CB D.J. Moore Vanderbilt 3rd Terrell Thomas
88 CB Greg Toler St. Pauls College 3rd Ron Bartell
89 S William Moore Missouri 3rd Dawan Landry
90 S Michael Hamlin Clemson 3rd Mike Brown
91 RB Tyrell Sutton Northwestern 3rd Ryan Grant
92 WR Hakeem Nicks North Carolina 3rd Hank Baskett
93 TE Anthony Hill North Carolina State 3rd Dan Campbell
94 OT Phil Loadholt Oklahoma 3rd Stacey Andrews
95 CB Jarius Byrd Oregon 3rd Dwight Lowery
96 LB Cody Brown Connecticut 3rd Clint Ingram
97 LB Marcus Freeman Ohio State 3rd Brandon Chillar
98 DE David Veikune Hawaii 3rd John Abraham
99 S Chip Vaughn Wake Forest 3rd Ken Hamlin
100 WR Brandon Tate North Carolina 3rd Arnaz Battle
101 WR Juaquan Iglesias Oklahoma 4th Michael Jenkins
102 OT Fenuki Tupou Oregon 4th Kareem McKenzie
103 G Trevor Canfield Cincinnati 4th Cooper Carlisle
104 DT Dorrell Scott Clemson 4th Barry Cofield
105 LB Tyrone McKenzie USF 4th Tyjuan Hagler
106 DT John Gill Northwestern 4th Adam Carriker
107 S C.J. Spiller Marshall 4th Jim Leonhard
108 DT Roy Miller Texas 4th Gerrard Warren
109 DE Zach Potter Nebraska 4th Ty Warren
110 QB Mike Reilly Central Washington 4th Derek Anderson
111 WR Ramses Barden Cal Poly 4th James Hardy
112 OT Troy Kropog Troy 4th Marc Columbo
113 QB John Parker Wilson Alabama 4th Kyle Orton
114 RB Ian Johnson Boise State 4th LenDale White
115 LB Dan Skuta Grand Valley State 4th Derek Smith
116 LB Jason Williams Western Illinois 4th Thomas Howard
117 S Otis Wiley Michigan State 4th O.J. Otogwe
118 LB Jonathon Casillias Wisconsin 4th Pisa Tinoisamoa
119 CB DeAngelo Smith Cincinnati 4th Ken Lucas
120 RB Devin Moore Wyoming 4th Fred Jackson
121 WR Dominick Goodman Cincinnati 4th Kassim Osgood
122 C Jonathon Luigs Oklahoma 4th Hank Fraley
123 G Kraig Urbik Wisconsin 4th Eric Steinbach
124 S Brandon Underwood Cincinnati 4th Michael Johnson (NYG)
125 LB Zack Follett California 4th Chase Blackburn
126 S Darcel McBath Texas Tech 4th Corey Chavous
127 RB Mike Goodson Texas A&M 4th Ernest Graham
128 TE Ryan Purvis Boston College 4th Brent Celek
129 TE Travis Beckum Wisconsin 4th Kevin Boss
130 C A.Q. Shipley Penn State 4th Jeff Hartwig
131 QB Nate Davis Ball State 4th David Garrard
132 QB Drew Willey Buffalo 4th Kellen Clemens
133 G Tyronne Green Auburn 4th Randy Thomas
134 OT Augustus Parrish Kent State 4th Ray Willis
135 RB Kory Sheets Purdue 4th Aaron Stecker
136 DT Sammie Lee Hill Stillman 4th Ryan Pickett
137 LB Dannell Ellerbe Georgia 5th Monty Beisel
138 DT Terrence Taylor Michigan 5th Anthony Weaver
139 DE Brandon Williams Texas Tech 5th Kalimba Edwards
140 DE Orion Harris Virginia Tech 5th Ebenezer Ekuban
141 DE Will Davis Illinois 5th Darrion Scott
142 WR Johnny Knox Abilene Christian 5th Roscoe Parrish
143 TE Richard Quinn North Carolina 5th Zach Miller
144 RB Shonn Green Iowa 5th Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis
145 WR Austin Collie BYU 5th Josh Reed
146 G Louis Vasquez Texas Tech 5th Richie Incognito
147 G Herman Johnson LSU 5th Kendall Simmons
148 OT Sebastian Vollmer Houston 5th Trai Essex
149 FB Tony Fiammetta Syracuse 5th Carey Davis
150 WR Patrick Turner USC 5th Robert Ferguson

Tomorrow, I’ll combine all of the credible information I have into one final mock draft.  As accurate as my top prospects lists look in hindsight, my mock drafts tend to be 18 different kinds of horrible.  I’ll make it entertaining so that it will be worth your while.

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NFL Top 10: 2008 NFL Draft Process Points from

Last year, I wrote this following introduction while introducing “process points”, a refreshing way to grade a draft before we know how good the players will be.  By grading the process, not the overall haul, I hoped to be able to see if teams who draft the “right” way end up with better drafts than teams who act impulsively and out of desperation.  Here’s what I said while introducing the system:

“Which teams are showing desperation?  Which teams are calm, collected, stick to the plan, and land their guy when they should?  These are the kind of questions that will be answered over the next eight hours.

We will use a simple points system as follows and see who has the best first day:

5 points for a “smart” first round selection
3 points for a “smart” second round selection
2 points for a “smart” trade
No points for a desperate trade or a questionable selection

Using this system, we will be able to see objectively who made the best choices on day one-and who didn’t help their teams at all.”

It’s not yet known whether I’ll make any adjustments to the points system.  The key was to place all biases about the quality of players on the side, and just look at the logic structure for the pick, i.e., taking into consideration information from the days leading up to the draft, and asking whether or not the team covered it’s tracks and put itself in a flexible position to succeed.  Did they pass over a higher ranked player because they graded him lower than the average NFL team, or simply because they never really expected him to be there, and didn’t perform due diligence on a potentially great player?  Did they keep all their options open, or lock in on one guy too early in the process?

Below, I will look back at the top ten teams in process points from the 2008 NFL Draft’s first day, and critique my own system as well as the teams using a bit of hindsight.

10.  Philadelphia Eagles (8 points)

How did they get ’em: 2 points for trading with Carolina for the 28th overall pick in this draft that just became Jason Peters, 3 points for beating the Redskins to Trevor Laws in the middle of the second, 3 points for taking Cal WR DeSean Jackson in the middle of the second.

The Eagles are historically very, very good on the first day of the draft, so their presence in the top ten is no surprise.  DeSean Jackson looks to be a very promising player as a future No. 1 receiver, while Trevor Laws was an effective rotational tackle for Philly.  His prospectus for year two is similar.  The Eagles passed on a chance at Jeff Otah, and one year later, they have two time pro bowler Jason Peters at LT with that pick.

9.  Buffalo Bills (8 points)

How did they get ’em: 5 points for getting CB Leodis McKelvin at perceived value, and 3 points for getting WR James Hardy in the middle of the receiver run of the second round.

Hardy was not productive at all as a rookie, and he will be blocked in the 2009 season by Terrell Owens, so he’s on the highway to Bustsville as we speak.  McKelvin, on the other hand, was a fantastic asset on special teams last year and did promising work at CB in limited time.  He figures to make the starting lineup this year.

8.  Green Bay Packers (8 points)

How did they get ’em: they traded out of the first round, getting two points, and got three points each for the passing tandem of WR Jordy Nelson and QB Brian Brohm.

Brohm was an elite statistical prospect up there with Chad Henne who was incredibly disappointing in the 2008 preseason and consequently has yet to play a down in the NFL.  The team is still bullish on his future, but he was drafted as an Aaron Rodgers insurance policy, and now Rodgers’ job security is no longer in question.  Brohm will be trade bait in a few years.  Jordy Nelson didn’t make an immediate impact, but he figures to be the third receiver this year, and the successor to Donald Driver.

7.  Jacksonville Jaguars (10 points)

How did they get ’em: the Jags received no points for their foolish trade up into the top ten, clearly overestimating how close they were to being an elite team.  They were given 5 points for Derrick Harvey (pictured above) at the 8th pick, and then 2 points for repositioning in the second round to get another pass rusher, Quentin Groves, who netted the Jaguars another 3 points.

The Jags draft shows an inherent problem with process points that needs to be ironed out: the Jaguars were not punished by the system for paying way, way too much to get Derrick Harvey who didn’t even do anything in the NFL his first season.  10 points implies the Jags had one of the best drafts, and even right after the draft, that hardly seemed to be true.

6.  New York Jets (10 points)

How did they get ’em: 5 points for both Vernon Gholston and Dustin Keller, no points for the trade.

Keller had a nice rookie year, but to have received points for the trade, I would have really had to think he was THE tight end in the draft.  I didn’t see a big difference between him and John Carlson.  Vernon Gholston’s first season was incredibly disappointing, and though the skill set is still there, he’s going to have about a month to break out before his window closes and Rex Ryan moves forward with more proven guys.

5.  New Orleans Saints (10 points)

How did they get ’em: 2 points for trading up with the Patriots to land an elite player in Sedrick Ellis, who netted them 5 points.  CB Tracy Porter gave them 3 points in the second round.

Tracy Porter profiles as a No. 2 CB, who will likely be the teams nickelback this year after getting hurt.  Sedrick Ellis didn’t make a huge impact as a rookie, but remains a top prospect on the defensive line for the Saints.

4.  Miami Dolphins (11 points)

How did they get ’em: All 5 for the perfectly executed Jake Long contract, then 3 points each for DE Phillip Merling in the second round, and QB of the future Chad Henne at the end of the second.

Can’t say enough about the work they did.  If Merling becomes a great player for Tony Sparano, the Dolphins probably had the best draft.

3.  Atlanta Falcons (12 points)

How did they get ’em: 5 points for getting Matt Ryan with the 3rd overall pick.  2 points for trading up to land T Sam Baker who was the last of the first round tackles, and 5 more points for the selection of Baker.

Matt Ryan justified every cent of his 7 year 70 million dollar contract in his first year, but he needs to continue to get even better to be worth the money.  Sam Baker was injured and didn’t play, but he’s the LT of the future for the Falcons.

2.  Seattle Seahawks (12 points)

How did they get ’em: 2 points for trading back for DE Lawrence Jackson, a fringe first rounder, and then 5 points for Jackson.  2 points for re-positioning for TE John Carlson in the second round, and then 3 points for Carlson.

Carlson was as good as any tight end in the NFL last year, which game as no surprise to Fighting Irish fans. He’s good.  Lawrence Jackson had a minimal impact last year, but a 4 year player at USC, I still like his potential in future seasons.

1.  Kansas City Chiefs (13 points)

How did they get ’em: 5 points for DT Glenn Dorsey. No points for the trade up to get Branden Albert, but 5 points for the Albert pick.  3 points for CB Brandon Flowers

It was Flowers who actually contributed the most as a rookie of the three players but Dorsey and Albert started all games.  All three players figure to be a big part of the next KC playoff team, all due respect to my Royals.

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NFL Rantings Calls the 2009 Season (AFC Edition)

The numbers have been crunched, the schedules have been marked, and the predictions are in.  I can tell you who will win the AFC this year.  But before I let you in on a secret, I offer you up this preview of the AFC, it’s teams, their major questions, things you can watch for this season, and why your team may not be quite what you think.

First, let me offer up an explanation of my methods.

To get a more complete picture of the NFL season, I used two different types of projections.  The first one is your standard subjective, run-through of the schedule where every team is picked.  Teams are ranked in their division by this method.  This is also how I decided who my picks for the playoffs would be, since many potential outcomes of the NFL season are determined by scheduling occurrences and tiebreakers.

But to determine the strength of each team, and to remove as much bias as possible from the process, I created a formula to power rank each of the 32 teams.  The formula is 75% adjusted “QDS” (quality depth plus starters) which is a simple count of the number of pro bowl quality players on a roster PLUS the number of positions at which the team is stacked with starting quality talent throughout the depth chart.  This number was adjusted to fit on a “wins” scale of 0-16.  The formula is also 25% an average of the last five years of the team’s Pythagorean records, a measure of past strength.  I settled on 3 parts current roster, and 1 part historical strength because it felt right to me, but I might need to polish up this method as the season goes on.

Teams will have their “power” ranking and projected win total next to their preview.  Because this number is NOT schedule adjusted, it has no bearing on the order of the teams in the divisions.  Only how good you can expect the teams to be.

East

1.  New England Patriots (Win Projection: 11.9; NFL Rank: 1) *Division Winner*

The Patriots have a much better team this year than last year, which is really saying something since they won 11 games without Tom Brady.  Brady returns to the lineup where he and Randy Moss are out to prove that they still can not be stopped.  This year, it’s much more of a brains operation up in New England than a feat of strength.  In 2007, they overpowered and ran up the score on every opponent they faced.  They aren’t strong enough to do that this year, so their offensive game will be more adjustment based, they’ll lean on the running game a little more, and they’ll find ways to stay ahead of their opponent, as opposed to scoring early, often, and from gun to gun.

The Patriots featured a re-tooled defense that did not look up to par against the Redskins, but appears to be run-oriented, shutting down Clinton Portis in only 6 carries.  The pass defense will benefit when they get Shawn Springs into the lineup, but between the young safeties and veteran corners, it shouldn’t be too long until they get it pieced together.  QDS really likes their defense, and well, pretty much everybody really likes their offense.

2. Miami Dolphins (Win Projection: 6.7; NFL Rank: 24)

There’s a lot of things that can go wrong for the Dolphins this year, but I’m lukewarm on them because they lack a lot of truly great players.  You would call Chad Pennington a top quarterback, when healthy.  Ronnie Brown is a top running back, when healthy.  Jake Long has been everything they ever would have wanted out of the first overall pick at LT.  And Joey Porter is a great talent who led the AFC in sacks last year.  The rest of the Dolphins success last year was built around functional parts and a weak schedule.  So naturally, it’s on them to prove that they are actually better than last year.

The Dolphins overhauled their secondary, replacing Andre Goodman and Nathan Jones with rookies Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.  Given the steep learning curve at the position, it’s probably unreasonable to expect immediate improvement at the position.  The Dolphins are a very young team, but likely not as great as they appeared last season.

3.  New York Jets (Win Projection: 7.5; NFL Rank: 20)

The Jets come out a little bit above the Dolphins in the power rankings, mostly on the strength of their past performance: a game better, on average, over the last five seasons.  But when I picked the schedule, the Dolphins came out a game ahead.

The Jets will roll with Mark Sanchez at quarterback this year.  He’s polished enough as a prospect to make it look like he knows what he’s doing, but too raw to be expected to play mistake-free football.  Whether he’s an upgrade over end-of-the-year Brett Favre remains to be seen.  The current plan is for the Jets to rely on a three headed monster at running back, with Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and Shonn Green.  But given the pass happy tendencies of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, it’s impossible to see a successful Jets offense without a good year from the quarterback.

A lot of people are bullish on the Jets defense, but Lito Sheppard is going to have to do a lot better in order to shore up a questionable pass defense.  He’s a giant gaping hole in an otherwise solid secondary.  Given the uncertainty with a 4 game suspension with Calvin Pace, and the slow, to be nice, development of Vernon Gholston, I’m not feeling the immediate impact of the Rex Ryan pressure defense.  In the long run, it will pay off.

4. Buffalo Bills (Win Projection: 6.2; NFL Rank: 26)

The Bills have a problem with their offensive line.  It hasn’t blocked anyone all preseason.  Combine that with a learning on the job quarterback and a volatile wide receiver and no established running game, and it makes up an unmitigated disaster on offense.

The Bills on defense and special teams are promising, promising enough to produce similar results to last year with an offense that can’t score.  But, like the Dolphins, it’s a very young defense, and thus, is very hard to project.  They could be great, but they absolutely need to in order to contend for the playoffs.

South

1.  Indianapolis Colts (Win Projection: 11.8; NFL Rank: 2) *Division Winner*

The last time the Colts failed to win 12 games in the regular season, they went on to win the super bowl.  If that doesn’t make them a threat every single year, then blame the Patriots.  The Colts are the only comparable team to the Pats in terms of front line talent: it’s absolutely everywhere.  I don’t think people realize just how potent the Colts’ defense is.  There’s 3 pro bowl types on the DL, one at MLB, and two in the secondary.  Oh yeah, the offense isn’t bad either.

Peyton Manning is the reigning MVP, and he gets another weapon in RB Donald Brown to go with Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, and Anthony Gonzalez.  If there’s a point of concern here, it’s the OL, who is starting Charlie Johnson (best suited for Guard) at LT.  It shouldn’t be too much of an issue, especially since the defense can take over games if needed, but it’s a situation worth keeping an eye on.

2. Houston Texans (Win Projection: 7.8; NFL Rank: 19)  *Wild Card*

I have the Texans significantly outperforming their power ranking to grab a postseason berth, but this is based on an assumption that the Texans will take advantage of their soft September schedule and jump out to a 3-1 or 4-0 start.  In fact, it’s entirely dependent on a fast start.  Last year, the Texans began 0-4 and didn’t look good at all.  They finished out the season at 8-4 to pull to 8-8, but we’ll know how good this team really is by October 1.

This team has major issues on defense still, and a lot of their ability to outperform my projection and makes the playoffs relies on the development of their young talent there.  They’ve been one of the worst defenses in the NFL each of the last four seasons, and Texans fans have had enough.  Other than that, if Matt Schaub stays healthy, this is a 8 win team easily, and probably more than that.

3.  Jacksonville Jaguars (Win Projection:  7.9; NFL Rank: 18)

The Jaguars have a minuscule schedule advantage over the Texans, Cleveland and Kansas City instead of Oakland and Cincinnati.  They might be the better of the the two teams, actually, but they don’t have as nearly as soft a schedule at the beginning of the year.  I think that might be decisive, as well as the fact that I just don’t believe in the Jaguars as a team good enough to win close games with regularity.

I see the same rebound everyone else sees, but that’s 8 or 9 wins, and a near miss at the playoffs.  Too bad, because the franchise really needs a run of playoff success to make professional football in Jacksonville viable.

4.  Tennessee Titans (Win Projection:  9.4; NFL Rank: 8)

The Titans are still the second most powerful team in the AFC South (by a pretty big margin), but they draw the short end of the stick with that first-place schedule.  San Diego, their AFC West draw, is likely to win more games than the rest of it’s division combined.  They also have to play the Steelers, on opening night, coming right off the super bowl victory.  9.4 wins is not a schedule-adjusted prediction, as this is more like a 7 or 8 win team after those considerations.  It’s a second place team if neither Jacksonville nor Houston takes the next step forward, but it’s probably not a playoff team in most outcomes.

North

1.  Baltimore Ravens (Win Projection: 9.0; NFL Rank: 10)  *Division Winner*

Pure and simple, I feel that the Ravens have been underprojected by my own system.  The reason is simple: 5 wins in 2007 drags down their past history to levels well behind the AFC’s elite teams.  But I feel that the Ravens are an elite team.  They might not have an annually productive offense, but Joe Flacco has alleviated a lot of preseason concerns by lighting up teams like the Redskins and the Panthers in the preseason.

If the Ravens do beat the Steelers for the division crown, they’ll have to beat a significant schedule impediment in the process.  It’s not easy to go up against New England and Indianapolis (the two best teams in my power rankings) as a second-place schedule, and then have to beat the third best team in the power rankings, so if the Ravens make it through, it’s clear that they are actually the best team.

2.  Pittsburgh Steelers (Win Projection: 10.7; NFL Rank: 3) *Wild Card*

The defending super bowl champs enter this season as favorites in the division, but desperately needing to improve the offense to go along with their defense.  It’s simply unrealistic to expect a repeat of last years defense, though the unit is still as loaded as ever.

I don’t know how much I trust Ben Roethlisberger.  I like how he extends plays and he generally makes good decisions with the football, but the passing production for a guy who holds the ball as long as he does has been very Carr-ian.  The Steelers may go back to pounding the rock now that Rashard Mendenhall is healthy and ready to take the league by storm.

3.  Cincinnati Bengals (Win Projection: 7.3; NFL Rank: 21)

It’s not hard to stretch your eyes, and see the Bengals as a playoff team if the Ravens or Steelers suddenly implode: they have the talent.  The Bengals are just largely indistinguishable from a whole bunch of other teams, including the Texans, Jaguars, Jets, and Browns.  Considering, there at most is one spot for these teams to make it, the Bengals need to win pretty much all of their head to head games against this competition.  It’s asking a lot of them to do so with an offensive line currently in flux.  On the flip side, the defense figures to be competent.

4.  Cleveland Browns (Win Projection: 7.0; NFL Rank: 22)

The Browns O-Line, on the other hand, will probably gel at some point early this season, and it looks like Brady Quinn is going to win the QB competition with Derek Anderson, which is good for all involved.  The difference between this team and the Bengals is that there’s no guarantee that the Browns will be competent defensively.  Eric Mangini’s last team also struggled with basics such as pass rush and tackling, and wouldn’t you know it, so do the Browns!

With some simple fixes, the Browns could be a darkhorse playoff contender, but that’s all they really have a shot at this year.

West

1.  San Diego Chargers (Win Projection: 10.6; NFL Rank: 4)  *Division Winner*

10.6 wins seems really low for the Chargers in this division, and it probably is.  As you’ll notice with the rest of the division, past history is kind to the Chiefs and Broncos (not so much the Raiders) which makes the division a little bit stronger than it really is.  Then again, the 10.6 is NOT schedule-adjusted, so the Chargers are probably a 12 or 13 win team.

If Philip Rivers is going to take the next step to become the next truly great NFL passer, it seems like everything has lined up for him to do so this year.  He’s got a resurgent LaDainian Tomlinson to help carry the load, and is clearly not afraid to force the ball down the field to his tall receivers for yards and points.

2.  Oakland Raiders (Win Projection: 5.1; NFL Rank: 31)

When the weighted average of recent Pythagorean records comes out to a paltry 4.6, there’s not much that can be tweaked in the system to improve the Raiders’ chances.  In reality, I think they have a good shot at 6 wins, led by a talented defense.  JaMarcus Russell is still largely clueless at quarterback, but the team added Jeff Garcia in the offseason, and if they get off to a good start, a QB change could salvage the Raiders’ hope at a low-hanging AFC playoff spot.

The rushing attack might be something to write home about.  They feature two backs who can gash you with the long run in Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, and a line that will open up those critical cutback running lanes that can keep the offense moving despite the lack of a serious passing game.

3.  Kansas City Chiefs (Win Projection: 5.5; NFL Rank: 29)

The Chiefs had an offseason that started out so well, when they acquired Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel for only a second round pick, but then they traded franchise, all-world TE Tony Gonzalez for a similar pick next season, and failed to re-tool the offensive line, and now the pieces of an exciting offense are just that, pieces.  Now Matt Cassel is walking wounded, the starting quarterback might temporarily be one of three guys who aren’t any good, and the defense is still porous, and you have one of the worst teams in football here.  Again.

4.  Denver Broncos (Win Projection: 6.4; NFL Rank: 25)

If the Broncos end up with the worst record in football, which is highly possible given their largely unfair schedule (Indy and NE?!), just remember that they can use the first overall pick on…no one, because they traded it to Seattle.  It would be a tough pill to swallow for a team that would have necessarily underachieved their now adjusted expectations, as the fan base would surely not be tolerant of the Josh McDaniels regime should this worst case scenario occur.

But whatever ill will they would feel would be paid back when it’s time to hand out those first round contracts, and the Broncos aren’t caught holding the bag.

Playoff Predictions

Going with quarterback play, experience, and defense in the playoffs makes sense.  Here’s how wild card weekend shapes up, per my predictions:

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts
Houston Texans vs. Baltimore Ravens

The Texans figure to remain a bit overmatched against the league’s elite teams, and though the Steelers have beaten the Colts before in the playoffs, this isn’t quite the same Steelers team, and Peyton Manning solved their defense last year, so I think a hypothetical matchup would favor the Colts.

So all four of my projected division winners comprise the divisional round, giving us the following match-ups:

Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
Baltimore Ravens vs. San Diego Chargers

Will this be the year that Manning solves the Patriots in New England?  I have reason to believe it will, if the opportunity presents itself.  He’s only ever won there in the regular season to date.  I’m thinking the Ravens aren’t going to get back to the AFC Championship this year, which means that, yes, I’ve officially backed off the Ravens super bowl pick.  I like the Chargers to advance.

The projected AFC Championship match-up:

Indianapolis Colts vs. San Diego Chargers

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.  I expect the Chargers to have the best regular season record, but I think Philip Rivers defers to Peyton Manning one more time.  Going right through the three best teams in the AFC, the Colts earn their way back to Miami for SB XLIV.

Coming in fewer than 24 hours, NFL Rantings’ NFC Preview.

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NFL Rantings Calls the 2009 Season (NFC Edition)

If you have not read the NFL Rantings AFC Preview, here is a description of the methodology I use to make the predictions:

To get a more complete picture of the NFL season, I used two different types of projections.  The first one is your standard subjective, run-through of the schedule where every team is picked.  Teams are ranked in their division by this method.  This is also how I decided who my picks for the playoffs would be, since many potential outcomes of the NFL season are determined by scheduling occurrences and tiebreakers.

But to determine the strength of each team, and to remove as much bias as possible from the process, I created a formula to power rank each of the 32 teams.  The formula is 75% adjusted “QDS” (quality depth plus starters) which is a simple count of the number of pro bowl quality players on a roster PLUS the number of positions at which the team is stacked with starting quality talent throughout the depth chart.  This number was adjusted to fit on a “wins” scale of 0-16.  The formula is also 25% an average of the last five years of the team’s Pythagorean records, a measure of past strength.  I settled on 3 parts current roster, and 1 part historical strength because it felt right to me, but I might need to polish up this method as the season goes on.

Teams will have their “power” ranking and projected win total next to their preview.  Because this number is NOT schedule adjusted, it has no bearing on the order of the teams in the divisions.  Only how good you can expect the teams to be.

Without further delay, here are the division-by-division results from the NFC:

East

1.  New York Giants
(Win Projection: 9.6; NFL Rank: 7)

Any of three teams could conceivably win the NFC East, who have the 5th, 6th, and 7th teams in my power poll.  I’m going to go with the Giants, though, who avoided a particularly difficult first-place schedule, and figure to have one of the most dominant defensive units in the NFL this year.

The Giants have big questions to answer on offense this year.  Where has the running game been the last two preseason games?  Where are those young, talented receivers and what does Eli Manning have to do to get some help?  Can the OL stay healthy again?  The Giants have plenty of competition for this spot, primarily from the Redskins and Eagles.

2.  Washington Redskins (Win Projection:  9.7; NFL Rank: 6)

There are a lot of signs that point to the Redskins being the team that no one is predicting to win the NFC that gives it a run.  No NFC team improved as much in the offseason, for one thing.  But that’s not new for the Redskins, so the concerns for this team have to do with the finish of last year’s team.  How far exactly did the Redskins fall last year?  How deep do the problems in the secondary run?  What is the ceiling for this offense: even if it does improve, can it reach the levels the Redskins coaches expect from it?

In support of the notion that the Redskins might actually rout the NFC East this year, no team has been better in the preseason from this division, and no team has made it through the last month healthier, which has always slowed the Redskins in the past.

3.  Philadelphia Eagles (Win Projection:10.29; NFL Rank: 5)

This Eagles team isn’t quite as good as it’s past history makes that win projection look, but they’ll be right in the thick of the division race.  I don’t think they’ve been quite as impressive as the Redskins this preseason, in fact, you can say they’ve struggled, and no one is quite sure yet how Michael Vick is supposed to help this team win.

The Eagles have a lot of things they need to figure out before they become an elite team in the NFC, but in this way, the continued suspension of Vick might actually help the Eagles: they get to sort out some of their larger issues before trying to figure out how to work Vick in to a winning organization.

4.  Dallas Cowboys (Win Projection: 8.4; NFL Rank: 12)

The 12th best team in the NFL?  Cowboys fans will take it.  8-9 wins doesn’t get you very far in this division, but in all honesty, it might be all this Cowboys team is capable of.  It’s not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, they would probably be the favorite in the NFC South, for example, but in the NFC East, they really aren’t even that much of a wild card threat.

I think Jason Garrett is disciplined enough as a coordinator to stick with the running game and limit Tony Romo’s interception total in the process, but a lot of how good the Cowboys can be has to do with the defense.  This year, if the Cowboys are as good as they think they can be, the defense is going to score a lot of points.

South

1.  New Orleans Saints (Win Projection: 8.2; NFL Rank: 16)

According to the power rankings, three teams have a realistic shot at the NFC South title and playoff spot.  I’m proud of the objective system for figuring this out, but unfortunately, it picked the wrong teams.  So I’m going with the Saints to win the thing, partially because of the schedule, partially due to Gregg Williams at defensive coordinator, and entirely because of Drew Brees.

2.  Atlanta Falcons (Win Projection: 5.8; NFL Rank: 27)

It would not be a stretch to call Atlanta the underdog in the NFC South.  They scored a 7 in QDS, which would make them a bad team, except that Matt Ryan is STILL making the NFL his personal playground into this season, and while Ryan was one of the few quality players on the Falcons’ roster, if he’s even better than last year (and you have to at least give him the shot), then the Falcons are not going to be worse than 8-8 this year, regardless of defensive play.

Now, the defense did look very bad against the Chargers.  It will probably be the team’s achillies heel this year.  But if the running game is even a shell of it’s former self, and Ryan continues to carve up defenses this year, the Falcons will win more than 6 games.

3.  Carolina Panthers (Win Projection: 8.2; NFL Rank: 15)

Moving over to a team that has NOT been very good in the preseason, the Panthers’ defense really appears to be missing Ma’ake Kemoeatu, lost for the season with an achillies injury.  But the team had to be satisfied with Jake Delhomme’s day throwing the football in the third preseason game, and DeAngelo Williams continues to provide highlight reel runs.

The problem is that last year, the Panthers showed in the preseason that they were a stacked roster, and rode that depth to the NFC South division title.  This year, they aren’t nearly as deep, and if the defense can be gashed by the run this easily, it’s going to be a very long seven win season for the Panthers.

4.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Win Projection: 8.3; NFL Rank: 13)

Believe it or not, the Bucs have the best statistical projection of any team in this division, although they are the one team who probably can’t win it.  The last two years, the Bucs have scored a 9.0 and a 10.0 in Pythagorean wins, and this isn’t a markedly worse team this year, which gives you an 8.3 win projection.

Tampa did draw the tough schedule: I have both Green Bay and Seattle winning their divisions.  That alone probably takes them out of the “division winner” discussion, but if Atlanta ends up being a 6 win team this year, and the Bucs can beat the Panthers twice, a 2nd place finish for the Bucs is not unreasonable.

North

1.  Green Bay Packers (Win Projection: 8.0; NFL Rank: 17)

The NFC North is going to be a very tight division this year: you have three teams with pretty high “floors”.  Compare that to the NFC South, where the Panthers are regressing and the Falcons and Bucs could be limited to 6 wins each, and you get more of a de-facto winner, you can pretty much pencil the Bears, Packers, and Vikings in for 7+ wins each.

So why the Packers, even with the Bears having a slight statistical advantage?  When in doubt, go with the team with the most homegrown talent.  That’s certainly not the Vikings, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Aaron Rodgers > Jay Cutler, at least this season.

2.  Chicago Bears (Win Projection: 8.3; NFL Rank: 14)

If the Bears can get another great special teams year from Devin Hester, this is a super bowl contender.  If not, they are still a good division contender behind their best defense in the last three years–a dominant front seven and developing secondary–and of course Jay Cutler.

How about that Cutler?  Got to see the Bears-Broncos game yesterday, and for the first quarter and a half, Cutler looked lost and confused.  Then, in his final drive, Cutler flawlessly took the Bears 98-yards for a scoring drive that ate all the remaining time in the first half.  It was just a single well-executed drive, and yet, at the end of it, Cutler’s numbers looked just like they always have.  It was a very expected performance, and he came through in a hostile environment.

3.  Minnesota Vikings (Win Projection: 6.7; NFL Rank: 23)

Brett Favre will play a half tonight in Houston.  That’s nice.

The Vikings have a low win projection because 1) they have virtually no depth anywhere, and 2) there are a couple of 6-7 win seasons in recent memory.  I fully expect the Vikings to win 7+ games, but I think there’s a gap between them and a playoff caliber team, and I don’t think it’s a gap that can be covered by a 40 year old Brett Favre.

4.  Detroit Lions (Win Projection: 5.1; NFL Rank: 30)

Can the Lions compete in this division?  I think they can: they seem to have made the necessary offensive and defensive changes to avoid being an embarrassing team, which is, of course, the first step to respectability.  With that said, no team in the NFL is more likely to finish in last place this year than the Lions, because it looks like they need to go 3-3 in the NFC North to be able to pull themselves out of last place.  In this division, that’s asking a lot.

Can the Lions go undefeated at home in the division?  If they do, it’s safe to say they were better than I thought they would be, and that they very much earned whatever spot they finished in.

West

1.  Seattle Seahawks (Win Projection: 8.8; NFL Rank: 11)

The Seahawks seem poised for a major rebound, though, I’m going to make you keep reading to see just how far they can go.  I like both their defense and their offense this year, and actually think 8.8 wins is a little bit low: by my count, they scored 12-4 in a weak division via the tried and true scheduling method.

Look for difference makers Brandon Mebane, and Aaron Curry to make big impacts for the Seahawks this year.

2.  St. Louis Rams (Win Projection: 4.4; NFL Rank: 32)

The Rams have the worst projection of any team by the system I have been using, but you can’t really conclude that they are the worst team in the league from that.  If you asked me, I’d probably bet on the worst team being the Bills, 49ers, Chiefs, or Broncos.  Not the Rams.  So consequently, despite a tougher-than-you’d-think schedule, I have the Rams making a push for .500, despite their lack of pro bowl talent and recent success.

I fully expect this projection to just whiff because the things it’s grading the Rams on in the Scott Linehan era simply don’t apply here.

3.  Arizona Cardinals (Win Projection: 9.1; NFL Rank: 9)

Yes, I do expect last year’s super bowl team from the NFC to finish third in a weak division, and no, I don’t have any reason to believe the projection is wrong.  I don’t think they will win 9 games this year as an encore to last year’s 9 win season, but the Cardinals’ current roster is way more talented than it’s past performance suggests.

What that usually entails is a significant regression as an NFL season wears on that roster.  That puts the Cardinals under a ton of pressure in the first 6-7 games to get off to a 5-1 or 6-1 start.  For the Cardinals to return to the playoffs, they have to ride their playoff success to a few early-season wins in 2009.  Otherwise, they have no competitive advantage over any other team, and a mediocre start from a potentially mediocre team often indicates a mediocre finish.

4.  San Francisco 49ers (Win Projection: 5.7; NFL Rank: 28)

This is not a very good team right now.  The best quarterback on this roster might very well be rookie 5th round draft pick Nate Davis.

The 49ers are expecting a huge jump from their defense this year, and it would be a large disappointment, considering all the resources they have invested in it, if they did not get to that next level.  In what figures to be an otherwise lost season, it would be a major black mark on the young career of Mike Singletary if the defense moves backwards after the step forward it took last season.

Playoff Predictions

The wild card weekend sets up as follows, according to the results of my predictions:

Redskins vs. Saints
Bears vs. Giants

The Saints still strike me as a very flawed team, and though I believe they still have all the tools to make it to Miami this year, they’ll inevitably face a very tough playoff road, and in this instance, lose in the first round.  The Bears are a much stronger playoff threat, and the fact is that outside of 2007, the Giants have not been a very good postseason team.  They’ll fall short this year, which sets up a divisional round of:

Redskins vs. Packers
Bears vs. Seahawks

This would be way more interesting if the Redskins played the Seahawks and the Bears faced the Packers, but as I see it, the NFC North will fall at this point in the playoffs, setting up an East-West battle for the NFC Championship.

Redskins vs. Seahawks

I like the Redskins this year, but not nearly enough to win three consecutive road games to go to the super bowl.  If the Seahawks get homefield advantage in the regular season, and the probability of that happening is as strong as with any other team, they’ll ride that advantage to Super Bowl XLIV.

Your Super Bowl 44 match-up:  Seattle and Indianapolis.

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NFL Rantings: There’s Football on my Television!

No doubt, if you’re familiar with these parts of the blogosphere, you’ve been impressed with the overwhelming amount of content on NFL Outsider in the past few weeks.  Andy and Issac have done some great work.  Certainly, they’re making it hard to keep up, as are all of the team-specific bloggers around the network.

But, if just for a day, I’m going to change the focus of NFL Outsider from the big-picture season in the future towards the NFL preseason.

What have we, as fans learned that we didn’t know just two weeks ago?  Which teams are doing well for themselves, and which teams are struggling with three weeks to go until the first game?  Which players are making names for themselves?

Cincinnati’s First Team Defense

These guys have been fantastic.  LB Keith Rivers is an early defensive player of the year candidate.  They’ve been getting strong corner play from Jonathon Joseph, which is one of the keys of their entire season.  And most importantly, they are finally generating a pass rush.  The improvements these guys have made on the defensive line are very noticeable, and critical from a team with questionable pass covering safeties.

Bears Offensive Volatility

Jay Cutler looked awful against the Bills, and then he came back and was on his game against the Giants.  Cutler’s margin of error is so paper thin on most of his throws that you can almost say he leaves games up to chance.  Cutler was threading needles with mid-season type accuracy, though his decision making was questionable in both games.  As he’ll find out soon, that decision making is only going to be a problem when he loses, but he also spread the ball around much better against the Giants than vs. the Bills.

NFC East Struggles

The NFC East is still your consensus best division, but each team has thrown up a stinker of a game in it’s first two preseason attempts.  The Redskins were shut out in Baltimore, 23-0, while the Cowboys were beaten 31-10 by the Raiders.  Both teams managed to bounce back this week with impressive wins, but the Philadelphia Eagles defense was torched by Peyton Manning, while the New York Giants watched Jay Cutler and Caleb Hanie go up and down the field on them.  In all cases, it’s the defensive coverage units that have been at fault.  The Eagles badly need to rebound next week, while the rest of the teams may be fighting their own demons for most of the season.  It’s a division where the winner doesn’t often dominate (last two years aside), but instead, usually outlasts.

Aaron Rodgers

Brett who? 19 attempts, 10 first downs, 3 completions over 20 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 sacks, 0 INTs.  Is there a better quarterback in the league right now?

If Rodgers comes out and lights up the scoreboard in the team’s dress rehearsal, don’t we have to make the Packers the favorite in the NFC North?  We know what Jay Cutler can do, but it’s time to consider the fact that Aaron Rodgers might just be better.  He’s certainly got the offense to out shoot the Bears.  I can’t wait until Bears-Packers in Week 1 from Lambeau.

Michael Turner

Okay, so his first two opponents have been Detroit and St. Louis, and those were his two 200 yard games from last year.  He’s got to do it again next week.  But, get this, he’s averaging 9.8 yards per carry this preseason.  If he’s going to slow down this year, it’s not happening in August.

Javon Ringer

Coming out of Michigan State, Ringer dropped in the draft all the way to the fifth round.  Oops.  In this preseason, he’s broken more than a few runs en route to a 6.1 YPC average over a 16 carry sample.  Beast!  The Titans know their running backs, and might be the next team to develop a Denver-style running system where they go totally plug and play on the rest of the NFL.

Martellus Bennett

The second TE for the Dallas Cowboys is now in their starting lineup and he’s an unstoppable force in the passing game.  The knock on him coming out of college had to do with his routes, would they be crisp enough to work at the next level?  He seems to have answered those questions, and when Bennett gets the ball in his hands, he’s been money in this preseason.

Brodie Croyle and Dwayne Bowe

It’s hard to believe that Croyle is in his fourth year in the NFL already, but he is, and he’s really on his last chance in the league.  So, maybe the timing of Dwayne Bowe’s recent demotion to a second team WR is a blessing.  Croyle and Bowe have picked apart the defensive coverages of Houston and Minnesota, and Croyle is now competing for the No. 2 spot while it’s only a matter of time until Bowe is the offenses’ go-to guy.  He’ll be their leading receiver this year, without a doubt.

Bills Cornerbacks

Six interceptions in three games?  Hello outside chance at the AFC Playoffs!  It turns out that undrafted CB Ellis Lankster may have earned a spot on the Bills roster, and while the development of Reggie Corner is a pleasant surprise, it’s the numbers that Leodis McKelvin have posted this preseason that means the most to the Bills.  He’s perhaps the most critical of all the Bills defenders this year to there success.  Tough not to like the job Dick Jauron’s defensive unit has done.

Chad Ocho Cinco

Chad Ocho Cinco is back to his scoring ways, which means he’s (naturally) kicking the extra points in the preseason for the Bengals.  His receiving numbers are clearly on their way back as well.  In two preseason games, Ocho has 142 receiving yards, which is third in the league (per game) behind only his own teammate, Chris Henry, and Troy Williamson (!).  If he makes this a habit, it’s not hard to see the Bengals back in the playoffs this year.

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NFL Rantings: Everything you Never Wanted to Know about Michael Vick

On Thursday, August 13th, maligned-humanitarian and professional square peg Michael Vick signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles that includes a club option for 2010.  The news came largely by surprise, not because it was under-reported that Vick would soon sign, but because people have always taken the Eagles at face value when they tell you what they’re not doing.

The Eagles, like pretty much every other team in the league, declared Vick a person of non-interest.  At the time, he probably was.  The only thing that made the Eagles different is that when it came down to the final few teams who were actually willing to offer Vick a contract, the Eagles decided that he was worth a chance, and Vick decided that being a developmental quarterback on the Eagles is probably a better career move than being one on the Ravens and Bengals.  Probably a good move.

The first thought about Vick is that he can help the Eagles as a package-specific player, including being the point-man on the single wing/Wildcat package.  I’m sure Vick will be able to help the Eagles in that way, but you’ll have a hard time selling me on the fact that the Eagles thought they would endure the loads of criticism that come with the territory so that they could not have to see DeSean Jackson behind center in the Wildcat.

We don’t know exactly when Michael Vick will be eligible to play again, except that it will be at some point between week one and week seven.  And when he does come in, I suspect that it won’t be as a package-specific player for the Eagles.  I’m thinking you’ll see him in doses of a drive at a time.  You might see Vick once on the third drive of the game, maybe then again in the second half, and also, I think he’ll do some package work in the Red Zone where he is more effective than Donovan McNabb.  Knowing who Andy Reid is, and what he’s about, I think that when Vick does package work, it will be a lot closer to conventional twenty-first century football than anyone is ready for.

Vick is not likely to be owned in very many fantasy football leagues before the season, but I think that there would have been no reason at all to add him to the team if he wasn’t going to be a statistical monster in one way or another.  He’s simply not the kind of player that provides the kind of future value that would make the Eagles think they could store him away on the bench for the whole season, and then go into the offseason optimistic about Vick’s future in Philly.

For one thing, Vick is in his prime years as of right now.  He’s 29 years old.  Quarterbacks, in general don’t get better following this age.  Vick is a special case because he missed two seasons in the prime of his career, and he’s bound to under-perform his abilities in his first year back to the game.  Still, Vick’s the kind of player who was getting less and less valuable for the Falcons as time went on due in part to two factors: 1) the deterioration of his own physical athleticism from elite to merely extraordinary, and 2) the improvement in athleticism of the average defender in the NFL.  Still, Vick recorded his first 1,000 yard rushing season in 2006 right before his suspension, so certainly his legs were his biggest weapon, but his increasing sack rate suggests that his rushing totals more closely correlate to how long Vick holds the ball as opposed to either self-improvement or increased athletic prowess.

Secondly, Donovan McNabb was a self-admitted proponent of this deal, because he thinks Vick can help the team without threatening McNabb as the Eagles unquestioned starting quarterback.  McNabb seems to be losing his continued battle with logic.  Whether adding Vick helps the Eagles as a team is up for debate.  Whether it helps or hurts Donovan McNabb’s personal career is very much decided.  McNabb’s correct that Vick is not going to be a direct threat to McNabb’s hold on the Eagles’ starting quarterback role,* but Vick’s presence on the roster limits the traditional value of the starting quarterback position.  It’s not Brent Celek’s playing time that Vick is going to take, it’s McNabb’s.

*unless McNabb plays himself out of the roll.  Then, forget I said that.

Vick’s signing is the latest development in a bee-line of events over the last four weeks that have taken McNabb from being the sixth or seventh most valuable quarterback in fantasy football to a nice backup option.  Combine the offensive line injuries with an injury to the prospective No. 2 TE, and a defense that is thinner by the day, and you had a guy who figured to see his touchdown production cut from last year.  Now, you add in Vick, who figures to take some of that action away on the goal line, and we’re now talking about an easily replacable 13-15 TD player.  Fantasy value aside, it’s probably correct to assert that if Vick’s work as a part-time player goes according to plan, Donovan McNabb becomes incredibly expendable at seasons’ end.  McNabb’s contract provides him more security than the Eagles offense does at this point.

It won’t be Vick that replaces McNabb in Philly when McNabb’s tenure does end, but it’s not hard to see comparisons between this story, and the very last story that featured a professional athlete from Syracuse who had another talent who’s star power exceeded his production thrust upon him: when Allen Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets.  Carmelo Anthony did not see the boost to his team that he expected to see when his team acquired Iverson, but he made it through the two-year experiment reputation unscathed, and his team was far more successful this season without Iverson.  Perhaps McNabb and Reid could learn a lesson from this: just because you intend to use Vick as a dynamic weapon in key situations doesn’t necessarily make your team better off for it.

What Vick will do is make the defensive coordinators in the NFC East work that much harder in the week before they play the Eagles.  While an optimistic might suggest this this will have a trickle down effect on McNabb, teams across the division already know how to defend the guy who has been in their division for the last ten years.  Teams will defend McNabb just how they’ve always defended him.  To the Eagles, that’s the allure of Vick: that’s he’s tough to defend for 2 or 3 possessions a game.  It’s not like he’s been productive enough to win as a passer.

Vick has never thrown more than 421 passes in any season, compared to the NFL average over this time-frame, which is 516.  In Vick’s most recent two seasons, he threw 387 and 388 passes.  According to the statistics at Football Outsiders, Vick has not directed a passing offense to acceptable levels since 2002, the last time he played a full season in an offense other than the west coast.  He’s always added value to the running game, but you can’t compete in the NFL doing this.  Over 2005 and 2006, the Atlanta Falcons were 15-16 in games started by Vick, and with the mediocre overall offensive totals, it’s easy to argue that having the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL according to yards has little meaning.  It’s better than not having it, but Vick’s rushing totals are due to a boom or bust approach to pocket passing: when he breaks the pocket, Vick becomes a dangerous player, but the desire to turn Vick into a thrower from the pocket has resulted in terrible personal passing numbers, and large amounts off offensive inefficiency.

The desire to turn Vick into a complete quarterback de-railed his career long before anyone ever realized that a man with millions upon millions to his name could be foolish enough to engage in dogfighting.  The Falcons would not have won with Vick no matter how long they tried to, and it’s very much up to debate whether the Eagles are going to learn from the Falcons mistakes.  The reason Vick can be such a dangerous player in small doses is because there’s nothing, schematically, that can be done to keep Vick inside the pocket except to get him with your pass rush or blitz schemes right away.  With that said, Vick has never had an issue with said hot reads.  Vick is very short by NFL standards, and thusly, relies on his pre-snap reads for most of his information in the passing game (this coming from a diminutive former quarterback).  Well, if he’s going to try to make those throws that a traditional quarterback makes, he’s at a huge disadvantage doing it from the pocket and he always will be.  Drew Brees gets by because he’s more accurate than anyone in the history of the league, and he’s got an inch or two on Vick.  Rex Grossman never did get by.  Vick’s not in the minority with regards to his height, but his athleticism is his ace in the hole.

You can’t get 200+ passes out of a guy like Vick, and that longevity limitation begs teams to use him creatively.  I think the Eagles will do so, and if Vick ends up turning about 2/3 of his dropbacks into runs, he can be successful in this league. For the Eagles, his role will certainly be simplified this year, and you can pencil him in for at least 4-6 total TDs, most likely concentrated in the weeks where your fantasy playoffs will be played.  A word of warning: Murphy’s Law suggests that if you’re not the guy in the league who stashes Vick away on your roster, the person you play in the playoffs will be the one who did.

The bottom line is that the Philadelphia Eagles have created the number one storyline heading into the 2009 football season when they added Michael Vick, and there’s hardly any guarantee that this story will have a happy ending.  The Eagles’ stock had dropped more than any other team since training camp open, and Vick was an easy way to bring back the expectations to a team that thinks it should be contending for a super bowl.  It’s also created a very difficult situation for it’s veteran quarterback, who some observers felt needed a swift kick in the rear anyway.

I thought (prior to training camp) the Eagles were very flawed, but just as talent-loaded.  With Michael Vick in the fold, the Eagles are potentially even more dysfunctional, but are now even more talented.  They compare favorably to the 2008 media-darling Dallas Cowboys, but unless they get Andy Reid’s best coaching effort yet, they’re going to end up in the same spot at the end of the year, Vick or no Vick.

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NFL Rantings: Diagnosing the NFC Super Bowl Contenders

One glance at this year’s AFC pretty much tells you that it’s still very much an elitist conference.  Consider: the last team who wasn’t the Steelers, Patriots, or Colts to come out of the AFC was…the Oakland Raiders.  The Raiders have fallen so far since that super bowl appearance, it’s remarkable that the AFC hasn’t had a worst to first story.

Over the same time frame, the NFC has watched six different teams make a trip to the Super Bowl, including the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, and Carolina Panthers for the first time in the history of their respective franchises.

There’s a distinct difference between a playoff contender and a super bowl contender.  For a team in the AFC to be a super bowl contender, you pretty much have to be a member of the elite class (add Baltimore and San Diego to the three teams above), or an equivalent of last year’s Tennessee Titans, who were a 13 win team.  Take the 11 win Miami Dolphins last year.  Playoff contender?  They were legit since week 3.  Best team in the AFC East?  You could make that argument.  Super bowl contender?  Not last year.  They were the #3 seed in the AFC playoffs, but you knew they couldn’t get by Baltimore, then Pittsburgh, and then Tennessee or San Diego.  They were a perfect example of playoff team who was no threat to make the super bowl.

In the NFC, though, things are far more wide open on a year to year basis.  Last year, the Arizona Cardinals would have been at the top of the list of NFC playoff teams unlikely to make a super bowl run.  I looked at the Vikings last year, and decided they couldn’t get past the Eagles, AND past the Panthers, AND still have enough left to beat the Giants.  They weren’t good enough to make that run.  While I don’t think anyone thought the Cardinals were good enough to beat the Panthers (they won by four scores), their playoff road was considerably easier than Minnesota’s.

Today’s article looks at potential super bowl contenders in the NFC.  I’m going to identify seven teams who could do some damage in the playoffs if they get in.  That does not mean that these six teams will make the playoffs, especially considering just how wide open the NFC North is this year (if you gave me 10-1 odds on the Lions winning it, I’d take you up on it).  We’ll look at just the teams who are complete enough to make a run if they get in, and we’ll handicap the division winners in another post.

The assumption: that none of these teams will win a bye.  Any team that earns a bye in the regular season has a legitimate chance to sneak it’s way to the super bowl even if they aren’t a great team.  We’ll only look at teams who either have a history of stringing together some late season wins, or have the talent on the roster this year to do so.

1) The New Orleans Saints
Best quarterbacks in the NFC: you could make an argument for Romo, Hasselbeck, or Warner, but it’s Brees who leads the class.  And regarding the NFC playoffs, having an established quarterback can be decisive.  He’s the one quarterback who can tear up the top line defenses that will litter this list.

2) The Seattle Seahawks
Keeping Matt Hasselbeck upright is the key to this season, but Seahawks defense, an embarrassment a year ago, is the top ten defensive unit that no one is talking about.  If you think the Seahawks will post another double-digit loss season, you might be convinced that Hasselbeck’s best years are behind him, that his line can’t protect him, and that his receivers can’t save him, but the subtle changes to the offense from new O.C. Greg Knapp should help Matt get the ball out of his hands, and behind this defense, the Seahawks are near the top of the list of NFC super bowl contenders.

3) The New York Giants
Outside of the 2007 playoff run, the Giants are 0-3 in playoff games under Tom Coughlin.  So what might make this year different from the failures and potentially more like the successes?  They enter 2009 with the best defense in the NFC after bolstering depth in the offseason.  Eli Manning has a freshly minted near-100 million dollar deal, and he’ll hand off to Brandon Jacobs in the backfield, who is bound to be more productive in the playoffs than he was against the Eagles last year.  If the Giants are in the playoffs, it’s a pretty good indicator they’ve struck a good balance at WR.

4) The Chicago Bears
Far from a likely division winner, the Bears look to return to the top of the defensive charts, which will allow offseason acquisition Jay Cutler to get his feet wet in an offense that will require him to be more superman than game manager.  Thing is, if the Bears defense doesn’t carry them, they probably can’t outlast the rest of the NFC North.  If the do get a top defensive unit from Lovie Smith, this team is so dangerous in the playoffs.

5) The Washington Redskins
Another team who will look to post top five defensive numbers, the Redskins enter the 2009 season far more unsettled than any other team on offense.  However, while the offense has always been a difficult unit to watch, they are only two years removed from a four game winning streak that put them into the playoffs and four years removed from a six game winning streak that put them one win from the NFC Championship game.  Put simply, when the Redskins defense gets hot, it can single-handedly take over games, and combined with a smart quarterback in Jason Campbell, it makes them a serious playoff threat.

6) The Arizona Cardinals
What a story it would be if the Cardinals made it to the super bowl in two consecutive years, but how unlikely is it?  It’s tough to win three consecutive playoff games in back-to-back seasons, so the Cardinals chances increase disproportionately if they can secure a bye week in the NFC playoffs.  Of course, under the assumption proposed in this scenario, the Cards are simply unlikely to return to the super bowl, but have at least proven it possible.

7) The Philadelphia Eagles
I was going to leave the Eagles off this list because I’m not sure they compare well to other Eagles teams, but given the continued presence of Donovan McNabb, the Eagles are annually one of the most likely teams to win three consecutive playoff games.  McNabb is a better quarterback in the playoffs, historically, than he’s been in the regular season.  In fact, he’s never lost his first round playoff game in 6 trips.  So based on the preponderance of evidence, it would have been irresponsible to not mention the Eagles as a super bowl contender, even if they are a playoff longshot.

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NFL Rantings: Tim Tebow and how he Decides the Future of Your Team

If you pose the question to 10 football insiders, you’re going to get 8 or 9 no’s.  The question, of course: can Tim Tebow be successful in the NFL as a quarterback?

There is a correct answer to this question of course, and it’s that we just don’t know.  Tebow’s senior year at Florida will provide a lot of insight into this question, as Urban Meyer is adding some pro sets to his playbook this season as a favor to Tebow’s NFL future.

But those who are in the know feel like they have enough film on Tebow to make an educated guess, a prediction that he will not be able to properly transition as an NFL quarterback.  Draft expert Mel Kiper is adamant that Tebow would best transition to the NFL as a Tight End or an H-Back, using his size and strength to catch passes and make moves in the open field, as opposed to running an offense from behind a line.

Tebow might have some value as a tight end, and depending on your personal evaluation as his quarterback aspirations, it’s an interesting way to approach his NFL value.  But the sheer numbers of football-people who believe that Tebow won’t translate his skill set to the NFL tells me loud and clear that many people inside the league who are paid to think about this kind of stuff do not get it, and at this rate, may never get it.

When I break down Tim Tebow, the passer, there is little objective reason to suggest he’s not an NFL passer.  Even if we take away the contributions he makes with his legs, his passing numbers are cartoonish, and remarkably consistent.

YEAR CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
2006 22 33 358 66.7 10.85 55 5 1 0 201.73
2007 234 350 3286 66.9 9.39 66 32 6 13 172.47
2008 192 298 2746 64.4 9.22 70 30 4 15 172.37

All the eye can see from these stats is a guy who completes 65% of his passes, does so for a remarkable YPA average, and throws roughly 5 touchdowns for every interception.  Forgive us for thinking that might translate to the pros.

Granted, if Tebow shows up in pro style formations this year, and struggles to see the game developing, and loses his big play ability in these formations while increasing his interception total, he probably will lose the foothold he has within the NFL.  Rightfully so.

I get the argument that he may need more seasoning before he can get behind Center in the NFL and make an impact.  This is true of most rookies and Tebow is no exception.  But if he tosses 375 passes this year and sets career highs in completion percentage, TD’s, and sack rate, I don’t see where the argument that he won’t translate stands.

For point of comparison, these are the college passing statistics of a 2009 first day draft pick who has a similar draft profile to Tebow.  In fact, as recent as November of 2008, it was thought that that this player could be a 5th round pick at best.

YEAR CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
2005 65 114 828 57.0 7.26 50 8 5 5 132.41
2006 118 179 1655 65.9 9.25 67 13 7 12 159.73
2007 144 216 1724 66.7 7.98 79 14 4 8 151.39
2008 180 274 1844 65.7 6.73 52 21 7 16 142.41

Ultimately though, all this player does is take one team who has an offense that fits Tebow’s skill set out of the running to draft him as a quarterback.  The above statistics belong to Dolphins QB Pat White.

There are some sensible fits for a player like Tebow in the draft next year.  At the top of the list are the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers.  A little further down, the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, and Washington Redskins lurk.  But there are other teams who could choose to give up on their current QB situation and make a play at Tebow if their season doesn’t break right.  The Raiders are in a position where Jeff Garcia could end the JaMarcus Russell era prematurely, and the Raiders would be a Tebow candidate.  NFC West rivals St. Louis and Seattle need their longtime franchise QBs to produce right this year, and anything less than a serious playoff run could put these teams in the Tebow race, while the Texans, Jaguars, and Bills all have players they believe are franchise quarterbacks, but with those three coaches on the hot seat, anything is possible come April of next year.

Right there, I’ve thrown out 11 teams who have a reason to end up with Tim Tebow as a quarterback in next year’s draft, but these teams fall into the “majority” of NFL contenders.  What I’m really pointing out is that the same scout types who are beyond convinced that Tebow is not an NFL passer work for the kind of teams that have reason to draft him.  Those teams have issues at the quarterback position largely due to a lack of ingenuity in the past to fill it.  Remember, not two months ago we had the curious case of Graham Harrell, a wildly successful college quarterback who couldn’t get a token NFL contract.  There’s little debate that Harrell would have been one of the 32 best players in the NFL this year, but the fact remains that teams with questionable quarterback situations are employing one quarterbacks who have never enjoyed Harrell’s success at any level, and they seem content to wallow in their failures as opposed to do something that might help them get some production at the position before all the coaches are inevitably fired*.

*(Seattle’s the exception, and I think Matt Hasselbeck is going to take this team out of the Tebow equation very, very early this year)

So the teams that need Tim Tebow are the ones most likely to pass on him in the draft.  Now, some of the aforementioned teams will be bad enough where they can land a more established quarterback prospect such as Colt McCoy or Sam Bradford in the top five picks, and not have to worry about Tim Tebow’s mechanics.  Lucky them.  Tebows not necessarily a top five quality pick, but that’s okay because the teams that can best use Tim Tebow–the quarterback–are the winning franchises who will litter the bottom five picks in the first round.  The Steelers, the Giants, the Eagles, the Colts, and yes, the Patriots.

None of these franchise have gaping holes in their quarterback situations, but you can bet that if these teams get a shot to add a Tim Tebow type prospect to their quarterback situation, they’ll take the opportunity.  In fact, I’ll predict that Tebow doesn’t slip through the first round in next years draft, even though I don’t think he’s going to be a top ten pick.

Perhaps, though, the problem with Tebow is not that he cannot translate to the NFL, but that the NFL may not be able to handle Tebow.

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NFL Rantings: Addressing Market Inefficiencies at the Quarterback Position

We’re going to talk quarterbacks today, but this is hardly a rankings list of the NFL’s most glorified skill position.  No one really cares whether I think Tony Romo is a better quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger, nor should they.

Rather, we’re going to do our best to separate the performance of the quarterbacks from the kind of money they are making.  I’m going to make some interesting comparisons, drop bits and pieces of information on you, and we’re going to look down the road.  The big picture: where is the evolution of the quarterback position taking us.

A discussion of a labor market has to address this primary question: who is deserving of the money?

The NFL minimum salary is just under $400,000.  Last year, with nine teams going with two QBs on the roster, a grand total of 87 quarterbacks were employed by NFL teams.  I’m going to make the assumption that even though that was the number of employed NFL quarterbacks, the number of eligible players who could have played this position at a level equal to a third string quarterback in the NFL is probably two times that number.  I’m asserting that there are about 250 people in the world that any one of the 32 NFL teams can pay the league minimum salary to, and expect to get a competent third string quarterback for the money with.

Not to pick on these individuals, necessarily, but guys like Brock Berlin, Marques Tuiasosopo, and Drew Henson are players who threw passes in the 2008 NFL season who are (at least at this point in there careers) completely interchangeable with mid-tier former college quarterbacks such as Timmy Chang, or Sam Hollenbach.  Setting a price on these guys is easy: it’s the league minimum salary, which we can round to $400k.  This type of player brings only one thing to an NFL franchise, and it’s that there aren’t 87 players who offer more value than them, and therefore, there’s always going to be this kind of player on a roster.  If you fall in this category as a player, it’s time to start thinking about your next career (it’s okay, you made it a lot further than I did).

Those players are essentially deemed to be freely available talent, but there’s a different type of freely available talent that has some value.  This is a VERY limited group though, and it’s most easily identifiable by players who are often released, but find a new home on waivers.  This is who Bruce Gradkowski, Ken Dorsey, and Quinn Gray are.  By definition, these guys are freely available, but they have youth and perhaps a limited history of success that keeps them in the league longer than the lowest rung of the labor market.  They are only worth the league minimum, but have slightly improved job security.

The next step up the value ladder is sort of a split rung.  While there’s only about 10-12 guys in the league at any given time who are truly “freely available”, there’s a lot more guys who play at a comparable level as the freely available players, but have perceived future value that earns them longer contracts, and the minuscule signing bonuses that game with them.  Undrafted rookies fit under this classification (at least for a year or two, until the next undrafted rookies push them into the “freely available” category), but it also includes the Brooks Bollinger’s, Charlie Frye’s, and Jim Sorgi’s, of the NFL universe.  None of those players were ever seen as anything more than a potential developmental prospect, and they are all in danger of losing their footing in the league.  This is a transitional stage, and no one spends more than a single contract length in it without moving into freely available territory or up the value ladder.

To this point, I have outlined the different types of quarterbacks that teams will not compete for on the open market.  Of course, there’s roughly 55 or 60 quarterbacks in this league whom if they were hypothetically released this morning, they would have a job by Thursday in which they displaced a more replaceable quarterback on another team.  The easiest way to reach this category is to at some point have your name mentioned publicly by Bill Belichick.  If you are a second day draft pick at quarterback, you start in this level of valuation, although they don’t necessarily fit the scenario above if released.  Players in this class are either seen as developmental prospects by their current teams (Alex Smith–these days at least–with the 49ers, Colt Brennan with the Redskins, Brett Ratliff, with the Browns or Caleb Hanie with the Bears), seen as system quarterbacks by their current teams (Luke McCown, Tyler Thigpen, or A.J. Feeley), or they are in the veteran mold of a player who was last seen a few years ago enjoying success (Todd Collins, or Brian Griese).  First round reclamation (think David Carr, Joey Harrington, or Rex Grossman) projects who have impressed in the offseason, but not in extended game time are also here.  This type of player often gets miscast in a starters role by a desperate team for a year or two before being properly moved into this class.

All of these players are worth more than the league minimum for what they bring to the table, but none of these guys are ideal starters for a team in 2009.  These guys are potential one-skill values, but not even at backup quarterback money.  Their salaries have more to do with where they came from (Smith vs. McCown) than how talented they have performed in the past (Collins vs. Grossman).  Thusly, it’s harder to find a market inefficiency at this level than it is to find a system quarterback at the next.

But as we climb the quarterback value percentile ladder, market inefficiencies become a huge deal.  Two years ago, I established what I called the Kitna-Line, or simply, the lowest level of consistent performance at which a quarterback deserves to be starting in the NFL (essentially identifying the 32 most deserving NFL starters).  In a perfectly efficient market, only the 32 highest paid quarterbacks would be above the Kitna line, at which point, you’d be into backup quarterback type money.  The fact that it’s an imperfect market means that on some teams, backups (sub-Kitna line players) will be paid like starters.  Ironically, a player who falls in this category is present-day Jon Kitna.

The price on a true No. 2 quarterback with limited (if any) upside to reach Kitna-line performance is at about 3 million dollars a year (for your Gus Frerotte, Kerry Collins, or Mark Brunell types).  That seems to be the established present market rate, at least.  If you are paying a backup quarterback who has the potential to be a starter by the back end of his contract (Seneca Wallace, for example), you might have to offer 4-5 million a year on the open market.

To recap what I’ve established so far, a prudent team:

  • employs freely available talent (75-80% of QB talent market) at league minimum prices, and hardly, if ever, bids for the services of a freely available player.
  • can tell the difference between a player with prospective value and a player with limited prospective value, and does not overpay for the latter.
  • can tell which players in that top 20 percentile do not project as starters, and can pay a backup like a backup.

So what about the starters?  Assuming that a majority of teams can identify freely available talent from hard to replace talent, and can separate out the backups from the starters, how do NFL teams determine who gets the money?  Why do elite players earn $100 million dollar contracts and $14 million dollar franchise tags when players who are backups earn a really small fraction of that?

Talent distribution suggests that this should happen to say, the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.  Superstars should get paid like superstars, and if that means nine figure contracts, then it means nine figures.  But what about a situation where Matt Cassel gets $63 million?  How is that justifiable in the grand scheme of things?

The amount of money that’s currently in the game is skewing the market, and it’s skewing the quarterback labor market in the direction of the elite money.  According to economic theory, this shouldn’t be happening.  The amount of money in the game should be driving up the total value of the contracts of the very best in the game, as we should be seeing $150-200 million type contracts given to quarterbacks.

Where this falls apart is in the team-wide salary floor in the NFL.  Since all teams are being forces to spend what is often in excess of their total gross revenues on team payroll alone (via the CBA with the NFLPA), simply watching the salaries of the elite players get astronomical doesn’t help the teams without elite quarterbacks comply with payroll restricts.  In a perfect market, when the top five players (top 1% of the universal market) at a position are averaging $100 million (Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning) in total contract value, then you would think that the next 5-7 guys (top 2% of universal market) would be the ones getting the $50 million total value contracts–roughly half as much money.  But it’s not just those guys who are getting that money, it’s everyone.  This is for two reasons.

1) The top end of the NFL draft pays out money that instantly puts a top five draft pick in the top 2% range.  Theoretically, this is not improper.  If you are going to draft a player with a top five pick, you’d better be certain that he will be in the top 2% at his position across all 250 or so players who qualify as “professional” level talent.  But this isn’t always the case.  Matt Ryan appears to be at this level, but JaMarcus Russell does not.  Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are at this level, but Vince Young and Alex Smith were not.  Teams operate under the assumption that there’s one or two of these guys in every draft, but that’s simply not the case.  There’s an average of one per draft, but there was none in 02, one in 03, three in 04, none in 05, one in 06, none in 07, and one in 08.  That’s six in seven years, but three separate years with no quarterback worthy of top five money.

2) For teams that have no elite quarterback, but can avoid picking in the top five, the team’s starting quarterback gets to be paid like a franchise quarterback once he is acquired (Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub) or his contract is extended (David Garrard, Jake Delhomme).  It’s this type of player who has totally thrown the salary structure of NFL quarterbacks out of whack, creating major market inefficiencies.

To test this, I decided to look at all the teams in the NFL who are not paying a massive contract (30 million or greater) total value, and see what type of quarterback populates these rosters:

  • Cleveland Browns: say what you want about their job last year, but they got Derek Anderson signed to an extension without locking themselves into him for the forseeable future (3 years, 24 million).  Brady Quinn is getting about half that, but he has more potential as a draft pick of the team
  • Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco’s rookie contract is worth a mere $11.9 million in total value.
  • Denver Broncos/Chicago Bears: The Broncos don’t count, because Cutler had a big money deal, and they are paying dead cap on that after shipping him to Chicago.  Chicago counts, but only until they extend Cutler’s contract which is just a matter of time.
  • Miami Dolphins: Picked up Chad Pennington after he had fallen into the backup QB tier, but paid him like a starter on a short-term, 2-yr deal, which worked out beautifully.
  • Buffalo Bills: Going with Trent Edwards on the cheap right now, and backing him up with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is in the backup-freely available transition stage.
  • Washington Redskins: Jason Campbell in the last year of deal, almost certainly will have a big quarterback contract next year, to someone.
  • Tampa Bay Bucs: Josh Freeman won’t quite see $30 million on his deal, probably not even $20 million.
  • Minnesota Vikings: Could throw a multi-year contract at Favre, but it’s not likely.

That’s it.  That’s the list, and it’s 25% of the league that isn’t (yet) paying someone like a franchise quarterback.  We know there aren’t more than twenty franchise signal callers in the NFL, because even freely available talent can post a rating in the mid seventies with a starting offense around them.  It’s the guys with the QB ratings in the 90’s and who consistently win 10 games a season who deserve to be paid among the top 2% in the league.

The apparent market niches: 1) late first round quarterbacks (although the failure rate of this type of player is quite high, you can have a few of these contracts on the books and be fine), 2) get a team to trade you it’s star quarterback to you and eat the dead cap, 3) acquire Chad Pennington somehow, and 4) don’t give any sort of long term deal to anyone.

To me, the post-salary cap future of the position is no. 4: fungible quarterbacking.  Maybe a second or third round draft pick, a shrewd open market free agent signing, and an undrafted quarterback make up your roster…every year.  And every year, there could be 2/3 turnover in your quarterback situation.  You don’t need to be tied to any one player to be successful.  Once you find that true top ten guy, you can afford to pay him, but in this system, a small-market team doesn’t have to tie themselves to a Garrard or a Cassel in the hopes that they have found the best possible thing, they can simply pay a guy under his true value for a season, and then have a different player come in next season.  It’s a winning strategy, and saves team salary to be used elsewhere to improve a team.

Players get misclassified all the time, and the tags thrust upon them are based in traditional perceptions and are unbecoming of 21st century analytics.  Rather than responding to a broken labor market such as the quarterback market in professional football, I believe teams in the future will use their money and draft picks at other positions to win long-term competitive advantages, and I foresee this popularizing an era of fungible quarterbacking.  The large markets will have the super stars, and the small markets will employ successful team philosophies, in order to remain competitive.  Instead of being held hostage by the perceptions of others, teams can use these strategies outlined here to build a winning professional football organization

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NFL Rantings: Training Camp FAQ

With NFL Training Camps set to spring open at the end of the week, it’s time to take a glance around the league and look at some questions that we’d all like to have answered sooner opposed to later.

These 48 questions are dedicated to the memory of Joakim Soria.

Arizona Cardinals

Q:  Are the Cardinals going to be much improved on the ground, or is it just going to be more of the same this year?

A:  Edgerrin James is gone, but Tim Hightower has yet to show he can bring NFL type rushing skills to the table.  They brought in Chris “Beanie” Wells from Ohio State–and Jason Wright from Cleveland–to fix that.  A more important question revolves around their usage patterns.  If the Cards fail at a few runs in the first quarter, are they going to scrap it entirely and just air it out?  That’d be a good way to get Kurt Warner killed.

Q:  Is offense sustainable without the benefit of a competent ground game?

A:  It’s sustainable without being able to pound out those long gains on the ground, but the difference between the offense of the Cards in the playoffs and that of the regular season is that they seemed to stay out of third and short situations entirely in the playoffs.  That much isn’t sustainable over sixteen games.  If they can convert those third and shorts on the ground, they can win without a running game that can gash the defense in chunks.

Atlanta Falcons

Q:  You said that you really liked Peria Jerry on the defensive interior this year, and we know about John Abraham’s ability to take over a game.  Does that mean big things for the Falcons defense this year?

A:  Jerry is going to help Abraham and Curtis Lofton more than anything else, but the Falcons have major question in their secondary.  Maybe they’ll close the gap between their performance last season and the league average defenses, but there’s going to have to be some unforeseen contributions from the back seven for them to make the jump.

Q:  Is Matt Ryan subject to the Sophomore Slump, or is that just a big myth?

A:  Ryan is bound to be tested early and often in his second season, but to me, a sophomore slump would have to be a lost season that ends as badly as it started, and I just don’t see that happening.  I see Ryan’s overall numbers tanking a bit because he didn’t throw all that often last year, but I figure that he’ll make the necessary adjustments by the end of the season to position the Falcons for big things in 2010.

Baltimore Ravens

Q:  You’re on record saying that the Ravens are the favorites to win SB XLIV in Miami.  Ready to back off that prediction yet?

A:  Derrick Mason’s retirement really throws a wrench into things.  You know the Ravens will act swiftly to either convince him to return or to replace him, but he was arguably the single most irreplaceable player on the Ravens offense.  Long story short: I’m backing off the prediction ever so slightly, and will say that they are now less likely to represent the AFC than the Chargers, Colts, Steelers, or Patriots are.  Until further notice, they are still a playoff team, and right in that discussion for best AFC team.

Q:  Not to get ahead of ourselves, but what makes the Ravens a safe bet in the playoffs?

A:  When they get there, you’ve got to like the play of their defense and offensive line.  They were a young offense last year and they played very well against Miami and Tennessee.  Once they get back this year, I can only imagine that they would take the next step under similar conditions.  Of course, who can predict if those conditions will be similar?

Buffalo Bills

Q:  Does Terrell Owens really make this team any better?

A:  He can, but does not do so automatically, and certainly not from day one.  Owens is formerly a complete receiver who, at age 37, no longer brings the vertical game to an offense.  His remaining skill set fits well what the Bills most need him for on offense, and he’s a surprisingly good fantasy option this year, but Owens may not want to be the player the Bills ask of him.  Any improvement the Bills make is tied to Trent Edwards’ improvement as an NFL Quarterback.  They’ll be playing their games on the margin again this year, and Owens’ compliance might make a big difference in the team’s W-L record.  Just don’t expect miracles.  The Bills are a second rate team still, but Owens has never been okay with that plight in the past, so an offense where Marshawn Lynch and Owens get all the touches in November is probably a bad sign for Dick Jauron’s coaching staff.

Carolina Panthers

Q:  Who should be the primary focus of the offense, Steve Smith, or the power running game?

A:  As good as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart were down the stretch last year, Steve Smith is still one of the ten best receivers in football, and needs to get 150 targets this season, at the very least.  That means the football will spend more time in Jake Delhomme’s hands, but it’s an acceptable price to pay because Smith wins games.  He wins a lot of games.

Q:  Who should their opponents key on, given the same choices?

A:  Steve Smith.  Yes, it’s sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing when playing Carolina, but as mentioned above, you want the ball in Delhomme’s hands, and then you want to do your best to contain Steve Smith.  Seven in the box might struggle to handle the power running game of the Panthers, but with the safeties out of the box, opponents can limit the 20+ yard runs and other big plays involving players who aren’t Steve Smith.  Smith is still the key to the Carolina offense, and must be enemy number one.

Chicago Bears

Q:  Are the Bears still a defense-first football team?

A:  For certain.  This team is still keyed by it’s defense and special teams, and will be through at least 2010.  It’s the moves of the team over next offseason that will determine if more resources will be moved to the offensive end to build Jay Cutler’s offense into “the Greatest Show Just Off the Lakeshore,” or whether Cutler will simply be expected to be the NFC’s version of Ben Roethlisberger, and just preserve defensive football games for the Bears.

Q:  Fair enough.  What can Bears fans expect from Jay Cutler this year?

A:  League-average numbers.  He should hit about 3,500 yards passing, 20-23 TDs, 15-17 INTs, with a QB rating in the mid-to-high 80’s and probably will not appear in the pro bowl unless his team wins 12+ games.

Cincinnati Bengals

Q:  Where does Carson Palmer rank in the hierarchy of active quarterbacks?

A:  Carson Palmer is still a top ten quarterback, and I’d slot him ahead of Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb, and Eli Manning.  For me, he’s behind: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Chad Pennington, Kurt Warner, and maybe Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Ryan as well.  That puts him, worst case scenario, at No. 10 in my book.  More like No. 8.

Cleveland Browns

Q:  Who wins the starting quarterback job, and does it matter?

A:  It’s Brady Quinn’s job to lose and frankly, this is a significant QB battle because the Cleveland offense is on the verge of being productive.  Brett Ratliff is an unproven late-rounder, and you’d think that if Derek Anderson was capable of anything, he would have looked less lost last year in the same offense from the year before.  Quinn is the best short-term and long term option for the organization, though if Ratliff wins the job, it’s not necessarily a negative indicator.  Of course, J.T. O’Sullivan tore up the preseason last year as well.

Dallas Cowboys

Q:  What kind of encore season can Cowboys fans expect from DeMarcus Ware, and is he truly among the league’s best defenders?

A:  Ware is probably not capable of another 20 sack season, because he’s not going to see too many single teams over the next five years.  12-13 is a reasonable expectation.  But if Ware is truly a franchise player, he needs to improve aspects of his game unrelated to pass rush, such as defensive positioning, taking on blockers while not on the attack, and pass coverage on the weak side.

Denver Broncos

Q:  Kyle Orton?  Really?  This can’t work, can it?

A:  Well, no, not from the perspective of Kyle Orton becoming a top ten quarterback, and turning the Broncos into a playoff contender.  However, Orton’s numbers should see a nice boost from the switch to a higher altitude, and he’s got quite the offense surrounding him — to the point where he could actually turn out to be more productive, on a per throw basis, than Jay Cutler was (based on an assumption of far fewer throws).  Of course, the Denver offense under Josh McDaniels will only be as strong as it’s running game, and if Cutler’s turnovers were inevitable, Orton’s turnovers are just going to drive fans batty because unlike Cutler, Orton’s mistakes are less hard-headed, and more bone-headed (i.e. fewer throws to Brandon Marshall in traffic, more throws into the chests of defensive linemen).

Detroit Lions

Q:  Explain the easiest, shortest, most-likely sequence of events for the Lions to shock the world and make the playoffs this year.

A:  First and foremost, Daunte Culpepper has to protect the football and stay in the lineup.  If he can do those two things, the Lions offense projects pretty well, actually.  If that happens, the quickest path to the playoffs involves 9 wins, defensive collapses by the Bears and Vikings, and a limited offensive rebound by the Packers, opening the door for an upstart Lions team to get killed in the postseason by a 5th seeded wild card from the NFC East.

Green Bay Packers

Q:  With Aaron Rodgers entrenched as the franchise quarterback, is he now the least of the Packers worries?

A:  Sort of.  The Packers have bigger fish to fry, which is a tribute to renowned Alaskan ice-fisher Darryn Colledge’s struggles at the guard position on the offensive line.  They also have a matter of overseeing a defensive switch to the 3-4 which could have a neutralizing effect on Aaron Kampman’s ability to take over a game.  They also have to figure out what to do about a secondary led by two corner who are a combined 68 years old, and still the best players on that defense: Al Harris and Charles Woodson.  But that won’t help them if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t ever improve on his 2008 season.  He’s never going to get more help from his receivers than he already is getting, and while the offensive line should improve, I’m not convinced that the deal Rodgers signed at mid-season won’t look really bad come November of 2010 if the Packers are working on a third straight lost season.

Houston Texans

Q:  Can this team cut it’s turnovers and give it’s defense a fighting chance, or is this just a flawed offensive group that was built too quickly?

A:  Yes, I think they can.  It’s not unreasonable to pin Matt Schaub’s high INT totals, specifically in the red zone, on inexperience.  But more directly, he wasn’t as bad a culprit as Sage Rosenfels was last year, and Sage has taken his turnover-laden act to Minnesota.  So with that said, I think as Duane Brown improves as a blind-side tackle (he was pretty bad last year), Schaub will cut down on the mistakes, and the whole Texans team will benefit.

Indianapolis Colts

Q:  Certainly, you’ve got the Colts as a no-doubt, “buy those playoff tickets now”, “our season starts in January” super bowl contender, right?

A:  Eh.  There’s cause for concern here.  Peyton Manning did as much as he’s ever done with less help last year, but the Colts are simply not a team who can lead the league in passing yards this year.  If the Colts are to be the best offense in the NFL, it’s going to require a lesson in balance.  A few 350+ yard games from Manning mixed in with some 150+ yard rushing games from the Joseph Addai/Donald Brown combination, but I’m speculating that the team is growing disenchanted with Addai, and might turn things over to a rookie running back.  The defense should still be strong, but it’s not build to outlast it’s opponents in defensive struggles week after week, and while that probably won’t be the case, the concern here is legitimate.

Q:  How long can Peyton Manning keep amazing us?

A:  I don’t know, how long can Brett Favre keep tormenting us?

Jacksonville Jaguars

Q:  Ignoring the piss-poor WR situation, and questionable offensive line, is David Garrard a true franchise type quarterback, or just another guy who happened to parlay a 3 interception two years ago in $60 million?

A:  That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  Actually, it’s worth way more than that.  Garrard is probably not as good as his 2007 season, and closer to his 2008 season in actual value.  But, I look at his completion percentage from that year, his INT rate wasn’t that high at 2.4, and though his TD rate tanked, you can win in this league with a 6.8 Y/A figure.  He just can’t take as many sacks next year.  The verdict is: he’s a franchise quarterback, in the same way that Marc Bulger is a franchise quarterback.  Torry Holt will feel right at home.

Kansas City Chiefs

Q:  Contract aside, give Chiefs fans the lowdown on the short-term and long-term Cassel prospects.

A:  Short-term: don’t expect much.  Long-term: I think this can work.  If the overall goal is simply to be New England light, then Dwayne Bowe profiles as a Randy Moss-type in this offense, having the ability to run all the same route.  Bobby Engram can masquerade as the Wes Welker syndicate, but he’s 36 now and isn’t going to be around in the future.  The offensive line still needs pieces at C and RT over the next year or two, and then we can talk about the Chiefs as a watered-down version of the Patriots.

Miami Dolphins

Q:  Is the Wildcat offensive package bound to evolve and become more prevalent, or is it simply just another package that’s easy to teach and use?

A:  I don’t foresee it ever becoming effective enough to make the NFL coaching brotherhood change the way it approaches teaching offense.  I think the spread offense is far more likely to catch on in the NFL, and probably with significantly less fanfare.

Q:  Where does Ronnie Brown rank in the echelon of NFL runners, and should the Dolphins try to trade him?

A:  For my money, Ronnie Brown is the best back in the NFL right now, with Frank Gore as a close second.  It’s tough to measure NFL running backs by their rushing totals, and these two are no exception, but they both do the little things that Adrian Peterson and Maurice-Jones Drew do not (yet, at least).  They are both strong pass blockers, can run with power as well as speed, and have been productive in pretty much every situation they’ve been put in, be it on a 1-15 team, or with 49ers quarterbacks, and have been excellent receivers out of the backfield.  Needless to say, I don’t think the Dolphins could get enough value on Brown to make him worth trading.

Minnesota Vikings

Q:  Doesn’t a player like Brett Favre complete the Vikings as a team?

A:  Nope.  The pressure falls on Adrian Peterson to round out his game, on the right side of the offensive line to do better than last year, and on the complementary receiving targets to make the quarterback position relevant.

Q:  Is Jared Allen the best defensive player in football?

A:  Yes, Jared Allen is the best defensive player in football.  He’s great against the run, as well as the pass.  Quite the character as well.  And the price the Vikings paid for him (a first and a third round pick) appears to have been a steal.

New England Patriots

Q:  Compare this offense to the 2007 historically-awesome version.

A:  It’s not a very good comparison.  The running game might actually be better.  Randy Moss is no longer the most dominant receiver in football, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney are no longer with the team, and the passing game figures to be more focused on using the middle of the field than beating you with the down field pass.  The offensive line is just as good, but they probably aren’t as systematically capable of breaking down your passing schemes.  None of this even considers the concerns about Tom Brady that have come around since then.

Q:  Can Shawn Springs really still be a top corner?  Isn’t he like, 50?

A:  He’s 34, going on 35, and Springs can still be a No. 1 cover corner in the NFL.  He’s a more polished cover guy than Asante Samuel ever was, and a worthy short-term replacement.  Just as important is the one year show-me contract that Leigh Bodden took to play on the other side, and then cash in on the market in the uncapped year.  If Bodden can rebound to Cleveland-type production, this is going to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

New Orleans Saints

Q:  The Saints are just blowing smoke on Pierre Thomas….right?

A:  No, I think he’s going to be the leader in the rushing attack that Reggie Bush never developed into.  The team’s actions wouldn’t make sense other wise.  They’ve talked about their interest in LaDainian Tomlinson and Edgerrin James, but have not been in a rush to make a move.  Therefore, it’s Pierre Thomas’s time to light up the NFL rushing charts.

Q:  True or false: this Saints defense will be the best in recent memory.

A:  Between Sedrick Ellis, Jonathon Vilma, Malcolm Jenkins, Darren Sharper, and a Gregg Williams administrated pressure scheme, I’m taking “true” as the best answer.

New York Giants

Q:  Even if it costs them 40 million in guaranteed cash, should the Giants still lock up Eli Manning?

A:  The Giants have painted themselves into a corner where there just aren’t any great answers to this question.  Yeah, you kind of have to do what it takes to keep Eli in blue, even if that means overpaying him by 25 million.  You can’t really go out and replace that production in the draft very easily.  But if the Giants opted to, they could build a successful team around picking up good quarterbacks on the cheap every year.  At some point, someone is going to take a stand against the league-wide propensity to overpay for middling quarterbacks, but I’m not sure the Giants are the right team for that.

Q:  Is Justin Tuck a better pure pass rusher than DeMarcus Ware?

A:  He’s not a better pure pass rusher, because he’s just not as explosive.  He’s a total matchup nightmare though, and he’s a better overall defensive player than DeMarcus Ware is on most days of the week.  But if I just need one guy who can get to the quarterback, game situation be damned, I have to take Ware.

New York Jets

Q:  No Lav Coles or Chris Baker means more balls for Jericho Cotchery and Dustin Keller.  Is that a good thing or bad thing?

A:  In the short term, simplicity is valuable.  If you want to go with the rookie quarterback under center, the Jets are best off throwing most passes in the direction of these two younger players, and asking the tertiary receivers on the team to convert third downs for them.  They need to be a rushing team, first and foremost.

Q:  Do you have a prediction for the Jets defense this year under Rex Ryan?

A:  Slightly improved over last year.  They aren’t weak at any one level, but this team might not be able to generate a pass rush, and that would put Ryan’s schemes into a bind.  It’s not going to benefit from it’s offense very much either.

Oakland Raiders

Q:  Jeff Garcia still thinks he can be a starter in this league.  Is he still relevant?  Should the Raiders care?

A:  Jeff Garcia is really no longer relevant anymore in the big picture, but he might be able to still produce as a starter.  The Raiders don’t figure to give him a try out before the season is lost.  However, I like their chances to win on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas a lot more with Garcia under center than I do with JaMarcus Russell at quarterback.

Philadelphia Eagles

Q:  How many more years does Donovan McNabb have to deliver a championship?  Should Eagles fans actually try patience, for a change?

A:  McNabb probably has about two more seasons to deliver as promised.  The only way that McNabb doesn’t get more than just this next year is if his personal performance undergoes significant decline next season.  Regardless of how the team does in a potential rebuilding year (depending on how you interpret the evidence), McNabb should be their starter in 2010.  But at that point, the team itself must reach it’s goal of a super bowl (at least an appearance), or he could be elsewhere in 2011.  As for the Eagles fans, now is not the best time to start.

Q:  Last week, you went into detail suggesting that the Eagles were overrated.  Any last words?

A:  Uh, what?

Pittsburgh Steelers

Q:  They won the division over Baltimore based on two controversial divisional games, and now they get to play Miami and Tennessee instead of New England and Indianapolis.  Is there any justice in the world?

A:  Gotta say, things really did break out nicely for the Steelers, who went into 2008 with the “toughest schedule” and left as world champs.

Q:  How far will the Steelers get this year?  Can they win it all again?

A:  The Steelers will be a playoff team again this year, and Ben Roethlisberger should have a much bigger role in their winning.  The defense will, again, be ranked near the top of the league.  I don’t like them to beat the Pats or the Chargers in the upcoming playoffs, and they might fall just short of tying the Patriots for most championships in this decade.

San Diego Chargers

Q:  Who should get more carries this year: Tomlinson or Sproles?

A:  It’s a difficult question.  Sproles has a specific advantage because he’s quicker behind his offensive lineman and breaks off yardage in chunks like Tomlinson used to.  Of course, you can’t keep Tomlinson on the roster and not pay him off with those short yardage and goal line carries.  I’m not suggesting that Tomlinson should just be a goal line runner, but that the Chargers should use both their backs, and focus on LdT in those high-leverage situations.

Q:  With Shawne Merriman returning from injury, can you see anyone else representing the AFC West in the playoffs?

A:  Nope.  The Chargers are head and shoulders above the rest of their division.

San Francisco 49ers

Q:  What advice would you give to either Alex Smith or Shaun Hill for their upcoming training camp quarterback battle?

A:  I’d tell them the winner would be whichever one of them hands the ball off at a greater rate.

Seattle Seahawks

Q:  Will the Seahawks regret signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh?

A:  This is doubtful.  Houshmandzadeh is a No. 1 type receiver who is moving into that role this year on a team who had receiver health issues last year and has an established, if injury-prone, quarterback.  Perhaps down the road, the Seahawks might see Housh as part of the problem, but he’s a No. 1 WR now, and that’s exactly what the Seahawks need.

St. Louis Rams

Q:  Can the Rams at least hang in the NFC West this year, or is this season over before it starts?

A:  It’s not over before it starts.  Last year, the Rams defense flashed some dominance during it’s back to back wins in the middle of the season.  The offense has been terrible at pass protection over the past two seasons, and if they can get this corrected, they’ll be in the race behind the big three of Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson, and Donnie Avery.  It’s all on the protection as a variable.  If Bulger gets hit early, and often, they might start 0-4 again, and at that point, it’s over.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Q:  Should the Buccaneers sit Josh Freeman for most of the 2009 season while he learns under Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown?

A:  They absolutely should not sit Freeman to learn.  The best way to learn is to get him on the field.  The question, of course, is whether you can win now with one of the veterans behind center.  If you think you can, you can slide Freeman’s development back half-a-season and go for it.  If not, get the rookie in there right away.

Tennessee Titans

Q:  Does the entire season hinge on another productive year from Kerry Collins?

A:  That seems like a logical conclusion.  Collins was productive, if unspectacular, a season ago.  But he did it behind a strong offensive line that resisted injury, and with a strong running game.  The running game should return this year, but the receivers are still developing, and Collins could struggle if the line gets leaky.

Q:  Can you really just replace Albert Haynesworth?

A:  Not in a single offseason.  They really have drafted well on the defensive line over the last two years, but Haynesworth was an elite talent, and they’ll be missing him on the interior this year.  Of course, they beat the Steelers when he was hurt last year, so it’s not like the defense is just going to quit on Jeff Fisher.

Washington Redskins

Q:  With all that’s been written about him, should Jason Campbell be looking over his shoulder at Colt Brennan?

A:  No.  This is not even a remote consideration for the Redskins, as Campbell is going to get every chance to prove to the team, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is the franchise quarterback of the Washington Redskins.  Colt Brennan likely will not even open the season as the No. 2 QB.  If he makes it into the starting lineup in 2009, it’s a bad sign for all parties involved, save Brennan.

Q:  DeAngelo Hall: pro bowl player or team destroyer?

A:  Neither.  This team has too many high character guys to tolerate DeAngelo Hall’s attitude, but I’m predicting a three-year low in interceptions for Hall, which would effectively take him out of pro-bowl consideration.  The safeties are the true stars of the secondary, and Carlos Rogers is the best cover corner on the team.  Hall’s a cog who is getting paid like a superstar.

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NFL Top 10: Best Players 34 or Older

Happy hump day.  Today, NFL Top 10 will pick the best players in the NFL who were born on or before July 15, 1975.

10. QB Jeff Garcia, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders’ backup quarterback still thinks he has about two seasons left in the tank, and the real question is: does he have an opportunity left on the field?  The thing is, Garcia is such a classic Raider.  He’s not going to bring the vertical offense to Oakland, but he’s not afraid to do things unconventionally in order to succeed, and that’s really what will keep him successful into the 5th decade of his life, and his 2nd as an NFL quarterback.

9. OT Tra Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars
He may be getting long in the tooth, but Thomas is still a very effective pass blocker, and we fully expect him to win the LT job in camp for Jacksonville, and he’s good enough where he can play out his contract at the premier position on the offensive line if he can hold of the youngster, Eben Britton.  Here’s a rare case where the Eagles might have let go too soon.

8. LB Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis is clearly a player in decline at this point, but he was such a great football player and remains such a great leader on the field that the 34 year old Lewis couldn’t be left off this list.

7. C Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis Colts
Outside of Peyton Manning, Saturday is the most critical cog in the Colts offense, and his increasing age will not change that as long as the Colts run the same offensive system.  The system is based around intelligence and quick reads and Saturday has proven to be one of the smartest Centers around the NFL.  Perhaps the most dominant player at his position–given the system–of the last ten years.

6. WR Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers
Bet you didn’t know he was this old.  The reason, number one, is that his career took off late: 2001 was his age-27 season.  Number two, is that he’s still very much a productive player, and runs after the catch like a 25 year old.  Coincidentally, Driver looks much older than 34, and despite this unfortunate fact, he figures to remain in the starting lineup for the Pack until his current contract expires.

5. QB Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals
Okay, it’s been a long time since Warner was last 34.  He was that old when he signed with them back in 2005, and it took him four years to be productive with them, culminating in a super bowl appearance last February.  At age 38, Warner will look to cement his hall of fame career by working to be near the top of the league in passing yards once again.  His bill-of-health last year was the most encouraging thing of all, for when the end comes for Warner, you should expect it to come in the form of a series of nagging injuries.  Of course, he could choose to leave the game on his own terms, but no one actually does that.

4. WR Derrick Mason, Baltimore Ravens
I don’t think that anyone thought that when Mason signed in Baltimore after being a cap casualty by the Titans, that five years down the road, Mason would still be the unquestioned No. 1 WR, even through a regime change, but that’s exactly what he is.  Mason is one of the five greatest receivers of the last decade; not on the same level of Holt, Harrison, Moss, or Owens, but clearly, the best of the rest.

3. DT Pat Williams, Minnesota Vikings
The next two players on this list were effective players into their early 30’s in the market that is totally void of media coverage: Buffalo, NY.  They would bolt via free agency to larger markets, and have taken a much bigger stature in the game.  For Williams, his stature can not really be understated (see picture above).  He’s enjoyed a two year run in 2006 and 2007 as the premier space eating defensive tackle in the game.  The Vikings defense has consistently great run defense numbers, and that’s a testament to Williams’ size and ability.

2. LB London Fletcher, Washington Redskins
Fletcher may be regarded as the most underrated player in the game today, and he’s one of the only two players on this list who have shown no sign of slowing down (the other is the only one ranked above Fletcher on this list).  He still makes every tackle on defense not made by someone in front of him, and he’s actually gotten better in coverage as he has aged, which is the remarkable thing about him.  You’ve probably heard this before: he has yet to be invited to a pro bowl, which is damning to all parties involved in the selection process.

1. CB Al Harris, Green Bay Packers
The evidence suggests that Charles Woodson, not Al Harris, is the top cover corner on the Packers.  Many may extrapolate that Harris might have lost a step, but the evidence doesn’t bare that out.  The fact of the matter is that the Packers have now had two of the best corners in the league for the last two seasons, and Harris is the best player in the NFL over the age of 34. 

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NFL Crystal Ball: The 2009 Philadelphia Eagles are Overrated

For most of the offseason, I was under the impression that the entire NFC East was going to be chasing down the NFC runner-up Eagles, who were going to find a way to return to the playoffs come hell or high water.  The Eagles did a better than expected job at reloading the roster, which is now both young, and pro-bowl talent laden.  They’re basically a shoo-in for the 2009 playoffs correct?

They may very well make it to the playoffs, but upon further review, the Eagles are not the powerhouse I thought them to be.  And consequently, talent alone does not separate them from teams such as the Panthers, the Vikings, the Cardinals, or the Seahawks, teams who could take them down if they don’t win the NFC East.

In the past, the Eagles have been at their best when they’ve been good enough to blow their opponents out of the water.  The 9-7 Eagles may have been lucky to make the playoffs a year ago, but they wouldn’t have been close to contention had they failed to beat up on the Rams, 49ers, and Browns of the world.  The problem is: the weak opponents on the schedule for the Eagles next year are concentrated on the non-conference schedule, and are not factored into the tie breaker system.  If they go 3-0 against the Chiefs, the Raiders, and the Broncos, well, that doesn’t give them a competitive advantage over anyone in their division or even their conference.

Do I think the Eagles are just going to embarrass the Falcons, the Saints, the Bears, or even the Bucs this year?  I do not.  I’m sure the Eagles are good enough to beat every one of those teams, but I think the 2008 team would have had a better chance to do so.

I also don’t see the Eagles being quite as deep offensively as they’ve been in past seasons.  This team is more reliant on an aging Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook than they’ve ever been before.  The natural progression is to be less reliant on older players, but the Eagles have built around them in recent years more than they’ve built independent of them.

On top of that, the strength of the Eagles offense seems to be built on a series of assumptions.  It’s probable that Brian Westbrook will hold up for another 14+ game season.  It’s probable that Jason Peters’ high sacks allowed total from last year was an aberration.  It’s probable that a younger offensive line will provide better protection for McNabb than last year’s injury prone mess.  It’s probable that Shawn Andrews is over his ailments from last season.  It’s probable that rookie LeSean McCoy could be a feature back in relief of Westbrook if need be.  It’s probable that FB Leonard Weaver will fit as well in Andy Reid’s offense as he did in Mike Holmgren’s.  All of those things are reasonable assumptions.  But the Eagles don’t have a lot of spare offensive talent to compensate for two or three of those assumptions failing to hold.

The overall result is an offensive unit that could very well struggle to move the ball against top defenses that it plays, because the hand-picked offensive line may not quite equal the sum of all it’s parts.  Donovan McNabb’s INT total in 2008 was out of line with his career totals, and the Eagles find themselves banking on McNabb’s INT rate returning to expected levels.  Given the propensity for things around him to go wrong, however, this might not be a reasonable assumption.  He’s going to throw his touchdowns, but as an inaccurate passer, I don’t think he’s in a situation that will help him limit his INTs.  Either McNabb will rise to the occasion, on the Eagle offense will not improve over last season.

The Eagles defense is built a whole lot better than the offense is on paper, but if D.C. Jim Johnson doesn’t call the defensive plays this year, I think there might be a scheme crisis on the defensive end.  The Eagles don’t have a great linebacker corps that is capable of making plays in any down and distance.  They are built behind a strong, deep defensive line, and an excellent secondary.  The missing piece is the pressure that the linebackers can put on the quarterback because they blitz in an unpredictable nature, and they time those blitzes incredibly well.

Defense who live by the blitz often die by the blitz, and the Eagles have been no exception, even under Johnson.  When–in the past–the Eagles have not had the personnel, their blitzes have been picked up, and their secondary picked apart.  Last year, they had both the secondary who could handle the man coverage responsibilities, and the pressure schemes that absolutely would not hang their teammates out to dry.  The product was an excellent team defense that ranked third in total defense last year, and was every bit as productive as that statistic suggests.

The Eagles have the flexibility to alter their identity, but they’ve never considered the drafting of linebackers an organizational priority.  The linebackers who play in their scheme are fungible players, and they all time up their blitzes excellently.  Again, though, without Johnson to scheme, the Eagles defense is no longer a complete unit, it’s two excellent units playing in front of and behind a glaring weakness at the second level.  Stewart Bradley is a playmaker who is stiff in coverage, and Chris Gocong is a converted college DE who is on the smaller end, even for a LB.  The final linebacker is Akeem Jordan, who isn’t even guaranteed a roster spot.

The total product that is the 2009 Philadelphia Eagles is a likely playoff contender who should be able to win any game they play in.  But all I’m saying is, if the Eagles are sitting at 4-5 at midseason, chasing the Redskins or the Giants in the NFC East, well, the warning signs were visible from July.

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NFL Power Rankings by Continuity and Stability

These rankings are being done 1-32 as determined by the organizations with the most continuity.  It’s a good indicator of success because, well, if it ain’t broke, who is going to fix it?  Organizational continuity will be considered as well as coaching continuity, and team continuity.  Building from within is highly valued in these rankings.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Only one team in the NFL has a Quarterback who became the face of the franchise before he lost a single game, the type of coaching stability that makes Mike Tomlin it’s third coach since the AFL-NFL merger, and continues to be a family owned organization, and has been since the 1930’s.  Picking the team with the most continuity in the NFL is too easy.

2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have not changed head coaches since 1999 and they have not changed quarterbacks since Donovan McNabb took over in 2000.  That, essentially, is their competitive advantage in a nutshell.  McNabb himself probably hasn’t been as good as the statement “he’s been our starting quarterback for each of the last ten seasons” suggests, but he’s a pro bowl level performer annually, and moreover, his continued presence allows the team to easily identify their offensive weaknesses and improve at the little things every season.

3. Carolina Panthers
John Fox has been the head coach since 2002, and though he’s been on and off the hot seat over the years, it’s worth noting that the last time they had a double digit loss season was 2001…before Fox got there.  Owner Jerry Richardson has built a winning culture, and fosters continuity, while Jake Delhomme, for better or worse, has been the QB since 2003 and will be so for at least the next two seasons.

4. San Diego Chargers
When you fire your head coach following a 14-2 season, that’s not exactly a move that suggests organizational stability, but quite the contrary: the Chargers had the stability to make that move because they felt that they would have a more cohesive front office without Marty Schottenheimer, and also that they could get further into the playoffs with another coach.  Since hiring Norv Turner, GM A.J. Smith and owner Dean Spanos have been proven correct on all accounts.

5. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were the standard for organizational stability since hiring Tony Dungy in 2002, as Bill Polian worked with Dungy and O.C. Tom Moore to find the right pieces.  The Colts took a big hit when Dungy retired, and then OL Coach Howard Mudd and Moore both retired (albeit, it looks like temporarily).  With Peyton Manning still behind center, the Colts still come out as one of the most stable organizations in the league, although not nearly what they were just one year ago.

6. New England Patriots
It’s tough to remain a beacon of organizational continuity when you are so successful that other teams keep hiring your coordinators.  The Patriots are professionals, though.  They can handle it as long as they have Robert Kraft as an owner, and the hoodie roaming the sidelines.

7. New York Giants
The Giants were perhaps just one loss in the 2007 regular season away from finding themselves at the bottom of this list.  Tom Coughlin was not only on the hot seat, but there were office pools trying to predict how long it would be until he was gone.   They had just had their G.M., Ernie Accorsi, call it a career, and had replaced him before the season.  The owner, Wellington Mara, passed away in 2005.  If the Giants don’t make the playoffs in 2007, who knows what would have become of Eli Manning’s career.  Could Josh Freeman have been in Big Blue?

Anyway, back in reality, Coughlin now enters his 6th season as head coach, G.M. Jerry Reese has seamlessly taken over for Accorsi, winning a super bowl in his first season, and Eli Manning figures to land the largest contract in NFL history shortly.  That’s a pretty good alternative, wouldn’t you say?

8. Green Bay Packers
When Mike McCarthy was hired as head coach, he was the offensive coordinator of a 49ers unit that ranked 32nd in the league in total offense in 2005.  But since coming to the Packers, he’s had to facilitate the end of the relevant portion of Brett Favre’s career, followed by Favre’s mid-life crisis, and then the emergence of Aaron Rogers into a legitimate NFL quarterback.  He’s made it look easy.

9. Seattle Seahawks
The face of the franchise for the last 8 years or so has been head coach Mike Holmgren, but the team for the last two years had been working on a seamless transition of power from Holmgren to Jim Mora Jr, which of course occurred earlier this year.  They weren’t a good team last year, but they’ll be back, if for no other reason to justify my ranking of them in the top ten.

10. Baltimore Ravens
Ozzie Newsome has been calling the shots for a long time now, and he seemed to realize both 1) that there was value in leaving Brian Billick in as head coach for continuity’s sake, even has he floundered through his final three years as head coach, and 2) that it reached a point where in the name of stability, the organization needed to move in a different direction.

On a side note, I love John Harbaugh, and think he’s going to be successful in this league for a long time.

11. Chicago Bears
The Bears were just a bad organization not ten years ago, but since replacing Dick Jauron with Lovie Smith, they’ve manage to be one of the NFC’s premier teams in the last four years.  The job they do acquiring young defensive talent is incredible, but the package they were able to cobble together to land Jay Cutler really took this team to the next level in terms of being a long-term powerhouse.

12. Atlanta Falcons
Finding a player like Matt Ryan at the top of the draft can really make us forget about the Bobby Petrino year.  To his credit, owner Arthur Blank kept changing the formula until he figured it out.  If nothing else, having Michael Vick gave you organization continuity, and after wandering the desert for a year and a half post-Vick the Falcons have found stability under names like Dimitroff, Smith, and Ryan.

13. Tennessee Titans
It has not been easy overcoming Vince Young’s lack of ability and poor decision making, but Jeff Fisher is pretty much the best guy ever, with regards to solving those complex character logic problems.  Losing D.C. Jim Schwartz is a very big loss on the field and in terms of personnel decisions, but Kerry Collins returns as the starting quarterback, and he combined with Fisher makes this an above average organization in continuity, even considering it’s losses.

14. Buffalo Bills
So, Marv Levy probably should not have been an NFL GM.  Oh well.  Newly minted hall of famer Ralph Wilson does a good job acting in the best interest of his football team, and he’s been willing to stick with Dick Jauron longer than I would have under similar circumstances.  So while that may not be a great thing, it’s not really a problem either, and helps them climb some spots on this list.

15. Miami Dolphins
They underwent an owner change this offseason, with Stephen Ross buying a majority of the team from Wayne Huizenga.  Bill Parcells remains the team president, and primary shot caller, and with understudies Jeff Ireland in the front office and Tony Sparano at head coach, the 2009 Dolphins will operate much like the 2008 Dolphins did, despite the power shift at the top.

16. New Orleans Saints
The Saints haven’t exactly been a compulsive QB changing organization, but finding and investing in Drew Brees means that they pretty much don’t have to touch the position for the duration of his contract.  Sean Payton is one of the younger, more successful coaches in this league (not exactly Mike Tomlin, but still).

17. Houston Texans
In 2008, the Texans under Gary Kubiak finally resembled a Kubiak-Broncos offense from 2004-2005.  The one-cut running game was successful, and the passing game off of that was effective.  We’ve seen this system work before, and now that we’ve seen it work for the Texans, it does wonders for their future prospects now considering that there’s finally a mold for GM Rick Smith to build the team into.

18. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jack Del Rio has been head coach of the Jaguars since Tom Coughlin was fired at the end of the 2002 season.  Coughlin was the face of the Jaguars franchise, and Del Rio has succeeded him in that roll.  However, the personnel moves by this team over the last year and a half was counterproductive and resulted in the firing of VP of Player Personnel James Harris.  There’s continuity on the field, but Del Rio might be the next to go, so the short-term stability of the franchise is questionable.

19. Minnesota Vikings
Brad Childress enters his third consecutive hot seat season, and even though Ziggy Wilf bought the team from Red McCombs over four years ago, we’ve yet to see any sort of leadership from the top that would convince us that the Vikings are going to be one of the NFL’s premier organizations anytime soon.  To their credit, they’re sticking with Childress for now, but the quarterback situation is horribly murky, to the point where Brett Favre is being viewed as a positive influence.  The saving grace is that, 12 teams have less continuity, according to these power rankings.

20. Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones is the top man for the Cowboys, no questions asked.  That’s the first step of stability.  Clearly, the Cowboys are striving for continuity with Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett, and Tony Romo, but Romo’s leadership is constantly under fire, Phillips is a lame duck coach until his next three game winning streak proves otherwise, and Garrett is a streaking start in the coaching world, about to crash.  As of mid-February, this team had no idea whether Terrell Owens was a positive or negative influence, and wasn’t convinced that Adam Jones was a bad dude.  They get points for the effort, but ultimately, the Cowboys are just dysfunctional.

21. Kansas City Chiefs
Carl Peterson ran the Chiefs for 20 years until he resigned in January.  It wasn’t always that rosy for the Chiefs, though it was certainly during the Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil years.  But for every Marty and Vermeil, there was a Gunther, a Herm, or a Herm and a Gunther.  Now under Scott Pioli, the Chiefs will look to rebuild their organization into a consistent winner, with Todd Haley as the headman, but they have plenty of steps to take before they get there.

22. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have a franchise quarterback.  They also have a long time owner and a long time coach.  But, depending on who you ask, it’s debatable to whether that’s actually helping matters.  Having the signal caller is the one thing the Bengals can point to as a step towards being a top organization, but it’s increasingly clear that owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis are not the two guys to get them there.  Unfortunately, Carson Palmer can’t hire a new owner, so this ranking will have to suffice.

23. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers sport a brutal quarterback situation, a largely unproven personnel guy, and a young, unproven owner who, I think, gets it, but has his hands tied at the moment.  Head coach Mike Singletary is a great find, and is one of the best young coaches in the game today, but he’s not working with a bunch of pieces either above or below him.

24. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have talent, and they can win in the near term future, but if they do so, it will be in spite of a lack of continuity.  They lost both of their coordinators in the offseason, and their very talented roster is in a state of flux right now where it’s plenty good to compete, but it’s best young players are not under long term deals yet; Karlos Dansby is on his second franchise tender, the quarterback and leader of the team is 38, and the cap situation is not conducive to growth: this might be as good as they get.  With that said, wherever their destination, I have little doubt that Ken Whisenhunt will get them there.

25. Washington Redskins
The Redskins live perpetually in a state of flux, subject to every whim of a hands on owner whose simply too impulsive to help things.  They have a personnel guy in Vinny Cerrato who is smart enough to handle his own job, but isn’t smart enough to overcome his mediation duties between the owner and his roster.  They have a green head coach in Jim Zorn who has plenty of promise, but limited job security.  The quarterback has performed well in limited time, and can’t catch a break.  It’s a team built around it’s veterans, and looking to get younger at the same time, which is hard to do.

Despite all that mess, the Redskins are a very good team, and thanks to their financial resources, once any one of those issues is alleviated, the team can make a run in any given year.  Then the next offseason, the owner teams up the core of the team, replacing it with a lot of first year talent of varying quality, and the process starts again.

26. St. Louis Rams
The Rams have spent the last two years trying to find some players who can win with QB Marc Bulger, and a coach who isn’t going to hinder these things. Exit Scott Linehan.  Enter Steve Spagnuolo, who the Rams feel is the right man to help rebuild the franchise.  The long-time owner, Georgia Frontiere, passed last year and the team is up for sale, complicating everything.

27. New York Jets
Woody Johnson may not be a good owner, but then again, neither is Arthur Blank, and he found organizational success under a new regime.  The issue is that Johnson held over Mike Tannenbaum from the Mangini-era, and then Tannenbaum hired Rex Ryan to be the head coach solution.  This one might work, but if decides one year from now that Tannenbaum is hurting more than he’s helping, this entire situation is tossed on it’s head, and there will be tons of pressure on Rex Ryan to make this thing work, one way or another.  Having a rookie QB in Mark Sanchez makes nothing easier in the short term, but potentially more rewarding in the long term if they hit it big under Ryan.

28. Cleveland Browns

Help us, Brady Quinn.  You’re our only hope.  Essentially, two years ago, Quinn’s job looked like it was going to be coming in after watching from the bench for two years, and he would simply need to take an 8 or 9 win team to the next level.  Since then, the GM and Head Coach have been released, Eric Mangini has been brought in along with George Kokonis, and now Quinn’s job is to immediate return this franchise to respectable in his first season, and take them to the playoffs in his second.  That’s the timetable, at least.

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A recent report suggested that the Buccaneers operate near the NFL salary floor…so that the Glazer family can funnel the extra $20 million or so into the Manchester United.  That’s, um, not what the NFL revenue sharing system was created for.  It remains to be seen whether Mark Dominik can be a better judge of talent than Bruce Allen was, or whether Raheem Morris is more fit for the head coach position than was Jon Gruden, or if five quarterbacks on the roster is too many, or just not enough.

30. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders may be the posterchild for dysfunctional, but even in the face of overwhelming mistake-prone decision making, the Tom Cable led coaching staff seems optimistic about the team’s future.  The only way that Al Davis’ Raiders become relevant again is if they mistakenly discover an offensive talent as great as Nnamdi Asomugha is on defense.  That might be Darren McFadden…who also might go down as just another wasted draft pick.  You see the issue here.

31. Denver Broncos
Pat Bowlen is too good of an owner to have the Broncos down here for too long, but even he has to be questioning his coaching hire right now.  He’s done everything an owner is supposed to do to be behind his head coach, given him the full resources of the organization, but has no silver lining if this team falls to 4-12 this year, it will just culminate a successful offseason.  I did find the silver lining though: if the team can get 6 wins against this brutal schedule, it might mean big things for this team in 2010.

32. Detroit Lions

The Lions, who have been around for almost 80 years, found themselves in a situation similar to an expansion team.  They had accrued no experience, no goodwill, and had limited talent on the roster.  So they brought in the best man for the job (Jim Schwartz), and they’ve gotten very far into the rebuilding process for one year.  At this time next year, if everything goes according to plan, the Lions could be in the middle of this list.  But when you have zero process points accrued, being ranked above 32nd in continuity in stability is quite a lofty expectation.

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NFL Top 10: The Best Personnel Men in Pro Football

10. Mike Reinfelt, Tennessee Titans
Reinfelt was handed a team in salary cap purgatory, a team who had spent it’s last two first round picks on PacMan Jones and Vince Young, and a team that had just released perhaps the greatest player in it’s short history since moving to Tennessee (Steve McNair), and hadn’t made the playoffs in two seasons.  Under Reinfelt, the Titans have pulled all the right strings, moving the team from 8-8 in 2006 to 10-6 in 2007 to a AFC-best 13-3 in 2008.

While playoff success has been elusive, and the job has been more about connecting Floyd Reese’s dots than rebuilding the entire system, that player development cycle is easy to mess up from the top down.  Reinfelt deserves credit for working with Jeff Fisher and the departed Jim Schwartz to get this team to the top of it’s conference.

9.  Scott Pioli, Kansas City Chiefs
Pioli had been fielding job offers for the last three offseasons, and when Kansas City came calling, he had to take it.  There are very few, if any, better small-market sports towns than K.C, and the team was not hamstrung by any cumbersome poor contracts, it was just largely void of talent.  In essence, it’s precisely the blank slate that Pioli had waited around for, before bolting the culture of success in New England.

8.  Tim Ruskell, Seattle Seahawks
Ruskell is one of the more underrated personnel guys in the league, as Mike Holmgren was pretty much a disaster in the same capacity, but in his five year tenure, Ruskell has called the shots for a team that won it’s conference, won it’s division every year up until 2008, developed one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and had a top of the line defense in 2007.  Ruskell, like most of this franchise, had a down year in 2008, but he’s gone right back to the things that made him successful, patching up the secondary with veteran former-Seahawk Ken Lucas, and drafting the unanimous best player in the draft, LB Aaron Curry.

7.  Ted Thompson, Green Bay Packers
Thompson’s tenure might be defined by: 1) having the cajones to tell Brett Favre that he wasn’t entitled to be the Packers starting quarterback following a retirement bout, and 2) fearing that Favre might end up in his own division one day.  Thompson is a good decision maker and historically top drafter who has taken the Packers from an older team built around Brett Favre, to the youngest, arguably most exciting offense in the league.  His decision to hire Dom Capers and switch to a 3-4 defense might be his boldest move yet, but there’s little reason to think he will loose this gamble in the long run.

Of course, this would be a bad year to have a transitional defense if, in fact, Brett Favre will be wearing purple this year.

6.
A.J. Smith, San Diego Chargers
2009 is the year.  All the fruits of A.J. Smith’s labors, from ripping off the Giants in the Eli trade in 2004,to drafting Shawne Merriman with the Eli pick in 2005, to building the league’s best OL in 2006, to watching Philip Rivers overcome all the odds to outperform Drew Brees in the offense Brees created, to finding the best young TE in the league without using any resources…all of it is set to pay off this season.  If Smith’s team can’t win it this year, his days will inevitably be numbered as the team he built ages, and he will be remembered for firing Marty Schottenheimer/hiring Norv Turner, not for building a winner in San Diego.

5.  Kevin Colbert/Art Rooney Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are a shrewd personnel organization.  Plenty of teams without exorbitant budgets are successful drafters, but the Steelers make their free agent expenditures count too.  Just look at S Ryan Clark.  Left unwanted by the Redskins after a career year in 2005, the Steelers signed him and three years later, he teamed with Troy Polamalu to be arguably the very best safety tandem in the NFL.  Consider that their roster is just as deep as it is top-heavy, and you have a brain trust that consistently puts their team ahead of it’s competition.

4.  Bill Parcells/Jeff Ireland, Miami Dolphins
Parcells has a reputation that exceeds the effect he has on teams–he’s not a miracle worker if he can hand pick the situation he wants to go into–but he’s proven himself as a wise grocery-shopper who can at least chance the entire culture of an organization overnight.  Picking up a Chad Pennington was a no brainer for the man that drafted him, but it was a move that a lot of others would not have made.  When you coach under Parcells, you have a creative license to do WildCatty things that otherwise would be considered NFL coaching heresy.

3.  Bill Belichick/Kraft Family, New England Patriots
He’s the standard by which all coaches are measured, and he also makes sure he has the newest, most state of the art toys to try and win with.  And more importantly, his success rolls over from year to year as he parlays his success into higher and higher draft position yearly, until he has about four picks per year in the range where franchise players can be found at relatively minimal cost.  If the Steelers are the organizational standard, the Belichick Patriots are the most easily duplicatible personnel acquisition system: the one where success itself breeds future success.

2.  Thomas Dimitroff, Atlanta Falcons
Dimitroff is THE rising star in the front office game.  He needed to be right on Matt Ryan, and early returns are about as positive as they can be, but his season and a half of success goes well beyond that.  He seems to have an uncanny ability for getting the best possible value out of every draft pick; this is something that neither the Patriots nor the Dolphins nor the Steelers can say.  Those organizations are winners because of their understanding of the value of the draft, and their ability to parlay their efforts into extra shots in the NFL Draft.  On the contrary, Dimitroff’s No. 1 quality is that if he’s given two picks in the first two rounds, he finds a way to get three picks worth of talent with those picks, be it with trading, or a calm patience that few other GMs will display in the war room.

1.  Bill Polian, Indianapolis Colts

The Colts may not provide an easily duplicatible blue print about how to build a winning team, but this type of longevity in the era of parity just does not seem at all possible.  However, blessed with perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, the Colts have managed to surround him with one of the best teams ever, and they keep renewing the talent via the draft every single season.  This is an organization that is unafraid to spend high picks on offensive players to help Manning out, in fact, their first pick every year since 2006 has been on offense, and has netted two RBs, a WR, and the teams LT.  This wouldn’t have worked unless they had: 1) spent all their efforts on defense in the four drafts prior to that, and 2) had actual, objective reason to believe they had a special talent core on defense that would transcend it’s defensive minded coach into the next era.

Well, it’s about time we give Bill Polian credit for a perfectly executed winning business model.

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NFL Crystal Ball: McNair Legacy will not include Hall of Fame Induction

Although details of Steve McNair’s homicide are still forthcoming, the big question around the media surrounding his death has to do with his legacy.  People want to speculate on how history will judge the former NFL Quarterback.  He will be remembered as a pro bowler, a great teammate, a community stalwart, and a guy who gave his life in one of the more bizarre murder cases ever surrounding a professional athlete.

He will be remembered for all these things separately, and probably not as one thing universally.  Surely, different people around him were affected differently by his actions, and I think we can all agree that the world was a better place when Steve McNair was still with us.

Ultimately though, he’s going to be famous for one thing above all: his performance as an NFL quarterback.  The question in this column: should Steve McNair be considered for the Hall of Fame, and more specifically, should the events of this July 4th have an effect on the voting process.

I know I’ll be in the minority when I say this, but Steve McNair’s hall of fame candidacy is likely to be improved by the tragedy and surprise events leading to his death, and more than that, I think it should improve his chances of making the hall of fame.

But, I just don’t think the total package is going to be enough to get him there.  I’m going to add some analysis to back up this point, so if you feel that it’s too early to talk about his hall of fame credentials given the circumstances, I implore this to be the final sentence you read in this column.

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Steve McNair’s prime lasted from 2000-2003.  Other top quarterbacks of his era include:

Rich Gannon (prime years 1999-2002)
Kurt Warner (prime years 1999-2001)
Trent Green (prime years 2002-2005)
Daunte Culpepper (prime years 2000-2004)
Kerry Collins (prime years 2000-2002)

The consistently high standards of the hall of fame suggest that only one of those players is “likely” to get in one day, and that’s Warner.  Warner’s numbers from the Rams days are ridiculously cartoonish, and when McNair and Warner faced off in the super bowl, it was Warner who came out on top.  Warner is 1-2 in Super Bowls in his career, and both of his losses came to guys whose prime years fell in the following era (post 2004 illegal contact rule changes), the two guys who beat him are going to have strong cases when they become eligible.

If Steve McNair is to be considered a hall of fame performer, we need solid evidence that he was as good if not better than the Gannons, Greens, and Culpeppers of the world.

Number One Receivers

McNair’s prime years were also the four best years of Derrick Mason’s career.  Mason has a legitimate shot at the hall of fame, as he’s been maybe the 5th or 6th best receiver of this decade (after Moss, Owens, Holt, and Harrison).

Gannon threw to Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, two hall of famers who were not anywhere near the primes of their career when he played with them.

Green had Tony Gonzalez as his number one receiver, but never a true threat on the outside.

Culpepper threw to Moss back when he was [Randy Moss!]

In order of individual achievement, you’d rank them Gannon, then Green, then McNair, then Culpepper.

Team Achievement in Prime

Rich Gannon went 41-23 in the regular season in his prime years, and then 4-3 in the playoffs with one AFC Title (in which he beat McNair’s Titans)

Trent Green went 38-26 in the regular season in his prime years, and then lost his only playoff game.  Green started a second playoff game in 2006, after he missed most of the year injured, which he lost (to Manning’s Colts in both games).

Both Gannon and Green were hamstrung by lousy defenses, although Green moreso than Gannon.

Culpepper’s Vikings went 36-37 with him at the helm, thanks in part to a lousy defense, but they made the playoffs twice and Culpepper was 2-2 with two excellent playoff performances.

McNair actually had the benefit of a great defense, and compiled a 40-20 regular season record during the prime of his career.  In those four years, he won only 2 of 5 playoff starts (2-3), losing his only AFC Title game appearence in 2002.  McNair’s super bowl run came a year before his prime, but should not be forgotten in this analysis.  He won all three AFC playoff games, including the music city miracle, before losing the super bowl.

This should be ranked Gannon, then McNair, then Culpepper, and finally Green.

MVP Seasons and Near MVP Seasons

Gannon and McNair only had really one true MVP season each (which they both won), although both were in the running in the two years leading up to their MVP season.  Trent Green did not win an MVP, but in both 2002 and 2004 could have easily taken the award.  Same deal with Culpepper, no MVPs, but two seasons in which he was as deserving as the player who did win it, 2002 and 2004.

I’d rank this one Green, then Culpepper, then McNair, and finally Gannon

Conclusion

I really wanted to find some evidence that I could point to and say that “this number says that Steve McNair is a deserving hall of famer”, but I’ve found that his career is pretty undistingulishable from the other top QBs of his era.  His performances fit perfectly in with these other ring-less players who were the dominant quarterbacks at the turn of the decade.

Steve McNair will be remembered as one of the most dominant players right at the turn of the decade, but likely not as a deserving hall of famer, even if his tragedy inspires some extra ‘yes’ votes.

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NFL Power Rankings by Weakest Link

If you really are only as good as your weakest link, then who is the best team in the NFL?

An exercise in trying to define what a weakest link is yields little progress.  I guess you could say that a team’s Weakest Link is the position at which the player in question does the most damage with the least help to the team.  Of course, this theoretically could be a coach, owner, or G.M., but I’ll just stick to players in this exercise.

Inevitably, some teams on this list are going to be listed higher or lower than they should, simply because the standard is so inconsistent.  I’m going to try to stick to unit weakness, but if the situation calls for it, individual players could get called out.  With regards to youth, I’ll try to give a team the benefit of the doubt: after all, any team can lose just fine with young talent, and justify it as rebuilding.

Anyway, here’s what NFL Outsider came up with, as to rank the teams 32-to-1 by determining each team’s weakest link.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver
The worst unit in the NFL has to be the receivers of the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Has to be.  33-year old Torry Holt is an unquestioned No. 1 receiver on this team, no one else on the roster really has any experience, and Holt (who is one of the more prolific WRs in the game) has watched his game decline so much since 2005 that calling him an ideal No. 2 receiver would be a pretty charitable statement.  This unit is the weakest of all links in the NFL in part because it’s been a problem for so long, in part because the Jags did nothing to try to retain their young upcoming talent, and in part because I couldn’t tell you who has the lead for the No. 2 WR position.  Unless that person has a better year than Holt, I’m confident that this unit will rank among the weakest in the NFL at the end of the year.

31.
Kansas City Chiefs: Pass Rush
If all Chiefs opponents in 2008 had combined to make one football team, they would have been the least sacked team in NFL history, and all five lineman would have been in the pro bowl.  That’s just how good the Chiefs pass rush made their opponents look last year.  They really didn’t do anything to upgrade the pass rush; LB Mike Vrabel comes over from New England, which certainly won’t hurt, but also doesn’t bring a lot of upside to the overall production.  The offseason focus on defense was about a move to a 3-4 unit, and bolstering the defensive line first and foremost.  That’s fine, but it still leaves them a step away from a competent defensive unit who can get after the passer at a significantly better rate than last year’s debacle.

30.
Oakland Raiders: Wide Receivers
Perhaps it says something about the quality of the players in the game that the weakest parts of the weakest link list are receiver oriented.  The Raiders addressed this as a need this offseason and drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey in the first round.  Heyward-Bey might end up being a good player in time, and possibly even in Oakland, but his skill set does little to improve the Raiders right now.  They still think they might have a No. 1 receiver in Javon Walker, but he’s been written off by most pundits already.  The rest of the roster includes names like Chaz Shillens, and Johnnie Lee Higgins, which, um, is better than Jacksonville?

29.
St. Louis Rams: Wide Receiver
Second year man Donnie Avery has the true makings of a number one receiver, and will probably get there before too long but he isn’t there right now, and the Rams simply do not have anyone else on the roster who can be trusted from Week 1 through Week 17 in that role.  This is going to take a wait and see approach throughout the entire season.

28.
Denver Broncos: Defensive Back Seven
They have Champ Bailey, plus some youth in CB Alphonzo Smith, so they probably won’t be as bad as last year, but this is still an incredibly barren pass defense in Denver.  S Darcel McBath will almost be forced to make an impact as a rookie, which is something they can’t necessarily count on.  Robert Ayers was drafted to be the primary pass rusher on this team, and in a 3-4 scheme, wouldn’t count as a “back seven” player anyway.  The back seven is two potentially strong corners, each on the opposite ends of that potential, and then, really nothing at all.  Easy pickings for an NFL offense.

27. Detroit Lions: Defensive Line
It wouldn’t be hard to argue that, just maybe, the Detroit Lions produced the worst defense in NFL history last year.  Immediately, they went at fixing the linebackers and the cornerbacks, ending up with Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, and Anthony Henry in the process.  They only used one pick, a fourth rounder, on the defensive line at all, and their switch to the 3-4 scheme means that any productive players from last years team are not returning on the DL.  This unit will become the bane of Jim Schwartz’ first season.

26. Seattle Seahawks: Running Back
The Seahawks happen to be a pretty complete team, but their combination of Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett at running back this season is pretty laughable for an otherwise solid roster.  It creates a giant, gaping hole that threatens their ability to make the playoffs this year in an increasingly talented NFC West.

25.
Buffalo Bills: Offensive Tackle
The Bills spent much of their resources in the draft this season to make sure that the three interior guys in the OL were not going to be some camp scrubs.  Mission accomplished, I guess.  The trade of Jason Peters leaves this team without any sort of left tackle prospect, and the team’s current plans involve sliding RT Langston Walker over to the left side.  Walker was a little bit over his head at RT, so this should be plenty of fun to watch, and this unit will often draw the ire of the upstate NY die-hards.

24.
Cincinnati Bengals: Interior Offensive Line
The Bengals will head into camp starting Andrew Whitworth and Andre Brown at the tackles, which should be adequate.  At least compared to the names on the interior.  It’s a part of the unit that wasn’t very good last year, in either run blocking or pass blocking, and didn’t really get any stronger this off-season.  The pass protection will be better in Cinci this year, but the interior running game figures to be much of the same.

23.
Chicago Bears: Wide Receiver
Thanks to Devin Hester’s emergence as a deep threat that teams at least need to get a man on, the Bears aren’t quite as weak here as they once thought.  Again, we’re giving the benefit of the doubt to youth here: the Bears have used third round picks in consecutive years on receivers, who might complement Hester one day should Hester ever give the Bears something to complement.

22. Green Bay Packers: Offensive Line
There’s plenty of warm bodies across the board here on a unit that is deeper than it is strong, but the only real name that still remains is LT Chad Clifton, a declining player in the last year of his contract, and even he is hardly guaranteed a starting spot.  The Packers could turn this into a strength with the development of a young guy or two, but that’s what they thought at this time last year as well.  Time is running out for the current group.

21.
Houston Texans: Secondary
The return of Dunta Robinson to the lineup takes this group out of bottom five territory, but this unit has been possibly the biggest failing of the Texans front office.  It has been properly identified as an area of concern by the team, but the solutions have involved names like Jacques Reeves, CC Brown, Will Demps, and Nick Ferguson.  At this point, it’s time to give the middle round prospects the team has a shot.

20. Cleveland Browns: Inside Linebacker
It’s hard to be worse than the ILB duo of Andra Davis and D’Qwell Jackson was last year, as no unit I studied last year looked more lost on film.  Davis has moved on to…Denver, so that makes things better in the immediate, although the Browns don’t have a firmly entrenched replacement lined up.   2007 4th rounder Beau Bell is the frontrunner.  Jackson is still young, only heading into his 4th season, so he has a fighting chance to become a quality player yet.

19. Atlanta Falcons: Secondary
The team was obviously somewhat unprepared to lose it’s only quality DB, CB Dominique Foxworth, to free agency.  They drafted William Moore, a SS from Missouri who could pay off long term dividends.  I have faith in the Atlanta front office to develop some young talent and get it onto the field this year, but they simply aren’t working with very much.  They’ll stay out of the weak link cellar, but this unit might keep the Falcons out of the playoffs.

18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Wide Receiver
The Bucs’ rebuilding project is more evident at the wide receiver position than anywhere else.  Antonio Bryant is a pretty legit number one, but he’s a one year wonder in that role.  Receivers 2-4 are much more troubling.  They include names like Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall.  Unlike some of the teams really high on that list, the talent is there, but the production is still very much a mystery which makes this unit an easily identifiable weak link.

17.
Minnesota Vikings: Pass Protection
A unit that was not so hot last year when Matt Birk was out of the lineup lost Birk entirely when he surprised everyone and bolted for Baltimore.  The left side of the line is not much of an issue, but the right side was terrible last year, and the drafting of Oklahoma T Phil Loadholt does little to improve the pass protection on the right side, as he is of the mauler breed.  When you factor in that Adrian Peterson has not yet developed the blocking end of his game, getting a quarterback who can make the proper line calls (like a Brett Favre) seems like the only remaining way to get anything out of this pass pro unit in 2009.  Only Favre’s potential presence kept the Vikings pass blocking from being higher up on the list of weak links.

16.
New York Giants: Wide Receiver
On most teams, the hodgepodge of youthful talent that the Giants have at the receiver position would be considered an excellent base for a developing team, but the Giants aren’t at the developmental stage in the life cycle of their team.  They are in the “get Eli help now” stage, and have very few pieces who can be relied on.  Rookie WR Hakeem Nicks needs to make an immediate impact, or the intermediate routes run by Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith will get stale quickly.

15. Washington Redskins: Offensive Line

This unit probably takes more flak then it deserves, but the fact remains that 4 out of the 5 positions are either getting very much over-the-hill (LT, RG), or are largely unproven in this scheme (C, RT).  The Redskins don’t have bad offensive line numbers from a year ago, at least according to ALY, but the performance at the end of the season was so egregious that a change had to be made, and the long-tenured Jon Jansen got the axe, despite not necessarily being the biggest issue.

14.
New York Jets: Wide Receiver
Jericho Cotchery is one of the 20 best receivers in football, another way of saying he’s a legit No. 1, but the No. 2 job now falls to either Chansi Stuckey or David Clowney and being a slot receiver in a Brett Favre run offense is a much different role from being a second receiver in an offense run by a rookie.  Without an unexpected breakout from a young receiver, this becomes a really rough rookie season for Sanchez.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers: Interior Offensive Line
They did get a strong playoff performance from Darnell Stapleton and Chris Kemoeatu en route to a sixth title, but even the addition of Kraig Urbik to this team doesn’t make it suddenly resistant to injury.  Kendall Simmons became a cap casualty after starting only four games last season before getting hurt, and leaving the Steelers OL in a world of hurt for most of the regular season.  If either of the unremarkable incumbents gets hurt, the Steelers will be riding a 3rd round rookie towards the playoffs, and that’s the kind of thing that opposing defensive coordinators will snack on all day, every Sunday.

12. Miami Dolphins: Secondary
The Vontae Davis pick, and Gibril Wilson signing have shored up a gaping weakness in the coverage units of the Dolphins, but it’s still easily identifiable as the team’s biggest weakness.  Eric Green was signed by Miami to play corner, but he was most recently seen getting toasted in Arizona professionally.  Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland must have seen something that I have not in him, because he figures to be one of the most picked on targets in 2009.

11.
San Francisco 49ers: Secondary
I can’t discount the presence of Nate Clements on this unit, as overrated as he was in his free agency year, and this 49ers team is remarkably hole free from top to bottom, but I still think they are going to hemorrhage yards in the passing game to the point where they won’t be all that competitive for a playoff spot.

10.
Dallas Cowboys: Offensive Tackles
Flozell Adams and Marc Columbo are two starting quality tackles in the NFL, but neither should be starting on the great offense the Cowboys believe they have, and the first backup is a mid round rookie draft pick from the power house that is the Ball St. Cardinals, Robert Brewster.  Not among the weakest links in the league, but still pretty bad for a playoff contender.  OT is simply a position that the Cowboys have gone too long without addressing.

9.
Tennessee Titans: Quarterback
Kerry Collins played very well last year, under ideal conditions for a pocket passing veteran: low expectations, great protection, emerging selfless targets with limited “get me the ball” type egos.  But that’s a once in a lifetime offensive environment.  The offensive line will be strong for many, many years into the future, but not nearly what it was last year, and Collins has always been a mistake prone player.  The big issue is that if the Titans should need to replace Collins to save their season in the middle of the year, their choices will include Patrick Ramsey and Vince Young.  Both have won games in this league before, but would just be placeholders until the team can get an actual fix next offseason.

8.
Arizona Cardinals: Run Blocking
The Cards finally have the horses to run the football early and often if they wish to, but the blocking will remain very much the same as last seasons’ dead last rushing effort.  It’s bound to get better with a better runner setting up those blocks, but there’s still a ton of room to improve here, and it is the biggest weakness on a Cardinals team that is pretty well rounded.

7.
Carolina Panthers: Quarterback
Jake Delhomme enters this season as the unquestioned starter, and he’s got depth behind him in Josh McCown and Matt Moore, but this unit will be very much tested when team’s figure out how to take cutback lanes away from Jonathon Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.  Delhomme to Steve Smith remains an elite passing tandem, but little of that has to do with Delhomme.  The question becomes, on a team that’s ready to compete right now, can they hold Delhomme upright in a way that allows him to lead this offense back to the top of the league, or is he the weak link that will keep the Panthers home in January?

6.
Indianapolis Colts: Offensive Tackles
Tony Ugoh is a developing tackle who might be a monster one day, but when he’s been in the lineup his first two years, Peyton Manning has had his share of pass pressure come from right over LT.  On the other side, Ryan Diem has long been a marginal player who tends to mishandle the better rushers in the league.  Peyton usually has protections called to handle all sorts of blitz pressure, but even a three time MVP has little hope when facing a team with two dynamic pass rushing ends.  Luckily, the Colts D is the only defense in the NFL with this specialized duo, so that pushes the Colts OTs further down this list.

5. Philadelphia Eagles: Secondary
The loss of Brian Dawkins won’t be felt on a team-wide level quite like it will on this unit wide level.  The Asante Samuel investment gets put into question because he’s struggled in man to man coverage without safety help before, and removing Dawkins’ range from the defensive equation takes Samuel out of that shutdown corner territory.  The opposite corner, Sheldon Brown, is fighting for his job, and needs to hold of Joselio Hanson and Ellis Hobbs.  Neither is much of a coverage player.

4.
New Orleans Saints: Pass Rush
Finding a weakness on the Saints was not at all easy, but their pass rush last season was basically non-existent, and that’s not the kind of thing that a Gregg Williams hire will solve.  He’s a blitzer, but for all the pass protections he’s broken down over his career, the team’s sack numbers don’t seem to improve.  No, this production will have to come from individuals such as Charles Grant and Will Smith, and both guys are coming off of a down year in 2008, not to mention that both players are in the StarCaps scandal.

3. San Diego Chargers: Defensive Line
Jamal Williams is still one of the better noses in the league, but neither defensive end was what the Chargers had hoped for last year.  They let Igor Olshansky walk to Dallas, but the other incumbent, Luis Castillo, played poorly in 2008, and career backup Jacques Cesaire is in line for a starting job opposite him.  With a rebound year from Castillo and continued production from Williams, this might not be a weakness, but it sure looks like one right now.

2.
Baltimore Ravens:  Running Back
Perhaps the most complete team in the league, the Baltimore Ravens will run Willis McGahee and Ray Rice out as their tailback duos, along with LeRon McClain in power situations.  McClain was a probowler last year, but as a fullback.  McGahee has had some good games as a Raven: against NE in 2007, and he broke a long run against Dallas last year, but Ray Rice is unproven, and the Ravens are a team who need to be able to run the ball to succeed.

1.
New England Patriots: Pass Rush
The only question the Pats have to answer in 2009 is whether or not they can still get after the passer.  Mike Vrabel is gone, and Adalius Thomas has not been a prolific pass rusher since coming over from Baltimore, merely a cog in a bigger machine.  Richard Seymour’s sack production bounced back last year to 8, but he’s not going to produce at that level again.  The Patriots need that prolific pass rushing linebacker, and they simply don’t have that piece.  Therefore, in a team that has few weaknesses, it’s the pass rush that will be of the greatest concern to the Pats in 2009.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Indianapolis Colts

Happy Independence Day, readers!  Nothing says July 4th quite like fireworks, and analysis pieces on the best team in the nation’s heartland.

The Indianapolis Colts continue to produce a nearly unhealthy streak of double digit win seasons, and the two men most responsible for this success are undeniable.  One graces the top of our list, the other, will not be on the list.  For Bill Polian is not a player, he merely has perfected his craft over the last ten years to become the league’s best personnel guy.

But, as not to waste your time today, or whenever you may be reading this column, lets get right into the ten most valuable Colts.

10.  DE Robert Mathis
Mathis is a rush end playing on the left side of the Colts DL in deference to Freeney, but it’s because of the Colts’ defensive scheme that he can be so productive.  A lot of teams are averse to creating such an obvious weakness against the rush as the Colts are, but the team knows that having athletes on defense is unlikely to backfire in the NFL simply because it’s tough if not impossible to commit to the run for a full game.  As such, Mathis ends up with good run defense numbers, annually.  Those are mostly product of system, but the guy’s pro bowl pass rush ability is unquestioned.

9.  LB Gary Brackett
Brackett is one of the few vocal leaders on the defense, and he’s a smallish middle linebacker now in the peak of his career, still with some upside.  He’s underrated in the same way that London Fletcher and Keith Bulluck are, he has little weakness in his game, but isn’t the explosive, headline grabbing linebacker that would garner much national attention.  Add to that the fact that Indy isn’t a huge media market, and the national coverage given to the other side of the football, and it’s understandable that you may not have heard about this pro bowl level performer.

8.  RB Joseph Addai
The still No. 1 running back for the Colts finds himself somewhat dispensable after the selection of Donald Brown in the first round, but Addai is still the best back on the team, and should go a long way towards proving that this season.  It’s up to him whether he creates a great tandem with Brown, or gives way to him.

7.  WR Anthony Gonzalez
The Colts might have been the only team that would have taken Gonzo Jr. in the first round, because he was viewed as little more than a complementary receiver around the league.  Of course, where most of the league sees “just a complementary target”, the Colts saw “a potentially great complementary target.”  Early returns on Anthony Gonzalez were good enough to get him on this list.

6.  TE Dallas Clark
Dallas Clark is neither a tight end or a receiver, he’s an offensive ‘tweener.  He’s somewhat limited as an in-line blocker, but can run all the routes and even adds a vertical element to the offense.  Clark is famous for emerging in the middle of seasons as Manning’s go to guy, and then giving way to his receivers as the playoffs begin.  He’s the prototype for a safety blanket, in that he has no limitations as a receiver, and thusly, fits in whatever role the team needs at the current moment.

5.  DE Dwight Freeney
Dwight Freeney is really just a one move player, which is essentially why he was available in the middle of the first round in the 2002 draft, and why he’s never really mentioned in the conversation of best defensive ends in the game.  And it’s true that you can only be so good without developing a second move.  But Freeney’s spin move is unquestionably the best spin move in the history of the NFL.  It is to the 21st century what the Deacon Jones head slap was to the 1960’s.  The best offensive tackles in the game can’t seem to keep him from getting inside.  Freeney is undersized, and without the spin move, he wouldn’t have any sort of an interior game, but with it, he’s one of the most dyamic defenders in the game.

On a small tanget, isn’t Freeney the posterchild for a Bill Polian selection?

4.  WR Reggie Wayne
There will never again be another Marvin Harrison, but Reggie Wayne might be the greatest consolation prize in NFL history.  Harrison’s effectiveness declined sharply following the 2006 SB season, and since then, Wayne has been the go to guy on the Colts.  Wayne has always been one of the most valuable receivers in the NFL, and while a considerable amount of that is the Manning effect, Wayne is also good player, pure and simple.

3.  C Jeff Saturday
For as good as Peyton Manning has been, he couldn’t overcome the loss of Saturday for the first month of last season. The Colts offense was struggling, the team lost 4 of it’s first 7 games which was basically unheard of.  Then, Saturday returned.  Needless to say, the team won the rest of it’s regular season games, and Peyton Manning won the MVP.  A lot of the credit for that goes to Jeff Saturday, who is now healthy, and after re-upping with the team this offseason, plans to make another run or two at a second title before leaving Manning to his own devices.

2.  S Bob Sanders
The defensive enforcer would be a common NFL position, although when you have a safety who handles that role, it’s certainly a bonus exclusive to a few teams.  When you consider that Sanders dropped in the draft because of size and durability concerns, it’s just a remarkable scouting job by the Colts to find him when they did.  He hasn’t been the most durable character in his five year tenure, but when he’s in the lineup, he’s a elite player.

1.  QB Peyton Manning
So much has been written about Peyton Manning that anything I added here would be rehashing old points.  He’s the greatest player of his generation and arguably the greatest player of all-time.  No one in history has been better more consistently and longer.

Manning won his third NFL MVP last season, but he did not win the award in his two best seasons, 2005 and 2006.  Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson each enjoyed career years respectively, but Manning was simply more valuable based on his position and level of historic greatness, and while Manning is tied for Brett Favre for most MVPs in NFL history, Peyton could easily be a 5-time MVP.  That hasn’t been done in any major sport, and no one would ever have come close in football.

Lest we think that Manning’s actually done playing at an MVP level, he’s bound to do remarkable things in this league yet.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Washington Redskins

I think I’ve done an okay job bouncing around the league and trying to diagnose each team’s ten most valuable players with regards to the 2009 NFL season.  These are opinion pieces, of course, and admittedly, I’ve been much more concerned with getting the ten most valuable players on each team on the list rather than getting them in the right order.

Today, of course, I go from outsider to insider (relatively speaking) as we hand pick the 10 most valuable Redskins at NFL Outsider.

10.  WR Santana Moss
If the Redskins are a great team come January, Santana Moss will either be much, much higher than this, or no longer in consideration for this list.  Moss hit 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since his all-pro 2005 season, but he did it mostly in a four game stretch in September and October, and against the Lions defense.  He was nowhere to be found in the second half of the year, be it on deep passes or really anywhere else.  It’s probably too much for the Redskins to ask him to be a No. 1 at this point, but he’ll at least get the opportunity until either Devin Thomas or Malcolm Kelly can make a play for the go-to receiver role.

9.  S LaRon Landry
Landry’s value is much more tied up in who he is, than what he has done.  He’s got a phenomenal set of skills by which he may use to become one of the great safeties in the game.  But teams who have thrown in to his zone have managed to enjoy relative successes in the passing game.  Landry is not a great tackler, but as the incredibly young Redskins secondary develops, it will allow the coaching staff to use more of his god given talent (blitzing and coverage range) more often, and give Landry a shot at being a pro bowl level player.

8.  DE Andre Carter
Though this seat is certainly being kept warm for Brian Orakpo, Carter is the guy who most immediately benefits from having Albert Haynesworth on the roster.  Last season, Carter had a very disproportional amount of pass pressure to his sack total (a *team leading* 4 sacks).  This year, with Haynesworth occupying blockers on the interior, Carter’s one-on-one situations should be a lot more productive in terms of converting those near sacks into both hits on quarterback and sacks.

7.  OT Chris Samuels
Last year, Samuels would have been the No. 1 guy on this list, as he was a top five offensive tackle in his prime, with no real extensive injury history, on a team that could not afford to send extra blockers to the left.  When narratives are written about the 2008 Redskins, and why this 6-2 team through November finished up 2-6, you tend to get names like how Jason Campbell’s play declined, or how Jim Zorn failed to adjust to teams adjusting to…NO!  Here’s your narrative:

In Week 6, the Redskins were 4-1 with four quality victories facing the 0-4 Rams when Samuels hurt his knee and had to miss a series.  This series ended with a strip-sack of Jason Campbell from the left (Samuels’) side, a recovered fumble by a Guard, who was then stripped of the ball and it was returned for a game-deciding TD.  Samuels played the rest of the season with limited mobility in his knee, limited effectiveness, until Week 14, when a 7-5 Redskins team was trying to comeback against the Baltimore Ravens, and Samuels suffered a torn tricep, effectively ending the Redskins season.  That’s a narrative.

As for why Samuels is down here after arguably being the most valuable Redskin last year: that injury history casts doubt over his long term viability at the position.  It’s as simple as that.

6.  LB London Fletcher
The team’s universally elected defensive MVP from a year ago did not go to the pro bowl…again.  London Fletcher is one of the five or six best linebackers of his generation.  He’s behind Brian Urlacher, and Derrick Brooks, and Ray Lewis, and maaaybe Zach Thomas, but I’d take him and Keith Bulluck over anyone else in the game who enjoyed their prime years from 1996-2007.  He still has excellent sideline-sideline range, and he’s still an absolute tackling machine, but where Fletcher is most underrated is his ability to make plays in coverage.  The Redskins are simply a better defensive team when he’s on the field.  Of course, now that he’s 34, expecting another 16 start season is getting a little unrealistic, which kept him out of the top five.

5.  TE Chris Cooley
Cooley set a personal and team record for receptions last year, and he did it all with a fluky low amount of touchdowns: 1.  That number should rebound this year to, say, 6 or 7 (fantasy advice is free in NFL T10 columns, if you can find it).  Cooley is not just one of the five best TEs in football, he’s an excellent football player.  He’s got a stigma as a player who isn’t a great blocker, but his absolute man-handling of the otherwise stout DeMarcus Ware at Dallas in Week 4 suggests that 1) either Ware is a horrible run defender, or 2) Cooley is a much better blocker than anyone wants to give him credit for.  Maybe it is a little of both.

4.  QB Jason Campbell
For all that has been written in weak justification of the shameful off-season mishandling of their own QB position, I offer just one well-informed opinion as not to rehash the entire Campbell situation: from the first half of the season to the second half of the season, Jason Campbell was the one player on the Redskins offense who actually improved at his craft.  This is borne out mostly in rushing statistics, how even with no help from the ten guys around him, the quarterback revitalized the rushing game by adding 20+ yd runs from the QB to the barren arsenal of the Redskins offense.

Jason Campbell is the very least of the Redskins worries on offense.

3.  RB Clinton Portis
If Campbell is the least of the Redskins offensive worries (i.e. most dependable player), Portis is the very best player on the Redskins offense.  Off the field, Portis is somewhat of a likable character who doesn’t always use his popularity for the right causes.  On the field, he’s an elite pass blocker, who runs with excellent field vision and hits holes hard even when they are hardly there.  The Redskins brought Portis in along with Joe Gibbs in 2004 because they thought he could add the big play element to the offense.  That hasn’t happened.  Portis’s first carry with the team, a 62 yard TD vs. Tampa Bay, remains his longest.  His second longest came in the third quarter of the season opener in 2005, a 42 yard scamper against the Bears.  Since then, Portis is exclusively a 25 yard burst guy who pretty much always gets tackled by the safety.

This only makes his consistent 1,200+ yard production even more remarkable, since it’s not a total inflated by doing a lot of open field running behind the defense.  Portis very much has earned every yard he has totaled with the Redskins, and 2009 will be the year that we see if Portis will be chasing Emmitt Smith for the NFL all-time rushing leader, or if he simply begins his slow slide from superstar into NFL obscurity.

2.  CB Carlos Rogers
The most skilled player on the Redskins defense is cornerback Carlos Rogers.  It’s inevitable that by bringing in embattled CB DeAngelo Hall, Rogers is not going to be making a lot of headlines in this upcoming season, but that might actually help him.  There has been no doubt about Rogers’ skills as a shut down corner.  He spent most of the first half of last year playing man-to-man coverage against players like Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Plaxico Burress, Torry Holt, and Braylon Edwards, and basically making them look like NFL training camp scrubs.  He struggled a little bit with those bigger, more physical receivers in the second half of the year, such as Calvin Johnson, and Chris Henry of Cincinnati, but over the second half of the year, interceptions started to come his way.

You see, the knock on Rogers–the last thing he must prove before he becomes a shutdown corner–is that he can catch the ball after making a break on it.  If Rogers turns into a 4-5 INT/year guy, instead of the 2-3 guy he currently is because of drops, he’s essentially a five day older version of Nnamdi Asomugha.  If he continues to drop passes, he’ll always be known as one of the 25 best corners in the current NFL, but not more than that because CBs never feared him.

And if he does turn into an Asomugha clone, well, that didn’t exactly work out great for D-Hall the first time around.

1.  DT Albert Haynesworth
Rare is the player who can be considered a “two-win” guy.  Two win guys are known in football stats circles as the rare talents in the league who are consistently worth two wins over an average player in their place at their position.   Usually, these players are either quarterbacks or MVP candidates from other positions, such as James Harrison of the Steelers.  And, I mean, these guys don’t ever hit the market, at least not without baggage (Brees’ labrum injury).  But when Haynesworth did become a free agent, the Redskins snatched him up to the tune of 41 million dollars guaranteed over the next three years (the theoretical remainder of Haynesworth’s prime seasons).  Now the team just needs him to play like he has in Tennessee the last two years, as the best player his position has seen in over a decade.

There’s a lot of risk in the Albert Haynesworth contract, a lot of money that isn’t refundable no matter what Haynesworth does.  But the Redskins did their research on him and concluded that he was a good investment off the field.  Haynesworth isn’t replacing an average player in Anthony Montgomery, who produced at an above average level more often than not.  But Monty was bad in space, and with Haynesworth, the Redskins feel that he closes the margin between NFL pretender and NFL contender quite quickly.  That’s the number one reason why no one else on the team can be the No. 1 most valuable player on the Washington Redskins.

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NFL Top 10: The Best Offseason Moves Not Made

We tend to judge coaches by how their actions effect games.  We tend to judge front office types by their acquisitions.  These are fair game of course, but the best offseason moves are often the ones that weren’t made.

In today’s NFL Top 10 column, we’ll take a look back at all aspects of the offseason, and narrow down just ten player personnel moves that were not made, and how the discussed party is much better off.

10.  The Detroit Lions pass on an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft
This is coming from a man who thinks that Jason Smith should have been the pick at No. 1, the prior Lions regime might have decided that after taking Matthew Stafford at No. 1, the No. 20 pick should have been the best lineman available.  And even with OT Michael Oher available, the Lions decided that TE Brandon Pettigrew was a more irreplaceable player, and snagged him.  In the running game, he’s basically another offensive tackle.  The Lions decided that even if their pass blocking struggles again this year, they still have plenty of options going forward to address it.  The team has extended the contracts of two interior lineman this year, so once you pass on that franchise LT, they were better off going the developmental prospect route, which they did.

9.  The 49ers do not go out and sign/draft a quarterback
This would have been a very defensible move if it happened, but they aren’t a) one QB away from contending, or b) in a position where they can cast off any of the current crew without risking losing your potential franchise QB.  The shine is off of Alex Smith, but we’re still not real sure what, if anything, he is.  The thing about Shaun Hill is that you can put the ball in his hands for the time being if no one else steps up, and he won’t embarrass himself.   And the 49ers were one of the few teams who took advantage of a QB class that was far deeper than it was strong, landing Nate Davis in the 5th round.  Davis could be a potential franchise player if he can overcome a learning disability that scared away most NFL teams.  It makes sense to give Singletary a season to see if he can get his team to the doorstep of the playoffs before you worry about the next QB of the 49ers.

8.  Marc Tauscher was not signed in the free agency rush
Tauscher, a right tackle who was coming off his worst season, not to mention a mid year-ending knee injury, was supposed to be one of the first OTs off the market in March this year.  Given his health and declining play, a multi year contract would have been disastrous for the team that took the risk.  Tauscher is much better served as a player on a one year deal this year.  He remains unsigned, so he’ll be allowed to rehab at his own pace, maybe even sit out the 2009 season, and get back on the field next year or in the middle of the season and he can hopefully contribute to someone’s playoff push.

7.  The Philadelphia Eagles do not match Denver’s offer to Brian Dawkins
Denver just gave Brian Dawkins a lot of money for his age 36, 37, and 38 seasons.  We all know how big a part of the Eagles defensive units he has been, but we also know how quickly these older players can become a weak link on their own units.  The aspirations are too high for the Eagles this year to offer Dawkins more than they believe he is worth to them, and then to put his satisfaction before the team.  I’m not at all suggesting Dawkins is a selfish player, just that he’s human, and he’s worth more to Denver right now than he is to the Eagles.

6.  N
namdi Asomugha does not bolt a bad situation in Oakland
The Raiders may be a total laughingstock, but they could have easily let a mismanaged situation turn into the loss of their best player, CB Nnamdi Asomugha.  But the Raiders did the right thing, they stuck to their guns, didn’t extend their top player for longer than they were comfortable (the deal is three years) and compensated him like the best defensive player in football, which he just might be.  These trade offs have bitten the Raiders in the past, but they avoided a Doomsday scenario with some shrewd negotiations.

5.  Ray Lewis stays with the Ravens
The Ravens would have been okay letting their leader walk, but considering that they were willing to offer 8 million dollars per year to the pro bowl linebacker, it would have been unfathomable if Ray had spurned them and gone elsewhere.  Because of the legend that Lewis roles with, and the fact that the Ravens are on the verge of something special, it would have been just weird had the team played deep into the playoffs to have Ray sitting and watching from his couch.

4.  The Ravens don’t overpay for Jason Brown
About four days before free agency began, contract negotiations between the Baltimore Ravens and Center Jason Brown stalled, and Brown publicly criticized the team in leaving them.  He got the money he was looking for for the Rams, but ultimately Brown loses out.  For less money, the team brought in pro bowl C Matt Birk from Minnesota, who was also being lowballed, and used their first round selection to draft an offensive lineman, Ole Miss’ Michael Oher.  If they had gone over the top for Brown, I’m not sure those moves are possible, and Birk would still be a Viking.

3.  The Browns don’t sell low on Braylon Edwards
Yes, his year last year was horrific.  Which is all the more reason not to go and trade him.  The Browns are a team that needs to hoard their talent right now, not deal it.  This is especially true since the team decided that Kellen Winslow was too much of a cancer, and sent him to Tampa for a second round pick.  Losing Edwards and Winslow in the same offseason might have handicapped the Browns a bit too much, so by choosing to move Winslow, keeping Edwards became the right move, and allows Edwards to re-establish himself in 2009.

2.  The Redskins do not replace Jason Campbell
The one move this year that could have easily been an unmitigated disaster was the proposed three team deal between the Bucs, the Redskins, and the Broncos that would have sent Campbell to Tampa for a second round pick in 2010, and Jay Cutler to the Redskins for two firsts.  Cutler would have found himself in a Vanderbilt-like offense with only one competent target and a declining defense.  Instead, the Redskins invested in a pass rusher and a cornerback in the 2009 draft, and now have young reinforcements to help out an aging starting defense.  The offense is better off as well.  Cutler and Campbell don’t play the same game, and Campbell’s the one who may win more games this year going forward.

1.  The Cardinals don’t lose an integral part of the 2008 NFL runner-up team
Between Bertrand Berry, Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Adrian Wilson, and Kurt Warner, and the limited amount of cap space the team had, it’s amazing that they’ve kept all of those parts, have extended Wilson, are close with Dansby, and have made all moves without jeopardizing the team’s ability to improve itself elsewhere, via the draft (Beanie Wells) and free agency (Bryant McFadden).  It’s a remarkable adjustment from the same old Cardinals talk that had flooded airwaves when they let Kurt Warner take a cursory tour of the Niners practice facility.  But much more importantly, it gives the current group another go at it, without having to spend a critical season or two replacing the talent lost.  This was the very best offseason move not made.

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NFL Power Rankings by Pro Bowl Talent

Rather than having just one universal power rankings system that would not hold up under scrutiny (just ask ESPN or Fox Sports), MVN will be doing a whole bunch of Power Rankings over the weeks leading up to training camp, each based on a different imperfect premise.  Some of these will be totally silly: teams can be ranked by heart, grit, or how badly they want it.  Some of these will be more academic: statistics, scheduling grades, or complicated multi-variable projections.  And certainly, every one of these will contain a few elements of correct prognostication, and a whole bunch of terribly incorrect predictions.  Life is as such.

Today’s NFL Outside Power Rankings were done by simply adding up the number of total pro-bowl level players a team has on it’s roster.  The pitfalls of this are obvious.  For one thing, Peyton Manning is not going to have an effect on his team equal to that of Eagles MLB Stewart Bradley.  But they both count for one point in this rankings system.  Anyway, here’s the top end of the Power Rankings by pro-bowl talent.

Note: No specialists were counted towards the results of the power rankings, thanks to the notable turnover in special teams contributors in the pro bowl in past years.

1.  Indianapolis Colts (11)
They are:
QB Peyton Manning, RB Joseph Addai, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Anthony Gonzalez, TE Dallas Clark, C Jeff Saturday, DE Dwight Freeney, DE Robert Mathis, LB Gary Brackett, CB Kelvin Hayden, S Bob Sanders

The fact that the Colts have as many players who are playing at a pro bowl level as any team in the league is not at all surprising.  G.M. Bill Polian understands that the way to win in the salary cap era is to load the roster with as many pieces of top end talent as one can get; these players that everyone in the league respects, and trust the organizational scouts to make sure that the 20% of the cap that is spent on the remaining 80% of the players is spent on the top-end talent of the future.  And so the cycle continues.

1.  Baltimore Ravens (11)
They are:
FB LeRon McClain, WR Derrick Mason, OT Jared Gaither, G Ben Grubbs, C Matt Birk, NT Haloti Ngata, LB Ray Lewis, LB Terrell Suggs, CB Dominique Foxworth, CB Samari Rolle, S Ed Reed

The league’s top pass defense features 3 members of the secondary who performed at a pro-bowl level in 2008, though Foxworth’s contributions came with the Falcons.  Meanwhile, it’s the offensive line that carries the day and gets this team to the top.  I mean, lets face it, rookie tackle Michael Oher could be considered a pro bowl level player coming out of Ole Miss, but as the team’s second best tackle, we won’t jump the gun just yet.

3.  Pittsburgh Steelers (10)
They are:
QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Willie Parker, WR Santonio Holmes, TE Heath Miller, NT Casey Hampton, DE Aaron Smith, LB James Harrison, CB Ike Taylor, S Ryan Clark, S Troy Polamalu

Leaving Hines Ward off of the pro bowlers list was probably the toughest decision I had to make, because it would have vaulted the Steelers into a tie for first.  I ultimately decided that there’s no team in the NFL that you could put Ward on this year, and have him improve his chances of making the pro bowl.  Of course, there’s only one town in the nation that makes Willie Parker a star, and that’s Pittsburgh.

4.  Philadelphia Eagles (9)
They are:
QB Donovan McNabb, RB Brian Westbrook, FB Leonard Weaver, OT Jason Peters, G Shawn Andrews, DT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Trent Cole, LB Stewart Bradley, CB Asante Samuel

Two of the pro bowl level offensive selections were off-season additions, so it follows that the team is moving in the right direction.  The progression of the four young defensive stars above should compensate for the departure of Brian Dawkins.

4.  New England Patriots (9)
They are:
QB Tom Brady, RB Kevin Faulk, WR Randy Moss, WR Wes Welker, G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, NT Vince Wilfork, LB Jerod Mayo, CB Shawn Springs

Kevin Faulk was a tough addition, but he’s the poster child for the contributions of a running back in the passing game, and why that is undervalued.  If you take Faulk off the Pats, they loose a dimension of their passing game that probably would not be replaced.  If anything, that’s the definition of a pro bowl level player.  Of course, another condition would be that you start on your own team, and the NFL will never recognize Faulk as a starter, at least not in the fantasy football era.  As for the omission of Richard Seymour, well, his decline since the 2007 playoffs began has been one of the biggest reasons that the greatest team in the history of the NFL has lost 6 games since Jan 1, 2008 (as opposed to the biggest reason).

4.  San Diego Chargers (9)
They are:
QB Philip Rivers, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, WR Vincent Jackson, TE Antonio Gates, C Nick Hardwick, NT Jamal Williams, LB Shawne Merriman, LB Shaun Phillips, CB Quentin Jammer

Can a defense with four pro bowl level performers be as problematic as the Chargers defense was last year?  Doubt it, which is why the return of Merriman should return the Chargers to the better half of the distribution of NFL defenses.

7.  Tennessee Titans (8)
They are:
RB Chris Johnson, FB Ahmard Hall, TE Bo Scaife, OT Michael Roos, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, LB Keith Bulluck, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Michael Griffin

Every aspect of football is covered by at least one pro-bowl talent on the Titans, which makes the lack of either end of a potential dominant passing tandem look even more glaring.  The Vikings are known as the team in the NFL who is just one quarterback away…but this Titans team is just way better.  Of course, Kerry Collins would be the no. 1 unquestioned quarterback on Minnesota, and he even got into the pro bowl last year as like a third or fourth alternate or something.

7.  New Orleans Saints (8)
They are:
QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, TE Jeremy Shockey, OT Jammal Brown, DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Jonathon Vilma, CB Malcolm Jenkins, S Darren Sharper

What makes this Saints team different from it’s predecessors?  All of a sudden, the defense finds itself pro-bowl laden, and at every level to boot.  Jenkins enters the league with a technical knowledge of the game not seen since Champ Bailey was a rookie in 1999, and Sharper is the perfect mentor and teammate to get him acclimated to an NFL lifestyle.

7.  New York Giants (8)
They are:
QB Eli Manning, RB Brandon Jacobs, OT David Diehl, G Chris Snee, C Shaun O’Hara, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, CB Corey Webster

For all of the credit the Giants defense has welcomed in the last league year, there’s strikingly limited pro-bowl level talent on that.  Antonio Pierce’s value is strictly limited to his play recognition skills, they run out an endless gargle of average safeties, and they do it all with an incredible layer of depth unmatched in the NFL today (though Chicago G.M. Jerry Angelo is out to prove that two can play at this game).  The offense, however, is still very much loaded, despite the loss of two borderline pro-bowl talents in Derrick Ward and Plaxico Burress, plus the reliable Amani Toomer.  It’s the potential downside of the inexperienced pieces on offense that threatens this team’s season, not it’s aversion to collecting talent.

7.  Seattle Seahawks (8)
They are:
QB Matt Hasselbeck, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, TE John Carlson, OT Walter Jones, DE Patrick Kerney, LB Lofa Tatupu, LB Aaron Curry, CB Marcus Trufant

Um, yeah, this team isn’t going to lose another 12 games next year.  Two of these pieces were just acquired, two are coming off injuries, and the ineffectiveness of Tatupu and Trufant from a year ago doesn’t strike me as a repeatable occurrence.  Protect Matt Hasselbeck: win 9 games.  It’s really that simple.

7.  Miami Dolphins (8)
They are:
QB Chad Pennington, RB Ronnie Brown, TE Anthony Fasano, OT Jake Long, OT Vernon Carey, LB Joey Porter, LB Jason Taylor, S Gibril Wilson

There’s a good amount of talent on this team, but not a lot of top-end talent.  Ronnie Brown, and arguably Joey Porter are first-team all pro candidates, but the rest of the pieces are dependent on those around them for success, which is a concern.

7.  Atlanta Falcons (8)
They are:
QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, RB Jerious Norwood, WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez, OT Tyson Clabo, DE John Abraham, LB Curtis Lofton

Both running backs need to get involved in the offense for this team to reach it’s maximum potential.  The defense needs a member of the secondary to plug the huge hole created by Dominique Foxworth’s surprising choice to spurn the team that got him out of Denver before their Lions-like collapse for his hometown-team, the Ravens.

7.  Dallas Cowboys (8)
They are:
QB Tony Romo, RB Marion Barber, TE Jason Witten, G Leonard Davis, C Andre Gurode, NT Jay Ratliff, LB DeMarcus Ware, CB Terence Newman

If there’s a reason to be optimistic about the Dallas defense this year, it’s that they are well-layered, which means that there’s no unit that lacks the “stopper” who prevents opposing offensive coordinators from preying on a single weakness all day long.  The offense still has most of it’s talent from a year ago, but how Tony Romo’s numbers might respond to remarkable organizational turnover just might be the story to watch in the NFL this year.  Yes, even bigger than Brett Favre.

7.  Houston Texans (8)
They are:
QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, OT Eric Winston, DE Mario Williams, LB Demeco Ryans, CB Dunta Robinson

Demeco Ryans remains a yearly pro-bowl threat, but now in his fourth year, we’re about six games of bad Texans defense away from asking, “is this all there is?”  Mario Williams contributions on the field are well-documented, and Dunta Robinson is a difference maker when he’s healthy.  But Ryans is in many ways living off his high tackle totals, and it’s going to be on him and rookie Brian Cushing to get this defense to the level the offense needs it to play at.

7.  New York Jets (8)
They are:
RB Thomas Jones, RB Leon Washington, WR Jericho Cotchery, G Alan Faneca, C Nick Mangold, LB Bart Scott, CB Darelle Revis, S Kerry Rhodes

K.C. Joyner recently called the Jets OL the best in the NFL.  A lot of that is based on the relative value of the interior OL, which is legitimately good, against the value of two bookend tackles, which the Jets do not have.  They are strong at the skill positions, although No. 2 WR should be an interesting camp battle between relative unknowns.  It’s already written in stone that Rex Ryan is going to take his small pieces on defense and turn them into a top unit overnight, so, you know, I might as well just list all 11 defensive members in this space and then not watch football this season because I know I’m right.  The New York media said so.

7.  Buffalo Bills (8)
They are:
RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Lee Evans, WR Terrell Owens, DT Marcus Stroud, LB Kavika Mitchell, LB Paul Pozluzny, CB Leodis McKelvin, S Donte Whitner

I am being quite generous to the Bills defense, as Poz and McKelvin are excellent second year talents who are short on actual rookie production.  My eyes see a bunch of future pro bowls, and have rewarded the young duo accordingly.

7.  Chicago Bears (8)
They are:
QB Jay Cutler, RB Matt Forte, TE Greg Olsen, C Olin Kreutz, DT Tommie Harris, DE Alex Brown, LB Brian Urlacher, LB Lance Briggs

One Bears source I talked to questioned the inclusion of Tommie Harris on the basis that the Bears are planning on using him and the other interior tackle spot on a rotational basis.  As you’ll note above, I didn’t include any NY Giants DTs on my pro bowl listings.  The difference is: Harris is good enough to have pro bowl type numbers playing in only about 65% of defensive snaps, in my estimation at least.

18.  Minnesota Vikings (7)
They are:
RB Adrian Peterson, G Steve Hutchinson, DT Pat Williams, DT Kevin Williams, DE Jared Allen, LB Chad Greenway, CB Antoine Winfield

I’m in the minority who thinks the Vikings are not one quarterback away from the super bowl.  You’ve got the defense, which is excellent.  But the offense can charitably be described as, “Adrian Peterson.”  Adding another mediocre QB to this team doesn’t add anything to the overall product.  The entire offense is still Adrian Peterson.  Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Aundrae Allison, Bobby Wade, Viciante Shiancoe and Chester Taylor are all well-respected football players, but not at all useful if a team is just going to use Peterson in all critical situations.  We’ll see how Percy Harvin fits in, but I’m not optimistic.  If he’s in the pro-bowl…well, this team is probably still playing then.

18.  Green Bay Packers (7)
They are:
QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Greg Jennings, NT B.J. Raji, LB Aaron Kampman, CB Al Harris, CB Charles Woodson, S Nick Collins

Best secondary in the NFC, second only to Baltimore in the NFL.  But that’s a very strong unit on a team that’s clearly not built around it’s best players.  B.J. Raji is a projection, not an established player, and Aaron Rodgers is only a pro bowl level player in the loosest sense of the term: he produces near a pro bowl level (explained below).  Still, we’re talking about one of the better offenses in the NFL from last year, and they did it largely with a no-name offensive line, an undrafted tailback, and just an unclean assortment of the quickest receivers in the NFL, a group that racks up 15-20% of it’s YAC in bed the night before the game.  You can’t defend that.

18.  Washington Redskins (7)
They are:
RB Clinton Portis, FB Mike Sellers, TE Chris Cooley, OT Chris Samuels, DT Albert Haynesworth, LB London Fletcher, CB Carlos Rogers

Fullback inflated pro-bowl total aside, the 2007-08 Redskins were a free agency era edition of the no-name defense.  It’s also been a unit that hasn’t so much replaced the productivity of the late Sean Taylor as much as it has simply spent time masking his loss, unfortunately literally, as well as figuratively.  People do not dispute the validity of the pro bowlers on the offensive side, but tend to be confused as to why the unit’s ability to score points does not reflect the presence of the excellent talent on it.  We’ll just say that the mistake-proneness of the players on the offensive end tends to be overshadowed by their ability to dominate games week-in and week-out, even while the poor execution of the offense overshadows the contributions of it’s parts.  If that makes any sense.

18.  Carolina Panthers (7)
They are:
RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Steve Smith, OT Jordan Gross, C Ryan Kalil, DE Julius Peppers, LB Jon Beason, CB Chris Gamble

Truth is, Panthers fans may argue that their team should have more pro bowl level players than a lot of teams on this list, but they’d be placing their argument on the exclusion of someone like Jake Delhomme, or Thomas Davis, or Chris Harris, or Damione Lewis, or a bunch of other guys who when taken off of the Carolina Panthers, would have a tough time finding themselves in a pro bowl discussion elsewhere.  This list though, it’s one of the stronger classes on the entire list, and these guys are why the Panthers were able to win last year.

18.  Arizona Cardinals (7)
They are:
QB Kurt Warner, WR Larry Fitzgerald, WR Anquan Boldin, DT Darnell Dockett, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Bryant McFadden, S Adrian Wilson

This is what’s great about having a bunch of different ways of looking at preseason power rankings: here’s a team that I think is going to be in the super bowl discussion throughout the season, and in terms the amount of players they have performing at a pro bowl level, we’re talking about them in terms of the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns.  Ergo, pro bowl talent totals might not be the best way to evaluate a team…okay, is certainly are not the best way, but illuminates otherwise hidden reasons why we might look back and say, “there was a reason why that team didn’t do as well as we though they would.”  The Cards are counting on some breakout performances from their young talent, and if all they get is a series of gaping holes in their lineup, Karlos Dansby isn’t going to make 200+ tackles to compensate.

18.  Cleveland Browns (7)
They are:
RB Jamal Lewis, WR Braylon Edwards, OT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack, NT Shaun Rogers, LB Kamerion Wimbley, S Abram Elam

If my list serves as any one between the lines argument, it’s that the Jets better find that they have a pro-bowl talent in Mark Sanchez.  This is because the Browns might have gotten two or even three pro-bowl talents out of the trade: Mack and Elam top the list, but the pair of receivers the Browns landed in the second round were made possible in part by the Sanchez trade.

18.  Denver Broncos (7)
They are:
WR Brandon Marshall, TE Tony Sheffler, OT Ryan Clady, G Ben Hamilton, G Chris Kuper, C Casey Wiegmann, CB Champ Bailey

The Broncos have more pro bowl talent on their offensive line than on the rest of their team combined.  I don’t know if that says more about their abilities to draft offensive lineman, or inability to do anything else right.

25. San Francisco 49ers (6)
They are:
RB Frank Gore, TE Vernon Davis, OT Joe Staley, LB Patrick Willis, LB Takeo Spikes, CB Nate Clements

Takeo Spikes did the impossible: he earned his reputation as a prime time performer while playing for the small market Bills, and then managed to move on to bigger markets in Philly and San Francisco and got lost in the shuffle.  His star might not burn as bright as it once did, but he still performs like a pro bowler.  As for two-city teammate Nate Clements, well, there’s always another day to pick that performance back up.  He’s got the talent.

25. Oakland Raiders (6)
They are:
FB Lorenzo Neal, G Cooper Carlisle, DE Greg Ellis, LB Kirk Morrison, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nnamdi Asomugha

The Raiders got a break here, as without the inclusion of two over-the-hill proven veterans, they are tied for the bottom of the pro bowl power rankings.  However, considering that we’re keeping specialists out of the discussion (and that hurts the Raiders more than any other team), I don’t feel terrible about it.

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6)
They are:
RB Derrick Ward, TE Kellen Winslow, G Davin Joseph, DE Gaines Adams, LB Barrett Ruud, LB Jermaine Phillips

This roster is bubbling with high-upside recent draftees, especially in the defensive secondary, but as of right now, only these established players have more than a shot in the dark at the pro bowl.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (6)
They are:
RB Maurice Jones-Drew, OT Eugene Monroe, C Brad Meester, DT John Henderson, CB Rashean Mathis, S Reggie Nelson

For a team that, just a year ago, was in an offensive shootout with the then-undefeated Pats in the divisional round of the playoffs, they sure don’t have any talent on the offensive end.  Draft-prospect Monroe looks to change that.  Torry Holt is a good value signing, but he’s no longer close to a pro bowl talent.

29. Cincinnati Bengals (5)
They are:
QB Carson Palmer, WR Chad Ochocinco, WR Lavarneus Coles, DT Tank Johnson, LB Keith Rivers

Geez.  There isn’t a power ranking method in the world that would be harsher on the Bengals than pointing out that of their returning players from last season, only three head into this year with legit pro bowl aspirations, and two of those guys did not play a down after Week 6 last season.  The remaining guy has an incredibly public identity crisis.  On the positive, the offseason has gone about as well as an offseason can go for a dysfunctional organization, and I’m not just blowing smoke when I point out that the Bengals will actually run out a bunch of high upside, low risk complementary talents ranging from Cedric Benson to Rey Maualuga to Roy Williams to Leon Hall.  But then there’s Chris Henry, so all bets are off.

29. Detroit Lions (5)
They are:
WR Calvin Johnson, TE Brandon Pettigrew, DE/LB Cliff Avril, LB Julian Peterson, LB Ernie Sims

The drafting the Lions did on offense this year is particularly notable, and worth a passing note at the improvement in the process, but it’s the improvements the team made on defense with virtually no resources that would make one think that the Lions are going to be good sooner rather than later.  Cliff Avril was a Millen pick, a mid-round pick at that.  Julian Peterson was a Mariucci pick…but not in the way that implies.  The Lions’ first round picks from 2006 and 2007 are both on here, as well as one first rounder from 2009.  Who knows, history might be kinder on Matt Millen than simply remembering him as the guy who built the first 16 loss team in NFL history.

The book is very much shut on his work through the 2005 draft, though.

29. St. Louis Rams (5)
They are:
RB Stephen Jackson, OT Jason Smith, DE Chris Long, DT Adam Carriker, LB Will Witherspoon

The offense is as bad as it looks, with Jason Smith becoming the second best player on offense, by virtue of…draft position?  All of the eggs in the Rams basket from the short lived Scott Linehan era are on the development of a top defensive line, and this list recognizes that investment.

32.  Kansas City Chiefs (4)
They are:
WR Dwayne Bowe, G Brian Waters, LB Derrick Johnson, CB Brandon Flowers

Here’s a team that traded it’s two best players separately in each of the last two offseasons, so it would be hard to develop a list that didn’t put the Chiefs in the cellar.  Plan A is develop Matt Cassel.  Plan B, right now: I hear Zack Greinke can do no wrong.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Miami Dolphins

If we had done this list last year, this list might have been longer than expected given that the 1-15 Dolphins had plenty of talent stacked throughout their roster.  Now that the team is 11-5, this list might not include as many household names as you would expect from an 11-win team.

The Dolphins weren’t a true 11-win team in the perception sense.  They were legitimately the very best team in their division, and the most deserving at the playoffs.  But as we’ll examine here and henceforth, this team HAS to improve in order to win the division again next year.  12 wins is probably a bare minimum.

Here is NFL Top 10’s list of the most valuable Miami Dolphins:

10.  LB Jason Taylor
For the Dolphins sake, they need to hope that either Phillip Merling or Vontae Davis can crack this list by, say week 6.  Because until that point, the young talent on defense can be considered lacking, at best.  Taylor himself was the victim of some positional misuse by a Redskins coaching staff that was never on the same page as it’s front office.  That, and injuries to Taylor which prevented him from being the do-it-all athlete the Redskins figured they were getting at the very least.  Back in Miami’s cozy 3-4, he’ll do alright, though his 10+ sack seasons are a thing of the past.

9.  G Justin Smiley
The NFL’s poster child for “tampering happens, but no one really cares,” Smiley was a more critical signing by the Dolphins than many thought.  Consider: the massacre at the hands of the Ravens in the playoffs can be put on the shoulders of the failings of the OL and Chad Pennington at picking up the pass pressure.  Of course, the only difference between the first match-up and the second is that Smiley was injured, and the Dolphins were trying to play the Ravens with a pair of replacement level Guards.  They need 16 games of Justin Smiley this yaer.

8.  S Gibril Wilson
Wilson was the prize of the FA class for the Dolphins, coming over after one not-terrible year as a Raider where he was asked to play more coverage than the Giants did.  The Dolphins should let him get back to what he does best: hit people.  From 2005-2007, Gibril Wilson was the only safety among the league’s top tacklers every season.  He helps the run defense from day one, and he’s not a bad coverage player either, but probably not much better than the man he replaces, Yeremiah Bell.

7.  LB Channing Crowder
Channing Crowder is 25 years old, and already has a reputation around the league for being a meathead.  In other words, he figures to succeed Joey Porter as the team’s defensive leader.  Crowder’s best attributes are his birth date, and his ability to attack the ball-carrier through traffic.

6.  WR Ted Ginn Jr
This probably wouldn’t have been a popular pick for a top ten Dolphins list, but Ted Ginn has been everything on special teams that the Dolphins thought he would be, and he’s not a bad receiver at all.  He hasn’t yet done anything to justify being the 9th overall pick in the 2007 draft, but that was a different Dolphins regime, and maybe all that means is that Ted Ginn doesn’t have to worry about being a top ten pick.  All he needs to do is be the No. 1 WR on a strong Dolphins’ receiving corps, and that’s exactly what he was in 2008.  Of course, he has to continue to be part of a great unit in 2009 and 2010 as well.

5.  QB Chad Pennington
Chad Pennington absolutely had to be somewhere on this list.  He’s the very definition of a valuable quarterback, even if the Jets didn’t think he was.  Pundits unlike myself like to talk about players who make other players better.  That, in a nutshell, is who Chad Pennington is.  Receivers who have him as their quarterback tend to have the very best years of their careers.  He’s not the most durable guy, but when he’s in the lineup, few have been better over the last decade.

4.  RB Ronnie Brown
The Dolphins have been shopping Ronnie Brown, probably because of the belief that running backs in the NFL are fungible.  That’s true, you can get your running production from just about anyone.  Ronnie Brown, though, is not just your average running back.  The Dolphins have never used him as such.  They took him with the 2nd pick in the 2005 draft, and he has now survived 3 regimes in Dolphin leadership, and has produced for every one of them at some point.  Trying to sell high is one thing, but the Dolphins need to squeeze every last yard out of Ronnie Brown these next three years, while he’s still one of the very best football players in the NFL.

3.  OT Vernon Carey
Carey was thought to be a bust 3 years into his career, but one of the things that Cam Cameron did to help set the Dolphins up for success was that he moved Carey over to the blind side and developed schemes that would get him comfortable.  All of a sudden, the head coach becomes line guru Tony Sparano, and he’s got a heck of a building block in Carey.  Carey got a new contract this offseason, and is now a franchise bookend on that side, a player who can handle anything thrown at him from the right side, and keep his quarterback’s shirt clean deep into the second half of big games.

2.  LB Joey Porter
Joey Porter is still one of the most prolific pass rushers in the NFL, and he’s an underrated player even at his age despite the fact that he thinks he’s a lot better than he really is.  His 17.5 sacks in 2008 led the AFC, and it wasn’t a mistake, he actually was the best pass rusher in the conference.  Porter suggested recently that the Dolphins were the team to beat in the AFC East because they won the thing last year.  That’s flawed logic, obviously, but Porter himself is the most prolific defensive front seven player in the division right now.

1.  OT Jake Long
When a team hits a home run on a first overall pick, they tend to be quite good for many years into the future.  And hit a homer they did.  Jake Long is already a top ten offensive tackle in the NFL, and he’s only 24 years of age.  That means: he’s going to get even better in the future.  And when he does, combined with the fact that he plays next to Justin Smiley and across from Vernon Carey, the Dolphins OL is going to be one of the best in the NFL for at least the next 5 years.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Carolina Panthers

Last year, MVN successfully projected the Carolina Panthers to win the NFC South.  While we were not the only media source to make that prediction, they weren’t the type of trendy pick that either the Bucs or Saints were.

The Panthers return most of their talent from last year, but might meet their match in a division that figures to not be the patsy it was last December.   The Saints are almost universally better, the Falcons should have a more consistent effort from start to finish, and the Bucs cut a lot of their dead weight veterans in order to find a team that could improve as the season went on.  Carolina returns as the favorite, but with a very thin margin for error in the NFC South.

Below are MVN’s hand chosen 10 most valuable players on the Carolina Panthers, courtesy of NFL Top 10:

10) LB Thomas Davis
In three years as a starter, the Panthers have gotten 8 sacks, more than 230 tackles, and 6 forced fumble in this converted college safety, who has improved every year, while starting in all 32 games for Carolina since 2007.  He’s really the poster child for the way the Panthers’ have drafted over the last few years.  Always hitting on their picks, even if they fly below the radar for the first four years of their career.

9) CB Richard Marshall
The release of CB Ken Lucas was an effective promotion of Marshall to the starting lineup, after he did not start a game last year.  To be fair, the Panthers’ already knew what they had in Marshall before 2008 began (6 career INTs in 2006 and 2007, 1 in 2008), and the fact that he never started spoke more to the rare bill of good health that this organization received in 2008.  He hasn’t been injured in his career, so Marshall will be asked to start 16 games for the first time in his career, but the early returns are so far so good.  He’s the least of the Panther’s DB worries, non-elite player edition.

8) RB Jonathan Stewart
He found a nice niche in the offense right away, eliminating the number one reason why most rookies struggle.  No freshman jitters or hitting the wall from Stewart, at least not last year.  From an upside/fantasy perspective, his value would be limited by the fact that he’s going to be playing second fiddle to DeAngelo Williams for quite some time.  However, after finishing in the top ten in rushing TDs and YPA last year, that may not be a problem.  In an era that is quickly becoming one of running back duos, Stewart is in a great place to be successful for the first five years of his career.  Second fiddle would be just fine for me, if I were in his shoes.

7) C Ryan Kalil
Known around the game as one of the league’s best young center’s, he may not have been the best move the team made last offseason to improve their offensive line (see below for that), but he was the metaphorical shot in the arm.  He replaced the consistent Jeff Hartwig, who got a championship with the Steelers, with dynamic athleticism not often seen from the Center position.  In one more year, we’ll know if it was just one exceptional year, or if he’s the future of the Center position in the NFL.  With the exception of Winston Justice, USC’s OL from 2005 appears to have made it at the next level.

6) DE Julius Peppers
For one of the game’s more prolific edge rushers, #6 seems like a bit of a raw deal.  But while Peppers’ rebound season of 14.5 sacks was well deserved, it’s hard to list him among the games best pass rushers.  His production speaks to being a quality player since he came into the league in 2002, and broke out in 2004, but now that we’re through 2008, his theoretically best years produced his worst and then best sack seasons.  Over the next five years or so, he can be expected to average 8-12 sacks a season, which is great production for a mortal, but for Peppers, it’s not worth the kind of money he wants.  Maybe going to a 3-4 defense will be good for him, eventually.

5) WR Steve Smith
Done last year, and he’s the going away number one on this list.  And that was on the team I thought would win the division title.  But the focus away from the passing game has hurt Smith’s value, relative to the rest of the Panthers.  Consequently, I can’t say an injury to him would hurt as much as to some of the young, elite defensive talent, or the players at the focal point of this new, successful Panthers’ offense.  He’s still probably one of the ten best receivers in the game, and capable of producing like so if asked.

4) CB Chris Gamble
Gamble is a shutdown corner who was just rewarded with a new contract that pays him like what he is: one of the five best corners in football.  Gamble profiles as the next Champ Bailey.  He combines top-notch coverage numbers with rare ball skills, and the end results is that he’s the next great corner produced by Ohio State — at least until Malcolm Jenkins wrests that title from him.

3) LB Jon Beason
Beason’s value at his position pales in comparison to Peppers, Smith, or Gamble, but he’s the key cog in the Panthers defense.  He’s not without his inconsistencies, but moreso than any other Panther, when this young player is “on”, they are a virtually unbeatable team.  When he’s barking out the defensive signals, offenses just have to hope that they have the right call to beat them, because the Panthers are going to get there fast.  That’s mostly a credit to Beason’s leadership skills, but he’s also freaky fast in his pursuit of the ball.

2) RB DeAngelo Williams
The absurdity of the fact that DeShaun Foster got most of the carries for the Panthers in 2007 was evidenced in the 2008 season that DeAngelo Williams had.  A perpetual ineffective ground game became a two headed monster for the Panthers in 2008, and Williams personally rushed his way to the top of the charts.  He returns as one of the league’s best draft picks, made good on his first-round promise from 2006, and looks to lead the Panthers’ ground game even deeper in the playoffs this year.

1) OT Jordan Gross
In an era that really doesn’t feature any truly dominant offensive tackles, Jordan Gross might just be the best LT in the game.  If only for this year.  His skill set and pass blocking tools doesn’t suggest that he would have made a great LT, but he had a career year protecting Jake Delhomme’s blind side.  He’s the senior member of this offensive line, and the decision to move him over to the left paid off in the form of a playoff berth.  His move was the biggest reason for the offensive resurgence and his play typified that of his entire unit.  The Panthers’ OL is a rare species, a power line in a finesse running era.

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NFL Crystal Ball: The 2009 Arizona Cardinals will be even better

Even dating back to the Denny Green, “who we thought they were” Cards teams, it was clear to the viewers that the Cardinals weren’t the same old inept team that had typified that organization for the last half century.  But the day they brought in Ken Whisenhunt from the Steelers to be their head coach, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until the Cardinals became a great team.

Still, any impartial observer could see that while Whisenhunt had the tools to get a team to the top, he had a long way to go to get there.  The 2006 Cardinals did not even feature an average unit, despite promising young talent on both the offense and defense.  That’s why Green was fired.  Green had benched Kurt Warner for rookie top-ten draft pick Matt Leinart.  Leinart, had a good rookie season by pretty much any measure.  In all expectations, the book was closed on Kurt Warner as an NFL QB.

But Ken Whisenhunt decided, that if there was one area of the football team he could get results from in 2007, it was the offense.  And to do that, he utilized both the skill sets of Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart at Quarterback, was unafraid to take carries away from Edgerrin James, and did not rely on the offense that Denny Green had built to win.  He simply took the puzzle pieces, and used them better than Green did.  With Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, a passing game should be in the top ten of the NFL, Whisenhunt thought.  He got it there in his first season.  But after an injury to Matt Leinart, it was Warner who brought the franchise it’s first 8-win season since 1998.

Offensive continuity helped the Cardinals reach new heights in 2008, as they ran to their first winning season/playoff berth since 1998.  They entered as the team everyone thought would be one and done, but for the first time all year, their defense and special teams made a significant contribution in January.  Larry Fitzgerald played four out-of-mind games, as the Cardinals very nearly won the super bowl: had the game been exactly three minutes shorter or longer, there’s little doubt they had the Steelers number.

And here’s the scary part of it all: the roster still has plenty of upside.

Ken Whisenhunt knows the value of special teams and field position as a determining factor in ball games, but for three straight years, the Cards have produced lackluster special teams units.  With Whisenhunt’s attention to detail and the teams’ ability to use the late rounds of a draft to rebuild it’s special teams, this is just one area that the 2009 team should be markedly better in.

But the big one was this: prior to the offensive explosion in 2008, it seemed like the unit that was going to take the Cards to the next level was the defense.  The defensive line is loaded with names like Dockett, Branch, Watson, Campbell, Berry, and Iwebema.  That’s the strength of the team, but the LBs are strong as well, behind franchise player Karlos Dansby.  Bryant McFadden and Dominique Rogers Cromartie are an excellent CB duo with all-world strong safety Adrian Wilson behind them.  In 2009, the defense will go as far as the young, talented defensive line will take it.

The Cardinals will have to overcome significant turnover in the coaching staff, with OC Todd Haley leaving to take the Kansas City HC job, and DC Clancy Pendergast being let go.  But here’s why that doesn’t scare me: the Cardinals overachieved their regular season performance in the playoffs.  If the Cardinals want to get to 11 wins and a SB victory this year, the offensive and defensive philosophies used in the regular season last year may not have been a good fit for their personnel.  It’s players who are going to get you to the next level, not the coaches.  Whisenhunt needs to find the right balance in the coaching staff.  Resting on laurels from a 9-7 season and a surprise playoff run is precisely the wrong message to send.

The right balance is going to be critical.  If the coaching changes give us insight into Whisenhunt’s mentality, it’s that he realizes that the balance that has worked in the past might not be the best in the future.  It’s this fundamental principle that caused him to shift his workload back to Edgerrin James in the playoffs, despite James’ desires to be released.  It’s that principle that caused the primary tight end in the playoffs to be Eagles castoff Stephen Spach.

It’s a given that at some point, Matt Leinart will be a better football player than Kurt Warner.  Warner will be under contract until he is 40.  Leinart turned 26 a month ago.  Warner will enter the season as the teams starter, but Whisenhunt’s shining achievement as a head coach will certainly be his management of his QB situation.  He went away from Leinart to Warner when it made sense.  There will also come a time when it will make sense to go back to Leinart.  If history has taught us anything, it’s that Whisenhunt is likely 2-3 steps ahead of everyone in this case.

It’s for all the reasons above that I’m confident that the Cardinals will be a better team in 2009 than in 2008.  2009 was supposed to be the year they arrived.  It’s only because of the NFL playoff structure that they were given enough games to arrive before.  And now that they’re here, you can expect the Cardinals–the Arizona Cardinals–to be among the league’s powerhouses in the next five seasons.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable San Diego Chargers

NFL T10 is on double duty, with two articles in 12 hours.  This morning, we look at 10 players on the San Diego Chargers who can expect big things in 2009.

10)  RB Darren Sproles
Sproles is best used in a kick returner role, which is often described as “value-added” in league circles.  Truth is, it might be value limiting to an extent.  Sproles was excellent in relief of LaDainian Tomlinson, and he might be at a point in his career where he can split time with Tomlinson in an effort to maximize both of their values.  But if Sproles is getting more than 200 carries in a season, that’s going to either keep him off kick returns or limit what he can do on them.  That’s essentially the small difference between Sproles and Maurice Jones-Drew.  Drew can carry the ball 250-270 times and remain productive on special teams, but Sproles comes with a cap on his value, which would prevent him from bubbling up higher than 10th on this list.  Still, you can expect a career year from him in 2009.

9) OT Marcus McNeil
If you want to be on NFL Top 10’s most valuable, being a left tackle is the easiest way to get here.  McNeil was a pro bowler as a rookie in 2006, and since then, not so much.  He’s found a niche as a roughly average LT, who handles all the players he is supposed to, and occasionally gets beaten by the best of the best.  This year in the AFC West, that will include Greg Ellis, who is really old, Robert Ayers, who is very young, and Mike Vrabel, who is very old.  So, yeah, I’m thinking he’s going to give up a limited amount of sacks in 09.

8)  DT Jamal Williams
How long has this guy been this good?  He broke out in 2000 with a 40+ tackle season; Tomlinson was still setting records at T.C.U.  He was unrewarded for awhile, but by 2005, he had become a first team all-pro, and that year, he was elected to the pro bowl for the first of a three year stretch.  Williams is one of the best run defenders in NFL history, but 13 career sacks even for a guy facing a double team every play is not particularly impressive, so his historical value is limited as such.  Still, even at age 33 this season, he’s the kind of player I want on my team.  The Chargers still think they have a pro bowler.

7)  LB Shaun Phillips
Phillips is somewhat of an enigma: he’s generally been underrated most of his career, but I wouldn’t call him an underrated player.  When he’s in the lineup, offenses always know where Shaun Phillips is.  He’s not sneaking up on anyone.  But, his 5th season was his first full 16 game season in the NFL, and he’s consistently producing at a 7+ sack level.  The fact that the Chargers defense’ overall ability to pressure the QB has been all over the map skews the fact that Phillips himself is an incredibly consistent performer.  So the perception of Shaun Phillips is that his sacks come in bunches–which may be true.  Here’s something else that’s true: he’s going to get those sacks, come hell or high water.

6)  CB Quentin Jammer

Once upon a time, Jammer was thought to be a bust at CB.  A top five pick in 2002, he didn’t develop quite as expected for his first three years in the league.  Through 2006, the Chargers knew they had a quality starter, but weren’t really expecting anything more than that.  But over the last two seasons, Jammer has vaulted himself not only into No. 1 CB territory, but into the upper echelon of that class.  Antonio Cromartie was drafted with the idea that he would be the No. 1 and Jammer the No. 2, but it’s Cromartie who now needs to make adjustments to his game to stay in the starting lineup.  Jammer is quite safe.  Sometimes, guys simply take longer than expected to develop.  The Chargers would get what they paid for.

5)  WR Vincent Jackson

If you go purely by yards, then Brandon Marshall is the best receiver in the division.  But looking past yards, isn’t Vincent Jackson the best receiver in the AFC West?  He’s got more touchdowns, averages more yards per catch, catches a much higher percentage of balls thrown his way, and hasn’t missed a game due to injury in his career.  Jackson sure appears to be the AFC West’s best receiver, and it’s a title that he, Dwayne Bowe, and perhaps one day Darrius Heyward-Bey will battle it out for over the next 4-7 seasons.

4)  RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Way too early to write off Tomlinson after a injury-riddled down year in 2008.  But it’s probably not too early to continue the pattern Norv Turner started last year and decrease his workload.  Additionally, the Chargers should be more prudent about getting the ball in his hands.  Most of Tomlinson’s receptions come out of desperation from Philip Rivers.  If the Chargers design some screens, or use Tomlinson on routes out of the backfield, he’s still a dynamic weapon who can strike opponents where they least expect it.  He probably shouldn’t get many more than 250 carries though, at that point, the team would likely be under utilizing Darren Sproles.

3)  TE Antonio Gates
Another player coming off a down year, Gates should certainly rebound in a big way.  He’s still a fantasy stud, although the trend away from the Tight End position in the offense figures to continue, Gates himself should be more efficient.  He’s not, nor will he ever be Tony Gonzalez, but Gates is a three time all pro who should be back in the 800-900 yard range next season.

2)  LB Shawne Merriman
Merriman’s not coming off of a down year, he’s coming off of no year.  Virtually.  He may be coming off a major injury, but he’s an elite pass rusher, 10 sacks in every season, 17 in a suspension-shortened 2006.  He’s also in a contract year.  Hide the children.

He doesn’t really get enough credit for being a complete player.  Sideline to sideline, coverage, you name it he does it.  He’s going to be rich someday, mama.

1)  QB Philip Rivers
It’s time to call Phillip Rivers an elite Quarterback.  He’s earned it.  A league high 8.4 Y/A in 2008.  His TD rate increased to a league high 7.1%.  And his 105.5 QB Rating led the National Football League.  He didn’t make the pro bowl though because he’s not Brett Favre, and also because he didn’t lead his team to the pla—wait, check that, he won his final four games with his back against the wall to make the playoffs.

Wait, so voting players to the pro bowl based on how many games their team has won in the middle of November is dumb?!  Well, I’ll be.

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NFL Top 10: The Missing Rings

As not to steal a title for an article from an NFL Network show, I decided to steal from two.

The inspiration for this article came from the fact that the No. 1 team is so easy to pick.  You don’t have to scroll down to know the team that epitomizes dominance of the modern game, yet, has no ring to show for it.  You just need to know that I’m not going to buck conventional wisdom in my pick.

But what other teams in the Super Bowl era have come up short despite every possible indicator suggesting they were shoo-ins to take the title?  NFL Top 10 came up with a lists of ten teams who really should have won their title that year, but thanks to a bevy of uncontrollable factors: be it a really critically bad beat in a playoff game, or the eventual super bowl champion improving to their level in the final month of the season, or even because of a controversial call or two, these 10 teams probably deserved to be Champs — and were not.

An important distinction with this article: we’re not adding bonuses for teams who missed the title when an improbable challenger did win it.  The fact that the 1997 Broncos were a playoff longshot doesn’t make it more impressive that a bunch of other contenders missed the title, for example.

I also think that to an extent, what happens the year after is somewhat indicative of a bad beat from the prior year.  For example: in 1995, the defending champion SF 49ers were every bit the contemporary of the eventual champion Dallas Cowboys that year.  They were the 2nd and 1st seeds in the NFC respectively.  However, they never played because in Brett Favre’s career year, the Packers beat the 49ers in the playoffs and then lost a shootout in Dallas for the NFC Championship.  Had the Packers declined over the next year or so, I think the 95 49ers would be on this list.  But because the Packers were simply en route to being the best team in football, I decided to leave the 49ers off this list of missing rings, thanks to unusually strong competition.

10) The 2000 Tennessee Titans
A far cry from the team that rode the Music City Miracle to the Super Bowl from the year before, this was a much better team on offense and defense than the 1999 squad.  The only team that really could have taken them down did: the eventual SB champ Ravens, but if not for that ferocious Ravens defense, we’d be talking about this defensive unit as maybe the greatest of all time.  The only thing that made the Ravens defense a thing of lore during the season as opposed to a stingy Titans defense was that the Titans’ offense wasn’t quite as historically helpless.  Which made the upset in the Divisional Round a lot tougher to swallow.  K Al Del Greco had an uncharacteristically inconsistent day, and though the teams went into the 4th Quarter tied, two long TD returns from the Baltimore defense sealed the game.

For all the talk about how Trent Dilfer’s careful play resulted in a super bowl for the Ravens, his 5-for-16 effort against the Titans defense would suggest that he was quite lucky to not find himself on the NFL’s wall of playoff goats.  The only thing careful about that stat would be Brian Billick’s playcalling.

9)  The 2005 Indianapolis Colts
This, I think, is not the strongest inclusion on the list, even though the 2005 Colts would beat pretty much any of the next three teams on this list.  The strength of this team was a key reason I put them on there, but just as key was the fact that their Divisional Round Playoff loss to the Steelers is one of the most memorable playoff games in NFL history, just about everyone thought the Colts would win, and the rest of the AFC was so weak that year that the Colts had a paved road to walk to the super bowl on, if they had just handled the 6th seed Steelers (who were, in hindsight, legitimately the toughest team in the playoffs that year).  And to be fair, there’s no doubt the Steelers beat down the Colts on the field that day.  It wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggested.  But with the breaks the Colts got in that game, from the incredibly questionable overturn of the Polamalu INT to the Bettis’ lost fumble an inch from the clinching TD, the Colts were too good a team not to capitalize on those kind of breaks.  And yet, once Mike Vanderjagt’s FG sailed wide (his last kick as a Colt), the Colts did fall to the Steelers.

The greatest QB in NFL history in the prime of his career lost a game to a 6th seed.  Better hope that they go on and win the thing easily, Peyton.

8)  The 1981 Cincinnati Bengals
The 1981 Bengals may not have been a clear cut favorite to do a lot of damage in a down year for the AFC, but much like all the stars aligned to make the 81 San Francisco 49ers the favored child of historians of the NFL in the 1980s, the stars also had aligned for this Bengals team.  You see, this is a story that could easily be written to fit the Bengals in as the best team of the year: a hall of fame level performer takes advantage of recently re-written passing rules designed to limit QBs and has his first career all pro season while leading his team to the Super Bowl.  I wrote that sentence speaking of Bengals QB Ken Anderson, but it sure fits the media description of Joe Montana, does it not?

Only 4 players (Munoz, Montana, Fred Dean, and Ronnie Lott) who played in SB16 are currently in the Hall of Fame, but the fact is that the Bengals probably had the two best players on the field at the time in Anderson and LT Anthony Munoz.  Obviously, Montana’s career turned out all right, but if not for a very lopsided first half, maybe the Bengals could have saddled Montana with a little bit of a monkey-on-the-back effect, not dissimilar to Steve Young.

The Bengals never quite had a team this good again.  The 88 Bengals got a rematch in the super bowl vs. the 49ers, but that Bengals team was nowhere near as good as the 81 team, and though that game went down to the wire, it would have been a clear upset if they had held on.  In 81, no one really knew what direction each franchise would take, so the game had an enormous impact on the rest of the decade.

7)  The 1990 Buffalo Bills
Statistically, the 1991 version of the Bills were a better team, but there wasn’t a team in the NFL that was going to compete with the Redskins that year.  It wasn’t happening.  The 1990 Bills, however, were not only the Bills team that were most likely to win the Super Bowl, but entered the game heavily favored over the New York Giants in a typical offense vs. defense matchup.  It would not be the last time that a heavy underdog Giants squad would ride pass pressure to the title, but the Bills offense was playing it’s best football in the postseason, which is not something that even the 16-0 Patriots can claim.  The 07 Patriots would probably not have hung 51 on the Raiders in the AFC Title Game, that’s for sure.  And, yet, when it came down to it, the Bills were a 31 yd Thurman Thomas run away from a scoreless second half, perhaps one of the greatest surprise failures of a single unit in NFL history.  In fact, outside of the Thomas run, Scott Norwood’s historic missed FG came from the closest to the Giant goal line that the Bills had been in that half.

6)  The 1983 Washington Redskins
Over a strike shortened two year span, the 1982-83 Redskins lost only 4 games, and won a strike shortened super bowl.  But it’s one of the four games they did not win that easily could have ruined the legacy of Joe Gibbs had history not eventually made him a 3-time SB winner.

Where to start?  Oh yeah, the team scored 541 points.  Joe Theismann won the MVP and Offensive POY.  The team’s 2 losses in the regular season came by a TOTAL of two points.  In the divisional round of the playoffs (no byes were given in 1981, this was the first Redskins team with a playoff bye), they beat the Rams 51-7.  They beat the 49ers at the height of their power in the Conference Championship.  They were pretty much unbeatable.

That year, they had beaten the Raiders in Washington 37-35 in a game where the Raiders committed 6 turnovers.  The 83 Raiders were a great team as well.  But not so great that the Redskins shouldn’t have beat them easily.  In fact, no AFC would again win the super bowl until 1997 (you may realize that the AFC gets to send one team to the super bowl every year).  So the NFC was in process to become the dominant conference.  But on this day, the Redskins would score only 9 points, most of those on a 1yd John Riggins TD rush.  Marcus Allen would match that on one single reverse of field that led to an unforgettable 74-yd TD run.  They intercepted Theismann twice, once on a horizontal pass that Jack Squirek returned for a TD at the end of the first half.  And the Raiders blew out an unbeatable Redskins team, 38-9.

The Raiders have not had a playoff victory as lopsided since that day.  The Redskins have since won two super bowls.  But it still stands as one of the biggest upsets in modern history.

5)  The 2006 San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers were the best team in football in 2006.  They went 14-2.  That year, they scored 492 points, the most in franchise history.  They were in the top ten in total defense.  That team had 9 pro bowlers.  In the playoffs, however, a virtual dominance of the Patriots was simply not enough to overcome their mystique.

They say that you have to run the ball in the playoffs to win.  The Chargers ran for three times as many yards as the Patriots.  They say you have to protect the ball to win.  The Patriots put the ball on the ground twice.  Tom Brady was intercepted three times.  The Chargers got more first downs than the Patriots did.  But the stat sheet has no column for “number of Brady interceptions stripped by special teams aces and safely recovered for a new set of downs,” and I really can’t imagine why not.  But when Marlon McCree’s INT of Tom Brady was taken away by a heads-up play by Troy Brown, the Patriots got a new life for their super clutch Quarterback who is so good that he throws interceptions that actually help the team.

Even after that play, I still have no real good explanation for how the Chargers did not win the game.  I guess The Chosen One decided not to throw any more interceptions.  Either way, the Chargers loss opened up the chance for the Indianapolis Colts to take SB41 that year, which was fitting because of the unexpected failure of the 2005 team.  As for the Chargers, well, their ring is lost in the mail, I guess.

4)  The 1987 Cleveland Browns
This was not the team that lost on The Drive, this was the team that lost on Byner’s fumble.  The difference though goes further than how they lost.  The 86 Browns were more of a de-facto No. 1 seed.  They were more beatable than the 87 team.  The fact that the deck was heavily stacked against Elway in 1986 is legend–the Drive of course was simply the method by which the Browns were toppled by a single great player at his best.  The 1987 AFC Championship was a much better football game, and there was nothing the Orange Crush was going to be able to do to stop a game winning touchdown.  Except, of course, to strip the ball.

The same defense would not strip a ball the next week, and would give up 35 second quarter points to Doug Williams and the Redskins in SB22.  So, yeah, you could say they got lucky.  The Browns were a much better team, so they would have been heavily favored against the Redskins, and with that defense, probably were a safe bet to win the title.  Of course, you have a much more perplexing question in the NFC: how did the Minnesota Vikings upset Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round?

3)
The 1998 Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have choked many times in their 48 year history.  They lost 4 super bowls between IV and XI.  Some of those teams (particularly the 69 one) were among the greatest teams of the NFL merger era.  But the fact that the 15-1 Vikings did not even get to face the Broncos in the super bowl is probably the most epic failure of all.  For this team averaged 35 points per game.  Just one month before the NFC Championship, they had beaten the Jaguars (an 11 win playoff team in the AFC) by the score of 50-10.  Fifty to ten.  Going into the NFC Championship, they hadn’t played a contested game since early November.

The Vikings, though, were not a historical offensive juggernaut.  They did not have a running game that supported their passing game.  They featured a multi-dimensional passing offense, but they came into the game facing a Falcons defense that no one really realized was the best or second best defense in the game.  That defense got the Falcons to the game, and even when the Vikings got up 20-7 in the second quarter, the defense would only allow the Vikings one more score the rest of the way.  And when Vikings K Gary Anderson failed to ice the game with a FG late in the fourth quarter, Chris Chandler led the tying drive in regulation, and the game was won in OT by a Morten Anderson FG.

The Vikings had imploded again, but the difference here was that they had done so on a team that had simply underachieved in the playoffs.

2)  The 2001 St. Louis Rams
If there’s just one football game that defines the “era of parity” in the NFL, and which best illustrated the belief that no team was dead in the water at the beginning of a season, Super Bowl 36 was the SBIII of it’s time.  And, it’s this game that defined Tom Brady’s legend up until the 16-0 season of a year ago.  Because in 2001, the Rams were as good as they had ever been.  Kurt Warner had been a hero before — and he would be one again, but the 2001 league MVP had ‘the Greatest Show on Turf” in all of it’s pre-Bulger glory, and for one year only, Lovie Smith was the architect of a top five NFL defense.  These guys could not be stopped by anyone.

Talk about the (second?) greatest upset of the last twenty years, if you were to replay the 2001 season 100 times following the Bledsoe injury, I doubt the Pats would have been in the Super Bowl again.  The Rams would have been there a good 70% of the time.  Some scores against above average opponents from that season: 42-10, 34-14, 27-14, 45-17.  If you didn’t play your best game, this team would blow you clear out of the water.

The Rams did not play their best game in the super bowl, and they got beat by an upstart.  And, though they were one of the best teams ever, there would be no ring.  This however, was not quite as bad a beat as the No. 1 team.

1)  The 2007 New England Patriots
Only three teams in NFL history has ever won 18 games in a single season.  Those teams are the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the 2007 New England Patriots. The 1972 Dolphins won 17 games.  The 2003 and 2004 Patriots each won 17 games.  The 1998 Denver Broncos won 17 games.  The 1991 Redskins won 17 games.  The 89 49ers, 86 Giants, and 78 Steelers all won 17 games.

Every team that has ever won 17+ games in a season has won the super bowl.  Every team, that is, except for one.

Or how about this one: only 3 teams have lost 5 games in a season and gone on to win a super bowl: the 2001 Patriots, the 2005 Steelers, and the 2007 Giants.  The 2007 Giants were the only 6 loss team ever to win the super bowl.

Maybe more painful is the fact that the Patriots did beat the Giants in 2007, at the Meadowlands.  At the time, no one thought the Giants could win the super bowl.  But it’s not that often that the team who wins the super bowl splits the season series against the team it loses to in the super bowl.  In fact, most of those teams are on this list.

No team in NFL history scored more points than the 07 Patriots: 589.  They had the largest point differential in NFL history.  The Washington Redskins made the playoffs in 2007.  At the height of their power, the Pats beat them 52-7.  But after beating the Bills 56-10, their largest margin of victory, the Pats were never quite the same team.  In their first ten games, 1 game was decided by a small margin than 21 points: against Manning and the Colts.  In their next 8 games, they went 8-0, but only two of those games were decided by a 21 point margin.  In those other six games, the Patriots played 3 games decided by a three point margin.  For all the talk about the 16-0 record, the Patriots did not outplay their opponents 16 times.  And when the Giants threatened the perfect regular season in it’s final quarter, perhaps we should have taken note.

The playoff version of the Patriots featured a shootout with a scrappy but overmatched Jaguars squad, and a defensive battle with a quarterback who was playing with only one ACL, who out-threw Brady by two yards.  If not for the first 10 games, you could be forgiven for thinking you weren’t watching the Greatest of all Time.  The total margin of the playoff victories combined were 20 points, or less than the expected margin of a Patriots victory in the first half of the year.  Everything fell apart in Arizona.  The Pats played as well as they could, but they had no answer for a front that sacked Brady 5 times.  The Greatest Offense in NFL History scored 14 points.  And when some events went the Giants way in the fourth quarter, the perfect season would be no more.  The 2007 Patriots: the ultimate NFL missing ring.

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NFL Crystal Ball: Denver Broncos will eventually win the Jay Cutler trade

It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to be obvious, and it’s probably never going to make up for the flack the team has caught this offseason.  Nor should it.  But, I feel safe in saying that the Denver Broncos are going to be better off with the plethora of picks they got from the Bears than with QB Jay Cutler.

Is there anything wrong with selling high?

The Broncos were universally criticized for getting rid of their franchise quarterback.  I’m not going to argue against the point that says the Broncos traded the player who would have gone on to be the second best QB in franchise history.  They did exactly that.

But certain pundits have taken that a step further to say that, “you can’t replace a Jay Cutler”.  I’m sorry, really?

Jay Cutler has a career completion percentage of 62.5%.  He throws 3 TDs for every 2 INTs.  He has 7.4 Y/A for his career, which is good for 8th among active players.  He’s got a 17-20 career record as a starter.

Can’t you replace that?  Perhaps it’s accurate to assert that the Broncos will not be replacing that in 2009, but you have roughly a 30-40% chance of picking a name out of a hat filled with quarterbacks who were first round picks in the last five drafts who can do that, easily.

One of the names of the active players with a greater Y/A than Cutler is Daunte Culpepper.  Suppose that at the end of 2002, the Vikings were offered multiple first round picks, a mid round pick or two, and a competent NFL quarterback for Culpepper.  Better or worse than turning around in three years and trading him for a second round pick?

The loot on Cutler was just preposterous.  I’m sure the Bears don’t particularly care about the first rounders they lost, but Bears fans now have unrealistic expectations for Jay Cutler, who is still growing into his role of an NFL quarterback.  But given the fact that Cutler basically forced his way out of town, the Broncos’ ability to turn the Cutler market into a sellers’ market is one of the greatest business stories in the history of the NFL.

Replacing Jay Cutler

We can’t make the Broncos spend their draft picks on elite players.  In fact, from the Broncos perspective, all of the Jay Cutler picks have already been spent.  They received LB Robert Ayers, CB Alphonzo Smith, and traded up to get TE Richard Quinn.  That’s it.  The quality of the trade itself can’t be graded by these players, only by the opportunity to draft these players.  But, of course, if these players don’t pan out, the Broncos don’t really get anything from trading Jay Cutler.

Of course, the mere fact that the trade was made allowed the team to snag RB Knowshon Moreno with the 12th pick.  Do you think the team would have gone RB if Cutler was still on the roster? I doubt it.

Moreno is only one piece of the puzzle to replace Jay Cutler in the Broncos offense.  Eventually, the team will have to find another franchise type quarterback.  They’ll shuffle through guys like Kyle Orton, Chris Simms, and Tom Bradstater.  But because they are free of the financial burden that Jay Cutler will command, trading Cutler gives them the right to go a different direction at the end of the season should none of the current guys play up to par.

That’s really where the strategic value in trading Jay Cutler lies.  There was speculative value for Cutler in Josh McDaniels’ offense.  He could have been a great quarterback there.  But he also could have pulled a Rex Grossman under Ron Zook, and lost most of his value over one year.  The Broncos were not taking a risk by trying to move Jay Cutler — they were eliminating it.

From the Bears’ side

Chicago jumped on the chance to land a potential franchise quarterback.  Of course, the Bears, historically, had done a pretty decent job of winning with a revolving door at QB.  So if the Bears were convinced that Jay Cutler is better than his early numbers suggest, you can’t really knock them for paying the premium to get a great player.

But the Bears weren’t buying just Cutler.  They were/are buying Cutler, and the chance that Cutler’s legend was a product of the prior Denver regime.  They bought a lot of risk that has no resale value.  Buying high is not a fundamentally sound business strategy.  But it can pay off big time if you gamble and win.

Of course, the biggest knock against Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo is that he’s a poor evaluator of offensive talent, and always has been.  That’s, of course, one of the reasons he drew rave reviews for his trade, and one of the biggest defenses for all the picks he gave away.  1) Cutler is a proven player, and 2) he would have wasted those picks on offensive busts anyway.

Point two is obviously a heavy dose of self-serving logic.  Predicting that he not only wouldn’t have used picks to bolster an aging defense is in itself a fallacy, but not as bad as using his inability to spot offensive talent as a defense for a move where he acquired offensive talent.  That’s a gap in logic.  Cutler, is really, really not a proven player.  He’s a one time pro bowler who almost certainly beat out some more deserving players for the third spot.  So he’s one of the better QBs in the AFC, and when Tom Brady gets hurt, when people ignore great seasons from Phillip Rivers and Chad Pennington, and when David Garrard/Derek Anderson/Carson Palmer put in below average seasons, then he’s debatably a pro-bowler.  That’s a proven commodity if I’ve ever seen it.  Well, at least he was better than Brett Favre last year.

None of these points mitigate that the Bears are taking a huge risk justifiable only by the scouting instinct of those who have so often failed to identify QB talent in this league.  But once you look past that, the Bears have major upside on this trade, and let’s face it, opportunities like this are roughly generational.

Why the Broncos will win

In many ways, I think the Broncos have already won the deal.  They were a young team who, at the expense of trading a franchise QB, managed to get even younger and loaded with high upside talent.  The rest of the deal hinges on their ability to locate an above average NFL QB and get him under a long term contract within the next four years or so.

For the Bears, it’s much more simple.  Jay Cutler needs to make Bears fans forget about all their QB struggles over the last few years.  He’s got to be the best QB in their division.  He has to outplay Aaron Rodgers.  He has to make pro bowls consistently.  And he has to spearhead a passing game that will help the Bears win ball games over the next eight years or so.

That’s why I feel the Broncos have the inside track on this deal.  Both teams are getting what they need as franchises.  But what the Broncos are getting (younger and more talented) is closer to historically successful than what the Bears are getting (a highly touted prospect at a premium position).  And that’s why I think history gives an edge to the Broncos.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable New Orleans Saints

Defense has never been synonymous with Saints football.  When they went to the playoffs in 2000, it was behind the strength of their offense.  When they reached the NFC Championship game in 2006, it was behind the strength of their offense.  Virtually none of the roster members were the same.  That’s the Saints in a nutshell: high offensive turnover, sometimes, they light up the scoreboard and win, but for pretty much the entire existence of the franchise, they have been getting lit up.

There’s reason to believe that this year could be different, and that reason is Gregg Williams.  The defensive coordinator was let loose by Jacksonville after many defensive let downs saw Jacksonville slip from a playoff contender into a small-market after thought.  But Williams has a remarkable reputation for squeezing the most out of his defensive talent.  He has proven so in Washington and Buffalo and Tennessee before that.  If anything, Williams’ downfalls as a coordinator tend to be much more noticeable than his successes.  Which is why he’s a perfect fit for the Saints.  Jacksonville needed a guy who could help them restore their defense to former standards, not Willams.  The Saints will employ Williams to take their talent, and make it a defensive unit.  Great fit.

Of course, plenty of the Saints best players will still line up for Drew Brees this season.  Just perhaps not as many as in years past.  NFL Top 10 takes a look at the best talents on the New Orleans Saints.

10. CBs Jabari Greer/Malcolm Jenkins
Nothing states the arrival of the aforementioned Williams quite like brand new cornerbacks.  I had to get both Greer and Jenkins on this list because I’m not clear which one or if both will be starting for the Saints in 2009, who have plenty of options in the defensive backfield.  Williams prefers bigger, more physical corners, and management provided him with two men who fit the bill, and will both play an active role in this defense.

9.  RB Reggie Bush
Bush profiles more as the team’s No. 2 WR than a No. 1 RB, but considering that the team went out to get Jeremy Shockey to be that complementary target, it’s probably a good thing that now, after a wasted season from Shockey, that Bush can run all the same routes.  Bush still has that explosive second gear that he flashed in college all those years ago, and with a player as talented as Bush, it’s only a matter of time until that “career year” happens.  Which, given the hype that surrounds everything he does, will probably set off the campaign to get him into Canton, even if he does not deserve it.  Right now, he’s probably a bit underrated as a player, but I think people are just waiting for a chance to rave about him.

8.  OT Jon Stinchcomb
Being brutally honest, I had always viewed Jon Stinchcomb as a weaker player on a strong offense, more out of ignorance than knowledge.  More related to the failures of his brother (Matt) than anything he had done.  So I put on the tape, and I came away impressed with his fundamentals and game presence.  He was deserving of the 5 year contract the Saints gave him this offseason, and he filled a hole at RT that I thought would be the team’s major draft focus.

7.  RB Pierre Thomas
Pierre Thomas is the team’s No. 1 RB.  An Undrafted Free Agent from Illinois, Thomas earned a spot on the Saints in 2007, beating out draft pick Antonio Pittman.  Last year, he shouldered some of the load down the stretch with fan-favorite Deuce McAllister sideline, and did well in limited time.  Now, he is the Saints’ running game: starter Reggie Bush is Thomas’ change of pace back, not the other way around.  Rest assured, they will play together plenty this year.

6.  WR Marques Colston
Colston surprised a lot of people in 2006 when he wrestled the No. 1 WR title from Joe Horn.  He was an instant success, the face of the last round of the draft for those who believed that Tom Brady’s don’t come but once a generation.  And he followed it up with a strong 2007 to let people know he was not a one-hit wonder.  But last year, he was injured for a good part of the season, and Drew Brees was not the kind of player to throw off his offensive rhythm once Colston came back.  Colston is at a crossroads in his career.  He enters the 2009 season as enemy number one for opposing defenses facing the Saints.  If he doesn’t lead the Saints in receiving this year, I think Colston may be deemed expendable.

5.  G Jahari Evans
The young guard was the Saints best run blocker last season.  His continued maturity is critical for the team over the next two years.  The team’s Center, Jonathon Goodwin, and the left guard situation aren’t exactly up to par by NFL standards.  Which is acceptable, as long as Evans continues to be one of the better guards in the NFL.  Otherwise, running the ball will go from difficult to impossible for the Saints.

4.  OT Jammal Brown
Brown gets a bit overrated thanks to his position, but a lot of his value as the No. 4 guy on this list is because he can handle a premium position up to the expectations for the position.  He might be among the top 10 LTs in the NFL, and players like Brown don’t grow on trees.  He does give up the occasional sack to the high-motor pass rusher, but the Saints feel this one time pro bowler will make his return trip before too long.  Chris Samuels of the Redskins is his upside.

3.  DT Sedrick Ellis
A 4-sack rookie season is about what people expected from Sedrick Ellis.  So does that really make him the third most valuable player on the Saints?  Given the expectations coming out of USC, to be the best pass rushing 4-3 DT in years, and the value I know the team will place on him as their No. 1 DT this year, I’d say yes.  The future of pass rushing in the NFL might just be Ellis.  And he’s got an early lead on Glenn Dorsey as the best interior lineman from the 2008 draft.

2.  LB Jonathon Vilma
Ah, the NFL 3-4 scheme.  Ruined a perfectly good player in Vilma, who had an outstanding year for the Saints back in the comfort of the 4-3.  And for Gregg Williams’ scheme to function, a player with Vilma’s skill set is necessary.  Antonio Pierce was great in that role.  Later, London Fletcher would be even better in that role.  Mike Peterson, however, failed to become the MLB that Williams needed and got benched.  When talking about MLBs who got snubbed by the pro bowl last year, we think of Barrett Ruud, or London Fletcher, or Stewart Bradley, or Bradie James.  But Vilma was right up there as well.

1.  QB Drew Brees
5 years ago, no one wanted Drew Brees.  Not his own team, the Chargers, not anyone else in the league, in fact, interest from the CFL would have been lukewarm at best.  After two marvelous years with the Chargers, he suffered a torn labrum, and pretty much no one wanted him.  The Chargers were looking to re-sign him to compete with Phillip Rivers for the starting job, and given Rivers’ performance, it’s a job he eventually would have lost.  Brees did the smart thing: he got out of the shadow of one of the game’s best prospects.  New Orleans was the only team that wanted him.  And all he’s done since joining the Saints is AVERAGE about 4,600 yards per season, and throw 2 TDs for every 1 INT over that span.

So that leaves just one question: is Drew Brees a hall of famer?

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The trendiest word about the Bucs this year appears to be “rebuilding”.  Sure, the team is not as strong as it was on this day last season, or the season before that, but I’d argue that the 2006 Bucs, who finished 4-12, were much more decisively in rebuilding than this team is.  But because the 2005 team made the playoffs, and the 2008 team missed them by losing four consecutive December games to finish the season, perception does not equal reality.

Interestingly, the major pieces on this roster are mostly pieces of the Tampa Bay offense.  Which, since this will be the first year that the defense is not coached by Monte Kiffin since they got good under Tony Dungy, means that any playoff run by the 2009 or 2010 Bucs is reliant on some of their defensive star power bubbling to the top of their roster.

10.  QB Byron Leftwich
Or Luke McCown.  Whoever wins the starting job for Tampa has a chance to be an above league average QB by this year.  For Leftwich, this is the first time since 2006 that he will have an entire offseason to work within a system.  If you compare that to Daunte Culpepper, who put up some pretty respectable numbers in Oakland after bouncing around in Miami for an offseason while he rehabbed, my money is on Leftwich to win the job and perform well with some considerable talent around him.

9.  LB Angelo Crowell
Angelo Crowell will man a OLB spot this year along with Jermaine Phillips who is moving from safety to linebacker this season.  Maybe one of the toughest determinants of value on a team like the Bucs is deciding whether a valuable free agent acquisition is a bigger move than moving the position of one of the team’s best defenders.  I don’t have the answer, but Phillips will be 30 this year compared to Crowell’s 28, so I gave Angelo the nod.

8.  OT Donald Penn
Penn is a former UDFA who has turned into one of the 12-15 best LTs in the NFL.  I don’t know if I’d say he’s a future pro bowler, as for one thing he gets manhandled by the best of the best, and for another, he’s going to be below the radar for most of his career, but the Bucs were able to build one of the league’s best young offensive lines without investing so much as a draft pick at OT, and that in itself makes Penn valuable.

7.  QB Josh Freeman
Freeman is only the 3rd best of the Tampa QBs going into this year, but he’s the future of the franchise; the most valuable Quarterback of the bunch.  He compares favorably to Stafford and Sanchez in terms of one day becoming the strongest of the bunch, although his day is likely many years away, if such a variable is debatable.  The thing is: Freeman’s Bucs likely will not feature Antonio Bryant, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, or Michael Clayton by the time he reaches the starting lineup (if not next year), so how Freeman will develop is dependent on the OL staying healthy, and the weapons the Bucs will find for him.

6.  DE Gaines Adams
You could be forgiven for assuming that Gaines Adams was just another top 5 draft bust, but the man, while he hasn’t broken out yet, is getting his sacks.  6 as a rookie, 6.5 last season.  That’s no fluke; he can rush the passer at this level.  Adams still leaves much to be desired against the run, but he’s young and has plenty of time to learn the tricks of the trade.  Within the next two years, I think Adams can become an elite pass rusher, and if that happens this year, No. 6 will look far too low for him.

5.  WR Antonio Bryant
Antonio Bryant’s 2008 season may have come completely out of left field, but Antonio Bryant, the player, has been a great receiver in the making for a long time now.  He was good in Dallas as a rookie, got kicked out of there.  Good in Cleveland, got kicked out of there.  He did alright for the 49ers in 2006, and then was out of football a year later.  So, while one could have judged the Bucs’ investment in him as prudent, no one actually saw 1,248 yards and 7 TDs.  He’s just now in the middle of his prime, and the franchise tag tender he will play for this year is probably a value.  The Bucs are not ones to give long term extensions to skill position players, so be aware that in 2010, he could be a top FA signing for someone else.

4.  TE Kellen Winslow
To me, a second round pick for Kellen Winslow is an interesting proposition.   It’s more than possible that the Bucs bought out the best years of one of the league’s most dynamic targets for the price of a second round pick.  That’s the upside.  The downside, of course, is that the Saints thought they were buying Jeremy Shockey’s best years with a 2nd round pick last year, but 2008 was a lost season, and a second round pick is not free.  Estimates I have done value the average second round pick anywhere from two to three wins over the life of a rookie contract.  So the Browns will take the insurance policy, and the Bucs will take the talent, and we’ll meet back here in a year to see of Tampa won their gamble.

3.  RB Derrick Ward
Perhaps the prize free agent signing on offense, save for TJ Houshmandzadeh.  Ward is not young, as he will be 29 this season, and his contract with the Bucs likely exceeds the amount of time he will be an effective backfield runner.  However, the premium the Bucs paid was necessary to gain that stability of having at least a backfield time share player for each of the next five seasons.  It takes a lot of pressure off of Earnest Graham and Cadillac Williams coming off injury to be the main players in the offense, and allows them to compete against each other for playing time.

2.  LB Barrett Ruud
With the Derrick Brooks release, Ruud becomes the centerpiece of the Bucs defense, more figuratively than literally.  He’s the team’s most complete defensive player, as he can run the field in a cover two scheme, can go sideline to sideline against the run, and if Raheem Morris wants to change the culture in Tampa, yes, he can certainly get after the passer on a blitz.  Ruud is the future of defense in Tampa, but it would be nice if he could get Adams or someone else to be his partner in crime (pun intended) on the next Bucs playoff team.

1.  G Davin Joseph
The Bucs don’t have a true “best of team” talent on their roster, so I gave an interior lineman some love here.  Joseph was a first round pick who has blossomed into exactly what the team expected to get, a leader on the line in terms of both talent and intangibles.  What they also have is one of the best guards in the National Football League.  No. 1 could have been anyone from 5 on up, and though two of those were offseason acquisitions, Joseph seems like the one guy most critical to the team’s 2009 success.  He’s the most valuable Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

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NFL Power Rankings: Schedule Difficulties

Traditionally, strength of schedule has been somewhat of a fallacious statistical measure.  This is not to say that teams don’t have variance of schedule that can be decisive in deciding which teams make the playoffs: the 2008 Miami Dolphins improved 10 wins over 2007 in great part because they played the AFC West and the NFC West, the two weakest divisions in the NFL.  This of course, would inflate the entire divisions’ win total (11 for the Pats, 9 for the Dolphins, a Bills team that began 4-0), but the Dolphins took advantage of it better than any of their opponents (they were actually 0-2 against their 4th place schedule, but 11-3 against common opponents).

Strength of Schedule adds up the record of all 16 opponents from the prior year for each team, and displays it as a decimal.  According to SoS, the Chicago Bears have the easiest schedule in 2009.  They, like the Packers and the Vikings, play two games against the 0-32 Lions, so their schedule must be easiest.  SoS reports the Lions as having a .000 chance to beat all teams on their schedule, so a game against the Lions tanks your opponents win percentage.  This is not correct.

I’ve developed a new way to make schedule strength a stat.    It uses my simple preseason rankings (SPR) as a base for determining which divisions are strong relative to others.  It matters not that I am 100% accurate in my projections–which themselves tend to be simplistic and based on “star power” as opposed to a lack of holes–only that we paint a general picture of what teams have improved or declined over the offseason.

For example:  All four teams in the NFC East scored better than average in my preseason projections.  This is not contrary to how all four teams are perceived in the division; it’s safe to say that no other division in the conference is considered to be as strong.  Well, my schedule strength rankings bare out these results.

Because the base unit of my projection system is wins above average, it’s really easy to convert divisional schedule strength into a figure that adjusts (kind of) a team’s win total.  The NFC South and AFC West drew the short sticks this year in having to play the NFC East in inter-divisional play.  Well, according to the strength of the NFC East, an average football team would lose .56 more games than if they instead would play an average division.  Simple enough.  Of course, not every team is the average football team.  Bad football teams are much less likely to beat good football teams than good teams are.  Ergo, a bad football team would probably have to have a more significant adjustment against the NFC East than just .56 games.

So, before we get to the rankings, I have two flaws in system to admit: 1) the strength of the schedule a team faces is unfortunately inseparable (to a degree) of how I perceive the team right now.  This is because to determine the quality of the divisional schedule each team plays, I have to take a guess on who the lead dog is.  2) the results below are not zero sum because for them to have been zero-sum, I would have had to use 8 wins per team as my baseline.  I did not do so, in part because I didn’t want to assume either conference equality or supremacy.  So what we have is a much more significant negative effect on some teams than a positive effect on others.  For the purposes of this exercise/study, it’s not a big deal.  A hard schedule is still a hard schedule.  For my final preseason projections, it’s something I’m going to have to correct.

Anyway, here’s how the schedules broke down from toughest to easiest:

1. Denver Broncos -1.73 wins
This is the team I would have put at the top anecdotally.  Two games against San Diego.  A game versus the defending world champs, and another against the AFC runner up.  They have to play the entire NFC East.  And, in intra-conference play, they draw the Colts and the Patriots.  Good luck, Josh McDaniels.

2. St. Louis Rams -1.47 wins
Normally, a team on a last place schedule is supposed to get a reprieve, but the Rams have to play the Redskins and Saints thanks to their last place finish.  They play against the NFC North which gives them three solid teams in the Packers, Bears, and Vikings.  They play the AFC South, which gives them the Colts, Titans, and Texans.  But they are second overall on this list because they are projected to be looking up at the rest of their division, as the Seahawks and 49ers figure to step forward ahead of the Rams this year, giving them six difficult division games in what would otherwise be considered a soft division (in large part to the Rams themselves).

3. San Francisco 49ers -1.21 wins
Again, the AFC South is the big culprit that is dropping the 49ers’ schedule to this point.  The difference between the 49ers and the Saints is as follows: replacing two SF games on the schedule with two STL games softens the schedule considerably.  All the system is really saying is that the 49ers should finish ahead of the Rams this year.

4. Kansas City Chiefs -1.08 wins
K.C. doesn’t have a bad divisional draw in the super-weak AFC West, so they’ll get their fair share of beatable opponents.  They play the entire NFC East and AFC North, which is chiefly responsible (pun intended) for the schedule adjusted win rating.  Playing Jacksonville and Buffalo instead of Indy and NE is what separates their schedule from the Broncos.

5. Arizona Cardinals -.98 wins
The Cards should smoke their division (allowing of course for a rebound from the Seahawks), but their out of division schedule is going to be brutal.  Looking past the entire NFC North, they draw both the Panthers and the Giants with their first place schedule.  Like the rest of the division, they are trending towards the top of this list because of the power of the AFC South.

6. Oakland Raiders -.97 wins
Four games against the Chiefs and Broncos will allow the Raiders to possibly post their winningest season in the last six years, but they are overmatched against most if not all of the AFC North, and the Texans are a tough draw for a third place team, while the Jets are no pushover.  Again, a lot of NFC East effect going on here, as well as the Raiders being a below average team.

7. Seattle Seahawks -.97 wins
The Seahawks have the easiest of the really difficult schedules.  There’s only one easy matchup between the two full divisions they play, and the Cardinals will take them to the wire twice.  Compared to the other teams in their division, playing the Cowboys and Buccaneers really isn’t so bad.  If they can separate themselves from the Rams and 49ers early on, this schedule will not be as hard as my system suggests.

8. Detroit Lions -.70 wins
The Lions will really struggle with their opponents pre- bye week.    Getting the Steelers and Ravens in inter-conference play hurts the whole division, but more the Lions because of their rating on the bottom.  Again, the Redskins and Saints are not really a fourth place schedule.  Because they get to play the NFC West, they don’t have as tough a schedules as some of the other worst finishers from last year.

9. San Diego Chargers -.62 wins
Because they enter the season clearly head and shoulders above the rest of their division, and because their first place schedule includes the Titans and the Dolphins, the difference between the Chargers and an average schedule is simply the difference between playing the NFC East, and playing an average division.

10. Carolina Panthers -.54 wins
The Panthers will play a first place schedule, which hands them above average opponents in the Vikings and the Cardinals.  They play the entire NFC East, but some of that effect is negated because the Panthers aren’t expected to be patsies this year.  New England is going to be a tough matchup, but the rest of the AFC East isn’t strong, relatively speaking.

11. Minnesota Vikings -.52 wins
The Vikings play a first place schedule as well, drawing the Panthers and the Giants.  Whatever benefit they get from having the NFC West on the schedule goes right back because of the strong AFC North.  In addition, the Vikings have but one divisional opponent that they have a big talent advantage over, which results in a tougher-than-average overall schedule.

12. Miami Dolphins -.42 wins
The Dolphins won the AFC East last year, earning a first place schedule that includes the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers.  Unlike the Vikings, their first place schedule limits the amount of lesser opponents they play.  The AFC South is competitive from top to bottom, and the NFC South has a couple of good teams as well.  They also look up at the Patriots, which gives them the toughest schedule in the East by far.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -.36 wins
The Bucs are a middling NFC team who will face much stronger opponents in the NFC East, plus the Packers and the Seahawks which is not an easy draw.  The AFC East will offer up some beatable opponents.

14. Atlanta Falcons -.36 wins
The Falcons are a very young incumbent playoff team who will face much stronger opponents in the NFC East, plus the Bears and the 49ers which a very slightly easier draw than the Bucs had.  The AFC East will offer up some beatable opponents.

15. Chicago Bears -.32 wins
It’s the Eagles who drag down the easiness of the Bears’ schedule.  Otherwise, in a middling division playing against a good mix of strong teams and weak teams, the Bears would be close to average on the schedule.  This, of course, is a far cry from the strength of schedule statistic which suggests the Bears have the easiest schedule in years.  Two games against the Packers, two games against the Vikings, playing the Eagles, Ravens, Cards, and Steelers…that doesn’t sound particularly easy to me.

16. Tennessee Titans -.26 wins
The last team with a slightly tougher than average schedule will have it’s work cut out in it’s own division, with the Texans and Colts, and I don’t expect even the Jags to be a pushover.  Having the first place schedule this year, out of all years, hurts because they get the Chargers in the AFC West in a year where the rest of the division is well below average.

17. Baltimore Ravens -.03 wins
The Ravens work an average schedule, having to play the Patriots and Colts in intra-conference play, but drawing the softer AFC West and the mediocre NFC North to make up for it.  Their season will be made or broken by how they perform within the division.

18. Green Bay Packers -.02 wins
The system grades the Packers’ schedule as the schedule that is closest to average among all 32 teams.  This makes sense, since the NFC North was the most average division, the Cowboys and the Bucs are an average intra-conference draw, and the combination of the NFC West and AFC North seems to be projected to be an average set of eight games.  So, as one can imagine, the Packers end up with a pretty fair schedule overall.

19. Indianapolis Colts +.06 wins
The Patriots, Ravens, and Cardinals make up the tough end, while the Broncos, Rams, and Bills provide a reprieve.  For the Colts, who graded out closer to average than their recent play would have otherwise suggested, the schedule should neither help nor hinder their ability to stretch their consecutive playoff apperances streak to 8 years.

20. New York Jets +.09 wins
Having to play the Pats twice is bad for the entire AFC East (except, obviously, NE), but the Jets don’t have it so bad otherwise.  The second best team on their schedule would either be the Saints, Panthers, or Colts, and even some teams further down on this list will find themselves overmatched more often than the Jets will.  Despite the average schedule rating, the Jets have an oppertunity for strong coaching to lead them to the postseason.

21. New Orleans Saints +.20 wins
The Saints, by far, have the easiest schedule in their own division.  They drew the Lions and the Rams in inter-divisional, intra-conference, play, by virtue of a 4th place schedule.  When you consider that the Panthers probably won’t be good for another 12 wins, and the Falcons likely won’t see double digit wins for a second year in a row, the Saints have the NFC South there for the taking.  They have tough matchups: the entire NFC East plus the Pats, but that’s not exclusive to them, their entire division has to play that.  The Saints still come out with a below average schedule difficulty, even given all those quality opponents.

22. Cincinnati Bengals +.25 wins
The Bengals will play the Texans and the Jets in intra-conference play, which is an average draw.  Their division is no cakewalk, but they do play the Broncos, the Chiefs, and the Raiders this year, which offers them a below average schedule difficulty, if they believe they have the pieces to make a move.

23. New York Giants +.34 wins
The NFC South doesn’t look to produce three winning records again this year, and the AFC West is as low as it’s ever been.  But when you look where the rest of the NFC East ranks on this list, you have to question why the Giants are here.  The answer is simple: they draw the Cardinals and the Vikings thanks to a rough year to have a first-place schedule.  The fact that they will see the Bucs, Chiefs, Broncos, and Raiders this is of course tempered by that first place schedule.  Still, this is a less difficult than average schedule.

24. Cleveland Browns +.35 wins

The Browns have maybe the toughest division slate in the NFL (if not the Cowboys), but like the rest of their division, they get the entire AFC West and NFC North on their schedule this year.  Thanks to a last place finish in 2008, that means they get the Jaguars and Bills, as well as the Raiders, Lions, Chiefs and Broncos.  This makes up for the rough go in the division.

25. Houston Texans +.37 wins
Another team who finds their way here despite a strong intra-division schedule.  The AFC East is not much better than average though and the NFC West significantly below average.  Although this system does not take this into account, they will not play their one really difficult game, New England, until Week 17.  That’s obviously an advantage that a mathematical system will not account for.

26. New England Patriots +.42 wins
Speaking of the Patriots, they will have to get by the Colts, Saints, Panthers, Titans, Texans, and Ravens this year, if they want to push 16-0 again.  Not going to happen, me thinks.  However, they have a huge advantage over the rest of their division in the fact that they, well, don’t have to play themselves.  Outside of the six teams mentioned above, the Pats don’t have a very hard remaining schedule at all.

27. Buffalo Bills +.42 wins
One of the biggest surprises that this researched produced is that DESPITE playing the Pats twice this year, the Bills end up with one of the six easiest schedules in the league.  That would make them a good sleeper pick for the AFC Wild Card this year (despite some obvious roster flaws), I would think.  Not that I condone gambling, but I do condone making money, if you catch my drift.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers +.57 wins
The defending champs may have a pretty-easy road back to the playoffs, if this formula is any indication.  The Steelers are the one first place finisher of the four AFC division champs last year that really benefits from their first place schedule, which gives them uncommon opponents of Tennessee and Miami.  Considering that the second place Ravens drew the Colts and the Patriots, that can only be considered lucky for the Steelers.  Not that the Dolphins or Titans are pushovers, but they aren’t the Colts or Pats. 

29. Jacksonville Jaguars +.65 wins
The Jags might sneak into the playoff picture thanks to quite the weak schedule.  The Browns, Chiefs, Bucs, and Bills comprise the bottom end of that schedule, and they’ve historically done well when playing in their own division.  The NFC South should not be all that hard on them, and that leaves them with only the Patriots, and their own division to contend with.

30. Dallas Cowboys +.66 wins
The division schedule for the Cowboys is going to be brutal, two games against the Eagles, two games against the Redskins, and two games against the Giants.  But outside of the division: maybe the Chargers or the Saints will do something against them, because not many other teams will.  The Seahawks and Packers are an interesting draw if not an incredibly tough one.  Another 9 win season seems like a guarantee.

31. Philadelphia Eagles +1.01 wins
The NFC East dominates the softest end of the schedule power rankings, mostly because the NFC South grades out as a mediocre division, one that the NFC East asserted dominance over in the formula, and the huge gap between the AFC West (the worst division) and the NFC East (the best division).  The Eagles draw the Bears and the 49ers in intra-conference matches, which is not a particularly difficult schedule.

32. Washington Redskins +1.04 wins
The Redskins have the easiest schedule in the NFL next year by this experimental measure.  A lot of this is the fact that the NFC East plays the two of the softer divisions in the NFL in the NFC South and especially AFC West.  But what sets the Redskins above the rest is the fact that their fourth place schedule from last year gives them the Detroit Lions, and the St. Louis Rams.  Both teams are projected to finish in the cellars of their divisions again this season.  In fact, the Redskins will play the Chiefs as well this year, which gives them three opponents who combined for 4 wins last season.  Factor in the Raiders and Broncos, and their tough division schedule is officially offset.

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NFL Top 10: Best Storylines heading into 2009

I really love spending hours putting together the research for a long-winded heavy analytical post, but sometimes, a fan needs to appreciate the game from a different perspective.  This isn’t going to provide any insight into why teams will win and lose this year, but because it’s June, and we’re two months from training camp, I’ll forgive myself.

Today, NFL Top 10 takes a look at the best storylines entering 2009, as well as those potential developing storylines that could shape the upcoming NFL season.

10. Ray Lewis, Rex Ryan, and defense in the AFC
If the Baltimore Ravens are going to make good on my super bowl appearance prediction, they can’t allow the media to even speculate that they might be missing Rex Ryan.  The effect of defensive coordinator on a team’s defense has certainly been overstated throughout the years, so we’ll never know if the Ravens are actually missing Rex Ryan.  They need a great defensive season from start to finish to dispel the argument that they will miss him.  Meanwhile, the Jets will only be relevant this year if they can rely on their running game.  And they will only be able to call on their running game if their defense is top notch.  I think the expectations are still higher in Baltimore than they are for the Jets.  But with three wins in September, Rex Ryan can change the expectations.  Be warned.

9.  Will Jason Campbell prove Dan Snyder wrong?
What we know — the Redskins had significant interest in both Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez at different points this offseason.  To their credit, they never publicly acted as if they were disappointed with Jason Campbell’s development, but I don’t think they were convincing enough with their non-action to dispel rumors.  Anyway, Jason Campbell has one thing going for him, and that’s the fact that he survived a Dan Snyder shopping spree while keeping his job.  There’s no actual precedent for that happening, but Campbell, for now, has the full backing of the organization, and all eyes will be on him to prove management foolish for entertaining other ideas this offseason.

8.  Adrian Peterson
Can this happen?  Will Adrian Peterson have three consecutive 1,300 yard seasons to begin his career?  But more importantly, will Peterson develop to the point at which he can offer more value to his team than the occasional explosive play and consistent 5.0 yard rushing average.  Obviously, the passing woes for the Vikings are really not Peterson’s fault, but he hasn’t exactly helped out his team with top notch pass blocking, and he’s averaging fewer than 200 yards a year in the passing game.  If Peterson becomes an all purpose option this season, the Vikings should return to the playoffs.  If he posts another empty 1,200 yard with a middling 8-10 TDs, well, let’s hold off on the coronation.

7.  After 0-16, how long will the Lions losing streak last?
The Lions have a pretty brutal pre-bye schedule, but their first two opponents: New Orleans and Minnesota should not take them lightly.  The Lions are looking at a team with a struggling run defense, and another team that could be missing both of it’s all pro defensive tackles.  Last year, the Lions’ season got off on the wrong foot when the Falcons and 49ers shredded them on the ground, and this year, the Lions will snap their losing streak when their ground game starts to chew up it’s competition.  If history suggests anything, it’s that it won’t take them very long.

6.  T.O. and North America’s Team
The Bills have not really had this much firepower since they had a top defense in 2004, only to watch Drew Bledsoe and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second teamers dashed their playoff hopes.  But, for the first time in 5 years, the talent to compete is on the roster.  Like most small market teams, they are not without holes, specifically on the offensive line, but Trent Edwards’ inconsistencies should be tempered now that he’s throwing to two very established receivers.  The defense should be typically strong under Dick Jauron, and the Bills can pound the rock, so this season is all about the passing game and the health of a somewhat thin offense.  T.O. is somewhat of a 6 million dollar side show, but the increased attention will be very welcome for the Bills.

5.  Will Drew Brees solidify his place among the games’ elite?
Daunte Culpepper.  Donovan McNabb.  Carson Palmer.  Tony Romo.  Since Tom Brady and Peyton Manning exploded onto the NFL scene in 2004 as the two quarterbacks that every personnel evaluator would most like to have behind center, the pundits have attempted to christen a third member to this elite class every year.  It hasn’t worked.  None of the names listed above have consistently produced at at elite level worthy of the highest of expectations.  Drew Brees is looking to change all that this season.  Another 4,000 yard season in which Brees takes the Saints back to the top of the NFC would mean that Brees should be mentioned in the same breath as Brady or Manning, who are the hall of fame quarterbacks from this era.  We’re that close to be talking about Drew Brees as a hall of fame level quarterback.  You get the feeling if he’s ever going to get to that level, this is going to be the year for Brees and the Saints.

4.  Whilst the Steelers repeat?
That team that won the NFL Championship last year, the Steelers, return all the crucial parts of their playoff machine from last year.  So the main question here is: who, if anyone, can topple these guys?  History says the Steelers will not repeat, because just because you beat all 31 other teams to the Super Bowl title one year does not guarantee you success over any one team the following year.  The odds are stacked against every team at the beginning of the year, super bowl champs included.  But the Patriots did win 3 Super Bowls this decade.  Is it even possible that a team who won three super bowls might not be remembered as the dominant team of the decade?  The Steelers have a once-in-a-lifetime shot to do just that.  Is it possible?  It’s not like the Redskins or Giants are considered the team of the 80’s, nor were the Raiders or Cowboys considered the team of the 70’s.  No decade has ever seen two different teams win three super bowls, and the only ten year span in which two teams won three titles each were the 49ers and Cowboys from the late to mid 90’s.  The Steelers look to make history with the Pats this year.

3.  Jay Cutler/Josh McDaniels
Jay Cutler’s wish to be cut free from the tyranny of a 33 year old head coach he had yet to meet before may have adverse effects on his career in the long run.  Jay Cutler was basically guaranteed long term success with the Denver Broncos.  However, with Chicago, it’s going to feel a lot like his college days with Vandy.  Understand, the Bears have talented players on offense with Cutler, but it’s not at all like Denver, when every player the Broncos roster was capable of stepping up when called on.  Cutler is going to find himself frustrated with the limitations of Devin Hester, with the never-ending search to find a go-to third down receiver, with Desmond Clark’s maddening inconsistencies, with an offensive line that will blow simple protections from time to time, and with a running game that will go AWOL for month-long periods.  Meanwhile, McDaniels has an incredibly promising offense, but he’s basically given up on it’s two most dependable players: Cutler and TE Tony Sheffler.  So for McDaniels, his key will be developing a super star or two out of a bunch that includes Kyle Orton, Knowshon Moreno, and Brandon Marshall.  Good luck and godspeed, coach.  You’ve got the best chance to win this trade, but you better hope for the best…and that someone tackles on defense this year.

2.  The Colts’ Playoff streak in limbo
Since Tony Dungy came to Indianapolis in 2002, the Indy Colts have posted the following EA Sports-like win totals: 10, 12, 12, 14, 12, 13, 12.  I mean, holy God.  They’ve made the playoffs 7 out of 7 years, in the prime years of the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.  6 consecutive 12 wins seasons.  9 playoff appearances in the last ten years.  Put it this way:  The Indy Colts of the last 7 years are every bit the comparable to the Atlanta Braves, 1991-2005.  But Dungy is gone, Marvin Harrison is gone, Ron Meeks is gone, and at least temporarily, Howard Mudd and Tom Moore are gone.  The only QB in NFL history who compares to Manning, Dan Marino, had a prime of his career that, while not as impressively consistent as Manning, lasted though age-34 (1995) before he lost his all-worldly level of play.

That would suggest Manning has two more years at this insane level of productivity.  But Peyton’s hallmark has been that incredible consistency: if he plays to whatever age Brett Favre does without missing a start, he will break his consecutive starts record.  But the one certainty in sports is that the last years of a super star will be played at a lower productivity level than his middle years.  Even, yes, in the case of Barry Sanders.  The big question here is that, if Peyton Manning plays at a 9 or 10 win level this year instead of a 12 or 13 win level, are the Colts good enough to pick him up and make the playoffs again.  If not, the streak is in jeopardy, again.

1.  The Patriots vs. the World
While the questions around Manning circle around how long he will be able to play at a never seen before level of play, Tom Brady has to prove he can pick up exactly where he left off.  Brady’s window to win championships will last about three more seasons.  And he returns in 2009 with a cast of receivers that he has never lost with in regular season play.  Again, Manning enters this season with a quite wonder about his remarkable abilities, but his expectation is much lower.  With Brady, it’s almost as if 12-4 and anything short of a championship season and 1st team all-pro status would mark a disappointment for the young QB.  If Matt Cassel can go 10-5, Brady should be good for at least 13 wins.  Or so the logic goes.  Tom Brady will ultimately be judged by how he does in the postseason, but it looks like the only team on the Pats’ schedule this year that will beat them is themselves.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Seattle Seahawks

Playing in the NFC West, it’s easy to forget that the Seattle Seahawks have enjoyed their strongest run in team history over the last six years or so, but they have been one of the NFL’s eight most successful franchises of this decade.  Looking at this roster, a lot of top level talent is still there, but not on the side of the ball that you would think.

During the Mike Holmgren years, the Seahawks built their identity around offense.  Names like Hasselbeck, Alexander, Hutchinson, and Jones typified the type of unit the Seahawks were.  But now that Jim Mora holds the keys to the franchise, it’s fitting that the Seahawks will remain competitive around their defense, which is fittingly where all the star power on this team can be found.  NFL Top 10 demonstrates:

10)  DT Brandon Mebane
Pound for pound, Mebane is the Seahawks’ most effective interior lineman.  He was not a highly touted prospect coming out of Cal, but he has made a name for himself locally, and he plays bigger than his size, which considering that he’s listed at 309, is nothing to shrug off.  Mebane totaled 5.5 sacks last year, and is only 24 years of age.  His best days are likely in the near future.

9)  OT Sean Locklear
Locklear was moved to tackle as a rookie third round draft pick back in 2004, made the starting lineup by his season season and was a huge piece of the 2005 NFC Champions’ offensive puzzle.  Since 2006, injuries have prevented Locklear from climbing this list, as he’s missed 9 games in the last three years.  The Seahawks, reportedly, want to make him a Left Tackle after Walter Jones retires, but right now, they’ve got a pretty good bookend thing going on the OL.

8)  DE Patrick Kerney
Just two years ago, Patrick Kerney had 14.5 sacks and was a first team all pro.  Last year, he was on IR by Halloween.  With that said, Kerney is only 32 years of age, and he’s averaged just under 8 sacks a year for his career.  His sack rate is better than that of 5 time pro bowler Mark Gastineau, who called it a career at Kerney’s age.  So, when his name comes up for Hall of Fame consideration in about eight years, how he finishes his career could very well get him over the top.  The Seahawks are remarkably good at acquiring this level of talent when their value is at an all time low.  It’s why they have won.

7)  QB Matt Hasselbeck
Just two years ago, Matt Hasselbeck was a pro bowler who threw for nearly 4,000 yards with no running game.  For Hasselbeck, decline will certainly come in the form of sustained bouts with injury.  Because for his career, Matt Hasselbeck has been to three pro bowls; he’s 3/3 in seasons in which he has started 16 games, and 0/7 in seasons where he has started 14 or fewer games.  Hasselbeck will be 34 this season, which puts him right at the age at which a primary Hasselbeck comparable, Rich Gannon, started his remarkable streak of pro bowl play in Oakland 10 years ago.  Gannon started every game for his team between 1999 and 2002.  Simply put, if Hasselbeck doesn’t take too many hits, and he can stay on the field, he’s still one of the best players in football.  If the injuries start piling up, he might be out of the game by this time next year.  Do not bet against a return to the pro bowl this year.

6)  OT Walter Jones
Jones doesn’t have many years left, and his on the field production declined for the first time last season as he missed four games, his most ever in a single season.  Jones has been neither injury prone nor injury resistant over his career, although his age will make that trend towards injury prone as his career winds down.  Speaking purely about this upcoming season, I see no reason to believe that Jones can no longer handle being a LT in the NFL.  His streak of 8-consecutive pro bowls will be dependent on the success of the offense as a whole this year, but Jones, 35, has at least this one season left in him.  He’s still among the top half of LTs in the game.

5)  LB Lofa Tatupu
I think a lot of league outsiders and even a handful of Seattle fans would have put Tatupu at one or two, but his level of play last year was not up to par with the rest of his career.  That’s not good, considering he was in the first year of a long extension.  He was often tight in his coverage mechanics, and less effective against the run than normal, although his teammates should shoulder some of that blame.  Tatupu needs a rebound year as much as any player in the NFL.

4) CB Marcus Trufant
Trufant’s down season last year was significantly less “down” compared to some of the better publicized Seahawks, but Trufant remains a borderline top ten cornerback in the NFL.  He’s roughly on par with Dallas’ Terence Newman, who made the No. 10 spot on NFL Top 10’s look at the best corners in the NFL.  So he comes with a lot of value.  Trufant is never going to become a shut down corner, but he has justified his first round pick status from 2003, and he’s had a remarkably consistent career: always out on the field, and usually quite productive.  He’ll have more than one INT in 2009, and with a better option playing across the field, his productivity should return.

3)
WR TJ Houshmandzadeh
The prize of the free agency class for the Seahawks, Houshmandzadeh fills a huge hole on the Seattle roster, whose WR postition has evolved from a bunch of guys who can’t catch the ball to a bunch of guys who are kept off the field often by freak injuries.  Houshmandzadeh is no freak, but what he is: a very dependable No. 1 receiver, should make the Seahawks’ offense far less inconsistent than it has performed in the past.  This signing makes the Hawks a better team, pure and simple.

2)
TE John Carlson
The one thing the Seahawks appear to be lacking is top end talent, and some would question whether or not a tight end can fix that, but John Carlson is well on his way to not just stardom at his position, but dare I say, becoming the next Tony Gonzalez.  He was a steal in the second round, had as good a rookie season as anyone did, and brings versatility and many skills to the Seattle offense.

1)  LB Aaron Curry
A guy who has never played a down at No. 1?  Well, we don’t really know just how good Curry can be for the Seattle Seahawks, but I’ll go this far: If the 4-3 defense has any sort of future in the NFL, it’s name is Aaron Curry.  Right now, I look at Lance Briggs or Keith Bulluck as the prototype for 4-3 OLB, but they are a combined 62 years old.  Curry is just 22, and I’d say that he’s the one player the Seahawks can ill-afford to lose this year in the middle of a playoff run.  He’s going to be expected to make an immediate impact, but this defense is a perfect scheme fit for him.  He’s going to be dominant, sooner as opposed to later.

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NFL Crystal Ball: Projecting the Rookie Quarterbacks

It was universally agreed upon by draft analysts that the 2009 NFL Draft’s quarterback class was one of the weakest in memory.  But when the first round was said and done, the results suggested that the teams disagreed: 3 quarterbacks picked in the first round, all before the 20th pick was made.

On this kind of thing, history suggests that the majority draft opinion usually produces more first round names than there are actual first round talents.  The bust rate for all rookie QBs is around 50%, but that figure is considerably lower in the top 20 picks of the first round, which more directly applies to the three gentlemen who will be the primary focus of this article:  Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman.

I will rely heavily on historical draft position in this analytical and predictive column.  Draft position helps to separate the elite prospects from the good prospects, and give insight into how actual NFL decision makers approach the draft process.

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Draft Comparables: JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Carson Palmer, David Carr, Michael Vick, Tim Couch, Peyton Manning

First overall picks tend to make excellent quarterbacks.  However, the exceptions to the rule are the most recent two picks.  Is there something that stands out about those players compared to the rest?  Well, I think Russell and Smith both became first overall picks only because the teams that drafted them reached for them because they were the highest rated quarterbacks, not the highest rated players.  We can conclude that Alex Smith is a worse player than either Aaron Rodgers or Jason Campbell, but even at the time, the logic was that he should not have been a first overall pick.  Same deal with Russell.  A lot of people would have taken him before Brady Quinn in that draft, but not one G.M. would have taken him over, say, Calvin Johnson.  Well, Al Davis did, but I think the consensus was that he was alone in his John Elway comparisons.  And though the wide range of prospects with the first overall pick should make one think twice about Stafford, unless you believe that Detroit had him vastly overrated in their evaluations, I mean, a round or two ahead of where he should have gone, history suggests the Lions have found a Quarterback.

Additionally, the Lions seem to have a clear plan on offense, where the rebuilding effort should lead to immediate dividends.  The team is strong at all the skill positions, and though there are questions with the offensive line, particularly LT Jeff Backus, the team hasn’t exactly ignored the position over the offseason.  I expect Daunte Culppeper to enjoy some success in the offense this year, and after the season, it looks like the offense as a whole will improve as it’s quarterback does.  I think the best comparable here is the 2003 Bengals.  That year, the team took Carson Palmer 1st overall with it’s superstar receiver going into his third season.  They made changes in the running game, moving out Corey Dillion for Rudi Johnson.  For the Lions, it’s coincidence that Rudi will give way to Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris, but that’s a strong tandem.  If you’ll remember, the team improved under the veteran QB (Kitna), and won 8 games, then made the switch to the 1st overall pick and made no improvement in the win column the next year.  Then the offense reached new heights in 2005.

My draft comparable for Stafford was Kerry Collins, a fifth overall pick back in 1996.  On the Lions, I see a similarity to Carson Palmer.  Palmer, to some, is a top 5 QB, and to others, he’s merely top half.  Collins, in his Giants days, was similarly rated by fans.  Palmer probably has one more year to produce at a pro bowl type level before he loses his face of the franchise label.  Matthew Stafford’s career will likely look something like Collins, Palmer, or possibly Vinny Testeverde.  He will be the architect of powerful offenses in Detroit.  He’s not good enough by himself to carry a team, but he’s a passer with franchise type tools, and is capable of a pro bowl level performance or two over his career.

Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Draft Comparables: Matt Ryan, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Daunte Culpepper, Ryan Leaf, Jake Plummer, Heath Schuler, Steve McNair, Trent Dilfer

Those draft comparables are all over the map.  It gets more clear if you eliminate the comparables who were not drafted in a year where there was a quarterback taken at No. 1 overall.  That leaves: Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, Daunte Culpepper, and Ryan Leaf.  The successes of the bunch would be Roethlisberger, McNabb, and Culpepper, and the outright busts would be Leaf, Smith, Harrington, and McNown.

The difference between the first overall pick and the second QB taken in the draft is that the bust rate becomes very, very noticeable at the point where Sanchez was taken.  What’s interesting is that of the teams that took busts with comparable picks to Sanchez, three of those teams have since used the first overall pick on a quarterback (SD – Rivers, DET – Stafford, CIN – Palmer).  That’s not telling to Sanchez’s chances of being a bust, but it is interesting that the teams that missed on a non-first overall pick QB have not been gun shy about spending even more money to right the ship.

Sanchez, by far, is the toughest projection of the three to make.  We can’t rule out him becoming a pro-bowler or an epic bust, but can it least argue that he’s most likely to become either a Leftwich or a Rodgers more than any other comparable.  The Rodgers comparison is the closest I can come to having most similar conditions, but it’s also a somewhat useless comparison.  First of all, we don’t know how Rodgers would have performed if he had been forced to play his first three seasons, like Sanchez is going to.  Secondly, we only have 16 Aaron Rodgers starts altogether.  Finally, Rodgers has a incredibly fertile offensive environment, and Sanchez isn’t necessarily entitled to the same thing.

On the low end, he’s another Harrington.  On the high end, he’s another McNabb.  Most likely, he’s going to be another Leftwich; whatever the Jets want to make of him.  Essentially, that’s who Aaron Rodgers is anyway.  Sanchez is going to struggle for a year, maybe two.  He’s a system quarterback who can blossom into the guy the Jets want to believe they have, but only if the team develops talent properly around him.

Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Draft Comparables: Joe Flacco, Brady Quinn, Jason Campbell, Jay Cutler, JP Losman, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, Patrick Ramsey, Drew Brees, Chad Pennington, Jim Druckenmiller

The comparables on Freeman are noticeably worse than the other two rookies.  Three comparables became franchise quarterbacks.  Four became outright busts.  Patrick Ramsey is somewhere in the middle.  Three still control their own destiny.

Flacco, Cutler, and Pennington played at weaker programs than the other comparables, but so did Losman and Ramsey.  The problem, unlike Sanchez whose comparables were all over the place, is that none of Freeman’s comparables is particularly close.  One of his closest comparables based on draft profile is Matthew Stafford, but we don’t have any information on him yet, and he went first overall.  We know the NFL is generally unkind to underclassmen, particularly ones with limited college production at lesser programs, but generally those players get picked in the later rounds.  Freeman was a first round selection, and probably would have gone even higher if he had returned for his senior year.  And that suggests that he will NOT fail.

The only real obvious comparable that I can bring up would be JaMarcus Russell: had the Raiders not taken him in 2007, he would have ended up in about the range which Freeman was taken.  The truth is that Freeman is almost universally a stronger prospect than Russell was despite the comparables.  Russell has struggled to complete passes consistently at the NFL level, but the Buccaneers took Freeman in spite of a declining completion percentage at K-State, which would be a positive indicator of NFL improvement.

Freeman is probably the best pure quarterback (most likely franchise QB) of the three prospects, but also has the furthest to go.  This is scary, because history suggests that the NFL will not be able to help him make up for what he did not learn as a senior in college.  Freeman is not as likely to bust as Sanchez is, I don’t think.  He’ll benefit from tempered expectations, but Tampa Bay isn’t exactly a great spot for a rookie quarterback to head into right now.  My gut says that Freeman will have the best career of the three when it’s all said and done, but admittedly, that prediction is not based on a lot of hard evidence.

Freeman probably made a poor decision by coming out of college when he did.  Poor, but understandable.  K-State switched coaches (and systems), and probably wouldn’t have been relevant in the Big XII even if Freeman had returned.  And even if Freeman had a college best 2009 season, he would have been in the draft with names like Bradford, McCoy, and Tebow, not to mention others.  By coming out now, Freeman got himself into the first round of the NFL draft.  If there’s a player out of the three who is most likely to one day carry the Lombardi trophy, boy, it’s hard to bet against Freeman being that guy.

The Best of the Rest

San Francisco’s Nate Davis plays a lot like Drew Brees, but Davis must overcome a learning disability if he is ever going to rise to the top of the depth chart in an NFL offense.  San Francisco is a place where he is likely to make the roster, as he simply has to push veterans Damon Huard or Shaun Hill should one falter in the preseason.

Denver’s Tom Brandstater has prototypical NFL size, and he’s going to find himself in the QB mix in Denver sooner rather than later.  Plus, as a sixth round pick, his name is too close to Tom Brady to not mention.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Tennessee Titans

Two years ago, it appeared the future of football in Tennessee would be Vince Young on offense, and Albert Haynesworth on defense.  Mulligan, please!  The Titans have done a great job of assembling talent around these players–particularly on the offensive line and at running back, but they’ll head into 2009 with question marks at two positions they felt strongly about back in 2007.  How the replacements respond to the stresses of a starting job in the NFL will determine how this team does.

I’m not as much referencing QB Kerry Collins as I am about his successor, whoever that may be.  The Titans are once again weakened at the QB position, and Collins will attempt to keep the seat warm for either reclamation project Patrick Ramsey, Young, or a future draft pick.

The Titans chose to totally overall their receiving corps this offseason, thus improving the environment for quarterbacks in Tennessee over the next few years.  They, however, enter 2009 without the defensive identity that defined them over their last two years of playoff football.  NFL Top 10 ignores that for now, and looks at the best players on the Tennessee Titans.

10. S Chris Hope
Hope, who left the Steelers after 2005, received limited interest on the free agent market, was signed by the Titans, and has put together three of his best seasons in Tennessee.  He continues to be a veteran presence in the secondary, along with Nick Harper, who makes a handful of game-changing plays each season.

9.  C Kevin Mawae
Kevin Mawae is officially now the most tenured NFL offensive lineman.  Tennessee has become his home ever since the Jets kicked him to the curb for Nick Mangold, who is doing quite well himself in Mawae’s old digs.  It’s hardly a coincidence that the team brought in Mawae, and the unit around him began to improve each season he was there.  Though Mawae’s physical skills are in decline, his proverse effect on those around him has helped the Titans become a great team.  Mawae is likely to move on after the season.

8.  DT Jovan Haye
The Titans will attempt to replace Haynesworth with an effective DT rotation; Haye is simply the biggest name of a bunch that includes Tony Brown, Jason Jones, and Sen’Derrick Marks.  He was the prize free agent acquisition, and because his history is as a 3-technique, it seems likely that Tennessee was eying him to play along side Albert Haynesworth.  Now, he’s the senior member of a very young DT group.

7.  DE Jevon Kearse
When “The Freak” returned for a second run with the Titans, he was brought in to be a role player on a roster that already featured Haynesworth, and an improving secondary.  Now, the secondary has reached maturity and Haynesworth has departed, leaving Kearse to pick up a good deal of the production on the defensive line.  If the Titans are to make another run, Kearse must handle the increased role with no dropoff in performance.  If Kearse can become the Freak once more, you have to like the Titans chances this year.

6.  TE Bo Scaife
One thing that hit me as I was compiling this list is that the Titans have a roster built of underrated players.  It’s just not something that gets mentioned with the team very often, but every time I put a player on this list, it was like asking “how does this guy not get more pub?”  For Scaife, who will don the Franchise Tag this season, it goes beyond that to “what do I have to do to get another contract.”  The truth: probably leave Tennessee.  The team has young TEs Jared Cook and Craig Stevens, who they both drafted in the last two years, both will be capable of playing the TE in this offense.  The Titans are certainly interested in getting a long term deal for Scaife, likely at the expense of Alge Crumpler, but they also have the leverage to just walk away if Scaife wants to be paid like a top TE, which, of course, he is.

5.  S Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin has lived up to his first round billing, becoming a dynamic two skill safety, with great closing speed and ball skills to boot.  He has 10 interceptions in his two year career, with 7 of those coming last season.  He might not become Ed Reed, but Griffin is none the less the next big thing at safety in the NFL.  He could have very easily been No. 1 on this list, as the margin between him and the No. 1 is quite small.

4.  LB Keith Bulluck
On a team full of underrated talents, Bulluck is criminally underrated.  Consider: back in 2003, Bulluck went to his first pro bowl after a 3-sack, 106-tackle year.  Bulluck would have remarkably consistent production over the next few years, but he upped his sack total to 5 in each of the next two seasons…and was never invited to another pro bowl.    He was asked to blitz less under Jim Schwartz, and his production has slipped a little bit due to the defensive switch.  But instead of asking questions about Bulluck’s hall of fame candidacy, we’re now wondering how many years he has left.

3.  RB Chris Johnson
Last year, I openly questioned the wisdom of the Chris Johnson pick on MVN’s draft coverage because it seemed like an unnecessary pick from a Titans team which already had a strong running game, but needed help if at any skill position, then most definitely wide receiver.  The criticism was predicated on my assessment of Johnson not yielding the idea that I’d be looking a year later at an O-ROY candidate.  It’s safe to say I was wrong.  Johnson was an incredibly valuable player for the Titans, so much so, that he transformed LenDale White into a touchdown machine.  It makes 2007 pick Chris Henry a wasted draft pick, but that was likely the case anyway.  They now have their RB tandem for at least the next two seasons.

2.  CB Cortland Finnegan
Finnegan is one of the most valuable cornerbacks in the league because of his shutdown coverage ability, but he does seem to give back a lot of his value in penalty yardage, compared to contemporaries like Nnamdi Asomugha, and Darrelle Revis.  If he can improve his composure even a little bit, I think he can be far and above all the other Titans players in value.  He’s that kind of skilled.  As is, his 5 interception season puts him in the elite cornerbacks category.  Quarterbacks fear him, pure and simple.

1.  OT Michael Roos
Roos could have been anywhere from 1-6 on this list, but because of his remarkable durability (he has started every game since he signed with the Titans as a 2nd round pick in 2005), the first team all pro bubbles to the top of the list.  Michael Roos is the prototype for blind side tackle.  His hand placement is textbook, and you could make a training video off his footwork.  Given the fact that he’s a great player against the run as well, it’s not hard to defend putting Roos at No. 1 on the Top 10 MVTitans list.

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NFL Crystal Ball: Texans, finally, will head to Postseason

Save the trendiness of the pick: I wouldn’t be predicting this if I didn’t feel this team was good enough to flat out win the division.

Yes, the 2009 Houston Texans are that good.  I’m not willing to predict that they will win the AFC South next year, only that I expect them to be right in the mix at the end of it.  I am predicting that the Texans will make the playoffs next year.

Undoubtedly, the team enters the season with more upside–a higher ceiling, so to speak–than any other team in the division.  Of course, that was true of the Texans the last two seasons, and they never quite reached their ultimate potential.  By 2008, they had become the dreaded trendy media darlings, not unlike the Dolphins in 06, the Cards in 05, or the Cowboys in 07.  And they responded with an incredibly disappointing 0-4 start, although, in hindsight those losses (Steelers, Titans, Colts, Jaguars) do not look as bad.

The effects of Hurricane Ike certainly affected the Texans early on in the year.  Certainly, they were too talented to be 0-4, even against a brutal schedule, and to begin 0-3 in their division.  But things may have been different if their bye week hadn’t been moved up to Week 2, and the team displaced from it’s normal practice schedule.  Not to make excuses for poor play, but just to point out that these things can ruin a season before it gets started.

Then there’s the obvious fact that the team will be even better this year.  The offense has been superlative-worthy.  The Texans gambled on QB Matt Schaub in 2007 just two months before the Vick-Dog Fighting scandal broke.  Some analysts speculated that the Texans overpaid for an unproven quarterback at the time, but in hindsight, it’s clear that Schaub would not have been available if they had waited.  Schaub had limited NFL action at the time of the deal, but he had already taken the Falcons offense to heights that Michael Vick could not reach in his three years with the team.  He accomplished this spread over the three years he was with the Falcons, and combined with a solid collegiate career and fourth round draft status, that mitigated a lot of the risk to the Texans.  Two years later, it appears Houston got the best of that deal.

The offense in place around him is excellent, particularly the receivers: Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, David Anderson, and Owen Daniels.  RB Steve Slaton is a young top prospect in the game, although I worry about the Texans abusing his workload, if a suitable No. 2 does not develop.  The offensive line is the best, and deepest it has ever been since the Texans have existed, and it’s built around RT Eric Winston.  And that’s just one side of the ball.

The defense has been the achillies heel of the Texans since people started predicting them to win the division back in 2004.  Every year, their inability to keep their opponents out of the end zone results in wasted seasons.  But, for the first time, the talent that they have accumulated on defense appears to have matured.  The defensive discussion begins with two names: DE Mario Williams, and CB Dunta Robinson.  They are the superstars here.  Williams has recognition around the league (2 pro bowls in his three seasons) as one of the best pass rushers in the game, but the Texans have truly put their money where their mouth is on Robinson, slapping the Franchise tag on him despite an ACL injury in 2007 that compromised his 2008 season.  With those two at full strength, you’d be foolish to expect teh same old Texans defense.  But the rest of the group will determine how far this team will go in the playoffs.

DT Amobi Okoye, the 10th pick in the 2007 draft, is entering his age-22 season.  He’s been around long enough where most scouts expect the young kid to have a break out performance this season. MLB Demeco Ryans has been the steadying force in the Texans defense since 2006, and free agent acquisition DE Antonio Smith seems like the perfect compliment to Williams, and instantly fixes the team’s biggest defensive hole in the front seven.  The depth they have in the secondary is something to write home about, as plenty of resources have gone into improving that position over the last three years.  Rookie LB Brian Cushing was taken to be the final piece to a puzzle, a game-ready linebacker from USC who’s hard-hitting attitude embodies the type of defense the Texans want to be.

There are concerns about the viability of the safety position, and always about Schaub’s health, but compared to past years, the concerns appear to be minor.  The difference between an elite team and just a good one might be the breakout of that one, unexpected young talent.  DT Travis Johnson is on his last opportunity with the team, and possibly in the league.  Perhaps he, or last years first round pick LT Duane Brown can be this guy.  For the Texans, it makes all the difference.

Ultimately, how far the Texans go depends a lot on teams like the Colts and the Titans.  If they set the bar high at 12 wins in the AFC South, I think the Texans will likely have to settle for a wild card.  If the bar is set at 9 or 10 wins, I think this team is plenty good to take the AFC South.  Either way, 2009 should be the first trip to the NFL postseason for the no-longer-fledgling Houston Texans.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Chicago Bears

The Bears made the biggest splash of the entire offseason when they landed Jay Cutler in a blockbuster trade with the Denver Broncos.  But where will Cutler rank among the top players on the Chicago Bears?  Is he truly the centerpiece of the Bears’ offense?   NFL Top 10 investigates these questions, today.

10.  C Olin Kreutz
I do think Olin Kreutz has enjoyed a somewhat overrated career because as a young, talented Center in the NFC, he kept getting trips to the pro bowl to represent the NFC, despite a long standing run of inconsistent play in the middle of the Bears’ OL.  Kreutz’ best work came, in my opinion, during the 2005 season when he was by far the best player on a terrible offense that did just enough to make the playoffs that season.  Since then, he’s been about a league average center, but the veteran has remained a critical presence on the Bears line, and is probably still one of the ten most valuable players on the Bears.

9.  G Josh Beekman
The only Chicago offensive lineman to be more productive than league average at his position happens to be the least known and youngest of the players on the Bears’ OL.  Beekman, a fourth year pro from Boston College, was a late round draft pick who impressed in his first camp, and stayed in the Bears’ plans until the LG position opened up.  Beekman has been great in that role with the Bears, and his presence allows the Bears to work some things around at the LT position, as they try to establish a long-term starter there.

8.  TE Greg Olsen
Olsen is the most versatile playmaker on the Bears offense–he’s the go-to guy here.    Maybe the best player at his position in the entire offense, relative to league lists.  Olsen brings a vertical element to the Bears’ offense, although he is at his best when he works out of the slot as a receiver.  He makes his money on third downs, where he is enemy number one for an opposing defense.  If Tony Sheffler is any comparable, Olsen should enjoy a career year in 2009 with Jay Cutler throwing him passes.

7.  DE Alex Brown
Alex Brown is the best of many defensive ends on the Bears.  The 4th round draft pick in 2002 has become the Bears’ best pure pass rusher.  Coming out of Florida, the concern with Brown was that he wouldn’t be able to defend the run well enough to succeed at the pro level, but currently, his run defense is one of the things that makes him the Bears’ best defensive end.  The Bears expect more sack production from him in 2009.

6.  LB Brian Urlacher
If you go look at game tape of the identity of the Bears defense from 2005 and 2006, it’s clear that the entire scheme was built around Urlacher.  That’s no longer true, and Urlacher is currently a declining player.  It’s a shame that when Urlacher was doing his best work for the Bears, he couldn’t quite shape the “overrated” label.  Perhaps it was deserved, perhaps not, but it certainly detracted from the fact that Urlacher was a borderline hall of famer entrenched in the best years of his career, and a lot of people couldn’t enjoy his best years because of the constant criticism.  His unit achieved all of their goals in 05 and 06, while hamstrung by a terrible offense.  Urlacher has been fighting and playing through neck and back injuries for two straight seasons now, so don’t be surprised if he shocks the world and hangs it up after 2009.  Although if Jay Cutler has a promising year, he might just hang on a bit too long looking for that elusive ring.

5.  RB Matt Forte
It says a lot about the Bears that Forte is not only their best option out of the backfield, but he is their number one receiving target on the outside when he lines up there as well.  When the Bears drafted Forte, they overlooked much greater needs because the Bears offense centers around the concept of versatile football players who can be productive while lining up in many different places.  Forte proved he could do that last year, and he chipped in with a 1,000 yard season as a rookie.  Forte and Cutler are the future of offense in Chicago.

4.  CB Charles Tillman
Charles Tillman is the most critical player on the Bears roster, because this is a very middling defense when Tillman is sidelined.  But when he’s on the field, they are a great unit.  He’s a legitimate No. 1 corner who would perhaps don the “shutdown” label if he could just stay healthy.  Tillman is not just the most underrated player on the Bears, he’s the most underated player in the NFC North.

3.  DT Tommie Harris
Harris is a defensive tackle who gets credit for the amazing things he does on a football field.  He can get pressure right up the middle, and he does great work against the run.  Last year, it was injuries that prevented him from making another pro bowl, but he’s the one guy I would peg as most likely to return to, not Honolulu, but Miami this season.  Harris is due for a 6 sack season for Chicago.

2.  QB Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler arrives, instantly, as the most valuable player on the Bears offense, and combined with Forte’s versatility, they now become a passing team under Cutler.  Still, the Bears would be wise to understand that, even though they traded multiple key draft picks to Denver for Cutler, the Broncos were able to market Cutler to the rest of the league as something he is not: a pre-established franchise quarterback.  What Cutler is:  a young, promising quarterback, who teams feel can become a franchise type guy within the next year or two.  So the Bears should not treat it as a foregone conclusion that he will solve all their offensive issues.  Over time, yes, I think Cutler makes the Bears a legitimately good offensive team, although, the fact that they won’t have a first round pick next year might slow the process.

1.  LB Lance Briggs
It’s the Bears, so no doubt the number one guy is going to be on defense.  Briggs is one of the ten best linebackers in the game, and that’s considering that a lot of superstars at the LB position are actually defensive ends playing the rush position in the 3-4 defense, and middle linebackers get most of the defensive pub.  If there’s an outside linebacker in the 4-3 who is better at what he does, I haven’t seen him.  Not since Derrick Brooks at least.  Briggs plays the toughest position in the Bears defense, and he plays it to the best of his, or anyone elses ability.

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NFL Great Debates: What to Do with Michael Vick?

NFL Outsider‘s Greg Trippiedi and Anthony Brown debate the issue: Which team is the best spot for Michael Vick if he overcomes the enormous hurdles necessary to get on the field this year?

Greg Trippiedi says Vick shouldn’t be a starting quarterback:

It’s pretty clear that Michael Vick is not going to have a job waiting for him when he gets back. He’s 29 years old — too old and too young in different ways. Vick’s open field running abilities were already in decline when we last saw him, and that was in 2006.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t stick somewhere. He’s still got a good five or six seasons ahead of him as an effective athlete.

The question though remains: Where will Michael Vick fit in, and who will take a chance on him?

I don’t think Vick is a good fit on a team with a clear need at quarterback. We’ve already seen that having Michael Vick on your roster is not conducive to featuring a strong passing game. And we know that, like Brett Favre, he will bring boundless publicity to the quarterback position on any team he is on. So teams with young quarterbacks or unsettled quarterback situations should avoid him at all costs, unless their ultimate goal is to one day make it to 7-9.

Michael Vick could be an asset to a team with a clearly established franchise QB with oodles of job security. Pittsburgh, the Giants, San Diego, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New England, Cincinnati or Chicago are all places where Vick could fit in for a reduced role.

The offense should not be built around Vick, but rather, he should have his own section of the playbook to learn and run when he is in the game. If you want to be a Wildcat-type team, Vick fits well there, but offensive “masterminds” probably shouldn’t fear creativity so much. Vick can be dynamic, but he’s also not a traditional passer. He’s an athlete with an arm.

I think the most intriguing option is Cincinnati. Right now, J.T. O’Sullivan is their backup QB, and Carson Palmer has a history of injury. While Vick would be no threat to Palmer’s job, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has shown a creative streak from time to time, and could use Vick’s services. Plus, Marvin Lewis has shown a desire to, if not a successful ability to, take on guys with character issues, and win with them. Plus, the Bengals could use the publicity. And I don’t think the national media has gotten Ocho Cinco’s opinion on Vick yet, so think of the possibilities!

Anthony Brown believes Vick could fit as a starter with a strong running game:

Vick is a superb athlete. His athleticism is both his strength and his undoing, however.

He caused fits for a defense when he ran from the quarterback position. Yet he was an
inconsistent passer. For his career, he’s completed less than 54 percent of his passes.
Michael Vick has a seven-to-five career touchdown to interception ratio and he has achieved a QB rating over 80 in only one of six seasons (2002).

Over his career, Michael Vick showed signs of relying too much on his athleticism. But, man, could he make defenses miss.

So, what to do with a player whose strength is unscripted plays, who can pass, but runs
better and who causes defensive breakdowns?

A tempting thought is to be a Wildcat offense player. In 2008, the Miami Dolphins used this college formation to throw defenses off balance. The Dolphins befuddled Bill Belichick the first time he saw the Wildcat. There’s an appeal to snapping the ball to either the
quarterback or to Vick in the wing-T formation with Vick either running or passing the ball.

But, the Wildcat is a gimmick, not an every down play. Michael Vick a not a gimmick athlete.

What worked best for Vick while with the Falcons was a good, old fashioned ground game with a healthy Warrick Dunn in the backfield. It was hard to game plan both Vick and Dunn.

When defenses held contain and forced Vick to pass, they were a bit more successful.

More than most quarterbacks, Michael Vick needs a team that already has a powerful running game; teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers. Ironically, Atlanta, with Michael Turner at running back, is one of those teams.

The Cowboys, Giants and Falcons are set at quarterback. The Vikings and Panthers have
question marks at quarterback.

Would the Vikings be flirting with Brett Favre if they were confident in Sage Rosenfels or
Tarvaris Jackson?

The Panthers have a better wide receiver in Steve Smith than Vick ever had in Atlanta, but
Jake Delhomme’s 2008 performance, while not bad, wasn’t good enough.

Can Ziggy Wilf and Jerry Richardson resist temptation for a quick fix?

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NFL Top 10: Most Desirable Free Agency Scraps

There’s not a whole lot of value left in the 2009 NFL Free Agent talent market, but certainly, teams looking to improve at one or two positions have plently of intriguing names to throw a contract at.  Perhaps the strongest position in the FA market would be at wide receiver, where established veteran talent mixes with younger talent with flaws.  We take a look at players who could help out teams in 2009.

10.  K Matt Stover/K John Kasay, ages 41, 39
No excuse to have inaccurate kicking inside of 40 yards with two of the more accurate guys in NFL history for hire.  Kasay can still boot it into the endzone on kickoffs, while Stover doesn’t miss from inside 35 yards.  Obviously, a team with Stover needs to roster another kicker, so his value is limited, but Kasay should be signed, either back to the Panthers, or over to the Giants or someone.

9.  LB Marcus Washington, age 31
A strong-side LB who can still get it done in a 4-3 defense.  Has the ability to get after the QB from multiple angles, is a sure tackler, and is a smart player in coverage, though his ability to run sideline to sideline and vertically has diminished significantly.  Is a huge injury concern, but doesn’t expect to make much more than a million dollars in 2009, so the risk/reward ratio is heavily in the favor of whoever wins his services.

8.  CB Daven Holly, age 27
Holly, who ripped up his knee in OTA’s with the Browns last June, is not receiving a sniff in free agency despite incredibly impressive cover skills in which the Browns felt confident trading CB Leigh Bodden to Detroit.  Holly is going to end up signing a one-year, no-guarantee, minimum value contract, and if his knee allows him to play well next year, he could be in line for a big pay day in 2010, CBA permitting.

7.  OT Jon Runyan, age 35
Last time we saw Runyan, he was still playing at a very high level.  He’s a right tackle almost exclusively, so he’s going to be out on the market until an injury to a current starter forces a team to go make a move, at which point, Runyan is capable of bringing a veteran presence to a starting lineup for the 2009 season, which is likely his NFL swan song anyway.

6.  WR Marvin Harrison, age 37
Speaking of swan songs, Harrison still has the stuff of a No. 2 receiver, but surprisingly, has received no interest in free agency.  No doubt a lot of the worries about Harrison have to do with the perception that his speed is completely gone, but remember that Jerry Rice was an effective target in this league through his age-40 season.  Harrison’s career is more comparable to Rice’s than one would think, so as a No. 2 target, you’d think he would have at least two seasons remaining as a starting WR.  Look for Oakland to make a move here, if Javon Walker doesn’t look a whole lot healthier in August.

5.  LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, age 28
Cut from the Rams coming off two very productive seasons as their leading tackler, Tinoisamoa is a LB in the prime of his career who figures to make an instant impact for someone next year, specifically in a cover-two scheme.  He’s very undersized, but that has not hampered his production even in one of the league’s weakest defense the last two years.  He’ll have a job in the next two weeks.

4.  G Pete Kendall, age 36
Kendall wants to keep playing at his age, but currently has received only league minimum, one year offers.  He’s coming off a fantastic age-35 campaign in Washington, and could start for pretty much any team at LG in 2009.  I think he’s got about two effective years left in his body, but we really won’t know how he will react to signing somewhere to play as a backup; Kendall might opt for retirement instead.  He’s likely to get a solid offer from someone once camp injuries start rolling in.

3.  S Mike Brown, age 31
Brown finds a way to get injured every year, which is why he’s still out here, but he’s a game-breaking safety when he’s in the lineup, and he’s worthy of a multiple year contract with a very minisucle signing bonus.  In fact, the reservation of teams to extend guarenteed money to an injury prone player is likely why Brown has yet to sign anywhere yet, but he absolutely wants to play another year, and will be in camp with somebody come late July.

2.  OT Levi Jones, age 30
Jones has missed part of the last three season with injuries (see a trend developing with this list?), but he’s a game-ready left tackle with plenty of seasons left if he can just stay on the field.  Of course, like Brown, Jones is holding out for a multi-year contract with a solid signing bonus, and he’s going to have to wait around for an injury if he wants that kind of money.  Jones will have plenty of one and two year offers to be in someone’s starting lineup by training camp, if he so chooses.

1.  WR Plaxico Burress, age 32
Within the next month, it’s likely that Plaxico Burress will be able to sort out his legal issues to get back in the NFL labor market.  It’s possible he may avoid jail time altogether, but he’s expected to plea guilty to lesser charges related to the gun-in-sweatpants charges from last November.  When he does get back on the field, Buress will be the league’s most sought after player because of the dynamic abilities he can bring to the offense.  The Jets are reportedly interested, and I wouldn’t rule out a return the Giants either, although he’s not going to get much of a contract from them after all the dead salary cap money he is owed from last year’s 5-year extension.  If Burress is available to play, and the commissioner opts not to make an example out of him, he’ll find his way back into an NFL starting lineup this fall.

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Don’t Sleep On

CB Rodrick Hood
WR DJ Hackett
WR Amani Toomer
WR Ike Hilliard
TE Eric Johnson
C Jeremy Newberry
DE Kevin Carter
CB Chris McAlister

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NFL Crystal Ball: Detroit Lions will be NFL’s Most Improved

Well, okay.  Not exactly making an outlandish statement there.

But I’ll go a step further than the title suggests:  I’ll say right now that the Lions will win at least three games in which they come in as an underdog of 6.5 points or more.

Sure, you’d expect the Lions to handle the Rams when they come to town following the teams’ bye week, but looking at the Lions schedule, you might not expect them to be particularly competitive against the AFC North, or even the rest of the NFC.

But, you know what, do not be surprised if the Lions jump out to a 2-0 start in 2009, traveling to the Superdome to play the Saints in week one, and then handling the Vikings at home in week two.  You see, the Lions did a fantastic, Miami-like job of turning over the players who were primarily responsible for the 16 losses in 2008, while identifying the building blocks on the roster (Jeff Backus, Stephen Peterman, Calvin Johnson, and Kevin Smith) and keeping them around.  They added instant impact players in the draft in TE Brandon Pettigrew and S Louis Delmas.  They have the running game, they have the receiving corps, and not to excuse poor play from the past, but Daunte Culpepper has not had a full offseason to work within an offense since he left Minnesota in 2005.  Four years later, he’s going to get that chance in a ready made offense in Detroit.  Yes, a ready-made offense…in Detroit.

Reality check: None of this really pegs the Lions to be a playoff team in a competitive, if wide-open, division.  They still were the worst defense in the history of the NFL last season.  They’ve made some great additions on that side of the ball, but will rely on the development of players like Delmas to be an elite defense one day.  They already “quick fixed” the unit to an extent, but before it will be a team strength, they must acquire young talent, and develop it.

In the future, a lot of the fortunes of the team will ride on the arm of Matthew Stafford, and his ability to find Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew.  It will rely on the legs of Kevin Smith.  And those players, save Johnson, don’t figure to make a huge impact this year.

But the Lions, coming off only the second winless NFL season since the merger, have put together on the cheap something of a core nucleus of talent in a single offseason.  If that only manifests itself in a five or six win season, well, I think a lot of Lions fans will be very satisfied with the overall product.  But, because of the money invested in the 2009 draft class, a 6 win improvement over last year would only be seen as a first step, and would put super high expectations in place for the beginning Matt Stafford’s tenure in 2010.  Not to get ahead of myself, but that would be a pretty impressive two year turnaround by head coach Jim Schwartz.

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Dallas Cowboys

Continuing with the motif of trying to get equal coverage to all 32 teams here at NFL Outsider, it feels a little weird to point out that the Cowboys have been getting ignored of late, but I have had plenty to say about the Giants, the Eagles, and the Redskins in this space, and haven’t really mentioned the ugly stepsister of the NFC East (since when is Dallas “east” of anything?).

But, hey, that’s just my bias speaking.  In actuality, the Cowboys might be a step behind the other three teams in the NFC East right now, but they would be good enough to win any of the other NFC divisions.  So clearly, the talent is still here on this team.  But how is it distributed?  NFL Top 10 takes a cursory look at the Dallas Cowboys roster, right now.

10.  LB Bradie James
James could be described as a consistent performer and a team leader, and he has accomplished as much without any help from a revolving door at the other ILB in the Cowboys’ 3-4 defense.  He’s a tackling machine who gets overshadowed because other teams in the division have fantastic middle linebackers, but James plays at a near pro bowl level year in and year out.

9.  WR Miles Austin
The one player that the Cowboys need to rely on to break out this year and help his offense.  It’s not smart money to suggest that Roy Williams is suddenly going to become the No. 1 receiver he has never been, he’s simply not that kind of dependable.  However, Austin’s emergence could set the stage for a successful career in Dallas for Williams.  This tandem will either succeed together, or fail together.

8.  RB Felix Jones
Jones’ injury was a crushing blow to the Cowboys last year, as he entered the midseason point as one of Tony Romo’s most valuable receivers, out of the backfield none-the-less.  Jones is good enough to be, prospectively, the lead dog in the Cowboys’ rushing attack this year.  The more touches he gets, the more big plays the team will make.

7.  G Leonard Davis
Davis was signed to be the centerpiece of the Cowboys line in 2007, and after two years wearing the Star, he has lived up to his contract value.  Following two pro bowl appearances, Davis is going to be relied on to have another big-time season because the Cowboys gave their poor offensive line no reinforcements in the draft.  Uh-oh.

6.  CB Terence Newman
If not for a sports hernia suffered early last year, we’d be talking about Newman’s place among the shutdown corner’s in the game.  The guy is one of the ten best corners in football, and despite being a pro bowler, doesn’t always get credit for his work.  There are better cover guys in the conference than Newman, but the Cowboys extended him before last year for one big reason — they need him.  Without him, the Cowboys sport one of the thinnest defensive backfields in the NFL.

5.  RB Marion Barber
Football’s version of a closer, Barber just happens to be big-time in the other three quarters as well.  He’s still a better pure runner than Felix Jones, is an asset in the passing game, and loves to hit linebackers who come on the blitz.  There’s nothing not to like about Barber’s game, except to point out that 2008 was a regression for him from his 2006 and 2007 seasons.

4.  LB DeMarcus Ware
Ware led the league’s in sacks last year.  In doing so, he’s built up a reputation for being more valuable than he actually is: he’s a great player who likely will not enjoy a hall of fame career, but should find his way to 5 or 6 pro bowls.  Ware has major weaknesses against the run, but you have to have him on the field for almost all defensive snaps simply because of the type of havoc he can wreck in opponent’s backfields.

3.  QB Tony Romo
If I told you a QB had never posted a passer rating under 91.0 in three years as a starter, would you tell me that we’re dealing with a mental midget?  Didn’t think so.  Romo slipped behind Drew Brees in the race for NFC’s best passer last year, and fans were really hoping that he’d have the type of season that Kurt Warner DID have last year, but Romo missed three games with a broken finger, and the rest never materialized.  Let’s not ignore how good of a player Romo is.  He’s 29, so this is as good as he’ll ever be, but if he plays until age 37 at this level, we’re talking about a hall of fame type player.  Not a player who “can’t.”

2.  NT Jay Ratliff
Among league insiders, it seems to be widely accepted that the most valuable player on the Cowboys defense is not Ware, but former undrafted NT Jay Ratliff.  For Ratliff, the big breakthrough came when he moved from 3-4 end to 3-4 nose.  He doesn’t look the part of a traditional nose, size-wise, but Ratliff gets sacks from that position.  And if your nose tackle is making plays–Ratliff is excellent against the run as well–then you always have a shot at a top defense.  Ratliff was THE major player in the Cowboys’ second half resurgence last season.

1.  TE Jason Witten
Witten is the best tight end in football.  He blocks well enough, but his real value is in an intermediate receiving target, because he’s as much responsible for Romo’s success as Tony himself is.  He also makes plays down the field with the ball in his hands.  Where Witten really earns his keep though is in his versatility.  He’s become the new Tony Gonzalez, because he doesn’t have to be right next to the offensive tackle to be a match-up nightmare.  Safeties cannot cover him, which means nickel packages are necessary to match up with the base Cowboys offense.  How awesome is that?

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NFL Top 10: Most Valuable Atlanta Falcons

Value is a concept that really matters to teams in those end of the season front office meetings.  The goal is to separate the contributors from the non-contributors.  Teams need to know how to prepare should they lose a player unexpectedly in the off-season.  If he was a very critical part of the teams success, there’s a reduced chance he can be replaced internally, and it’s more likely the team has to go outside to look for a replacement.  If the performers’ value is deemed to be marginal, maybe there is an in-house solution who can get the job done.

The Falcons lost a very valuable player in CB Dominique Foxworth, who left for Baltimore in free agency.  Given the propensity of free agency and the draft–not to mention father time–to shake these things up, we’ll look forward in our evaluation, and not back.

10. WR Michael Jenkins
Jenkins enjoyed something of a breakout season in 2008, landing himself a contract extension to stay with the Falcons.  Jenkins is nothing more than a complementary target, but perhaps the premier complimentary target in the NFL today.  He’s tall, but more importantly, he’s sharp in and out of his cuts.

9.  DT Peria Jerry
Jerry is an older prospect, so he makes this list because the Falcons will expect an immediate contribution from him.  Despite a non-serious knee injury in mini-camp, I’m confident that Jerry will provide the Falcons some interior pass rush.  After watching Foxworth leave, the team is going to rely on it’s defensive line to make the improvements on defense.  Jerry’s presence will not only make offenses rethink their protection schemes, but will extend the career of DE John Abraham.

8.  OT Tyson Clabo
Clabo was the most consistent offensive lineman for the Falcons last year, and beats all of the other lineman to this list.  If the Falcons run into an issue this year, it might come in with the interior OL, because Clabo was a stalwart last year and the team gets last years first round pick, Sam Baker, back from injury on the other side.  Baker is still unproven, but Clabo, I thought he was jobbed from the pro bowl in 2008, and may make his first trip in 2009.

7.  DE John Abraham
Abraham has been a consistent performer on the Falcons defensive line since his arrival four years ago, but last year, his production garnered a lot of publicity for the first time since 2006.  His sack totals were up, and of course, the Falcons were good again.  But the addition of Peria Jerry and to some degree, the subtraction of DT Grady Jackson represents a philosophy shift that will emphasize Abraham’s contributions, not marginalize them.

6.  TE Tony Gonzalez
The key with the trade that brought Tony Gonzalez to Atlanta is in the price is a 2010 second round draft pick.  Basically, Gonzalez will be under a lot of pressure to produce for the Falcons, since ten months from now, G.M. Thomas Dimitroff will be under plenty of scrutiny for this deal if Gonzalez declines in his offense.  Gonzo is the greatest TE to ever play and he’s only 33, despite now entering his 13th NFL season.  If the Falcons get two classic Tony Gonzalez seasons from him, then the second round pick is a small price to pay.  If he goes into decline now, it could hurt the team.

5.  RB Michael Turner
Michael Turner was a revelation as the ground leader for the fierce Falcons attack, carrying 375 times for 1,699 yards and 17(!) TDs.  Another season like that is a pipe dream for Falcons fans, mostly because his carries will decline as 1) Jerious Norwood does more in the offense, and 2) Matt Ryan does more in the offense.  The Falcons brass is looking for an 1,100-1,200 encore from Turner on something like 260 carries.  But look for some of the edge plays and third down plays to be outsourced to Norwood.  Turner should still be the TD guy in Atlanta.

4.
RB Jerious Norwood
To paraphrase Merril Hoge just this once, Norwood will be the factor back in the Falcons offense this year.  It’s his running plays, not Turners, that will come in those high leverage, game breaking situations.  The diminutive back has averaged 99 carries per season, and will likely see between 170-180 in his fourth season as he enters the prime of his career.

3.  LB Curtis Lofton
As a rookie last year, Lofton first forced LB Keith Brooking out of the middle, and later, forced him off the team.  Brooking had been a main stay in the Falcons defense, and now takes his act to the Cowboys.  Meanwhile, Lofton is the new sheriff in town for the Falcons defense.  The team expects him to man the middle for the next 10 seasons, and oversee the progression of the defense from afterthought to top unit.

2.  WR Roddy White
When people talk about the success that Matt Ryan had last year, not to mention the relative success enjoyed by Joey Harrington/Chris Redman in 2007, Roddy White simply doesn’t get enough credit.  This guy is a top level wideout.  The very best his position has to offer in the NFC.  He should be mentioned in the same breath with Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald.  And no matter how the Falcons fare over the next three years, Ryan to White is going to be the NFL’s next Manning to Harrison.  Rookie Matt Ryan leaned so heavily on White, who always seemed to come through for his quarterback.

1.  QB Matt Ryan
Though it needs to be said that Matt Ryan got a ton of help in the resurgence of the Falcons, no one player was more responsible for the 11 win season than was Matt Ryan.  At at the heart of the concept, is that not the goal of determining value?  Ryan never allowed his team to be out of the game.  When you talk about QBs who burst on to the scene in their first oppertunity and accomplished great things, Tom Brady comes to mind.  Except that it took Brady 4 seasons to get, statistically, to the levels that Matt Ryan reached as a greenback rookie.  The only question left for Ryan: can he keep it going into 2009?

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NFL Crystal Ball: AFC North will be NFL’s Toughest Division

Running down the preseason NFL projections this year, only one thing about the AFC looks really clear: that the AFC North is not only the strongest division, but might produce 4 of the top 8 teams in the conference.  This coming from a division that saw two teams combine for 23 losses last year.

The four teams in the division all have a legitimate shot at the title, although, clearly, two teams have a better shot than the other two.  The division features the defending World Champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who probably aren’t even the favorite.  It features two teams who have produced 10+ win seasons in the last four years, and appear to be on the way up.  And the other team is the one I see as the favorite to win the Super Bowl this year.  But enough about vague descriptions, here’s how the NFL’s toughest division breaks down next year:

The Favorite

Coming off of a 4-12 season in which the team lost to the 1-15 Dolphins, and decided to let head coach Brian Billick walk, it wasn’t expected to be a year of great achievement for the Baltimore Ravens.  But under the leadership of first year head coach John Harbaugh, it was a fantastic season for the Ravens.  The team won 11 games in 2008, and went into the playoffs, not just beating the Dolphins in the wild card round, but beating down the upstart Dolphins in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggested.  They went in and upset the Tennessee Titans who won 13 regular season games, but no postseason games.  The Ravens started to show signs of fatigue in that game, and though the defense kept the AFC Championship game close against Pittsburgh, it never seemed like a game the Ravens would be able to win.

What can’t be overstated is that the Ravens were 0-3 against the Steelers in three very close games.  And if the Ravens had simply won one of those close games, they are likely Super Bowl Champs.  The Steelers took care of business in their own division 7 times last year.  I don’t think they’ll be so lucky again.  The Ravens bolstered their already fantastic offensive line with veteran Matt Birk and rookie super prospect OT Michael Oher.  If Joe Flacco can make the necessary second year improvement, and the defense stays in the top five in the NFL, I don’t see anyone getting in the Ravens way this year.  But if even one thing doesn’t go according to plan, the division is so tough that this team might miss the playoffs.

The Champs

The Steelers (12-4, 3-0 ps) will have plenty of opportunity to play the “no respect” card this year, but I thought their championship run left a lot to be desired from the perspective of the fan.  Don’t get me wrong, I ranked the Steelers No. 1 overall in our playoff power poll, and they ended up winning the super bowl.  But I wanted to see the Steelers prove they could beat the Colts, the Titans, the Eagles, or the Giants along the way.  Those were the four losses the team took in 2008, and though all those teams made the playoffs, the Steelers path to the title (though no fault of their own) did not cross any of the teams that had beaten them during the regular season.  I was just hoping the playoffs broke down a little bit different so that the Steelers would face more of a challenge.

So I think one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Champs is how they do against the top teams this year.  They won’t play the Colts, Giants, or Eagles, but they will see the Titans, and the Patriots will likely get them at full strength.  Playing that first place schedule, it will be fun to see how the Steelers respond.  This team will be back in 2009.  But they’ll be in a 16 game dogfight for the playoffs.

The Darkhorse

With the way the Bengals offense played in 2008, you would be forgiven for assuming their window of oppertunity has closed.  They have declined in wins each year from 2005, and that 11 win AFC North champion season seems very distant at this point.  But to lump the Bengals in with the inept teams in the cellar of the AFC ignores the adversity they have been faced with the last two seasons, and the talent this team still has.  Move them to another division, such as the AFC West, and you could give them a very strong chance to win their division.

As much as the injuries have hurt, the Bengals have not been shy about relying on players in their offense the last two years, such as RB Chris Perry, who just bring nothing to the table.  In many ways, these players mask the contributions of others.  QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, now departed for Buffalo, got more productive as the year went on, as did the Bengals defense.  That Bengals defense will be assisted by the addition of LB Rey Maualuga, a mid first round projected LB who dropped to the second round due to limited demand for MLBs.

QB Carson Palmer returns from injury, and recent comments from Palmer suggest that this Bengals team could be 10-2 by November.  Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but Palmer’s prediction is not foolish given historical trends in the NFL.  However, until Palmer makes good on his prediction, the Bengals will remain a darkhorse candidate.

The Future

In 2007, the Cleveland Browns won ten games behind a breakout season from QB Derek Anderson.  Metrics suggested that Anderson played worse down the stretch, and might have cost the Cleveland Browns an 11th win and a playoff berth with a 4 INT performance against the 6 win Bengals.  While it was easy to look at the Browns 2007 season and be skeptical about their chances in 2008, no one really doubted that the future looked bright for the Browns.  They had added three quality starters in the 2007 draft: OT Joe Thomas, QB Brady Quinn, and CB Eric Wright.

But, in overestimating how close his team was to competing, former Browns’ GM Phil Savage went out and sold his 2008 draft for reinforcements among the defensive line.  Getting NT Shaun Rogers from the Lions for CB Leigh Bodden and a 3rd round pick appears to have been a successful trade.  Rogers played great in his new role with the Browns.  But trading a 2nd rounder to the Packers for DE Corey Williams appears to have been a terrible trade, and sealed the entire 2008 draft as a wash-out for the Browns.  Those moves made us re-think the future of the Browns organization when they won only 4 games in 2008, Derek Anderson looked lost, Braylon Edwards looked like an undisciplined college receiver, and QB Brady Quinn’s NFL debut was promising, but short lived, as a broken finger ended his season after three starts (1-2 record).  Quinn carved up the defenses of the Bills and the Broncos, but ran into a poor start against the Texans, couldn’t throw the ball accurately, and went on IR the next week.

The Browns replaced Romeo Crennel with Eric Mangini, maintaining the status quo of Bill Belichick’s influence within the franchise.  Mangini spent most of the free agency period putting his touch on the team, rather than improving it, and it appeared that the team was directionless.  But a very successful draft spearheaded by the Browns reaping the benefits of the Jets’ lust for QB Mark Sanchez has the franchise back on track.  Having success with C Nick Mangold in New York, Mangini landed C Alex Mack out of Cal in the first round, probably the best C prospect since Mangold.  All of a sudden, the Browns sport a line capable of protecting Brady Quinn, should Quinn do the expected and win the QB job.

The Browns future is still very bright, especially with all the young talent they have accumulated.  If it all matures at once, the Browns could crash the AFC North party this year.  Until that day though, the team needs to find stability in the passing game, and if Quinn — or someone else — can provide that stability, it will be a successful first season for Mangini in Cleveland.*****************************

NFL Top 10: Coaches on the Hot Seat in ’09

You know, I think there are only a handful of topics in sports that would make for great discussion on radio shows, or on blogs, that have no practical meaning in the real world.  I think back to debates about running up the score: you’ll get tons of callers in on a topic like that, putting in their two cents.  Is is right?  Did it happen?  Does it matter?

Well, to me, I see the ever-present NFL Head Coaching Hot Seat as cut from the same mold.  It’s a debate partially on the merits of certain coaches, partially on the trends of certain owners hiring and firing patterns, and mostly on probability.  Does it really matter if Coach ‘X’ is on the Hot Seat?  We’re not even wondering if he should be fired, we’re asking if he should be/is in a position where you would consider a coaching change.

I don’t have the answer to that question, but it sure is a fascinating topic.  Here follows MVN Outsider’s largely meaningless list of coaches who may or may not be on their way out at the end of the 2009 season.

10. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay
McCarthy enters his 4th year as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and after falling from 13 wins to 6 wins in just one offseason, McCarthy needs to show that 1) it wasn’t his fault, and 2) he can get the Packers trending back in the right direction.  Truth be told, it wasn’t his fault the team lost ten games last year, but if they lose ten games again, it would be hard to argue he should keep his job.

9.  Jim Zorn, Washington
Jim Zorn is a second year head coach, but has been handed a ready-to-win team that figures to be much better than last year’s 8-8 team.  By no means is the Redskins roster without flaw, not even without major flaw, but the expectations in the beltway mean that Zorn has to oversee a team that improves over last years first promising, but ultimately disappointing effort.  Owner Dan Snyder isn’t married to the idea of having a big name coach, but won’t have the patience to see Zorn through another streak of 6 losses in 8 tries.

8.  Jack Del Rio, Jacksonville
Del Rio has lasted an impressively long tenure in Jacksonville, as he begins his 7th year as coach of the Jags, one of only two coaches to roam the sideline in the franchises history (Tom Coughlin — 8 seasons).  But recent inconsistencies–following up playoff years in 2005 and 2007 with non-winning seasons in 2006 and 2008–mean that Del Rio is only as safe as his next season suggests.  I don’t think it’s playoffs or bust for Del Rio, but if he wants to match Coughlin’s length of tenure, he best have his team in the hunt in December.

7.  John Fox, Carolina
Fox has been around for seven seasons as well, and last year, he rebounded to lead the Panthers to 12 wins and the NFC South title.  But Fox is a mainstay on these hot seat lists because of failures such as last year’s NFC Divisional Round debacle against Arizona.  The allure of the 2003 season is now gone.  Fox could be in-line for a contract extension if his team has another 10+ win regular season, but if they drop to 3rd or 4th in the NFC South, he could get the boot.

6.  Lovie Smith, Chicago
Not that it’s fair to Mr. Smith, but Coach Lovie is going to get all the heat if/when the team does not win with Jay Cutler.  Again, playoffs are not the dealbreaker in this situation, but when your G.M. gets a top ten NFL QB gift-wrapped in a trade to you, losses against inferiorly Quarterbacked teams in the division will likely not be tolerated.  If the Bears struggle against Green Bay, Minnesota, and Detroit this year, I think Smith could take the fall.  Otherwise, he should get at least one more year to try to get back to the playoffs.

5.  Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati
Lewis is just going to hang out on the hot seat until the Bengals finally get rid of him, but I think the Bengals did the right thing giving him a free pass for last season.  Still, you could have argued that the Bengals should have been heading in a different direction before last year’s 4-11-1 mess.  He’s got the offensive pieces back this year, so .500 should be a realistic goal for this team.

4.  Josh McDaniels, Denver
McDaniels hasn’t coached a game yet, but he’s put himself in a position where he has to live up to tempered expectations in order to keep his job.  The Broncos aren’t looking for a chance to rebuild, and McDaniels will not be graded on the quality of his defense in his first year, but 6 wins and a productive offense are a must for the young head coach.  I know owner Pat Bowlen trusts McDaniels and will give him plenty of time to get the Broncos back into the playoffs, but he has to establish himself as worthy of trust, and he’s only going to get one year to do that.  If the players start pining for a change before the season is over, watch out.

3.  Andy Reid, Philadelphia
Andy Reid is still in a great situation for a coach to be in, with a great roster full of talent, high continuity, and relatively low expectations.  He’s earned all of those things with hard work.  However, do understand that both of the last two Eagles’ playoff teams have wound up in last place the following season.  That is not a pattern that will be tolerated for a third time.  For Reid, it might be a playoffs or bust year.  This marks his 11th season with the team, and the last time they were playing in consecutive January’s: 2004.  He could earn a contract extension for himself and his QB with a strong 2009 season, or he could earn his leave with more disappointment.

2.  Brad Childress, Minnesota
Coach Hot Seat himself has survived his first three years with the Vikings, but remains a hot topic regarding job security every offseason.  They won three of their final four games to slide into the playoffs atop the NFC North last season, but that was the bare minimum for Childress to keep his job, and he didn’t accomplish much once in the playoffs.  So, if the Vikings go back to the way they have played under Childress in 2006 and 2007, underachieving with a top level defense (and if Brett Favre can’t stop this trend, then it’s a certainty), he’s out.  This one is almost certainly a playoffs or bust type situation.

1.  Wade Phillips, Dallas
Many local reporters feel that Phillips should have taken the fall for last year’s debacle in Big D, but Jerry Jones accepted the blame himself, and bought Phillips another season.  While admirable, Jones is going to expect Phillips to repay him with a deep playoff run.  Otherwise, we’re talking about blowing up the current Cowboys roster, and coaching staff (including Jason Garrett), and starting fresh in 2010.  Jerry Jones is a good businessman, but he’s not going to keep making excuses for Phillips if he can’t get this roster into the playoffs and doing some damage there.*****************************

NFL Power Rankings: Peter King Loves Him Some Cutler

SI.com’s Peter King, who is probably my favorite mainstream football writer (but I guess that depends on how you define “mainstream”), has come out with his post-draft power rankings.  Whether you agree or not, I enjoy that his rankings are usually thought-provoking, if ultimately incorrect.  I don’t think this year’s edition will prove to be much different.

According to King, the top ten teams in the NFL right now are as follows:

  • New England
  • Pittsburgh
  • New York Giants
  • Chicago
  • Indianapolis
  • Philadelphia
  • San Diego
  • Baltimore
  • Dallas
  • Tennessee

What I found surprising was not that his top ten teams are littered in large part with teams I mentioned in my top ten from a week ago, where we agree on six teams.  What surprised me is that a handful of teams in my top ten didn’t just miss on his list, they ended up in the mid twenties on King’s list.  I crunched through his MMQB column to see if he dropped any nuggets of wisdom that I didn’t take into account, or if he’s relying on a premise that I simply disagree with when making his rankings.  Then we’ll see if I want to back off my predictions, or basically, stand my ground and say: this is how it’s going to be.

New York Giants

King’s Ranking: 3
Trippiedi’s Ranking: 12

I do consider my expertise to be the NFC East, and with the Giants, we’re talking about a team that is two years removed from a super bowl championship who happened to be the regular seasons’ most impressive team last year.  However, sometime around late November, this team broke down in both lines, which is not only cause for concern, but cause for panic.  To his credit, GM Jerry Reese put significant effort into retooling the DL that he wants to be the strength of his team this year, and moves like Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty, as well as getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury will help.  The Giants defense, to their credit, can withstand plenty of injury.  The offense, I don’t think it can.  Not only will the Giants offense not repeat it’s No. 1 rushing performance, but I’d be surprised if they are in the top half.

Chicago Bears

King’s Ranking: 4
Trippiedi’s Ranking: 15

This analysis starts and ends with the fact that Jay Cutler is just one player.  Back in March, I had the Bears somewhere around 22-25 in my power rankings.  Cutler vastly improves the team at it’s most important position, but on average, that’s going to mean only (only?!) about two more wins for the Bears, and even with the addition of veteran tackles Kevin Shaffer and Orlando Pace, I can’t bump the Bears into the realm of playoffs.

King understands that people will critique this pick, but I think he spends too much time contemplating Cutler’s locker room presence, and then briefly mentions that he still feels the Bears defense will be great.  I think it will be average-ish.  The special teams are generally fantastic, but one average unit and one almost average unit a great team does not make.

Dallas Cowboys

King’s Ranking: 9
Trippiedi’s Ranking: 16

This ranking makes me cringe because after three straight years of watching the media love fest with the Cowboys, the last thing a want to see is the Cowboys in the top ten in someone’s preseason power rankings.  Aren’t we tired of them?  Anyway, I think the 2009 Cowboys will be better than the 2008 Cowboys, but I didn’t see last year’s team as a super bowl contender, and same now.  King points out the obvious: the Cowboys can lean heavily on the run game this year to help out their aging OL, but this OL was already breaking down last year, and the Cowboys have done nothing to reinforce it.  So with a defense that figures to hemorrhage passing yards at record rates this year, how many games is this team going to win if Tony Romo has to bring his team back late in games with an OL that can’t protect for him?  I think he’s good enough for 7 or 8, but the playoffs?  That would have to be one dominant running game.

Tennessee Titans

King’s Ranking: 10
Trippiedi’s Ranking: 19

I am really freaking out about this ranking, because I always under-project the Titans every year.  From my perspective: no Haynesworth on defense limits the kind of production they can get from players like Jason Jones, Tony Brown, and Jevon Kearse.  If Kearse stays healthy the whole year, then who knows.  But before I even knew Haynesworth would not be back, I had already pointed out that the offense was nothing but smoke and mirrors behind a very strong (but not deep) offensive line.  That line was really healthy last year, and it’s first injury is the first step to an offensive collapse for the Titans.  But what if they stay healthy again?  It’s not like they are going be bad on defense.

I think the Titans are a gutsy pick from King, and one that could prove correct by December.  I just don’t see–sitting at a computer in May–where the talent is.

Arizona Cardinals

Trippiedi’s Ranking: 2
King’s Ranking: 12

King calls the Cardinals “unsettled.”  Well, duh, it’s May!  He points out that either Darnell Dockett, Anquan Boldin, or both could get traded, which makes me question how much of his article was written by Drew Rosenhaus.  He also expresses concern about the running game, which I used as the No. 1 reason that they would remain a top two team.  He questions the quality of Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower as a two headed monster, but don’t overlook FA acquisition Jason Wright.  This is a three headed monster.  I’m also perplexed that he put the Titans in his top ten and Arizona out at twelve both with QB concerns, but consider that one team has Matt Leinart waiting in the wings, and the other has–wait for it–Patrick Ramsey.

New Orleans Saints

Trippiedi’s Ranking: 4
King’s Ranking: 24

This was by far the largest discrepancy of any team between my ranking and PK’s ranking.  Drew Brees is my current pick for MVP.  King sees their defense as awful, one that not even defensive guru Gregg Williams can improve.  I see it as a defense with talent and without holes.  And the key man in the middle is Jonathon Vilma.  Vilma has been fantastic every year he has been in a 4-3 defense in his career, and he is the absolutely perfect MLB to run Gregg Williams’ defense.  He will be more productive in it than Antonio Pierce was in Washington.  The horses up front will get some pressure on the opposing QB, so King must be most worried about a secondary.  Well, they’ve been fair game, but it’s been a focal point of the Saints off-seasons ever since 2006, and now, CB Malcolm Jenkins appears to be the final piece to the puzzle.  I have concerns about getting 16 productive games from the Saints’ OL, but if they do, Drew Brees will be the MVP, the Saints will have 7 pro bowlers, and they’ll be the No. 1 seed in the NFC Playoffs.  The No. 24 pick will just look silly.

Green Bay Packers

Trippiedi’s Ranking: 7
King’s Ranking: 14

Not much here to comment on, I just have less concern about the Packers than he does.  We both see the 3-4 as a good fit, and Aaron Rodgers progressing in the offense, and six wins as a poor indicator of where this team is actually at.  I think Ryan Grant will have a rebound year and the Packers will take the NFC North.  King just loves him a little too much Cutler, I think.

Washington Redskins

Trippiedi’s Ranking: 8
King’s Ranking: 23

King has the Redskins as the lowest ranked team in the NFC East, which I can understand, because the way they finished, there was nothing to like about the way they played.  But, and here’s how you can tell he has them well under-projected, his explanation does not even mention Albert Haynesworth, Brian Orakpo, Carlos Rogers, LaRon Landry, or any other defensive player.  Haynesworth is only the highest payed defensive player in league history.  Only.  When you ignore the defense, it becomes defensible to rank the Redskins at 23.  Although, you’d still probably be under-projecting Jason Campbell.

King is absolutely right that Jason Campbell will have to play well in December, against quality opponents, to keep his job.  I don’t think that will be a problem.

Other Discrepancies

I like: Seattle, Buffalo, San Francisco, Cincinnati

He likes: Atlanta, Minnesota, New York Jets, Denver*****************************

NFL Crystal Ball: The Oakland Raiders Finally Seem to be on the Right Track

The Raiders will not win 8 games in 2009.  They might not even win 6.  And it’s still hard to justify most decisions the team makes.  But during my early summer studies of team offseasons and long term plans, I was able to make a few clear observations about the Raiders, and for the first time since even before the Super Bowl year, they appear to be going in the right direction.

Now, before I begin, you have to understand that “right track” is a completely relative term.  In NFL history, no organization was ever as inept as the Raiders have been from the day they traded Jon Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until sometime earlier this year, 2009.  That was seven years of the most inept decision making ever in pro football.  For years, the Raiders lost, and lost, and lost, but were so out of touch with reality, that they could not identify not only why they were not winning, but that there was even a problem with their process at all.

As you can imagine, this led to some really brash moves by Al Davis in situations where they were totally unwarranted.  Literally every good move was overshadowed by 3 or 4 consequential bad moves.  Norv Turner had the Raiders playing well in 2004, but that team was even older and more injury prone than the 2002 team was.  So Davis goes out and gets Randy Moss, and Lamont Jordan, two guys in the prime of their careers to come play with the really old version of the Raiders.  That wasted resources.  Later, Al Davis hired Lane Kiffin, and forced him to play with a set of offensive players whose acquisition perplexed Kiffin.  When Kiffin finally did get them playing at an acceptable level, Davis blamed Kiffin for the team’s lackluster overall record.  Basically, for seven long years, it did not appear that the Raiders’ current management would be able to right the ship, so to speak.

All along, the Raiders never really needed brash decision making to return to excellence.  They needed just one single figure who could be the go to guy in the organization who can oversee the day to day operations from year to year, and come back to Mr. Davis and tell him exactly how they can improve the team.  You see, Lane Kiffin will be one heck of a football coach.  But from day one, Davis never planned on taking his advice on player personnel.  Now, out of desperation to make their relationship work, Davis did make a bunch of moves last offseason that could help give Kiffin some talent he could win with, but let’s face it, it only took a one game debacle against Denver before Davis pulled the plug on the Kiffin experiment.  That’s not trust.  That’s desperation.  And it’s the absence of these concepts that make me think that Tom Cable will be successful as the Raiders head coach.

Tom Cable is a man who appears to enjoy being the head coach of the Raiders.  He’s not a guy who is looking to climb the ladder to another coaching job, nor a retread who is just happy to still be a head coach in the national football league.  No, for Cable, his ascension to the Raiders’ head coaching position is the defining moment of his coaching career.  And, more importantly, he’s on the same page with Davis.

How do bad teams get better?  Well, that’s easy, you have to make good use of your advantageous draft position.  You are forced to make a huge financial commitment to one draft pick every year as long as you are picking in the top ten, and the Raiders have now held a top ten pick in six consecutive drafts.  For that crazy financial investment, the Raiders have selected: OL Robert Gallery, S Michael Huff, QB JaMarcus Russell, and RB Darren McFadden.  4 top ten picks.  Zero pro bowls.  But, more critically, the three most recent picks showed a disturbing trend in the Raiders’s draft strategy, or lack thereof.

There was no rhyme or reason to those last three first round picks.  In 2006, Davis wanted to draft Vince Young (which would have been a disaster), but ended up picking Huff out of Texas to play safety.  By 2007, they had already determined he couldn’t play safety at the NFL level.  The Raiders didn’t exactly have a need at safety either.  The next year, they held the 1st overall pick, and took JaMarcus Russell in the hopes that Kiffin or someone could make him the best QB in the league, which he certainly never became in college.  As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t going to trust your coaches input in the draft process, relying on him to make something out of nothing is not a strong business plan.  Finally, the McFadden pick showed that the Raiders thought they could just take the best overall player on their board and rely on their acumen in the free agent market to fill their holes.  Today, McFadden is part of a crowded backfield with no holes to run through.

So why are the Raiders on the right track now?

The Raiders have made plenty of mistakes this year alone, in my opinion.  But the team that I see isn’t making the same kind of directionless mistakes.  When I look at Huff, Russell, and McFadden, I see three players who will likely not be on the next Raiders’ playoff team.  I see three players drafted for three different philosophies, and no players who were drafted to help the Raiders win in the future.  So what about this draft?  Didn’t the Raiders reach for their talent?

Absolutely they did.  From a purely draft standpoint, the Raiders could and should have done a lot better with the seventh overall pick than Darius Heyward-Bey.  But to say Heyward-Bey is an unconditionally bad pick is to ignore why the Raiders have failed in the past.  The Raiders would have been better off taking Michael Crabtree the player, and building an offense around him.  But the Raiders of the past would have taken Crabtree, and tried to use him as a deep threat exclusively, or worse, used him as an excuse to turnover other offensive positions.  You see, if this is the Bears or someone, this would be a universally bad pick.  But when I look at Heyward-Bey, I see a toolsy player who can do a few things excellently.  I don’t see a complete receiver like I do in Crabtree, but I think I see a player who will contribute on the 2011 Oakland Raiders.  And that’s such a far cry from past moves this team has made.

Another move I like is their trade for 2 year veteran Center Samson Satele.  Satele was a bright spot on the offense of the 1-15 2007 Dolphins, but was a poor scheme fit and a weak spot on Tony Sparano’s line.  So the Raiders, who run a scheme that is much closer to Cam Cameron than Bill Parcells, trade a late round draft pick to fix their Center situation.  He will play in between two guys in Robert Gallery and Cooper Carlisle who have enjoyed success on the Raider OL in the past, under Cable.  The Raiders still have issues at the tackle position, but FA signing Khalif Barnes is only 27, and is on a one year show-me deal, which makes far more sense than trying to make a football player out of Kwame Harris.

Then there is the curious case of S Michael Mitchell from Ohio University.  He’s a rare type of strong safety who has better cover skills than one would expect from a strong safety, but again, has limited value outside of the right scheme.  The Raiders took him at least two rounds ahead of of where he would have gone to any other team.  But you can look at this pick in the second round, and see a more deliberate approach to this madness than with Michael Huff just three years ago.  The philosophy used to be, we’ll take him, and find a way to fit him in as he develops.  Consequently, player development has not been a strong suit of the Raiders.  As poor a draft pick as Mitchell was, his selection is indicative of a movement towards player development for the Raiders.

The Matt Shaughnessy pick in the third round was a bit of misfortune from the perspective that Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson went the pick before.  Johnson had first round potential going into this past season, but an inconsistent year as a starter dropped his stock.  I see this as more of a blessing in disguise.  Johnson is just the kind of talent who would have flamed out in Oakland in the past 6 years, but Shaugnesssy is a developmental type with a work ethic common in all of the Raiders’ picks this year.  While he simply doesn’t have the sack potential that Johnson brings to the Cincinnati Bengals, when you mention players who could actually develop with the Raiders, I think he’s a good pick.

The message I’m trying to convey here is that while the media harps on the “same ‘ol Raiders” this offseason, the Raiders are demonstrating a clear plan for improvement.  I think that is the first step of getting out of the perpetual NFL cellar.  Again, I want to make it clear that I don’t think all the pieces are in place for a run this year.  I think the OL has issues at the tackles.  I think the WRs are a few years away from being a group of note.  I don’t think either JaMarcus Russell or Jeff Garcia is likely to be a particularly effective QB in the near future.  But I think the team is going to have it’s high moments on defense this year, and I think they’ll be able to pound the ball on the ground in spurts this year.

And while a playoff birth will not be in the cards for the Raiders, this year, it would not shock me at all if the team can win 6 or 7 games.  That would be the best season for the Raiders since losing SB 37, and a testament to a team that is, finally, going in the right direction.

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NFL Great Debates: Would Favre Fit in Minnesota?

NFL Outsider‘s Greg Trippiedi and Anthony Brown debate the issue: Would Brett Favre fit in with the Minnesota Vikings if he decided to come out of retirement once again?

Greg Trippiedi says No. 4’s retirement would be a blessing in disguise for Vikings fans:

Regardless of what the results of Favre Watch ’09 produce, I think the best thing Minnesota Viking fans can hope for is that Brett Favre does not suit up for them this September.

Jets fans will vouch for me here.

First, the Vikings need to realize that they aren’t resigned to another year of poor QB play this year like they have been since Daunte Culpepper left. Given: Sage Rosenfels, Tavaris Jackson, and John David Booty don’t bring a lot of hope, and that’s one thing that Favre brings wherever he goes.

But hope is cheap, and ultimately hollow.

The big picture is that a 40-year-old Brett Favre does nothing to improve the QB situation. At this point in his career, he brings nothing more to the table than Rosenfels does, save the media circus.

Do the Vikings really want to deal with the circus? New York is one thing. That city provides benefits to bringing in the star power that comes with an aging Brett Favre, but not Sage Rosenfels. But Minneapolis-St. Paul is neither New York, nor Green Bay. It’s a city with a defensive minded football team which needs to find a quick fix to it’s offense.

Brett Favre may provide instant results, but the expectation that those results will automatically be quality results is foolhardy, and the Vikings are best off left without the Favre headache.

Anthony Brown believes Favre could help out in Minnesota:

Well, THAT was a short conversation. I was ready to state, or invent, legitimate reasons why Brett Favre could help the Vikings win the Super Bowl.

Then, Vikings War Cry reported that SI.com confirmed that what Yahoo.com reported. The Brettster is going to stay home and mow his lawn and make blue jeans commercials this season.

Maybe Brett accepted the reality that at this age he’s only good for half a season. Maybe the itch to play hasn’t gotten under his throwing arm yet. We’ll have to wait and see, as we all did last year and as Packer fans have done for the past several years.

How can good ol’ boy Favre pass up another chance to tease a northern franchise? No off-season is complete without a Brett Favre story. Please. Bloggers need the storyline.

To help sway the movement for Favre’s return, here are three reasons why Brett Favre can help the Minnesota Vikings now:

1. Save Brad Childress’ job. Former Baltimore Ravens coach, and former Vikings assistant, Brian Billick lost his job by over-committing to QB Kyle Boller. Brad Childress faces the same risk by backing QB Tarvaris Jackson. Heck, Childress may be dead meat already. Childress can save his job by luring Favre to camp … and cutting him. Two names: Eric Mangini and Mike McCarthy. Mangini pounced on the chance to get Favre to the Jets last year and finished the season 9-7. Then he got fired. McCarthy’s Packers finished 6-10 after pushing Favre off the bus. McCarthy kept his job. Can a hint be any plainer?

2. Tarvaris Jackson needs guidance. Jackson is a raw athletic talent. To be a winner, he just needs guidance from a proven winner, an elder statesman of football who’s won it all and is generous with advice and mentoring of young quarterbacks who stand between him and starting. Brett Favre is that man. Oh, wait.

3. Favre will sell tickets. In tough times, fans will be tempted to sit home to watch Vikings games on TV. That’s a TV blackout risk. Minnesota needs to create a secondary market to sponge up supply of vacant seats at close to face value. Packer fans pack the Metrodome once per season, when Green Bay is in town. But with Favre starting every game, those same folks will cross the St. Croix River every weekend to cheer … against Favre. There’s one born every minute and Minnesota needs every one of them to help local fans.

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NFL Top 10: Breakout Candidates in 2009

If you are an avid fantasy football player who plays in competitive leagues, you know there are only three ways to gain a competitive edge over your opponents.  You can:

1) Have access to inside information that the rest of your league does not have,

2) Search to acquire players that are undervalued by the rest of the league, or

3) Draft players with high upside who are likely to “break out” during the next season.

The final strategy would be considered the most dangerous.  Our MVN Outsider fantasy experts will vouch for this: if you load up your roster with high-upside unproven talent, you risk having a bottom of the barrel fantasy team if your players underachieve your expectations for them.

NFL Owners and General Managers have similar interests in identifying breakout candidates.  Obviously, trading is not as prevalent in the NFL as it is in, say, Major League Baseball, but the NFL is a league predicated on having talent.  Where is the talent going to come from?  Is it in house, or does it need to be brought into the franchise from the outside?  It’s always expensive to try to acquire talent, but a breakout candidate can make a team a serious contender with simple coaching and proper handling of the talent.  Mishandling can stunt the development of young players, and set a team back.

I’m going to omit offensive lineman from this list because of the inherent difficulty that comes with measuring a breakout absent statistics.  I will also not put any rookies on this list, for obvious reasons.

So with that disclaimer out there, NFL Outsider takes this look at the NFL’s top breakout candidates in 2009.

10.  Matt Leinart, QB, Cardinals
Leinart is an interesting selection to breakout because he’s not even expected to start at Quarterback for the Cardinals in 2009.  But one glance at Kurt Warner’s birthdate shows that it’s very likely that Matt Leinart will find himself behind Center for the Cardinals at some point next season.  Looking at the offense around him, I have a hard time seeing him ever reliquishing the position.  So whether he earns the job by outplaying Warner in a platoon that Ken Whisenhunt might use, or by injury, I think Leinart’s outstanding work as Arizona’s starting QB begins when he first hits the field this year.

9.  Keith Rivers, LB, Bengals
Rivers fractured his pelvis in October after he was blindsided by Steelers WR Hines Ward on a devistating block, but he had been so good in only a handful of games that he finished second in the defensive rookie of the year voting.  Under defensive coordinator Don Zimmer, the Bengals made their first real jump forward defensively in the Marvin Lewis era, and Rivers will be the key piece for further development of the unit.

8.  Leodis McKelvin, CB, Bills
McKelvin has already proven himself to be quite an athlete for the Bills, but if you are looking at a player who might all of a sudden be at the top of the league in interceptions, it’s McKelvin who will have the right blend of oppertunity and skills to record 6 or 7 picks this year.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the football.

7.  DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
DeSean Jackson garnered plenty of media coverage last season for a rookie second round draft pick, and not always for the best reasons.  One of the reasons I feel that Jeremy Maclin doesn’t have a clear path to the starting lineup is his skill set is very similar to that of Jackson, and I think Jackson is on the verge of being a number one receiver in the NFL.  I think the biggest difference between Maclin and Jackson is that Jackson can run every route an NFL receiver needs to run, and that’s also why I believe he’ll arrive sooner rather than later.

6.  Matt Schaub, QB, Texans
Schaub’s breakout isn’t as contingent on him improving as a quarterback as much as it is about staying on the field and leading the Texans to the playoffs.  Schaub has the pieces in place, and he clearly has the game, and 2009 will be the year that it all comes together for him.

5.  Miles Austin, WR, Cowboys
I think it’s safe to say that Terrell Owens wasn’t released so that Patrick Crayton could get more reps.  The trade for Roy Williams isn’t going to net a number one receiver, but the release of Owens just might.  That’s because while Williams is a known quantity in the NFL, it’s Austin who rocks all the potential to improve the Dallas passing offense this year.  He’s got the skill set of a number one receiver, a mix between Greg Jennings and Lavarneus Coles.

4.  Jerious Norwood, RB, Falcons
Norwood is a yard per carry beast, but his carries in three years in the league have been limited, first by Warrick Dunn, and now by Michael Turner.  But Turner led the NFL in carries last year, and probably can’t be used again in the same manner.  What that means is that Norwood will be a more integral part of Matt Ryan’s offensive unit, and possibly could supplant Michael Turner as the starter.  Scouts have expressed concerns about his ability to handle a full time workload, which is fine since Turner is there, but the Falcons need to use Norwood less in kick returns and more as a featured back this year.

3.  Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers
The Steelers released veteran LB Larry Foote because they just couldn’t justify stashing Timmons away on the bench for a third season.  The Steelers think that he can be better than James Harrison.  Harrison may end up being a one year wonder, relatively speaking, but Timmons was a first round draft pick who hasn’t disappointed in practice.  He was reportedly a bit slow to pick up the complicated defense, but he’s every bit as skilled as he was on draft day, and takes his act to the field this season.

2.  Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints
No one player in the NFL benefitted more from the NFL draft than the formerly undrafted Pierre Thomas, when his team the Saints did not draft a running back.  He’s earned it though.  Thomas is now for all intents and purposes a starting running back in the NFL because the Saints love him.  He figures to get more carries than fourth year back Reggie Bush, who has been best used as a receiver anyway.  Thomas can go between the tackles, around the ends, and next year, don’t be surprised if he heads to the end zone 8+ times in 2009.

1.  Jason Campbell, QB, Redskins
Some have questioned the effectiveness of Campbell’s delivery in terms of being able to adjust to the west coast offense, but no one can question his mental makeup and character.  The Redskins attempted to directly replace him with Jay Cutler once, and then draft his successor in Mark Sanchez.  Well, now that Campbell can go to sleep at night knowing that his successor isn’t on the roster, look for his gradually increasing statistics to turn into a great leap into the top ten QBs this year.  Campbell has only improved his fundamentals since coming into the league, and as they say, hard work pays off in the end.  Campbell’s hard work and dedication to his team could result in a monster statistical season, and a playoff birth.  Then he can stay or leave on his own terms.

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NFL Power Rankings: Looking at the 10 Teams with the Brightest 2009 Prospectus

The coming and passing of the NFL Draft allows prognosticators such as myself to lock in our predictions for the coming season.  There will be no more phases of the NFL off-season that can result in wide-spread player movement.  To the critics who will point out, “there’s no way you can call the season in May,” I say: there’s no point to trying to call it in August either.  I’m just beating you to the punch.

In this exercise, I’m going to pick 5 teams from each conference to fill out my top ten teams in the power rankings.  Essentially, I’m not trying to pick the ten best teams in the NFL right now as much as I’m trying to pick the ten teams most likely to win the Super Bowl.  By spreading out the picks evenly by conference, I maximize the chances that two of my preseason picks play in next years Super Bowl.  That is the methodology being used here.

Now, I count down the ten teams in the NFL most likely to come home with the Lombardi Trophy next season.

10. San Diego Chargers

Why we like them — Norv Turner returns the same offensive unit that was so successful last year, minus only Guard Mike Goff.  QB Phillip Rivers is now in the prime of his NFL career, and he’s poised to take his spot among the league’s elite quarterbacks.  RB Darren Sproles returns in a greater capacity than last year, and the team has a better idea of how he can be best used to complement LaDainian Tomlinson.  The defense can’t be less effective than it was last year, which means that the offense won’t have to be as perfect.  Shawne Merriman is healthy, and in a contract year.

Cause for concern —
The Chargers did not spend any sort of money this offseason whatsoever to improve themselves, instead relying on improvement from within to take them to the next level.  The state of the economy struck harder for this team than most.  The draft didn’t net much immediate help.  They got two eventual replacements in LB Larry English (Merriman) and G Louis Vasquez (Goff), but again, the Chargers need to improve from within.  After leading the league in INTs in 2007, CB Antonio Cromartie is back on the high road to bustsville after a horrific 2008.  The ILB situation is unsettled at best, as is the S situation, and the success of the defensive line requires continued productivity from aging NT Jamal Williams.  The inconsistency from the OTs was not addressed, and it won’t be long until future HOF RB Tomlinson is an offensive liability.  Norv Turner is not known for overcoming adversity, despite a successful run at the end of last year.

9. Indianapolis Colts

Why we like them — 3-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning is back under center.  The Colts are bringing another dynamic runner to the offense in an attempt to revitalize the running game, Donald Brown from Connecticut.  WR Anthony Gonzalez is in his third season, and it’s not unlikely that he will explode onto the scene as the NFLs premier complementary receiver.  The defense is as fast as it’s ever been, bringing back shutdown CB Kelvin Hayden to pair with CB Marlin Jackson.  Bob Sanders.  Dwight Freeney.  Reggie Wayne.

Cause for concern —
Peyton won’t be HOF caliber forever.  In addition to this, the team might be forced to rely on the run more than they have ever wanted to under Manning.  There is no established fourth target after Wayne, Gonzalez, and TE Dallas Clark.  Run defense continues to be a cause of concern for a team that will try to grind out the clock this year.  They weren’t division champs last year.  You can’t directly replace a Marvin Harrison in your offense, you can only hope to compensate for his loss in other ways.

8. Washington Redskins

Why we like them — QB Jason Campbell has plenty to prove this year, potentially his final season in Washington.  Campbell is the key part in a very young offensive unit that needs to produce sooner, rather than later.  The defense might be the very best in the NFL.  The team added rookies: CB Kevin Barnes and DE Brian Orakpo; to the defensive mix that just payed Albert Haynesworth 41 million in guarenteed money to be Albert Haynesworth.  CB Carlos Rogers is in a contract year, and is looking to establish himself as the best CB in football.  Same deal for LaRon Landry at safety.

Cause for concern —
RB Clinton Portis has plenty of mileage on his legs, little help from up front, and no notable help behind him on the depth chart.  His contract dictates that he will once again be asked to maintain a 4.0+ YPC average over 300+ carries.  The Linebackers are young and talented, but not established (save London Fletcher).  But this debate starts and ends with the offensive line.  It’s old, not very deep at offensive tackle, broke down last year due to injury, and received no real influx of talent via either free agency or the draft.  Maybe one of a few UDFAs will pan out.  The receivers were a completely unproductive unit last season, and need to produce this year.

7. Green Bay Packers

Why we like them — No QB drama surrounding Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers this year, just a well entrenched QB looking to take his team to the next level.  The Packers have the best receiving corps in the NFL.  The 3-4 defensive switch fits them well.  Injuries ravaged the team defense last year, and a healthy unit this year will be a productive unit.  Both NT B.J. Raji and LB Clay Matthews were great scheme picks for a team that needs the help immediately to strike while the NFC North is, arguably, a bit down.

Cause for concern —
Despite a sure thing passing game and a defense loaded with potential, the Packers are incredibly thin on the offensive line, after moving on from RT Marc Tauscher, and relying on LT Chad Clifton to carry the line one more year.  Clifton is 33, and is in a contract year.  The running game was nowhere to be found last year, and for a deep playoff run, the Packers will need to find a way to pound the rock.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

Why we like them — Because they are the World Champs.  They had the NFL’s best defense last year.  They never failed to come up big in the fourth quarter.   And in the black and blue AFC North, they were 7-0 last season, including the postseason.  Defensive player of the year LB James Harrison has a new contract.  LB Lawrence Timmons is a breakout candidate.

Cause for concern —
Pretty much none of those things will carry over to this year, although all will remain team strengths.  QB Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to pick up the slack.  He was highly inconsistent last season, only coming through when it mattered most.  If not for the best defense in the NFL, the Steelers would not have been in most games they played in, making the 4th quarter irrelivant.  The division is going to be stronger across the board, and repeating in it will be difficult.

5. Philadelphia Eagles

Why we like them — The team with the NFC’s best defensive unit last year returns all defensive starters except for it’s oldest one: S Brian Dawkins.  The unit has the potential to be even better than last year, bringing on CB Ellis Hobbs from New England, and shipping out underachiving CB Lito Sheppard.  QB Donovan McNabb is looking at his best offensive group since 2004.  RB Brian Westbrook will finally get help this year, in the form of the rookie from Pitt, RB LeSean McCoy.  The receivers are young, and talented.  The offensive line is young, and talented.

Cause for concern —
Even given all that talent, the OL remains a question mark.  Will they find the right balance on the right side?  Can LT Jason Peters return to his 2007 form?  Where is WR Jeremy Maclin going to fit in?  Who knows if the defense will seamlessly be able to replace Dawkins with no dropoff?  This team is loaded with super bowl quality potential, but that’s never been a beneficial quality in the past.  The established talent is limited.  If QB Donovan McNabb can’t take the Eagles to become the offensive powerhouse they want to be with this supporting cast, he’s the weak link.

4. New Orleans Saints

Why we like them — QB Drew Brees is the preseason front runner to be MVP of the NFL.  The receivers are young and talented.  RB Pierre Thomas, an undrafted player two years ago, is on the verge of becoming a top ten RB in the NFL.  The defense does not appear to have any gaping holes, spending considerable resources on shoring up the defensive backfield while finding young pass rushers.  With no weaknesses, we’ll see if the defensive totals come back to a respectable level.

Cause for concern —
The Saints have been historically unable to create turnovers when they most need it, and nothing in this years offseason plan suggests that will change.  A lot of the defensive improvements provide great depth and quantity, and have moved out the older, more ineffective players, but the quality of the players is still in question.  The offensive line has not been touched in a few years, and when Brees struggles, it usually has to do with the line breaking down.  They drafted Malcolm Jenkins in the first round, but had traded the rest of their draft, so very little help in this draft class.

3. Baltimore Ravens

Why we like them — Because they’re just a great young team that consistently drafts well.  The defense finished second in the NFL last year, and showed a knack for forcing offenses into critical mistakes.  They also led the league in defensive scores last year.  They will have great special teams under John Harbaugh again this year.  The offensive line is the standard for both youth and talent.  They can pound the rock on 65% of offensive plays, and there is nothing that can be done to stop them.  Joe Flacco figures to improve in his second year.

Cause for concern —
Limited receiver depth with slow the rate at which Flacco can develop.  Still a very run-reliant offensive team.  It’s hard to tell if defensive turnover-forcing is sustainable.  If not, that’s a win or two they will lose simply from not forcing as many mistakes.  LB Bart Scott signed in New York with the Jets, and this team lost its defensive coordinator.  How will Ray Lewis and his crew find a way to stay at the top of the league this year?

2. Arizona Cardinals

Why we like them — Last year’s number one passing game has added a rushing attack to make the offense far more versatile.  RBs Beanie Wells and Jason Wright will make a much better running duo than Tim Hightower, who will handle goal line duty, and the departed Edgerrin James.  Kurt Warner is resigned, and Matt Leinart gives them good depth at Quarterback.  LB Cody Brown and S Rashad Johnson were great draft picks that will help to restock a young, strong defense.  Ken Whisenhunt is a huge asset on your sideline.  The Cardinals are almost certain to be better than last year’s version that nearly won the Super Bowl.

Cause for concern —
QB Kurt Warner is 39, and the list of QBs who have been successful at that age are limited to…no one.  Johnny Unitas, if you want to go back that far.  Another deep playoff run might require Matt Leinart to prove himself a worthy QB.  Then there’s Anquan Boldin’s contract situation, which is murky at best.  Oh, and they happen to be the Cardinals.

1. New England Patriots

Why we like them — QB Tom Brady returns, which I’m sure you’ve heard nothing about.  He returns to a slighty aged version of the same offense that they scored all their points in during that 16-0 season.  His return also gives credibility to a running game which has declined the last two years, and really needs a breakout season from RB Laurence Maroney or help from veteran RB Fred Taylor.  The big improvements came on defense, particularly in the secondary.  CBs Terrence Wheatley and Jonathon Wilhite return, and are joined by rookie CB Darius Butler, and veteran CBs Leigh Bodden, and Shawn Springs.  They add Patrick Chung to an already deep class of young safeties.  Randy Moss and Wes Welker will once again be key cogs on the preseason NFL favorite.

Cause for concern —
Brady’s knee.  It starts and ends with Brady’s knee.  Can the Pats re-vitalize their passing offense, and cover receivers down the field?  If so, they are the team that is most likely to win the Super Bowl this year.*****************************

NFL Great Debates: Harvin, Freeman Draft Busts?

NFL Outsider‘s Greg Trippiedi and Anthony Brown debate the issue: Which first round draft pick is likely to be a bust with his new team?

Greg Trippiedi says Percy Harvin will struggle in Minnesota:

Of all 32 of the players selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, historical statistics show that between five and six are unlikely to do anything in the NFL whatsoever. The riskier positions tend to be defensive lineman and wide receiver.

I happen to think that this is a particularly good year for defensive linemen. There will be a pure pass rusher or two who busts, but the interior guys, and prototypical 4-3 defensive ends (Raji, Jerry, Orakpo) seem as safe as they’ve ever been. Receiver Michael Crabtree is every bit the prospect that Calvin Johnson was, and Johnson was great in Detroit this year on a team that didn’t win.

There’s one player who I think who was a marginal prospect, and then he got drafted by a team with marginal offensive competency: Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin went to the Minnesota Vikings.

Where to begin? Oh, I dunno.  How about he’s a receiver from Florida? What’s your success comparable, Darrell Jackson? Chad Jackson? Louis Murphy? It’s important to note that Harvin is the first Urban Meyer recruit to be drafted at the WR position, which could make a difference, but that brings me to my next point.

The guy wasn’t even a receiver in college. He was a more of a U-back type who played the solo back in the shotgun formation. Sure, he’s dynamic, but now we’re talking about Reggie Bush — a scouting heartthrob whose NFL future appears to be as a complementary receiver to about four other guys in New Orleans. But, you know, that’s fine, at least the Saints got something out of their pick.

But, of course, the Vikings are not the New Orleans Saints. Not even close. Brad Childress is not Sean Payton. Bernard Berrian is not Marques Colston. Sidney Rice is not Lance Moore. Visante Shiancoe is not Jeremy Shockey. And, by the way, Sage Rosenfels is not Drew Brees. The basis of the Vikings’ offense is big plays from Berrian and Adrian Peterson. Percy Harvin comes with big play potential, but a complementary receiver’s skill set. Where is his role in this offense? I just don’t see it, point blank.

Harvin is not being drafted into a situation like Bush was. He’s in trouble.

Anthony Brown chooses a quarterback as his bust candidate:

Before revealing my pick for first round bust, let me tell you who I’m not going to take.

I’m not picking Darrius Heyward-Bey in Oakland. The pick is already slammed by everyone else, with good reason.

Oakland was the only team that thought Javon Walker was No. 1 receiver material.

Heyward-Bey played inconsistently for an inconsistent Maryland Terrapin club.

Both the pick and the picker are suspect. Too easy.

I’m not picking Mark Sanchez with the New York Jets. By November everybody will be saying that he’s essentially playing his senior season on Woody Johnson’s nickel. He cannot possibly live up to the New York hype. I feel sorry for him.

I hope the experience leads NFL clubs to question why any one-year-wonder would be ranked as a first round prospect. Too obvious.

I thought briefly of Harvin in Minnesota. Why would the Vikings take a receiver in the first round instead of help for the defense? Why not trade up six spots to take Kansas State QB Josh Freeman? But I left Mr. Harvin for Greg Trippiedi.

No, the most likely bust is Freeman himself in Tampa Bay. The problem isn’t Freeman so much as the poor situation he’s in. The post-Gruden Buccaneers are waifs feeling their way through the NFL forest.

GM Bruce Allen, gone. Head coach John Gruden, gone. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, gone. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, gone.

Raheem Morris and his staff have much to figure out before they get to quarterback development.

And they have so many quarterbacks. Five are in camp, including recently signed Byron Leftwich. Sorting them out is challenge enough for an experienced coaching staff. Morris and company will take all year to figure it out.

Josh Freeman might have contributed this year if he were in Minnesota. You won’t see much of him in Tampa Bay.

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Grading My NFL Outsider Mock Draft

Not many analysts will go back and see how much of what they thought would happen ended up being wrong, but sometimes, when you need something to write about, poking fun at what you don’t know seems as good a topic as any.

Here is my final, most accurate, mock draft
.  It was completed before Stafford signed his contract with the Lions, so I get to count that pick as correct.

In total, I correctly predicted 7 players to their teams in the top two rounds, including all three QBs.  I predicted the New York Jets would trade up for Mark Sanchez, but I thought they would get him at No. 7 instead of number five.  I also correctly predicted that WR Ramses Barden would be a Giant, but gave him to them a round too early.  I was 5 for the first 7, missing on Cleveland (who traded down), and St. Louis, who went with OT Jason Smith instead of OT Eugene Monroe.  After that, a predictable one-for-fifty seven.  Trust me, that doesn’t look as bad when you put it in text form.

But instead of worring about what I got exactly right in a complete guessing game, I’m more worried about how many first rounders I predicted.  Did I beat SI.com’s Peter King?  He got 27 of the 32 first round selections right.

First Round

My first 12 picks went in the first round, but I projected LB Rey Maualuga to Washington with the 13th selection.  Turns out the information I got a whiff of two days before the draft was a smokescreen.  Even so, I was surprised that no one made a play for him in the 20s.  He went in the second round.

I did not miss another first round pick until No. 22, when I expected the Vikings to take OT Eben Britton from Arizona.  He ended up being an early second round pick.  I also thought Darius Butler and Brian Robiske would be first rounders.  OT William Beatty, TE Jared Cook, and LB James Laurinaitis were my 27th through 29th picks, and I guessed wrong on my assumption that DE Jarron Gilbert would be the Steelers’ target over DE Ziggy Hood.  Overall, I correctly predicted 24 out of 32 first rounders.  Here are the guys who went in the first round that I missed on:

LB Brian Cushing
LB Larry English
WR Percy Harvin
RB Donald Brown
C Eric Wood
WR Hakeem Nicks
WR Kenny Britt
DE Ziggy Hood

Second Round

Of the eight players I missed on in the first round, six were gone by the end of the second round, with only Jared Cook and Jarron Gilbert falling to the third.  It’s fair becuase I also had two first round picks: English and Nicks, not getting picked in the second round either.  So if we don’t count the eight players that I already missed on in the first round, there are 24 possible slots I could get correct in the second.

I missed on picks 39-42: G Duke Robinson, DE Michael Johnson, DE Alex Magee, and OT Jamon Meredith.  Missed again on picks 45 and 46 with TE Chase Coffman and RB Rashad Jennings.  Another four misses in a row from 49 through 52: WR Derrick Williams, LB Darry Beckwith, CB Kevin Barnes, and S Rashad Johnson.  From 56 though the end of the round, I only went one-for-nine, hitting on WR Mohammad Massaquoi.  So in total, I hit on 7/24 possible picks in the round.

Overall Mock Accuracy

Right team: 7/64 (11%)
First Round Accuracy: 24/32 (75%)
Second Round Accuracy: 7/24 (29%)

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NFL Outsider’s Draft Winners and Losers

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at process points to see who had the best draft objectively.  Right now, I’m just going to give some off the cuff reaction on some teams that did really well and others who did not so well.

Winners

1.  Arizona Cardinals
I was amazed with the quality of player drafted by the Cardinals.  They never moved up or down in the draft, but still managed to have great draft position to land great values at positions of need in every single round.  Every one of their draft picks, except for RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, an intriguing prospect, was on the MVN Top 150 big board.  There should be between 5-6 full time starters in this draft, and the Cardinals figure to be the class of their division in the next few seasons.

2.  Cleveland Browns
Conversely, the Browns traded down three times in round one, and ended up picking four times on the first day, and they made every single one of those picks count.  Center Alex Mack will be the staple of the offensive line, a unit that has talent but needs direction.  Underrated pass rusher David Veikune is going to be a impact player in this league.  And in Mohammad Massaquoi and Brian Robiske, they’ve rebuilt the receiving corps and made Braylon Edwards a luxury as opposed to the offensive centerpiece.

3.  Detroit Lions
History will grade the Lions draft by the plight of Matthew Stafford, but for the possible risk the Lions are accepting with Stafford’s steep development curve, they certainly supplemented his selection with a bunch of well-developed college prospects, including Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, Derrick Williams, and Zack Follett.  More impressively, they didn’t waste their other picks on flyers, they took solid, high potential prospects in the later rounds.

4.  Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals also never traded around, but picking at the front of the draft, they couldn’t miss on any of their early picks.  I feel very confident in saying that they didn’t.  Andre Smith seems like a guy who needs to be properly used in order to maximize his value, in that he might not be the type of player that you can just stick at LT, and not worry about your QB getting hit for ten years.  However, MLB Rey Maualuga is exactly the kind of player that you can put on the field and know what to expect.  DE Michael Johnson probably won’t work out, but he’s a fun flier in the third round.  TE Chase Coffman could be the week one starter.

5.  San Francisco 49ers
They only picked twice in the first four rounds, but upgraded both RB and WR with the most elite skill position player in the draft in Michael Crabtree, and a back they really like in Glen Coffee.  The key to the draft is thanks to some good adjustment work by the 49ers, they got a full draft worth of players, and turned their second round pick into a first rounder next year from the Panthers.  So, theoretically speaking, they can really make the jump to Super Bowl contender in 2010.

6.  Washington Redskins
The Redskins had to make a choice between addressing the offense and defense in this draft, and they made the right choice, I felt.  They passed on a trade for Mark Sanchez, not really for a good reason, but the result matters all the same.  They then got lucky when Brian Orakpo was there at No. 13.  The real deal sealer came in the third round when CB Kevin Barnes fell a little further than expected.  He replaces Shawn Springs in the defense.  Like Springs, he’s a local product who is incredibly intelligent and is a physical corner.

7.  Carolina Panthers
One of my favorite draft strategies is known as the “Bobby Beathard special.”  It’s where a team trades it’s first round pick in the next draft for a high second round pick, and drafts a player who they have a top ten grade on.  It’s an easy way to ensure yourself a top half talent in each draft at the salary of a second round pick.  The Panthers did this with Everette Brown this year, and still were able to turn their normal second round pick into CB Sherron Martin.  This way, a team can get a full draft day haul each year without ever having to risk top ten salary money.

8.  Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers were graced with the last pick in each round, and as you would expect, found a way to turn in one of the better drafts.  Ziggy Hood is an immediate help type at the defensive end in the 3-4, a position where the Steelers were fortunate to stay healthy at all year.  They needed OL help, but because they didn’t need a tackle or a center specifically, they used patience and prudence to their benefit, ripping off the Broncos in the process by trading out of the second round.  Then, they landed their guy, Wisconsin G Kraig Urbik, in the third round.  The rest of the draft was need based, replacing departed talent at Corner and Wide Receiver.

9.  New England Patriots
Traded down and ended up with four second round picks, which they loaded up on trench warfare on both sides of the ball, as well as secondary assistance.  With major needs filled, the Patriots started trading picks for higher picks next year, in what figures to be a better draft class.  Very wise.

Losers

1.  Oakland Raiders
There is one thing you can say about the Raiders is that their offense is exponentially better off with Darrius Heyward-Bey than with Jeremy Maclin, but c’mon, if there’s anyway you can justify passing on Michael Crabtree, it’s because you think you have developmental talent at the wide receiver position on your roster.  Also, there’s no telling what S Mike Mitchell will ever amount to, given that the pick came out of nowhere.

2.  Dallas Cowboys
I think the Cowboys fixed their secondary in this draft, finally, and without a first day pick.  They drafted two Cincinnati corners, and S Michael Hamlin, and should get some playmakers out of the bunch.  The issue here is that the rest of the draft seems to have been totally wasted.  The Roy Williams trade might look ridiculous at this time next year, and the LBs, DLs, and OLs the Cowboys took in this draft may never amount to anything.  To complicate matters more, quality trumps quantity in the NFL, but there are no singularly quality picks in this class.  Just a lot of everything-ness.

3.  San Diego Chargers
As far as BPA goes, I think the Chargers could and should have done better than ultra talented LB Larry English.  OLB is not a need position at all with Shawne Merriman coming back, and English is not scheme-neutral, nor is he likely to make much of an impact as a rookie.  Mostly though, the usually proactive Chargers got caught addressing needs on the OL with second rate guards in a weak class because they went with a non-need defensive player in the first round well ahead of projected slot.  There’s just not much in this class after English, who doesn’t seem to have a clear path to the starting lineup.

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Priority UDFAs NFL Teams Need to Consider

The number is the ranking of this player on the MVN Big Board.

54. Graham Harrell, QB, Texas Tech
58. Darry Beckwith, LB, LSU
59. Gerald Cadogan, OT, Penn State
91. Tyrell Sutton, RB, Northwestern
106. John Gill, DT, Northwestern
107. C.J. Spiller, S, Marshall
109. Zach Potter, DE, Nebraska
110. Mike Reilly, QB, Central Washington
113. John Parker Wilson, QB, Alabama
114. Ian Johnson, RB, Boise State
115. Dan Skuta, LB, Grand Valley State
117. Otis Wiley, S, Michigan State
118. Jonathon Casillias, LB, Wisconsin
120. Devin Moore, RB, Wyoming
121. Dominick Goodman, WR, Cincinnati
128. Ryan Purvis, TE, Boston College
132. Drew Willy, QB, Buffalo
134. Augustus Parrish, OT, Kent State
135. Kory Sheets, RB, Purdue
137. Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Georgia
140. Orion Harris, DE, Virginia Tech
147. Herman Johnson, G, LSU

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Derrick Williams, Jarron Gilbert, Jared Cook Lead Round 3 Recap

Process points become negligible after the first day, so lets look at round three and the players that each team got in the middle of the draft.

65. New York Jets — Shonn Green, RB, Iowa
The Jets traded up for this pick, so the Green pick was really disappointing.  I didn’t think he was anywhere near the best available, and with this being the first pick of the day, I expected a great pick here.

66. St. Louis Rams — Bradley Fletcher, CB, Iowa

67. Kansas City Chiefs — Alex Magee, DE, Purdue
The Chiefs pick their second 3-4 DE of the draft.  So what does this mean for Glenn Dorsey?  Will he split time with Magee and Tyson Jackson, or is he already on his way out?

68. Chicago Bears — Jarron Gilbert, DE, San Jose State
Chicago moves forward looking for best player available, while making sure to add a defensive lineman every year.  Gilbert fits the bill here.

69. Dallas Cowboys — Jason Williams, LB, Western Illinois
The Cowboys first pick of the day is a nonsensical one.  It’s way too high for Williams, who probably doesn’t have a position in the 3-4.

70. Cincinnati Bengals — Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech
Johnson, the lanky pure pass rusher out of the ACC, dropped to this point for effort concerns, which means that the Bengals are about the worst place he can end up.

71. Oakland Raiders — Matt Shaughnessy, DE, Wisconsin

72. Jacksonville Jaguars — Terrence Knighton, DT, Temple

73. Jacksonville Jaguars — Derek Cox, CB, William & Mary

74. San Francisco 49ers — Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama
The 49ers struck with Frank Gore in the third round in 2006, well ahead of his projected slot, and they appear to be going back to the same well with Coffee here.

75. Dallas Cowboys — Robert Brewster, OT, Ball State

76. Detroit Lions — DeAndre Levy, LB, Wisconsin

77. Houston Texans — Antoine Caldwell, C, Alabama
Antoine Caldwell is a really nice Center prospect.  The Texans had a stopgap Center last season, and I like the fact that they are building their interior OL through the draft.

78. San Diego Chargers — Louis Vasquez, G, Texas Tech

79. Pittsburgh Steelers — Kraig Urbik, G, Wisconsin
I like the patience the Steelers showed in addressing their OL, and they got the guy they wanted in Urbik.

80. Washington Redskins — Kevin Barnes, CB, Maryland
Barnes is a great insurance policy for DeAngelo Hall and Carlos Rogers, and should beat out Fred Smoot for the nickelback job in camp.

81. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Roy Miller, DT, Texas

82. Detroit Lions — Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State
Williams was the last player I gave a first round grade to go in the draft, and the Lions find a true complementary receiver to Calvin Johnson here in the third round.

83. New England Patriots — Brandon Tate, WR, North Carolina
Tate, I believe, will have a better career than fellow Tarheel Hakeem Nicks.

84. Pittsburgh Steelers — Mike Wallace, WR, Mississippi

85. New York Giants — Ramses Barden, WR, Cal Poly
I’m not sold on Barden as an NFL caliber talent, but I think his height is an asset that makes him a good fit as Eli Manning’s receiver.

86. Minnesota Vikings — Asher Allen, CB, Georgia

87. Miami Dolphins — Patrick Turner, WR, USC

88. Baltimore Ravens — Lardarius Webb, CB, Nicholls State

89. Tennessee Titans — Jared Cook, TE, South Carolina
Major steal for the Titans who are admittedly pretty stocked at the TE position.

90. Atlanta Falcons — Christopher Owens, CB, San Jose State

91. Seattle Seahawks — Deon Butler, WR, Penn State
This is really, really early for Deon Butler as a receiver, but perhaps the Seahawks look at him as a punt returner.

92. Indianapolis Colts — Jerraud Powers, CB, Auburn

93. Carolina Panthers — Corvey Irvin, DT, Georgia

94. Tennessee Titans — Ryan Mouton, CB, Hawaii

95. Arizona Cardinals — Rashad Johnson, S, Alabama
Rashad Johnson comes in as the Cards’ third safety, but with Antrel Rolle possibly looked at as a stopgap, and with Adrian Wilson’s contract in limbo, you could argue this is a need as well as a value.

96. Pittsburgh Steelers — Keenan Lewis, CB, Oregon State

97. New England Patriots — Tyrone McKenzie, LB, USF
I’m pretty surprised that it took until the end of the third round for the Patriots to address LB, but I’m definitely not hating their work.

98. Cincinnati Bengals — Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri

99. Chicago Bears — Juaquan Iglesias, WR, Oklahoma
This was a major need, and it’s easy to envision Iglesias as the complementary target to Devin Hester…much easier actually then it is envisioning Hester as a great WR.

100. New York Giants — Travis Beckham, TE, Wisconsin

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Alphonzo Smith Trade, Rey Maualuga, Pat White Highlight NFL Draft’s Second Round

The second round of the 2009 NFL draft was fronted by some high profile trades.  Both the Panthers and the Broncos traded first round picks in 2010 for players they had first round grades on, but drafted in the second round.  Pat White ended up getting drafted by the consummate “Wildcat” offense, which seems like a good fit, if not a reach.  Inside linebackers Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis slipped through the first round, but got drafted by teams in the second with defensive issues.  They’ll step in right away and help those situations.

However, it was some lesser known prospects who will be the story of the second round in a few years.

33. Detroit Lions — Louis Delmas, S, Western Michigan
Delmas is a local product who was clearly head and shoulders above all the other safeties in this draft.  After going with the QB with a steep developmental curve in Stafford, I like what the Lions have done going with two already well developed prospects in Pettigrew and Delmas.

Detroit Lions: 13 points

34. New England Patriots — Patrick Chung, S, Oregon
The Patriots find themselves in an interesting situation: no one on their board would have gone before the middle of the second round except for CB Darius Butler, however, CB was not at all a need position for the team, and they needed the best defensive player on the board at this spot.  Assuming that was Chung, they get the full points.  He makes perfect sense for a team like the Pats.  The Pats had already collected 2 points from trading around.

New England Patriots: 6 points

35. St. Louis Rams — James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State
I’m really not all that surprised that Laurinaitis got picked above Maualuga.  I am surprised that he got picked above Maualuga and not in the first round.  Good pick, anyway.

St. Louis Rams: 9 points

36. Cleveland Browns — Brian Robiske, WR, Ohio State
Brian Robiske was the second receiver on my board, and after the run of receivers at the bottom end of the first round, this was an excellent pick.  The Browns are having a heck of a draft thus far.

Cleveland Browns: 12 points

37. Denver Broncos — Alphonzo Smith, CB, Wake Forest
The Broncos traded a first round pick next year for the right to draft Alphonzo Smith.  The Broncos, more than anything, needed to come away with a corner in this draft, and Smith seems like a perfect scheme fit.  With two first round picks in next years draft, they could afford to do this.  I love the trade and the pick here.

Denver Broncos: 12 points

38. Cincinnati Bengals — Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
I have a feeling if the Bengals had not taken Rey Maualuga here, he would have fallen a lot further.   Maualuga is limited skills-wise, but for the Bengals, he makes perfect sense to be the embodiment of Don Zimmer’s defensive coaching style on the field.

Cincinnati Bengals: 9 points

39. Jacksonville Jaguars — Eben Britton, OT, Arizona
Okay, I like the strategy a lot, but maybe this could have been executed better  Britton was likely a guy who the Jags were targeting at this pick after addressing OL as their greatest area of need, and having a young backup for Tra Thomas is not a bad thing, but after adding Eugene Monroe in the first round, I’m not sure I see a spot on this team for Britton.  The Jags just spent big money on Maurice Williams a year ago, and though he can play inside as well, they have a lot of holes to build seven deep on the OL.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 7 points

40. New England Patriots — Ron Brace, DT, Boston College
Ron Brace is a guy who goes into a situation where he can provide depth for the Pats behind Vince Wilfork, and provide depth and insurance for the big man in the middle.  The value of depth picks like these are so underrated.

New England Patriots: 10 points

41. New England Patriots — Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut
I’m not going to give full points for this pick, but they picked Butler at his proper value, and though this was more of a desire pick than anything, the Pats feel that Butler is a shutdown corner in the making, and thanks to their draft strategy, they can afford to draft at a position they don’t have a need at.

New England Patriots: 13 points

42. Buffalo Bills — Jarious Byrd, CB, Connecticut
The Bills have a plethora of corners, and young ones at that, so this is a questionable selection.  I’ll give them a single point.

Buffalo Bills: 7 points

At this point, the maximum amount of process given to a team for a single pick cannot exceed three points.

43. Carolina Panthers — Everette Brown, DE, Florida State
The Panthers traded their first round pick next year to the 49ers for this pick.  I love that trade, much like the Broncos above.  Go up and get Everette Brown to be the heir apparent to Julius Peppers, especially if you think he’s the perfect scheme fit here.  They are getting maximum points for the trade and the pick.

Carolina Panthers: 5 points

44. Miami Dolphins — Pat White, QB, West Virginia
The Dolphins unquestionably reached for White given his relative value on special offensive packages, and probably would have been better off with another defensive player.  For White, though, this is a great scheme fit, and I honestly expect him to be given every shot to win the starting QB job in 2010.  Doubt he will beat out Henne though.  Two points for the selection.

Miami Dolphins: 7 points

45. New York Giants — Clint Sintim, LB, Virginia
Clint Sintim had a first round grade from MVN, and the Giants had a need at linebacker.  Sintim can play inside or out, and he’s got the one skill you need on the Giants: he can get after the passer.  I like this move for the Giants after they, I thought, wasted their first round pick.

New York Giants: 3 points

46. Houston Texans — Connor Barwin, LB, Cincinnati
I wasn’t enamored by Brian Cushing in the first round to the Texans, but this pick is much more exciting to me.  Connor Barwin is still very raw, but the Texans have a nice player development system going (on offense at least), and the former college TE can transition to pass rushing OLB on the Texans.

Houston Texans: 8 points

47. Oakland Raiders — Michael Mitchell, S, Ohio

The Raiders get two points for trading down with the Patriots, which is actually the first thing they’ve done to earn process points since I created the process prior to last year’s draft.

I’m sorry, does Michael Mitchell even exist?

Oakland Raiders: 2 points

48. Denver Broncos — Darcel McBath, S, Texas Tech
Eh, I’m not crazy about this one for the Broncos.  It’s a better pick than the Raiders, but that’s only going to earn them a single point.  The Broncos should have been looking for established talents, not raw, physical specimens.

Denver Broncos: 13 points

49. Seattle Seahawks — Max Ungar, C, Oregon
The Seahawks are excellent at draft day trades.  2 points for picking up a 1st rounder next year for trading with the Broncos, 2 points for picking the perfect time to go up and get a lineman with rare versatility, and 3 points for the pick of Ungar.

Seattle Seahawks: 12 points

50. Cleveland Browns — Mohammad Massaquoi, WR, Georgia
I continue to love the Browns draft.

Cleveland Browns: 15 points

51. Buffalo Bills — Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State
Overkill at the position, maybe.  I like the resources they are putting into the OL, so they’ll get two points for this one, but this is a line without a LT.  Maybe they will address that later, but if Langston Walker starts even one game on the left side, the results will be hilarious.  This is a little odd because they traded up for him.  No points for the trade.

Buffalo Bills: 9 points

52. Cleveland Browns — David Veikune, LB, Hawaii
Great pick of a little known pass rusher from a WAC program.  Yes, a WAC program.

Cleveland Browns: 18 points

53. Philadelphia Eagles — LeSean McCoy, RB, Pittsburgh
Probably the steal of the draft.  McCoy has top ten talent, and was the second RB on my board.

Philadelphia Eagles: 5 points

54. Minnesota Vikings — Phil Loadholt, OT, Oklahoma
Loadholt makes a lot more sense for the Vikings than for most other teams, and maybe justifies the passing on Michael Oher a little bit.

Minnesota Vikings: 3 points

55. Atlanta Falcons — William Moore, S, Missouri
Interesting selection by Thomas Dimitroff, but I have no reason to question the process here.

Atlanta Falcons: 7 points

56. Indianapolis Colts — Fili Moala, DT, USC
Really odd trade up here for a guy that would have certainly been there when the Colts picked at the end of the round.  I don’t understand the logic with this one and I’m wondering if they screwed up their plans here.

Indianapolis Colts: 3 points

57. Baltimore Ravens — Paul Kruger, DE, Utah
The Ravens are certainly not drafting for need at all, as I don’t think any mock draft in the world pegged them with either Michael Oher or Paul Kruger, but both figure to be top NFL talents and the Ravens are a talent collecting organization, not to mention a winning one.

Baltimore Ravens: 8 points

58. New England Patriots — Sebastian Vollmer, OT, Houston
I had Vollmer as a 5th round guy, but the Patriots are clearly looking not for a future LT here, but for more of a guy who can play multiple positions across the OL.  I’ll take that trade off most days.

New England Patriots: 15 points

59. Carolina Panthers — Sherrod Martin, CB, Troy
I’m liking how the Panthers have executed in this round.  It sure has come at a price, but the team has done excellent work in the draft the last two years.

Carolina Panthers: 8 points

60. New York Giants — William Beatty, OT, Connecticut
This is more of a need pick than most fans will read into.  Kareem McKenzie has been pretty underwhelming at RT, and LT isn’t even David Diehl’s natural position.

New York Giants: 6 points

61. Miami Dolphins — Sean Smith, CB, Utah
The Dolphins get a point for obliging the Colts’ wishes and going down in the draft, landing their second corner of the day: the very long Sean Smith.

Miami Dolphins: 11 points

62. Tennessee Titans — Sen’Derrick Marks, DT, Auburn
The Titans think Sen’Derrick Marks can play Albert Haynesworth’s role in the same defense.  He’s not going to get 8 sacks in a season, that’s for sure.  Points for effort.

Tennessee Titans: 5 points

63. Arizona Cardinals — Cody Brown, LB, Connecticut
Despite picking in unfamiliar territory, the Cardinals don’t seem to have a problem acquiring quality players late in these rounds.

Arizona Cardinals: 7 points

64. Denver Broncos — Richard Quinn, TE, North Carolina
Why did they trade up for this guy?  You have Sheffler and Daniel Graham, and you are going to shop Sheffler for…Richard Quinn?  Really?  The Moreno pick is defensable, but this is just a weird pick for a team that still needs a ton of defensive help.

Denver Broncos: 13 points

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Green Bay Trades Up For Matthews, Colts Nab Donald Brown

Pick 26, Green Bay Packers — Clay Matthews, LB, USC

I really like the Packers’ decision to make this trade.  They go up, get a player who has slid down further than was expected, and use him as you transition to the 3-4 as an outside linebacker.  I think this is one of the more imaginative moves of the drafts to this point, and Green Bay is doing quite the job in their defensive transition.

Green Bay Packers: 11 points

Pick 27, Indianapolis Colts — Donald Brown, RB, Connecticut

Following the lead of successful teams who have employed two running backs, the Colts have paired Donald Brown with Joseph Addai.  Addai’s contract runs through 2010, but Donald Brown will be asked to help improve an offense that ranked 31st in rushing last season.  The Colts probably could have grabbed a running back later for the same effect, but they must have really prefered Brown to take him over Beanie Wells.

Indianapolis Colts: 3 points

Pick 28, Buffalo Bills (from Carolina via Philadelphia) — Eric Wood, C, Louisville

Wood gives the Bills two Guard/Center hybrids on their roster, along with free agent signee Geoff Hangartner.  The pick makes sense, to me at least, because Wood was a stronger prospect than any of the available Guards.  The Bills offensive coaches will enjoy the flexibility of being able to piece together the starting OL in training camp.

Buffalo Bills: 6 points

Pick 29, New York Giants — Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina

Okay, so they passed over Kenny Britt, who has the height that Eli Manning requires, and went with Hakeem Nicks, who has no skill that their offense requires.  Don’t they already have four of this player?

New York Giants: 0 points

Pick 30, Tennessee Titans — Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers

Britt is a very polished route runner for a junior, and makes a lot of sense for the type of team the Titans want to be. The rumor here was that the pick would have been used on a corner, but I think the Titans knew that they needed to get in on this run on receivers right now.  I’d rather have Britt than either Harvin or Nicks.

Tennessee Titans: 4 points

Pick 31, Arizona Cardinals — Chris Wells, RB, Ohio State

Wells wasn’t supposed to be here at No. 31, with some mocks even projecting him as a top 5 pick.  So at 31, this gives the Cards a running back who is better than Tim Hightower, and gives them the freedom to release Edgerrin James and save 5 million dollars against the cap.

Arizona Cardinals: 4 points

Pick 32, Pittsburgh Steelers — Evander Hood, DE, Missouri

The Steelers properly addressed this need, because even though they need help on the OL and at CB, the DL was the one position where the Steelers needed to be strong to keep the status quo on defense.  It’s tough to project Hood to the 3-4 but he seems like a good scheme fit, and the Steelers don’t seem to miss on this sort of thing.

Pittsburgh Steelers: 4 points

Trippiedi’s Best Available
RB LeSean McCoy
LB Rey Maualuga
LB James Laurinaitis
DE Everette Brown
WR Brian Robiske

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Cleveland (Finally) Selects Mack, Minnesota Adds Harvin

Pick 21, Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia) — Alex Mack, C, California

Great work by the Browns who have accumulated 4 points for trading down 3 times, and then landing a guy who they had much higher than anyone on their board.  Once they got the deal done with the Jets for Sanchez, Mack became a realistic target, and he’s an instant impact guy for a team with a need at the position, and a need that was correctly identified by the Browns.

Cleveland Browns: 8 points

Pick 22, Minnesota Vikings — Percy Harvin, WR, Florida

I don’t know.  The Vikings have issues on the right side of the offensive line and in the middle.  Alex Mack just went, but Michael Oher is still out there.  The word “explosive” is popular around Harvin, but that’s not going to fit will in Minnesota, a team that has plenty of playmakers and no one to get them the ball or block for them.

Minnesota Vikings: 0 points

Pick 23, Baltimore Ravens (from Patriots) — Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi

Oher is not at all a need pick for the Ravens, but at this point, he’s clearly the best man available.  The Ravens already have a great young offensive line, but because they lost Jason Brown to free agency, I’m not at all surprised that this pick happened.  Great work by a team that is committed to building through the trenches.  1 pick for the trade as well.

Baltimore Ravens: 5 points

Pick 24, Atlanta Falcons — Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi

This guy can get after the passer.  I had the Falcons addressing this position in the draft after deciding to go elsewhere in the first round last year, but Peria Jerry is a great scheme fit for the Atlanta Falcons and they’ll collect all the points.  Thomas Dimitroff continues to impress us all.

Atlanta Falcons: 4 points

Pick 25, Miami Dolphins — Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois

This was the biggest need area on the Dolphins, and with Vontae Davis still on the board, this was a pretty easy pick.  Another ho-hum steal for the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the round.

Miami Dolphins: 4 points

Trippiedi’s Best Available
11. RB Chris Wells
14. RB LeSean McCoy
15. LB Rey Maualuga
16. LB Clay Matthews
17. LB James Laurinaitis

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English Heads for San Diego, Freeman is a Buc

Pick 16, San Diego Chargers — Larry English, OLB, Northern Illinois

Mel Kiper is right, this is a luxury pick, but it’s not really the best choice in that respect.  They must really like English to take him this high, and they really need to commit to Shawne Merriman, not alienate him.  The Chargers are a BPA organization, but I don’t like this pick as a BPA, especially with the kind of talent that is left.

San Diego Chargers: 1 point

The maximum process points available is now 4 the rest of the round.

Pick 17, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (from NY Jets via Cleveland) — Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State

The trade up was pretty meaningless: Freeman would have been there at 19, but they only gave up a 6th round pick.  The pick is ever important.  Josh Freeman has to pan out.  And it’s hard to say whether Jeff Jagodzinski is going to have his hands full here.  He’s a smart guy, and throws a great ball, but it’s hard to see him on the same tier as the other guys.  This feels like desperation from the Bucs, but they appear to be sold on him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2 points

Pick 18, Denver Broncos (from Chicago) — Robert Ayers, OLB, Tennessee

Ayers is a pure pass rusher who was a one year wonder in college, and I think he’s a very interesting centerpiece for a team in the front seven.  I actually think it’s a great situation for him.  Ayers can go in and be “the guy” which is a role that suits his personality well.  My only question about Ayers is whether or not a one year wonder is a good scheme fit out of position like this.  As is, the Broncos get three process points.

Denver Broncos: 6 points

Pick 19, Philadelphia Eagles (from Tampa Bay via Cleveland) — Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri

Apparently, the Eagles have a much higher grade on Maclin than I did, because they went up above Detroit to get him.  Detroit likely wouldn’t have taken him, so maybe they were afraid someone would trade with Detroit for him.  Interesting.  I’ll give them one point for the proactive trade, but only one point for Maclin, who gives them another versatile weapon, but I don’t think he fits what the Eagles want to be.

Philadelphia Eagles: 2 points

Pick 20, Detroit Lions (from Dallas) — Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State

This was absolutely a need addressed by the Lions, and Pettigrew’s don’t come around every  year.  They got him well behind his slot, and the Lions seem to be doing BPA better than at any point in the Millen era.  However, while a TE doesn’t make the Lions any more likely to break out as a young up-and-coming team, Pettigrew should be in his prime when the Lions return to prominance.  So from that aspect, this is a good pick.

Detroit Lions: 9 points

Trippiedi’s Best Available
5. OT Michael Oher
11. RB Chris Wells
12. C Alex Mack
14. RB LeSean McCoy
15. LB Rey Maualuga

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Maybin Heads to North America’s Team, Broncos go for a Runner

Pick 11, Buffalo Bills — Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State

The Bills land a guy who looks on tape to be a natural pass rusher.  I think the Bills are a pretty good situation for Maybin, if only because I feel he would have been a disaster in the 3-4.  He appears to be able to rush the passer with his hand in the ground, and he’ll be a weapon in the Bills 4-3 defense.  However, I just don’t like Maybin at the money, so I’m going to dock the Bills a few process points.  They’ll keep two because I’m interested to see how this high-risk high-reward guy will pan out.

Buffalo Bills: 2 points

Pick 12, Denver Broncos — Knowshon Moreno, DE, Georgia

This is the first real shocker of the NFL Draft.  With all the picks they have, the Broncos can afford to use picks on both sides of the football.  But Knowshon Moreno is a multi faceted runner who should thrive behind this offensive line.  Moreno is a big winner in this trade because he’s in a great situation for a running back.  He can be a feature back in this offense, and a great weapon out of the backfield.  It was an interesting, not perfect process, for the Broncos, so we’ll compensate them with 3 points.

Denver Broncos: 3 points

Pick 13, Washington Redskins — Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas

The Redskins had a really screwed up draft process, including multiple exploitations of their own quarterback, but at the end of the day, they are getting a really dynamic pick.  I really, really want to slap them silly with no process points for irritating their franchise QB, but they made two correct moves: they didn’t trade up for Mark Sanchez, and they emphatically turned the card in within one minute.  So, I’ll give the Redskins 4 process points for a great move.

Washington Redskins: 4 points

Pick 14, New Orleans Saints — Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State

The Saints have now landed the best defensive back in the draft, well behind his value slot.

Jenkins has shut down corner skills, but might be asked to move to safety due to speed concerns.  I wouldn’t do it.  I would leave Malcolm Jenkins at corner, where he can be a physical, technique based shutdown corner who really moves the Saints defense to the next level.

New Orleans Saints: 5 points

Pick 15, Houston Texans — Brian Cushing, OLB, USC

I like how the Texans well-disguised their intentions in the draft by signing Cato June and Buster Davis.  Then they fill their biggest need with Brian Cushing.  After evaluating all the potential options, they settled on the established injury-risk.  His bust potential scares the crap out of me, but Houston did their due diligence here.  We’ll compromise with the points.

Houston Texans: 5 points

Trippiedi’s Best Available
OT Michael Oher
TE Brandon Pettigrew
RB Chris Wells
C Alex Mack
LB Rey Maualuga

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Andre Smith is the Newest Bengal, Raiders Surprise with Heyward-Bey

Pick 6, Cincinnati Bengals — Andre Smith, OT, Alabama

Last year I gave the Bengals no points for taking Keith Rivers because they locked onto him too early in the process, especially for a top ten linebacker.  This time around, I think they got it right.

Andre Smith was up, then down, then up in the draft.  I personally don’t see him as a Left Tackle, and the Bengals have a propensity for mismanaging players.  This might be a rough situation for Andre Smith, so I can’t give the Bengals the full amount of points.  But I think they did a relatively good job this time around.

Cincinnati Bengals: 4 points

Pick 7, Oakland Raiders — Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

I’m not going to lambaste the Raiders for passing on Crabtree after he openly dissed the Raiders earlier this week, but Crabtree was the only receiver worth taking at this slot.  If you are going to pass on Crabtree, fine, do it, but then get a player that fills a bigger need.

I think Heyward-Bey has a good chance to be a great player for some team, but on the Raiders, we know they don’t have the player development system to make this pick work.  It’s really more of the same old, same old.

Oakland Raiders: 0 points

Pick 8, Jacksonville Jaguars — Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia

Maybe a bit of a surprise pick here by the Jaguars, but boy, did they get great value on it.  Monroe is a guy who should be able to start as a rookie at LT, and he can slide FA acquisition Tra Thomas over to the right side as soon as he is ready.  Monroe might not be a fantastic left tackle, but it makes the decision to not resign Khalif Barnes a lot more tolerable.  Great blend of need and value.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 5 points

Pick 9, Green Bay Packers — B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College

The best player on the MVN board is heading to Green Bay.  The Packers are switching to a 3-4 defense, and need all the beef they can get up front.  Raji is beef, but he’s also a great player in the front who can be moved around the defensive line in order to exploit matchups.  Green Bay and Raji are a great match, and it’s one of the best picks of the draft thus far.

Green Bay Packers: 5 points

Pick 10, San Francisco 49ers — Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech

The 49ers were expecting defense to be the pick all the way up through the draft process, but they also didn’t expect to have a shot at Crabtree without having to trade up.  The mark of an organization that is going in the right direction is the ability to see an oppertunity, and have the faith in their ability to fill their needs later in the draft in order to grab that BPA when you get a clear oppertunity to do so.  This is a game changing weapon for an NFC West team that badly needed one.

San Francisco 49ers: 5 points

Trippiedi’s Best Available
OT Michael Oher
TE Brandon Pettigrew
DE Brian Orakpo
CB Malcolm Jenkins
RB Chris Wells

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Matthew Stafford Highlights Top Five Picks

The NFL Draft is under way.

Pick 1, Detroit Lions — Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia

The Lions get their franchise Quarterback.  Supposedly.  What is more promising is how well they performed the process.  The Lions had a deal in principle agreed to with LB Aaron Curry.  It was reportedly for $30 million in guaranteed money.  But the Lions spent $41 million on the guy they believe will be the next great passer.  The Lions are making a stand: they are not going to waste the best years of Calvin Johnson’s career with below expectation QB play.

How the Lions develop Stafford is more important than who he is coming out of Georgia.  He’s not a very solid prospect right now, but he’s “toolzy” and loaded with potential.  The Lions are getting all the process points.

Detroit Lions: 5 points

Pick 2, St. Louis Rams — Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

The best OL player in the draft is off the board.  Jason Smith is not only one of the best players available, but arguably fills the biggest need in the entire draft: Rams LT.  He’s a natural pass protector who still has work to do in the running game.  This guy was the very best offensive player on the MVN Big Board, and he’s about as close to a sure fire prospect as you can get in the NFL draft.  This is a great pick.

St. Louis Rams: 5 points

Pick 3, Kansas City Chiefs — Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU

Tyson Jackson is mostly a scheme fit player, and I’m not sure that he’s a better scheme fit than Aaron Curry, but I still like the pick.  He became the heartthrob of any team sporting or transitioning to a 3-4 defense because he’s such a rare breed as an NFL 5 technique who can get after the passer.  Based on last year’s results, the Chiefs need all the help they can get.

Kansas City Chiefs: 4 points

Pick 4, Seattle Seahawks — Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest

Aaron Curry is the number one player on most everyones board, and it was a really shrewd move by the Seahawks to deal Julian Peterson when they did and figuring a way to land a guy who could very much be a draft day steal at the fourth overall pick.  He’s the complete player who not only gives them an immediate fit at OLB, but also gives contract flexibility with Leroy Hill and some athleticsm to help out Lofa Tatupu.

Seattle Seahawks: 5 points

Pick 5, New York Jets (from Cleveland) — Mark Sanchez, QB, USC

We don’t yet know the parameters of the trade for Sanchez, but we know its going to be a blockbuster.

New York is a great situation for Mark Sanchez, and he’s very lucky he didn’t end up with the mess of an organization the Redskins have right now.  The Jets are about as good a situation as you can get for a rookie QB.  With that said, I don’t know how well Sanchez will play as a rookie, or whether or not he’s even a good bet to pan out.  However, it’s a big time move by a New York team, bigger than the Favre trade, and there’s a lot of optimism in that building right now.

No points for the trade.

New York Jets: 2 points

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NFL Outsider Mock Drafts: Trippiedi’s Final Call

As promised, this will be my best attempt at figuring out how the NFL draft will go on Saturday.  I’ll try to project all logical trades in this space, but certainly won’t be able to chart all the action that will happen.  Put simply, I’ll be satisfied if I nail team intentions correctly in the draft.

It seems like the media is catching up to teams in terms of figuring out smokescreens.  That should help me a lot in this process.  We’ll check back on Sunday to see how accurately this two round mock really was (don’t get your hopes up).

Round 1

1.  Detroit Lions — Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia
Jim Schwartz thinks he can win with Matthew Stafford.  And if Jim Schwartz thinks he can win with Matthew Stafford, then I agree with him.  I’m still not convinced that he’s worth the money though.  Stafford is a deadly accurate passer who might struggle to make decisions at the next level.

2. St. Louis Rams — Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia (pictured at right)
There’s even money on Monroe and Jason Smith at this pick, but the Rams can’t afford to miss.  I think they’ll take Monroe over Smith because Monroe is a four year starter at Virginia, and can play from day one.

3. Kansas City Chiefs — Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU
Look for the Jets to try to circumvent the Redskins’ active plan to get Mark Sanchez by making a play at the 3rd overall pick for Sanchez.  At the end of the day, I think Tyson Jackson gets the nod here.  He’s a bookend defensive line mate in the 3-4 for Glenn Dorsey going forward, and he’s an excellent prospect who can get pressure on the QB as well.

4. Seattle Seahawks — Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest
The Redskins have a deal in place for the 4th overall pick, but it’s contingent on them getting a package they want for QB Jason Campbell.  I don’t think they are going to get it.  The Hawks will be forced to keep this pick.  Aaron Curry fills the void made by Julian Peterson, and gives them flexibility with Leroy Hill next offseason.

5. Cleveland Browns — Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
I think the Browns are just bluffing on Mark Sanchez in an attempt to get value on Brady Quinn, because I think Eric Mangini has an unhealthy man-crush on Derek Anderson.  Sorry, Browns fans.  Michael Crabtree was going to be the pick, but reports that the Browns took him off their board for character concerns at the eleventh hour appear to be backed by empirical evidence about last minute visits from other receiving prospects.  I know the Browns love Jenkins, and would like to get him a little lower, but assuming they can’t swing any trades for Sanchez or Crabtree, I think they will take him at five.

6. Cincinnati Bengals — Andre Smith, OT, Alabama
Teams at the top of the draft seem to love Smith, which makes up for the teams at the bottom of the draft who don’t think he’ll be a good pro and happen to win every year.  If the Bengals were smart, they’d field offers for Mark Sanchez, but they aren’t smart, and will not field offers for Sanchez.  Imagine that.

7. New York Jets (projected trade from Oakland) — Mark Sanchez, QB, USC
I don’t know how much faith I have in Oakland making this decision to trade down, but the man I think Al Davis was locked into, WR Michael Crabtree, openly disrespected the Raiders on a recent draft chat.  Al Davis won’t stand for that much like he won’t stand for coaches who only win once a month with the highly paid roster he has spent years carefully building, so with Crabtree off the Raiders board, I think they’ll field offers.  The Jets can put together a package that includes their first and second round picks to get in place to draft Mark Sanchez.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars — Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
The Jaguars will be thrilled to end Crabtree’s slide here.  They get a player who can turn Torry Holt into a complementary target by 2010.

9. Green Bay Packers — Jason Smith, OT, Baylor
Smith also slid further than he was expecting in this mock draft, and under any other situation, the Packers would go for defense, and take the number one player on the NFL Outsider board, B.J. Raji, but I have a feeling Smith will be the pick for the Packers.

10. Houston Texans (projected trade with 49ers) — B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College
With Raji sliding due not to concerns about his play, but only because teams view other needs more seriously than DT or NT, the Texans who want to build around their DL take a shot at moving up for the cost of a third round pick and a fifth round pick and land the best DT in the draft.

11. Buffalo Bills — Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee
A lot of people would expect the pick here to be on offense, maybe even at RB, but Ayers fixes the Bills’ biggest need, a pass rusher from the right side who can get to the quarterback.

12. Denver Broncos — Aaron Maybin, OLB, Penn State
The 49ers might have traded down thanks to a limited interest in Maybin, but that opens the door for the Broncos to strike.  They need to build the defense around a dynamic player, and though I doubt that Maybin is that guy, a lot of NFL execs would like to tell me where to stick it on that one.

13. Washington Redskins — Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
After being brutally forced to play with QB Jason Campbell (thankfully), the Redskins turn to the big man in the middle of the Trojans’ defense with the 13th pick.  Maualuga becomes the heir apparent to aging London Fletcher, and plugs in as a SLB as a rookie for the Redskins.  His skill set doesn’t neccesarily fit with what the Redskins want to do this year, but whatever, I mean, it’s not like the team planned to pick at 13 anyway.

Plus, in reference to Mark Sanchez; If you can’t beat em, get someone who has been around him.

14. New Orleans Saints — Clay Matthews, LB, USC
I see your Maualuga and raise you a Matthews.  Matthews is far more “toolzy” than Rey is, but is less of a complete prospect.  However, with Jonathon Vilma in the middle of the Saints defense, this is a nice complementary part for the Saints.

15. San Francisco 49ers (projected trade from Houston) — Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas
After Ayers went before this guy, it’s the 49ers who feel they can best turn the Texas DE into a special type of OLB.  He’ll come after QBs from both sides, and head coach Mike
Singletary will try to use Orakpo as a matchup nightmare.

16. San Diego Chargers — Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi
Oher is a top tier tackle who has fallen thanks to…well, thanks to a run on Quarterbacks and Defensive Linemen.  He’s their starting RT as a rookie and could end up bumping Marcus McNeil to the right side before things are said and done.

17. Oakland Raiders (projected trade from Jets) — Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri
At this slot, taking a flyer on Maclin isn’t a terrible pick.  He’s got the speed to please the eyes of the Raiders’ coaches, but does he have the dance moves to unseat Johnnie Lee Higgins as de-facto Touchdown Scorer on the team?

18. Denver Broncos (from Chicago) — Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois
I think the Broncos would be wise to get in on a CB in the middle of the round after finding their defensive “centerpiece” with the 12th pick.  I like Davis’ ability to read plays and use his incredible physical giftedness to make plays on the ball.

19. Baltimore Ravens (projected trade from Tampa Bay) — Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Ohio State
Beanie has injury concerns, but ultimately is the best pure runner in the class.  His limitations come in the passing game, where he’s good with the ball in his hands, but is a questionable blocker and is somewhat of an unknown quantity as a route runner.  Yes, even given those limitations, I’m guessing the Ravens will go up to get their hands on him.

20. Detroit Lions (from Dallas) — Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi
The Lions will try to use Jerry as a defensive end in the 3-4 scheme.  The ability of teams to successfully transition defensive lineman from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is never a sure thing, but it’s worth the risk for the Lions.  If they can get pressure from the front three or four, a repeat of last years secondary meltdown will not occur.

21. Philadelphia Eagles — Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia
The Eagles pass on Brandon Pettigrew to land a more dynamic offensive player to take some of the pressure off of Brian Westbrook, who is also a good scheme fit.

22. Minnesota Vikings — Eben Britton, OT, Arizona
Britton thinks he’s going to be a Viking, and this pick makes the most sense for the team.  He profiles best as a right tackle, and at this combination of slot money and talent, a need pick makes more sense for the Vikings than BPA.  It’s not often I’ll say that, since I’m a BPA guy.

23. New England Patriots — Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State
Bill Belichick has a history of using his late first round picks on tight ends, and Pettigrew is a guy with clear top 15 value who is down here because other team valued need over talent in this mock.  Ben Watson has been in almost unbelievable decline, and Chris Baker is best suited to be a complementary part anyhow.

24. Atlanta Falcons — Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut
This pick is going to be on defense, and with talent at LB expected to be available later on, the Falcons go with the corner to replace Dominique Foxworth, who bolted for the Ravens.  Butler has the size and experience to handle the responsibility of being the Falcons no. 1 CB.

25. Miami Dolphins — Brian Robiske, WR, Ohio State
The Dolphins under Bill Parcells will certainly value Robiske over more dynamic targets such as Darrius Heyward-Bey and Percy Harvin, especially given the continued presence of the developing Ted Ginn Jr, also of Ohio State, opposite him.  Robiske has bloodlines that would attract Parcells, and hands that will make Chad Pennington a happy man next year and Chad Henne happy in the future.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (projected trade from Ravens) — Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State
I really don’t think the Bucs are high on Freeman as maybe some other teams are, but after they have pulled off this trade-down, and failed to land Jason Campbell via trade, Freeman is not a bad developmental type prospect.  He’s physically imposing and clearly took over games in college.  His reputation is spotty, though, in terms of game management and consistency factor.

27. Detroit Lions (projected trade from Indianapolis Colts) — William Beatty, OT, Connecticut
The Lions jump back into the first round for a third time by giving up their second rounder to the Colts and flip-flopping third round picks.  After passing on an OT at No. 1 overall, the Lions get their bookend tackle, even though they had to jump ahead of the Bills to land him.

28. Buffalo Bills (from Philadelphia) — Jared Cook, TE, South Carolina
The Bills have shown that they will reach for a player they like if he is the top player on their board.  Given the huge hole the team has had at Tight End forever now, Cook will give another weapon to a young QB.

29. New York Giants — James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State
Color me skeptical on the Giants being sold on local product Kenny Britt as Eli Manning’s next great receiver.  I think this team is going the veteran route if anything at that position.  On defense Laurinaitis can simply wait in the wings while Antonio Pierce plays out the effective phase of his career for the Giants.

30. Tennessee Titans — Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland
The dynamic playmaker is the very next piece in the re-establishment of the Titans offense as one of the top units in the game of football.  It’s hard to pass on defense with the quality of names that are on the board, but the Titans have to think offense first given the questions about Vince Young.

31. Arizona Cardinals — Alex Mack, C, Cal
I think if Mack falls to this point, the Cardinals will lock in on the intelligent Center who perfected his trade under Jeff Tedford at Cal.

32. Pittsburgh Steelers — Jarron Gilbert, DE, San Jose State
The Steelers are a trenches first team and a defense first team.  They don’t often use high picks on offensive lineman, and can plan to get one later on in the draft.  The part of the Steelers well-oiled machine that could derail the unit if it leaks is the defensive front, which is where Gilbert’s skills best profile.

Round 1 Summary
Best Players Available (Per NFL Outsider Big Board)
14. LeSean McCoy, RB, Pitt
19. Everette Brown, DE, Florida State
24. Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State
26. Evander Hood, DT, Missouri
27. Alphonzo Smith, CB, Wake Forest

Round 2

33. Indianapolis Colts (projected trade with Detroit) — Everette Brown, DE, Florida State
Brown is the type of defensive end that fits the Colts scheme perfectly.  Plus, when you consider that the Colts feel that DTs are largely fungible, Brown gives them an immediate injury policy for either of their guys up front (Mathis or Freeney) and leverage in contract negotiations with either.

34. New England Patriots (from Kansas City) — Connor Barwin, LB, Cincinnati
The Patriots are all about guys with versatility from winning programs.  Barwin played for two coaches at Cincinnati: he was recruited by Mark Dantonio, who is now at Michigan State, and played his final two seasons under Brian Kelly.  Both coaches have won whereever they’ve been and, well, the Patriots’ HC is much of the same mold.  Oh yeah, versatility.

35. St. Louis Rams — Brian Cushing, LB, USC
Cushing’s slide must end here.  To save energy, I’m just going to copy a sentence I just wrote.  The [Rams] are all about guys with versatility from winning programs.  Or at least they are now.

36. Cleveland Browns — Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers
The Browns need that dynamic offensive weapon to potentially replace Braylon Edwards in the offense.  Potentially.  Of course.

37. Seattle Seahawks — Sean Smith, CB, Utah
The Seahawks need to find a way to add some size to those corners.  Smith stands at 6’3″ on a bad day, so he profiles as the future of the position for the ‘Hawks.

38. Cincinnati Bengals — Donald Brown, RB, Connecticut
Brown becomes the third player from UConn off the board in this mock draft.  The Bengals like his character and makeup, which makes the punchline too obvious to actually go through with.  He’s legitimately a good guy and a strong runner, unlike his backfield mate.

39. Washington Redskins (projected trade with Jacksonville) — Duke Robinson, G, Oklahoma
The Redskins find a new way to toss away their draft picks next year, by moving up out of the third round and into the middle of the second.  Robinson is likely not a guard with the Redskins, he’s the favorite to start at RT ahead of Stephon Heyer.

40. Oakland Raiders — Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech
Writing fastest available player isn’t fun anymore, so instead, we can talk about a player who runs really well at a position where you don’t normally find them.  This is probably a reach, but Johnson looks like a great NFL pass rusher.  That’s got to be worth something in the range of two, three rounds, right?

41. Green Bay Packers — Alex Magee, DE, Purdue
After going with the offensive stud in the first round, the Packers turn right around and look for 3-4 adaptable defensive players.  Magee is the kind of guy who can get pressure on the QB from the 5-technique, and that makes him a valuable commodity.

42. Buffalo Bills — Jamon Meredith, OT, South Carolina
With pass rusher and tight end already addressed, this pick is the best available offensive lineman.  On my board, that is South Carolina’s Jamon Meredith, so the assumption is that the Bills will take another player from The USC here.

43. San Francisco 49ers — Alphonzo Smith, CB, Wake Forest
This pick would not necessarily be on defense, but if it is, it will certainly address the secondary.  Alphonzo Smith is a great cover guy, and a major hitter, and is only here at this slot because he tends to be on the shorter side.

44. Miami Dolphins (from Washington) — Percy Harvin, WR, Florida
This is the second straight pick at the position by the Dolphins, but it is a major position of need, and at this point, Harvin is too dynamic a player to not draft.

45. New York Giants (from New Orleans) — Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri
The fast rising prospect makes for an excellent intermediate target for Eli Manning and allows Kevin Boss to specialize on those shorter range routes that he is so great at.

46. Houston Texans — Rashad Jennings, RB, Liberty
The Texans need another runner, and because of scheme differences, they can’t be the team that stops LeSean McCoy’s draft day slide.  Jennings is the best possible backfield partner with Steve Slaton.

47. New England Patriots (from San Diego) — LeSean McCoy, RB, Pitt
The Patriots continue to lead the field in putting together the best the NFL draft has to offer every year.  McCoy is the no. 2 RB on my board, but the fifth off the board in this mock draft.

48. Denver Broncos — Louis Delmas, S, Western Michigan
Denver, apparently, is where the secondary comes first!  Delmas is well past his projected slot here and the Broncos have had success before with players from Kalamazoo when they went to the well on Tony Sheffler.  Delmas is the top safety in the draft and an immediate impact player for the Broncos.

49. Chicago Bears — Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State
This is the ideal situation for the Bears, to land the dynamic receiver/kick returner here at no. 49 without having to move around with the picks they don’t have thanks to the Jay Cutler trade.

50. Cleveland Browns (from Tampa Bay) — Darry Beckwith, LB, LSU
It makes sense for the Browns to sit on those veteran DL acquisitions for one more year while they move to get additional talent behind them.  Beckwith is a scheme adaptable player who profiles as an inside backer in the 3-4.

51. Dallas Cowboys — Kevin Barnes, CB, Maryland
The Cowboys are almost a sure thing to go defense first despite obvious issues on the OL.  Barnes is no shutdown corner, but he brings a physical presence to a secondary that has arguably gone soft.

52. Oakland Raiders (projected trade with Jets) — Rashad Johnson, S, Alabama
Despite spend an overwhelming amount of resources at the position, the Raiders still have a very limited amount of talent at safety.  This should change that.

53. Philadelphia Eagles — Eric Wood, C, Louisville
Wood may be a guy who is much higher on the Eagles board than people think.  With LT addressed, the Eagles can move their attention to the interior of the OL, and finding a guy who can challenge Jamaal Jackson for a starting position.

54. Minnesota Vikings — Max Ungar, C, Oregon
The Vikings draft Ungar, and will hand him the keys to the offensive line.  After 51 college starts, he’s as prepared as he’s ever going to get.

55. Atlanta Falcons — Evander Hood, DT, Missouri
Even with the prospect of an outside linebacker on the board, I think the Falcons are going to go with the help up front first.  Get some pressure from the interior line, and all of a sudden, fans won’t even notice that Coy Wire started 16 games at linebacker.

56. Miami Dolphins — David Bruton, S, Notre Dame
The super-high character safety brings a physical attitude to the game as well.  He’s rangy, smart, a leader, and pretty much anything the Dolphins could want in their safety.

57. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (projected trade with Baltimore) — Mohammad Massaquoi, WR, Georgia
If you are taking a developmental Quarterback, it’s imperative that you get pieces that can also help with the development of said Quarterback.

58. New England Patriots — Gerald Cadogan, OT, Penn State
The Patriots are thinner on the OL than people think, and I really believe they’ll try to address it with their plethora of picks on Saturday.

59. Carolina Panthers — Lawrence Sidbury Jr, DE, Richmond
Take that Julius Peppers!

60. New York Giants — Ramses Barden, WR, Cal Poly
I’m thinking the Giants are still looking to move this pick for a veteran WR such as Anquan Boldin, but Barden has the size to fit perfectly in the Giants’ downfield offense.

61. Indianapolis Colts — Mike Thomas, WR, Arizona
Another developmental target for Peyton Manning.

62. Tennessee Titans — D.J. Moore, CB, Vanderbilt
I think the Titans will reach just a little bit for the local product, who will have the benefit of sitting behind Nick Harper for a year and performing as the team’s nickel back.

63. Arizona Cardinals — Andre Brown, RB, North Carolina State
Andre Brown had been flying up draft boards, but the way this mock draft ended up breaking down, he’s an easy pick for the Cards at 63.

64. Pittsburgh Steelers — T.J. Lang, G, Eastern Michigan
The Steelers pick up a guard at the back end of the second round to fortify their offensive line.

Round 2 Summary
Best Players Available
28. Clint Sintim, LB, Virginia
45. Larry English, LB, Northern Illinois
46. James Casey, TE, Rice
47. Ron Brace, DT, Boston College
49. Paul Kruger, DE, Utah

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NFL Outsider Draft Rankings by Unit: Defense

Previous Draft Ranking Groupings: Passing Offense, Rushing Offense

I decided when I began this rankings by unit deal that I would not separate defense in to a rushing and a passing section.  It’s not that I don’t believe that defensive players don’t have some skills that are better used for run-stopping and other that are better for shutting down passers, it’s that a defense has to adjust to however an offense plans to schematically attack them.  If an NFL offensive coordinator wanted to “throw” on 100% of plays during the season, he could still build a diverse offense off of that concept.  If a defense wanted to play with 9 defensive backs in it’s base set to stop the pass, they likely won’t face a pass all year.  That’s just game theory.

So with that in mind, I am going to take the top 100 or so defensive players and rank them by perceived value to an NFL average defense.  Basically, I’m trying to rank the most impactful players at the top, and the lesser impactful players at the bottom.  Too often, teams will lock into “positions of need” while ignoring the big picture.  If your rushing defense is sub-par, it’s not necessarily an issue with the middle linebacker.  By labeling that as a position of need, teams often limit their ability to fix the problem with the best prospect available when they pick.  This way seems intuitively stronger.

Per usual, the “Grades” below are just to help keep this in order. Without further delay, here is MVN Outsider’s list of the Top 100 prospects who will help NFL defenses:

Top Ten Grade

1. B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College

2. Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest

3. Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas

4. Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State

5. Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU

Mid-first Round Grade

6.  Rey Maualuga, LB, USC

7.  Clay Matthews, LB, USC

8.  James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State

9.  Peria Jerry, DT, Ole Miss

10. Everette Brown, DE, Florida State

11. Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois

Late-first Round Grade

12. Evander Hood, DT, Missouri

13. Alphonzo Smith, CB, Wake Forest

14. Clint Sintim, LB, Virginia

15. Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee

16. Sean Smith, CB, Utah

17. Brian Cushing, LB, USC

2nd Round Grade

18. Louis Delmas, S, Western Michigan

19. Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut

20. Alex Magee, DE, Purdue

21. Connor Barwin, LB, Cincinnati

22. Larry English, LB, Northern Illinois

23. Ron Brace, DT, Boston College

24. Paul Kruger, DE, Utah

25. David Bruton, S, Notre Dame

26. Rashad Johnson, S, Alabama

27. Victor Harris, CB, Virginia Tech

28. Mike Mickens, CB, Cincinnati

29. Darry Beckwith, LB, LSU

3rd Round Grade

30. Kevin Barnes, CB, Maryland

31. Patrick Chung, S, Oregon

32. Jarron Gilbert, DE, San Jose State

33. Vance Walker, DT, Georgia Tech

34. Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech

35. Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State

36. Scott McKillop, LB, Pitt

37. Sherron Martin, CB, Troy

38. Fili Moala, DT, USC

39. Lawrence Sidbury, DE, Richmond

40. Jason Phillips, LB, TCU

41. Kyle Moore, DE, USC

42. D.J. Moore, CB, Vanderbilt

43. Greg Toler, CB, St. Pauls College

44. William Moore, S, Missouri

45. Michael Hamlin, S, Clemson

46. Jarius Byrd, CB, Oregon

47. Cody Brown, LB, Connecticut

48. Marcus Freeman, LB, Ohio State

49. David Veikune, DE, Hawaii

50. Chip Vaughn, S, Wake Forest

4th Round Grade

51. Dorrell Scott, DT, Clemson

52. Tyrone McKenzie, LB, USF

53. John Gill, DT, Northwestern

54. C.J. Spiller, S, Marshall

55. Roy Miller, DT, Texas

56. Zach Potter, DT, Nebraska

57. Dan Skuta, LB, Grand Valley State

58. Jason Williams, LB, Western Illinois

59. Otis Wiley, S, Michigan State

60. Jonathon Casillias, LB, Wisconsin

61. DeAngelo Smith, CB, Cincinnati

62. Brandon Underwood, S, Cincinnati

63. Zack Follett, LB, California

64. Darcel McBath, S, Texas Tech

65. Sammie Lee Hill, DT, Stillman

66. Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Georgia

67. Terrence Taylor, DT, Michigan

68. Brandon Williams, DE, Texas Tech

69. Orion Harris, DE, Virginia Tech

5th Round Grade

70. Will Davis, DE, Illinois

71. Gerald McRath, LB, Southern Mississippi

72. Ricky Jean-Francois, DT, LSU

73. Stanley Arnoux, LB, Wake Forest

74. Coye Francis, CB, San Jose State

75. Will Johnson, DE, Michigan

76. Asher Allen, CB, Georgia

77. Courtney Greene, S, Rutgers

78. Chris Clemons, S, Clemson

79. Sen’Derrick Marks, DT, Auburn

80. Emanuel Cook, S, South Carolina

81. Curtis Taylor, S, LSU

82. Bradley Fletcher, CB, Iowa

6th Round Grade

83. Maurice Crum, LB, Notre Dame

84. Tim Jamison, DE, Michigan

85. Donald Washington, CB, Ohio State

86. Derek Pegues, S, Mississippi State

87. Matt Shaughnessy, DE, Wisconsin

88. Stryker Sulak, DE, Missouri

89. Kaluka Maiava, LB, USC

90. Nic Harris, LB, Oklahoma

91. Derek Walker, DE, Illinois

92. Ian Campbell, DE, Kansas State

93. Brandon Hughes, CB, Oregon State

7th Round Grade

94. Mitch King, DE, Iowa

95. Darryl Richard, DT, Georgia Tech

96. Michael Bennett, DE, Texas A&M

97. Stephen Hodge, LB, TCU

98. Keenan Lewis, CB, Oregon State

99. Antonio Appleby, LB, Virginia

100. DeAndre Levy, LB, Wisconsin

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NFL Outsider Draft Rankings by Unit: Rushing Offense

Previous Draft Ranking Groupings: Passing Offense

Yesterday, we looked at 100 draft prospects who could help a league average passing offense.  Today, we check out 100 guys who could help a team improve it’s running game.

We are going to take the top 100 or so offensive players and rank them by perceived value to an NFL average rushing offense.  There will be blockers on this list as well, of course.  Basically, I’m trying to rank the most impactful players at the top, and the lesser impactful players at the bottom.  Too often, teams will lock into “positions of need” while ignoring the big picture.  If your rushing offense is sub-par, it’s not necessarily an issue with the running back.  By labeling that as a position of need, teams often limit their ability to fix the problem with the best prospect available when they pick.  This way seems intuitively stronger.

Just like with the passing grades, the “Grades” below are just to help keep this in order.  Just because a player has a 4th round grade based on his passing game value doesn’t mean his overall grade is going to be in the 4th round, obviously. Without further delay, here is MVN Outsider’s list of the Top 100 prospects who will help NFL rushing games:

Top 10 First Round Grade

1. Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Ohio State

2. Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State

3. Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi

4. Andre Smith, OT, Alabama

Mid-first Round Grade

5. Duke Robinson, G, Oklahoma

6. LeSean McCoy, RB, Pittsburgh

7. Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

8. Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia

9. James Casey, TE, Rice

Late-first Round Grade

10. Rashad Jennings, RB, Liberty

11. Alex Mack, C, California

12. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia

13. Eric Wood, C, Louisville

14. Phil Loadholt, OT, Oklahoma

15. Donald Brown, RB, Connecticut

16. Eben Britton, OT, Arizona

17. William Beatty, OT, Connecticut

2nd Round Grade

18. Anthony Hill, TE, North Carolina State

19. Kraig Urbik, G, Wisconsin

20. Ian Johnson, RB, Boise State

21. Andre Brown, RB, North Carolina State

22. Gerald Cadogan, OT, Penn State

23. Percy Harvin, RB/WR, Florida

24. Tyronne Green, G, Auburn

25. Jamon Meredith, OT, South Carolina

26. Javon Ringer, RB, Michigan State

3rd Round Grade

27. Fenuki Tupou, OT, Oregon

28. Juaquan Iglesias, WR, Oklahoma

29. Ramses Barden, WR, Cal Poly

30. Cedric Peerman, RB, Virginia

31. Shonn Green, RB, Iowa

32. Herman Johnson, G, LSU

33. Brian Robiske, WR, Ohio State

34. Jonathon Luigs, C, Arkansas

35. Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State

36. Pat White, QB, West Virginia

37. Xavier Fulton, OT, Illinois

38. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech

39. Troy Kropog, OT, Tulane

40. Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State

41. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

42. Jared Cook, TE, South Carolina

43. Shawn Nelson, TE, Southern Mississippi

44. James Davis, RB, Clemson

45. Tyrell Sutton, RB, Northwestern

4th Round Grade

46. Ryan Purvis, TE, Boston College

47. Connor Barwin, TE, Cincinnati

48. Stephen McGee, QB, Texas A&M

49. Devin Moore, RB, Wyoming

50. Rodney Landers, QB/RB/WR, James Madison

51. Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama

52. Javarris Williams, RB, Tennessee State

53. Arian Foster, RB, Tennessee

54. Mike Goodson, RB, Texas A&M

55. Tony Fiammetta, FB, Syracuse

56. Patrick Turner, WR, USC

57. Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers

58. Kory Sheets, RB, Purdue

59. Quinn Johnson, FB, LSU

60. Jeremiah Johnson, RB, Oregon

5th Round Grade

61. Richard Quinn, TE, North Carolina

62. Brannon Southerland, FB, Georgia

63. Cornelius Ingram, TE, Florida

64. Antoine Caldwell, C, Alabama

65. Max Ungar, C, Oregon

66. Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri

67. P.J. Hill, RB, Wisconsin

68. Jason Watkins, OT, Florida

69. Alex Boone, OT, Ohio State

70. Trevor Canfield, G, Cincinnati

71. Aaron Brown, RB, TCU

72. Mohammad Massaquoi, WR, Georgia

73. Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina

6th Round Pick

74. A.Q. Shipley, C, Penn State

75. Travis Beckum, TE, Wisconsin

76. Augustus Parrish, OT, Kent State

77. Ray Feinga, G, BYU

78. Sebastian Vollmer, OT, Houston

79. Joel Bell, OT, Furman

80. Dominick Goodman, WR, Cincinnati

81. T.J. Lang, G, Eastern Michigan

82. Louis Vasquez, G, Texas Tech

83. Gartrell Johnson, RB, Colorado State

84. Marlon Lucky, RB, Nebraska

85. Greg Islander, G, West Virginia

7th Round Grade

86. Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri

87. Mike Thomas, WR, Arizona

88. Jamie Thomas, G, Maryland

89. Bernard Scott, RB, Abilene Christian

90. Cameron Morrah, TE, Cal

91. Dan Gronkowski, TE, Maryland

92. Lydon Murtha, OT, Nebraska

93. Andrew Gardener, OT, Georgia Tech

94. Deon Butler, WR, Penn State

95. Josh Vaughan, RB, Richmond

96. Chris Ogbonnaya, RB, Texas

97. John Phillips, TE, Virgina

98. Eric Kettani, FB, Navy

99. Garrett Reynolds, OT, North Carolina

100. D.J. Boldin, WR, Wake Forest

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NFL Outsider Draft Rankings by Unit: Passing Offense

The goal here is to get these rankings into a cheat sheet type format by Friday, so that during NFL Outsider’s live coverage of the NFL Draft, we can reference these as resources.  We’ll see how that goes.

Today, we are going to take the top 100 or so offensive players and rank them by perceived value to an NFL average passing offense.  There will be blockers on this list as well, of course.  Basically, I’m trying to rank the most impactful players at the top, and the lesser impactful players at the bottom.  Too often, teams will lock into “positions of need” while ignoring the big picture.  If your passing offense is sub-par, it’s not necessarily an issue with the Quarterback.  By labeling that as a position of need, teams often limit their ability to fix the problem with the best prospect available when they pick.  This way seems intuiatively stronger.

The “Grades” below is just to help keep this in order.  Just because a player has a 4th round grade based on his passing game value doesn’t mean his overall grade is going to be in the 4th round, obviously. Here is MVN Outsider’s list of the Top 100 prospects who will help NFL passing games:

Top 10 Grade

1. Jason Smith, OT, Baylor

2. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech

3. Michael Oher, OT, Ole Miss

4. Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia

Mid-first Round Grade

5. Alex Mack, C, Cal

6. Mark Sanchez, QB, USC

7. Andre Smith, OT, Alabama

Late-first Round Grade

8. Matt Stafford, QB, Georgia

9. Brian Robiske, WR, Ohio State

10. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia

11. LeSean McCoy, RB, Pitt

12. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland

13. Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State

14. Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State

15. Andre Brown, RB, North Carolina State

16. Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers

17. Donald Brown, RB, Connecticut

18. Jared Cook, TE, South Carolina

19. Graham Harrell, QB, Texas Tech

20. Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State

21. Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Ohio State

2nd Round Grade

22. Eric Wood, C, Louisville

23. Eben Britton, OT, Arizona

24. William Beatty, OT, Connecticut

25. Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri

26. Cornelius Ingram, TE, Florida

27. Cedric Peerman, RB, Virginia

28. Max Ungar, C, Oregon

29. Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State

30. Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri

31. Stephen McGee, QB, Texas A&M

32. Javon Ringer, RB, Michigan State

33. Antonie Caldwell, C, Alabama

34. Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina

35. Gerald Cadogan, OT, Penn State

36. James Casey, TE, Rice

3rd Round Grade

37. Mohammad Massaquoi, WR, Georgia

38. Devin Moore, RB, Wyoming

39. T.J. Lang, G, Eastern Michigan

40. Jamon Meredith, OT, South Carolina

41. Pat White, QB/WR, West Virginia

42. Trevor Canfield, G, Cincinnati

43. Shawn Nelson, TE, Southern Miss

44. Troy Kropog, OT, Tulane

45. Mike Reilly, QB, Central Washington

46. Brandon Tate, WR, North Carolina

47. Mike Thomas, WR, Arizona

48. Kraig Urbik, G, Wisconsin

49. Juaquan Iglesias, WR, Oklahoma

50. Rashad Jennings, RB, Liberty

4th Round Grade

51. Richard Quinn, TE, North Carolina

52. Travis Beckum, TE, Wisconsin

53. Ramses Barden, WR, Cal Poly

54. Dominick Goodman, WR, Cincinnati

55. Nate Davis, QB, Ball State

56. A.Q. Shipley, C, Penn State

57. Phil Loadholt, OT, Oklahoma

58. John Parker Wilson, QB, Alabama

59. Tyrell Sutton, RB, Northwestern

60. Duke Robinson, G, Oklahoma

5th Round Grade

61. Drew Willey, QB, Buffalo

62. Xavier Fulton, OT, Illinois

63. Tom Bradstander, QB, Fresno State

64. Jonathon Luigs, C, Arkansas

65. Kory Sheets, RB, Purdue

66. Sebastian Vollmer, OT, Houston

67. Augustus Parrish, OT, Kent State

68. Austin Collie, WR, BYU

69. Tyronne Green, G, Auburn

70. Connor Barwin, TE, Cincinnati

71. Mike Goodson, RB, Texas A&M

72. Rodney Landers, QB/RB/WR, James Madison

73. Jeremiah Johnson, RB, Oregon

74. Louis Murphy, WR, Florida

75. Johnnie Knox, WR, Abilene Christian

76. Mike Wallace, WR, Mississippi

77. Fenuki Tupou, OT, Oregon

6th Round Grade

78. Andrew Gardener, OT, Georgia Tech

79. Shonn Green, RB, Iowa

80. Jarrett Dilliard, WR, Rice

81. Kevin Ogletree, WR, Virginia

82. Quan Cosby, WR, Texas

83. Hunter Cantwell, QB, Louisville

84. Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri

85. Ryan Purvis, TE, Boston College

86. David Johnson, QB, Tulsa

87. Brooks Foster, WR, North Carolina

88. Louis Vasquez, G, Texas Tech

89. Deon Butler, WR, Penn State

90. Sammie Stroughter, WR, Oregon State

7th Round Grade

91. Jeremy Childs, WR, Boise State

92. Ian Johnson, RB, Boise State

93. Jason Watkins, OT, Florida

94. Curtis Painter, QB, Purdue

95. Brian Hoyer, QB, Michigan State

96. Dan Gronkowski, TE, Maryland

97. Patrick Turner, WR, USC

98. Jamie Thomas, G, Maryland

99. Cullen Harper, QB, Clemson

100. Kenny McKinley, WR, South Carolina

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NFL Great Debates: Which QB is Your Pick, Mark Sanchez or Matthew Stafford?

NFL Outsider‘s Greg Trippiedi and Anthony Brown debate the issue: Of Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, who is the better bet to be a franchise quarterback in the National Football League?

Greg Trippiedi says the smart money is on Sanchez:

The old cliche says that, “the beast you know is always preferable to the one you don’t know.” My question to the Stafford supporters is, how sure are you of that?

Mark Sanchez looked really good in 12 starts this year for USC. Really good. He’s got the ever-important quick release and sees the field well. But outside of the fact that he was good enough to play at USC, we still don’t know anything conclusive about him.

However, when it comes right down to it — when you are talking about a whole lot of guaranteed money to one of two players, Mark Sanchez or Matthew Stafford — we know too much about Stafford’s failures to put the money in that asset. He throws a great ball, with great accuracy, and with great fundamentals. But that distracts from the larger picture. Quarterbacks don’t bust because they can’t physically handle the position. They bust because they can’t mentally handle the position.

Mark Sanchez has it mentally. He might never get there, performance-wise. He might never justify his first round status. But you put it this way: he’s yet to suggest that he can’t play at the professional level.

Ultimately, the quarterback duo in the 2009 draft can be summed up like this: they’re both workout warriors. However, in Sanchez’ case, I’d argue that it’s a good thing. You want to see him do as many things as possible with the football before you take him. In Stafford’s case, I think what he can do in shirts and shorts distracts from serious concerns from his time at Georgia.

Matt Ryan had red flags last year, but he never had issues with overcoming adversity. He had a great rookie year. You just can’t say the same about Stafford. He’s a weaker prospect than Ryan, clearly. If you want to grab the next Ryan, you have to go with Sanchez. If you’re hell-bent on spending obscene money to improve the QB position, Sanchez is simply the best bet.

Anthony Brown argues that Stafford stands out as the better prospect:

Georgia’s Matthew Stafford and USC’s Mark Sanchez will be the first two quarterbacks selected in the 2009 NFL Draft. Who of the two is the better franchise prospect? The answer is “Who can tell?”

A similar debate before the 2006 Draft guessed at whether USC’s Matt Leinart or Texas’ Vince Young was the man most likely to. Jay Cutler was mentioned in the conversation, but was always third on the list.

Yet it was Cutler who was the object of a recent bidding war. Neither Leinart nor Young can break the starting line-up on their teams. More proof that projections can make you look stupid.

I could look stupid by 2011, but here are three reasons why any team named Detroit should take Stafford over Sanchez.

1. Background: Stafford is a three-year starter at Georgia. He appeared in 32 games and showed year-by-year progression. Mark Sanchez appeared in 17 games.

Experience counts.

2. Stats don’t lie. The two numbers that pro scouts and GMs pay attention to are yards per pass attempt and TD to INT ratio. Stafford’s YPA progresses from 6.8 to 7.3 to 9.0 from his sophomore to his senior year. His TD to INT ratio is 2.5:1.

Mark Sanchez’ yard average dropped from 9.0 to 6.3 between his sophomore (one game) and junior year. He kicked it up to 8.8 in his senior year. Sanchez’ TD ratio is an eye-popping 3.4:1.

We’ll call this a wash.

3. The tape don’t lie. GMs look at the stats, but they study tape. In Stafford they see an NFL-ready quarterback. Here’s what NFLDraftScout.com said about him:

“Blessed with top arm strength, Stafford has a compact and quick delivery that allows him to get the ball off on time. He is the classic drop-back passer who gets proper depth and shows good footwork dropping back from center to efficiently scan the field and locate his open target.”

NFL Draft Scout added that Stafford never missed a game due to injury, even with Georgia’s inconsistent offensive line. That’s just the factoid that would make Detroit take notice.

Deeper experience, yearly progress and skills don’t guarantee success for Matthew Stafford. They do make him the better risk.

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NFL Top 10: Immediate Impact 2008 Draft Picks

This list might seem familiar to you.  If it does, it’s likely because you’ve seen people vote on the rookie of the year award.  That’s essentially the same thing.  But just before NFL Outsider hits the final stretch run prior to the draft, I’m going to spend a day or two looking back at 2008.  What were we right on, and where did we miss the most?

This article will look exclusively at players who were drafted last year, and helped to turn potential into wins right away.

10.  Leodis McKelvin, CB, Buffalo Bills
McKelvin made an instant impact in kick and punt returns, returning the Buffalo special teams unit to the top of the league.  This year, he’ll look to make an impact on defense.

9.  Jonathon Stewart, RB/Jeff Otah, OT, Carolina Panthers
It’s hard to say which one had a bigger impact on the Panthers’ running game, but since I can’t give this award to DeShaun Foster, they’ll split credit for the offensive resurgence.

8.  Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Forte had a good year as a runner, but the element that really helped the Bears offense came from his contributions to the passing game.  With scraps on the outsides, Forte’s receiving ability was pretty much necessary for sustained offensive success.

7.  Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans
Slaton was clearly the best runner in Houston last year and was a perfect scheme fit for what the Texans want to do.  He’d be higher, but a lot of his yardage came from huge games.  Next year, he’ll look to bring it every week.

6.  Brandon Flowers, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs defense was terrible last year, but rookie CB Brandon Flowers is not at fault.  He flashed fantastic cover skills to go wtih his ability to come up and hit in the run game and was the best player on defense for the Chiefs last season.

5.  Chris Horton, S, Washington Redskins
This complementary seventh round draft pick went on to lock down a starting job in the Redskins’ lineup for 13 weeks, missing two games to injury.  He’s not much in coverage, but he’s incredibly instinctual against the run and closes on the ball carrier before an evasive move can be made.

4.  John Carlson, TE, Seattle Seahawks
In what was a very rough year for the Seahawks, Carlson was a major standout.  He led the team in receptions as a rookie, and will look to build on that success in his sophomore season.

3.  Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
In Chris Johnson’s opinion, he was the rightful winner of the rookie of the year award.  I bashed the Titans for this pick last year, not quite understanding why they would throw away a late first round draft pick at a position where they had spent a first day pick in each of the two prior drafts.  There was no room for disappointment, and Johnson had the best rookie year of any running back among the 2008 draft class.

2.  Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos
Clady provided immediate dividends by giving the Denver Broncos a young LT of the future and helped provide the cornerstone on the best young pass-protecting OL in the National Football League.

1.  Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Can’t disagree with the pundits here.  I never thought Matt Ryan would turn out to be a franchise type QB, and while I still have my doubts, one more year like his rookie season would erase them.  He’s due for a bit of decline this year as more responsibility gets heaped on his shoulders, but he’s well on his way to being the special quarterback I was confident he would not become.

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NFL Rumor Mill: Does Stafford Jive with Lions Offense?

The Lions seem to be far from decided on who they will draft with the first overall pick, but most signs point to Georgia QB Matthew Stafford.  There are safer, smarter picks out there.  LB Aaron Curry is widely regarded as the safest prospect in the draft, while a LT like Jason Smith tends to be a wise use of the first overall pick/mammoth contract.

But let’s say that recent reports that the Lions are locked in on Stafford are proven correct.  How likely is he to be successful in Detroit?

If you’re a believer in the Lewin Career Forecast, the statistical system based on two college statistics: Games Started and Completion Percentage.  Quoth FO’s Bill Barnwell:

In his three seasons at Georgia, Stafford started 33 games and completed 57.1 percent of the passes he threw. That puts him in some pretty uninspiring company.

QBs similar to Stafford
Quarterback Starts Comp Pct.
Patrick Ramsey 38 58.9
Jake Plummer 40 55.4
Shaun King 39 55.5
J.P. Losman 27 57.8
Matt Ryan 32 59.9
Matt Stafford 33 57.1

So the stats don’t like him, but the scouts love him.  Didn’t baseball have this debate once upon a time?  Anyway, if we turn the lessons that the system spits out into a descriptive sentence, it would look something like: “Matthew Stafford had an amount of college starts that puts him in the middle ground between the Ryan Leaf’s and Phillip Rivers’ of the world, but his low college completion percentage suggests a high level of inconsistency in his game.  Furthermore, a team that takes Stafford is operating under the premise that had Stafford returned for his Senior season, that he would have built on his 2008 performance, and not regressed to the mean.”

Well, that’s the key finding of the Lewin Career Forecast.  Unless you have a clear, specific reason to suspect that the results in a small sample size are indicative of progress, the limited information regarding an underclassman is usually covering up significant regression to the mean. I can’t stress that point enough.  Let’s say Matt Stafford went back for his senior season at Georgia, and posted numbers perfectly in line with his career numbers.  He throws 200 times, completes 57% of his passes, and throws for a 5:3 TD/INT ratio as a Senior.  If this happens, he’s a fourth or fifth round pick in 2010, instead of the first overall pick in 2009.

But if the small sample size is correct, and Stafford is truly an improved passer in 2009, and completes 62% of his passes, with a 3:1 TD/INT ratio, Stafford stays as the unanimous number one overall pick.

You see, trusting the smaller sample over the larger sample is a textbook fallacy…unless, of course, you have reasons to believe that the 2008 season is truly indicative of Stafford’s skill level.  In which case, the Lions are making the right choice.  But the question remains: are the Lions simply hoping, or do they know something the system can’t account for.

The second point is that Stafford is exponentially more likely to succeed if the talent in Detroit (relative to the defensive competition) is superior to the talent he had at Georgia.  For the Lions, this only makes any possible sense because of the presence of one man: WR Calvin Johnson, who himself is on the verge of reaching a pro bowl level of performance on a year in, year out basis.  This is getting to the real question at the heart of the matter: regardless of the statistical projection for Stafford, does grabbing a QB right now at a franchise contract premium make the most sense for the Detroit Lions?

Let’s face it, having Calvin Johnson does not mean Stafford would be heading into a fertile offensive environment.  Johnson is great, but free agent acquisition Bryant Johnson is merely a serviceable No. 2 target.  Will Heller isn’t scaring anyone at TE.  Kevin Smith had a strong rookie season running the ball, and Maurice Morris comes over from Seattle to make a nice tandem.  But the offensive line is still multiple steps away from being above average.  Jeff Backus is a below average Left Tackle.  Gosder Cherilus is a nice prospect at RT, but he’s still really raw, and isn’t a lock to hold his own this year.  Stephen Peterman is a league average guard.  Dominic Raiola is older and well past the prime years for a Center.  Bottom line is: the offensive line isn’t conducive to having Matt Stafford play as a rookie.  Additionally, if the Lions use the first overall pick on Stafford, the next three picks will almost certainly be used on defense.

All of this is moot if Stafford and Calvin Johnson develop a rapport right off the bat.  Once you have an unstoppable passing tandem, it almost doesn’t matter how you choose to build the offensive line and how often you go to the running game.  But there’s another side of that coin: if Johnson is the entire secret to any success Stafford would have, why Stafford?  Why at No. 1?  Why not use the 20th pick or the 33rd pick or even the 65th pick on the best available QB?

The philosophy being employed by the Lions speaks to a belief that external factors will decide how Matt Stafford will do in the NFL.  Might be a nice time to remind them that they haven’t won a game since 2007, and that those external factors might be better addressed with the No. 1 pick than in spite of it.

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NFL Top 10: Small School Prospects

What defines a small school?

College football powerhouses have varying populations and histories, but all major college programs have athletic budgets that could feed small towns for months.  In this column, we’ll look at schools with relatively tiny budgets, yet, will still feed the NFL it’s fair share of talent this year.

1.  TE James Casey, Rice
The best player from a small school this year played at Rice, which is of course in the Big XII.  Rarely a competitive program within the conference, Casey was the team’s standout this season.  He’s an older prospect, so look for the team that drafts him to try to get him on the field immediately.

2.  WR Ramses Barden, Cal Poly (pictured at right)
Ramses Barden has spent most of the Spring caddying on the Mark Sanchez job interview tour, which is certainly an interesting way for an agent to pimp his client.  I like the idea.  Barden played his college ball in So. Cal, and he’s a 6’6″ giant out there on the outside.  This type of receiver seems to have transitional issues, which is the fear here, but you have to admire the raw skills he brings.

3.  DE Lawrence Sidbury, Richmond
Right now, he’s an athlete with the bulk to play defensive end or linebacker.  He was an incredibly productive player on Richmond’s DI-FCS Championship team, but like all the players on this list, the biggest jump in sports is yet to come.  Add to that fact that defensive lineman are an iffy proposition in general, and all teams should take a wait and see approach on Sidbury.  He’s a prospect, not a done deal.

4.  DT Jarron Gilbert, San Jose State
He can jump out of a pool, but can he jump to the NFL?  Gilbert would likely make the biggest impact in a complementary role, either as a rotational DT or a 3-4 DE protecting the LBs behind him.  Taken to be the focal point of a defensive line, it’s hard to see him holding up against NFL interior lines.  Still, an athlete with this kind of production and Youtube fame will not go unnoticed.

5.  CB Sherron Martin, Troy
A college do-it-all safety at a school that is quickly gaining a reputation as a defensive NFL pipeline (DeMarcus Ware, Leodis McKelvin), Martin has shutdown corner type-skills reminisant of Oakland CB Nnamdi Asomugha, a college safety himself.  Projecting Martin to that level would be foolish, but playing at Troy is a bigger advantage than say, playing at UL-Monroe as far as scouting is concerned, so this guy is a solid mid-round prospect.

6.  OT TJ Lang, Eastern Michigan
It’s tough to recruit talent to Eastern Michigan.  Lang was a raw player out of high school, but after four years at EMU, now looks for the world to be an NFL-ready tackle/utility lineman.  It’s unknown whether he’s ever going to have an extended stay in an NFL starting lineup, but he’s got a really good chance of being drafted to do so, and that in itself is a nice story.

7.  RB Devin Moore, Wyoming
A potential sleeper alert here, I doubt anyone is sleeping on Moore, easily one of the ten best RBs in the draft class.

8.  LB Jason Williams, Western Illinois
Williams caught scouts’ eyes with blazing timed speed, but it’s his productivity at the D-I FCS level that gets him on this list.  Specifically, he’s good for a play or two in the opponents backfield every game.  That’s a skill that tends to translate well to the NFL, which is good for the team that drafts him.  Here’s a cautionary note: Williams was no sackmaster, even against small school competition.  He averaged less than a sack every two games, so if he’s going to run around blockers at the next level, his value will be totally contingent on his ability to get into passing lanes.  His ability to do that is purely speculative at this point, but still, he’s not a bad use of a fourth or fifth round pick.

9.  CB Coye Francis, San Jose State
San Jose State now occupies 20% of this list.  Francis is a top talent at corner, but his limited production is due in part to character issues that have kept him off the field at other college programs such as Oregon State.  Comes with built-in kick return skills, but again, you don’t want to spend too many picks exclusively on high-potential, low-productivity talents.  Rare is the player who can be “coached up” into something he’s never been.

10. DT Sammy Lee Hill, Stillman
Small schools are fantastic places to search for interior DL guys, especially if the goal is to find those who can play the 5-technique in the 3-4 scheme.  Hill is more of a poor-man’s back of draft magazine Jarron Gilbert with limited internet following, but judging by the sizable amount of interest he’s been getting around the league, I’d say he’s handling the consolatory prize with class and dignity.

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NFL Rumor Mill: Where have you gone, Mr. Cushing?

With the draft process in full swing, it’s time to look at some players who are watching their draft stock fall, and ask whether or not the decline is justified.  Some of these players could end up being big time steals, but others are simply showing teams that they may not have as much to offer as other prospects.

USC LB Brian Cushing

I’ve described Cushing before as a “Scouting Crush” essentially arguing that his level of production in college was being vastly exceeded by the expectations for him at the next level.  Now his stock appears to be on the decline.  Cushing has been predominantly hurt by 1) injury concerns, and 2) the meteoric rise of Clay Matthews in the draft process.  The word is that Cushing has fallen from the mid first round all the way to the second round, thanks to these concerns.  That’s a pretty significant drop, especially when you talk about the guaranteed money that he loses.

With his pro day in the rear view mirror, there’s not much Brian Cushing can do now, except hope that a 3-4 team in the back end of the draft, maybe the Dolphins, Steelers, Cardinals, or Ravens, looks at his versatility and says, “we can’t pass on this guy.”

OSU CB Malcolm Jenkins

Jenkins is being killed by his timed speed at the combine and pro day, and by a limited market for cornerbacks in the first 12 picks or so in the draft.  Is it justified?  Well, if you don’t need a corner, you don’t need a corner, but timed speed is a real trivial thing to drop someone over.  Cornerback is a textbook “skilled” position, meaning that it is a position where savvy and experience trump physical tools in terms of effectiveness.  At highly skilled positions, such as corner, wide receiver, and quarterback, it usually takes longer for a kid to develop out of college.  Jenkins, however, could play right now.  He could justify the 4th overall pick to Seattle, and he’s already a steal by No. 8 Jacksonville.  If teams like the 49ers, Broncos, and Saints don’t pull the trigger, then I would have to argue that Jenkins has been mis-evaluated.

OU G Duke Robinson

Robinson is still by far the top guard in this draft, but a disappointing performance in the Nat’l Championship Game was not overshadowed by anything he did in the draft process.  Robinson was a first round pick at the beginning of the process, but as names skyrocket out of obscurity and onto first round draft boards, Duke Robinson’s stock has made no about face of any kind at any point.  He’s still a nice Guard prospect, no worse than he was after the Senior Bowl, but now his price tag is a much more reasonable mid-second rounder.  That’s bad for Robinson, who has limited upside, but it’s good for a team picking in the second with a hole at guard, as he’s really the only sure thing in the draft at the position.

Virginia OLB Clint Sintim

Sintim was an incredibly productive four year player at UVA.  He’s got one of the strongest draft profiles of any defensive player in the draft.  So why is his stock slipping?  Well, UVA is a rare 3-4 college defense.  So a lot of Sintim’s value came from that experience in that system.  But 3-4 teams seem to prefer to take advantage of the super-athletes who play defensive end at big time college program.  The limited demand for a player like Clint Sintim pushes back his projection to a more classic 4-3 OLB.  Those teams don’t even pick all that early in the second round, so consequently, a guy with a mid first round draft profile could become a third round pick.  That’s not justified by his draft value, so maybe a team like the Washington Redskins will try to make a play for him in the second round via trade.

Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin

Fantastic pro day workouts from Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Kenny Britt are making teams re-think their initial opinion of Maclin.  Now that the draft appears to be stocked at WR, at least in the first round and a half where up to nine guys could go, it’s clear that the chasm that’s developing between Maclin and Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree is more pronounced than ever.  The Jaguars are desperate for a receiver, but if they don’t spend a pick on Maclin, no one until the New York Jets is to be considered a serious suitor.  By that point, think about it, the teams drafting will have spent most of their time looking at players like Harvin and Heyward-Bey because the expectation is that Maclin would have been long gone.  Now, we’re looking at a situation where Maclin could be the 4th or 5th WR taken because teams don’t want to pass on the other guys.  Thusly, Maclin’s stock is down, and it’s a 50-50 proposition to whether or not it recovers before draft day.

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NFL Top 10: Versatile Draft-Eligible Defensive Players

In recent history, the value of those defensive players that just don’t seem to fit anywhere in a vanilla 4-3 scheme have skyrocketed.  Why?  It’s because teams have realized that talent in the NFL is difficult to find, and schemes are easy to draw up when you have great players.  These players won’t play the same position in the NFL as they handled in college, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be pro bowlers.  Here now, is ten names who will go high in the draft thanks to their versatility and athleticism.

1.  Everette Brown, Florida State
Brown was a college defensive end who can physically handle any position on the defensive line as a situational pass rusher, but he’s truly athletic enough to be an every down linebacker in the NFL, and in any scheme.  Weighing in at 255 lbs, Brown is a physical marvel with fantastic production at FSU.  He should be left on the outside because he’s a guy who plays in the other team’s backfield, and who doesn’t love a player like that.

2.  Larry English, Northern Illinois

Built short and stocky, like a dump truck.  Incredible athleticism.  He could be a great defensive end in this league if not for the height issue, but thankfully, you can back him up off the line, or stick him in the middle and ask him to eat up blockers.  No matter where you put him in the front seven, English has a bright NFL future ahead.

3.  Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
Malcolm Jenkins is not only the best corner in this draft, but the best safety as well.  The only regret the team that picks him will have is that there isn’t two of him.

4.  Tyson Jackson, Louisiana State
He’s the prototype for strong side defensive end in the NFL, but the fact that he can get after the passer on a play by play basis means you can play him on the weak-side, or at the three technique, and can provide a strong rush from any position .  That’s all you can ask for from a highly rated defensive lineman.

5.  Connor Barwin, Cincinnati
(pictured above)
A defensive player who played three years of tight end in college.  Could play two ways and be an above average player in both directions.  Profiles as a linebacker in the NFL, but like Everette Brown, plays his game in the opponents’ backfield.

6.  Aaron Maybin, Penn State
Any team who takes Maybin needs to have a specific plan for using him.  He’s athletic enough to play anywhere.  If you put him at DE, understand that he’s a liability against the run.  If you put him at LB, he’s a liability in coverage.  But Maybin comes with a truly fantastic first step, and thusly, if you have a plan to hide his weaknesses, you are getting quite a skill on the pass rush.

7.  Clay Matthews, USC
Rey Maualuga effect, part 1.  When you have an established MLB and leader, sometimes, the players around him have skills that are hidden.  This is the case with Matthews, an impressive physical talent with top bloodlines, who is capable of being a talented middle linebacker in the NFL, but currently profiles as an OLB in the 4-3.

8.  Alex McGee, Purdue
McGee is a penetrating defensive tackle who can get after NFL quarterbacks at a top rate, but his best value might be as a 3-4 defensive end.  After Tyson Jackson, there’s no player in this draft better suited for that role than Alex McGee, and that fact could get him drafted as high as the second round.

9.  Brian Cushing, USC
Rey Maualuga effect, part 2.  Cushing was brought to USC as a middle linebacker, but moved to OLB very early on because it became clear that he would be playing with Rey Maualuga on defense rather than in front of or behind him.  He’s a tackling machine who isn’t much on the pass rush, but improved his pass coverage as a senior to the point where it is no longer a flaw in his game.  If he was as injury-proof as he was versatile, his stock wouldn’t be trending towards the second round.

10.  Lawrence Sidbury, Richmond
He’s probably the future of the defensive end position in the 4-3, especially since he is considered to be raw with plenty of room to improve.  However, since the frequency of the 4-3 defense is declining so steadily, what if Sidbury is drafted by a 3-4 team?  Yep, you guessed it, he should adapt to edge rushing and flat coverage equally as well at the next level.

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NFL Outsider Mock Draft: Denver, Chicago Shake Up Draft (Round 1)

A few thoughts at the top of the draft in my Top Ten column from last week will provide the basis for what I believe will happen in the draft now.  There could likely some crazy happenings at the top of the draft, and I think that you’ll see some discussion around these parts and in NFL circles in the next few weeks regarding the Lions’ No. 1 overall pick.  They want to trade it.  But the pick is virtually untradable.  So will the Lions use all their remaining options here to lower the money to be used on a player?  We’ll see.

1.  Detroit Lions — Pass.
This is assuming the Lions don’t reach a deal with any of their top three choices to make them the first overall pick.   If, given over a month, the Lions can’t noticeably decide between three prospects, what makes them likely to decide in 15 minutes?  By being indifferent, the Lions can save themselves 5-12 million dollars in guaranteed signing bonus under the cap.  This is like trading down, just that the Lions won’t get any compensation for doing so.

1.  St. Louis Rams — Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest
The Rams have likely already decided Aaron Curry will be the guy here, and the fact that they can beat Detroit in getting their card in means that the extra money Curry will now command will likely be negligible.  Curry is a big winner in this mess, and the Rams come out slightly worse than they were going to be at No. 2, but get their guy nevertheless.

2.  Kansas City Chiefs — Jason Smith, OT, Baylor
The Chiefs probably aren’t going into the draft thinking they might get their hands on Jason Smith, but if the Lions pass and the Rams go for Curry, the Chiefs do need another tackle, if not on the right side, then a LT that can bump Branden Albert to a more natural position inside.

3.  Seattle Seahawks — Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia
The Seahawks are going to have to give a Matt Ryan type deal to Stafford at this slot, and they can only hope that they are drafting a Matt Ryan type player.

4.  Detroit Lions — Brian Orakpo, LB, Texas
The Lions sit tight here, and end up landing a defensive cornerstone for a lot less money then they were expecting to have to pay at No. 1 overall.  The key is to beat the Browns to the podium with the draft card, even though it’s not certain that the Browns are locked into Orakpo.

5.  Cleveland Browns — Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
The Browns are no longer high on Braylon Edwards, and need the offensive firepower to get their pass offense to the next level.  This is a very easy pick.

6.  Cincinnati Bengals — Michael Oher, OT, Mississippi
The Bengals are likely locked in on offense, and why not the second highest tackle on their board?  Oher is the tackle most likely to reach franchise-type proportions, and though he’s not considered the “sure-pick” that Eugene Monroe is, I can’t see any way this pick would backfire.

7.  Oakland Raiders — B.J. Raji, NT, Boston College
This would be a big-time landing for a Raiders defense that could really use the size.  Then D.C. Rob Ryan advised that the team passed on Haloti Ngata.  Since then, Ryan has been dismissed and Tommy Kelly has been extended, and now, the Raiders shouldn’t make the same mistake again.

8.  Jacksonville Jaguars — Rey Maualuga, LB, Southern Cal
Jack Del Rio was a linebacker, and when you start looking for reasons that the Jaguars defense broke down last season, you have to start with a lack of leadership in coverage assignments that is so important in the Gregg Williams system.  Williams is off to New Orleans, but the leadership hole still remains, and you get the feeling the Jags want Rey more than any other team.

9.  Denver Broncos (projected trade with Green Bay) — Mark Sanchez, QB, Southern Cal
Sanchez likely won’t take a snap this season, given the size of Chris Simms contract and the high regard the Broncos have for Kyle Orton, but I have to assume that the team will address the position and won’t have any issue giving up one of their third rounders to do it (along with their 6th, most likely).  Green Bay might as well trade down, they’d end up reaching for a player here anyway.

10.  San Francisco 49ers — Everette Brown, LB, Florida State
Though, certainly, a receiver could be in the fold here, the 49ers think that they have young receivers and though Alex Smith is likely a bust, it doesn’t make sense to give up on him right now a month after restructuring his contract.  Therefore, defense is the likely scenario, and more specifically, a linebacker who could push Manny Lawson to develop in his third season, or to take his place in the starting lineup by October.

11.  New Orleans Saints (projected trade with Buffalo Bills) — Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia
It makes sense for the Saints to go up three picks to land the guy who just might be the best OT in their board to help repair their offensive line.  They could probably get this deal done for next year’s second rounder, or next year’s third and a fourth this year.

12.  Green Bay Packers (projected trade from Denver) Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU
The Packers will be really excited about this selection, because he’s a perfect scheme fit in the three four, and makes their team a super bowl contender immediately.  They need this defensive transition to be smooth.

13.  Washington Redskins — Andre Smith, OT, Alabama
Assuming the Redskins don’t trade this pick to the Jets for Brett Favre before the draft, they will decide between three players here: CB Malcolm Jenkins, LB Aaron Maybin, and Smith.  The pick will be Smith, because he can play RT from day one, and the Redskins see him as Chris Samuels’ replacement at LT.

14.  Buffalo Bills (projected trade from New Orleans) — Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee
A better scheme fit for the Buffalo Bills than Maybin, and probably cheaper to boot.  Not a bad haul for a team to get a major need filled and to pick up a day one pick in 2010 in the process.

15.  Houston Texans — Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State
With the addition of two LBs to the defense in Buster Davis and Cato June, the Texans move to more of a BPA available with an eye to defense.  That’s undoubtably Jenkins at this point, and it’s nearly criminal that they can land him in the middle of the draft.

16.  San Diego Chargers — James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State
With top players on the defensive side of the ball flying off the board, the Chargers must turn their attention to the center of their defense where a major weakness will be filled by Laurinaitis, who is a perfect scheme fit for the Chargers.  They have the beef in front of him in Jamal Williams, and they can plug him in as a 3-4 ILB and watch him roam and make tackles, as a potential ROY candidate.

17.  New York Jets — Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland
This is going to be a pick for the pass offense, and if the Jets were looking QB here, why not get involved in the Jay Cutler sweepstakes?  The Jets seem content to stand pat with the three QBs they have, and improve the passing game in other ways.  Darrius Heyward-Bay is equally explosive as Jeremy Maclin, and he’s the better receiver of the two.

18.  Denver Broncos (from Chicago) — Aaron Maybin, LB, Penn State
The Broncos use the Bears’ first round draft pick to land a prime level defensive cornerstone, or at least so it seems.

19.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State
Unlike the Jets, the Bucs were involved in the sweepstakes to get Jay Cutler, meaning that they aren’t quite as sold on Luke McCown as they say they are.  So if Josh Freeman is still around at this pick, it’s pretty likely that the Bucs pull the trigger.

20.  Detroit Lions (from Dallas) — Eben Britton, OT, Arizona
The LT spot is still an issue for this team after passing on one in the top five, so Britton becomes the tackle they could have gotten with Jason Smith at the first pick here.

21.  Philadelphia Eagles — Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State
The big blocking TE is a greater help to RB Brian Westbrook than either an OT or another RB, but by golly, the Eagles are going to find help for him in other capacities as well.

22.  Miami Dolphins (projected trade from Minnesota) — Percy Harvin, WR, Florida
The Dolphins go local after a trade that nets Minnesota a fourth round selection.  Harvin will be brought in to help with the development of Ted Ginn by giving Chad Pennington a nice run-after-catch option to pair with a developing deep threat.

23.  New England Patriots — Clay Matthews, LB, Southern Cal
This is a simple pick for the Patriots as they get a guy who can play inside and outside and comes from fantastic bloodlines, but despite that, is the very definition of a self-made player as a former walk-on at U.S.C.

24.  Oakland Raiders (projected trade from Atlanta) — Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri
At the cost of the Raiders’ second and third round picks, Maclin becomes the man the Raiders hope will develop into the next Tim Brown.  Then again, the Raiders were never this dysfunctional when Tim Brown was drafted.

25.  Minnesota Vikings (projected trade from Miami) — Alex Mack, C, California
The Vikings slide down in the draft a little bit and pick up Alex Mack to be the day-one replacement to Matt Birk.  The Vikings are operating day to day like they don’t miss Birk but there are too many holes in the OL to ignore right now.  Birk’s departure simply created the biggest.

26.  Baltimore Ravens — Chris “Beanie” Wells, RB, Ohio State
Beanie heads to Baltimore to hold the role in the offense that LeRon McClain ran so beautifully last year.  McClain is a fullback, but might have to take that role full time if the team doesn’t bring back veteran FB Lorenzo Neal.  Wells would be the chain-mover in the Ravens’ offense.

27.  Indianapolis Colts — Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers
After a great pro day, Britt’s stock is up and the Colts need a rookie who can handle Marvin Harrison’s role in last year’s offense.  The focal points will remain Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez.  However, the Colts will fail if they rely on the Aaron Moorehead’s of the world in this capacity.

28.  Philadelphia Eagles (from Carolina) — Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia
Since Brian Westbrook already has the game-breaking skills the Eagles offense needs, Moreno is his perfect compliment.  He’s quick, can grind out yards, and can handle the backfield role in the passing game, which allows the Eagles to use Westbrook more creatively, and *gasp* maybe even take him off the field for a play or two.

29.  New York Giants — Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina
Nicks gets lucky in this scenario, and doesn’t slip, thanks to being the highest rated WR remaining on the Giants’ board.

30.  Tennessee Titans — Peria Jerry, DT, Mississippi  (pictured above)
Easy pick as the Haynesworth replacement for the Titans, as he can handle the nose tackle position for the team that Haynesworth held, while Jason Jones and FA signing Jovan Haye make an interesting tackle rotation at the three technique.  Jerry could go as high as to Houston with the No. 15 pick, and he’s a steal here for the Titans.

31.  Arizona Cardinals — Brian Cushing, LB, USC
The Cards can use Cushing as leverage to get Karlos Dansby to sign a long term contract, or use him as his replacement, or stick him in the middle at MLB and see what kind of results that yields.  A good fit.

32.  Pittsburgh Steelers — Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois
For the second year in a row, the Steelers’ patiences lands them a player from the University of Illinois who fell way below his expected slot.

*****************************

NFL Great Debates: Cutler and Bears, Good Fit?

NFL Outsider‘s Greg Trippiedi and Anthony Brown debate the issue: Having been acquired from the Denver Broncos in exchange for Kyle Orton and draft picks, will Jay Cutler be a good fit with the Chicago Bears?

Greg Trippiedi says the trade was lose-lose:

Personally, I’m happy that Jay Cutler is a Chicago Bear because this story finally goes away.

But every party involved comes out of it worse than they went in.

Loser No. 1, the Denver Broncos traded the one player who was keeping them competitive in their division. They now enter a forced rebuilding phase, essentially being now where the Kansas City Chiefs were last year in terms of talent. On top of that, you have a really dangerous dynamic in the draft: it simply doesn’t appear to be a year with a franchise QB, but thanks to the chasm developing between Josh Freeman, Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez and everyone else, the demand for these faux franchise quarterbacks is at an all-time high. It looks like if the Broncos want one, they will have to take one at No. 12 overall, or if they really like one guy, it might take picks to go up and get him. That limits the true value of the Cutler deal.

Loser No. 2 is Chicago, but at least they make the only real, tangible improvement in this trade. They’ve simply sold a few years’ drafts to do it with a team that goes from maybe 5-6 wins without Cutler, and now becomes a 7-8, 8.5 win team and a fringe playoff contender with Jay Cutler. That’s a big price to pay when the Bears are looking for reinforcements for an aging team in a few years, and the expectations for Cutler will be obscenely high.

Loser No. 3 is Cutler. He had it all in Denver, never really wanted to leave, but decided to force Denver’s hand anyway into making a decision on him. Overnight, he goes from young gunslinger in an explosive offense to really the only part that Chicago has to build around offensively, even counting Matt Forte. His fantasy value takes a huge hit. He goes from a city who bought into him as the savior, to a city where he will be expected to bring them a championship, something he simply won’t have the talent around him to do.

All three of these parties came together and found a deal, but is anyone more likely to win a super bowl because of this? The Bears, perhaps, but one more sub-.500 season from Cutler and the allure of having him is going to wear off fast.

Anthony Brown believes that Cutler can succeed in Chicago:

Do you suppose that NFL owners sit around and cook up these soap operas like Jay Cutler and Brett Favre?

There were worse places for Cutler to land than Chicago. Detroit is a mystery. We don’t know today who will be on that team in September. In Cleveland, Cutler would have replaced a home grown hero at quarterback on a team with huge holes at wide receivers playing for a coach who couldn’t win with Brett Favre.

In Tampa Bay, the uncertainty is another new coach setting a new direction. Cutler has had enough of that.

The Chicago Bears offer coaching and front office stability that no longer exists in post-Shanahan Denver.

The Bears have other pluses missing in Denver. Matt Forte leads a powerful running game, lessening the burden on Cutler to win games. The Bears boosted their offensive line with the addition of tackles Orlando Pace and Kevin Shaffer. There is loose talk that Chicago may entice free agent Tory Holt to sign now that Cutler is on board.

Then biggest plus for Cutler is that he is wanted by head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo who are likely to give him the straight answers that Denver would not. Cutler, who grew up in Indiana as a Bears fan, is hailed by the Chicago media and by fans as the best Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman.

He only has to be better than Rex Grossman.

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NFL Rumor Mill: Redskins Interest in Cutler is 100% Dan Snyder’s Fault

For the Washington Redskins to be interested in Jay Cutler makes little sense from a football perspective.  They have a franchise quarterback in Jason Campbell.  They have yet to put a large investment into him, but certainly, that wouldn’t be an issue before this time next year.

But that doesn’t change that the Redskins have their eye on another prize, disgruntled Denver QB Jay Cutler.

And as a fan of the Redskins, I can honestly say that the worst part about the consistent denial from the team is that the denial is being made by individuals who are actually in control of the situation, or supposedly at least.  Both V.P. of Player Personnel Vinny Cerrato and Head Coach Jim Zorn have denied that the Redskins QB next year would be anyone but Jason Campbell.  Nothing else would make sense.

But the sources who are confirming the Redskins’ interest in Cutler are sources close to owner Daniel Snyder, not to Cerrato or Zorn.  Therefore, one can conclude that at the owner’s meeting last week, Snyder had constant dialogue going with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen regarding Cutler’s situation and asking price.

A potential trade between the Redskins and the Broncos would hinge on the Broncos accepting Jason Campbell in a deal.  It wouldn’t make sense any other way.  The young-talent strapped Redskins don’t have much to offer in a trade, except that their QB could enjoy most of the successes that Cutler enjoyed in Denver without all of Cutler’s emotional problems.  Given the assumed interest between Denver and Jason Campbell, this story gets even more dangerous for Redskins fans.  For you see, if Denver doesn’t want Campbell on it’s roster, this simply becomes a bad April Fools Day joke.  Cutler goes elsewhere.

But if the Broncos are willing to work off of a Campbell for Cutler base, a great structure for the Broncos by the way, Redskins fans can kiss the 2009 draft goodbye.  This has become a cliched practice in D.C.  If the trade was simply a QB that one team doesn’t want to commit to for another who doesn’t want to commit to his team, you could argue that both teams win.  The Redskins don’t win trades.  They do whatever is necessary to make them.  And that means when Pat Bowlen and Brian Xanders, who hold none of the leverage here, tell the Redskins that they’ll only do Cutler for Campbell and the 13th overall pick, well, who’s Snyder to tell Bowlen to get lost?  He didn’t tell him to get lost when he demanded a 2nd round pick AND Champ Bailey to get Clinton Portis.  He didn’t tell him to get lost when he demanded a 3rd round pick in order to get the first round swap that brought Campbell to D.C. in the first place.  So what happens when you take these two teams negotiating a QB swap that — while unorthodox — makes sense for both parties?  Well, why wouldn’t Bowlen use the same negotiating techniques that he used to fleece Snyder in the past?  Is there any reason to think he’s learned from his past mistakes?  Not if reports of interest in Cutler have legs, there isn’t.

This might not end so badly for the Redskins.  Last year, the Redskins were willing to throw 1st and 3rd round picks at Chad Johnson, but the Bengals declined.  It takes two to make a deal, and as mentioned before, the Broncos are going to have plenty of teams offering more picks than the Redskins.  They might fall in love with Mark Sanchez, and choose to move Cutler to another team for more picks.

But the Redskins should tread wisely in these negotiations.  Jay Cutler is much more similar to Jason Campbell than Dan Snyder is aware of, and negligence in these trade talks could invalidate all the money the team spent on free agents this year, which would have made quite the bailout plan by itself.

*****************************

Complete records back to April 1, 2009

  1. August 11, 2011 at 4:50 am

    Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.

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