Monday, July 18, 2011

NFL Preview: Thoughts on Real-life AND Fantasy Football as the Lockout Ends

This morning while my flat tire was being fixed at Discount Tire, I ran across 28th street to escape the insane heat and relax at Schulers. I got a cherry coke and a fantasy football magazine. My car was only supposed to take 45 minutes to be fixed, but I lost track of time. One hour and twenty minutes later, I realized something quite profound. Two things actually.

One: there are a lot of NFL teams that really stink.
And two, the Lions have a legit chance at the playoffs.

But let's start with a simple thought I had that encapsulates why fantasy football is such an inexact and maddening venture. Why there are embarrassing first round busts every season and enigmatic shadows like Peyton Hillis who prove that even the cleverest of fantasy experts (like me) can get utterly stumped. Here it is:

You can't make reliable predictions about individual players until you evaluate the teams that they play for. And you can't evaluate teams accurately until you really know the ability of their players.

Thus, to really guess whether or not Arian Foster will be a one-hit wonder, you have to know whether or not Houston is going to be offensively lethal or lethargic. And to know that, you have to really know how good Matt Schaub and the offensive line and the offensive coordinator are. And even the most knowledgeable NFL insiders don't have complete knowledge of every player, every team, every position. Heck, most "experts" still believe Matthew Stafford is a great player, which proves outright that they don't know anything.

So I can provide an astute and infallible fantasy analysis on all Detroit Lions players, but I would have to possess staggering intellectual hubris to think I can fully explain the success that Julio Jones or Shonn Greene will have in 2011. At the end of the day, as much as this drives us crazy, it really comes down to guesswork.

As far as I can understand, the best way to obtain safe fantasy analysis isn't by watching ESPN or reading magazines at Schulers. It's by talking to fans. Real-life fans, guys who visit 6 times a day to find out who will start at left guard. Guys who know the name of the special teams coach and the backup kicker. Guys who watch the games and say "Hey, our linebacker is growing a goatee." Those kinds of fans.

At ESPN, they skim the surface. In the magazines, they skim the surface. If you really want to make flawless and logically-sound picks, you've got to learn the intricacies of all 32 teams. It's not enough to simply know the players' names. People all over America know the name of Matthew Stafford, and assume he's awesome because some 'expert' said he was. And yeah, Stafford is going to put up good numbers this season. Maybe great numbers. But when you're counting on him to give you a TD in the two-minute drill and win your fantasy matchup ... you're going to be disappointed most of the time.

So in short, I've given up the practice of studying numbers and trends and depth charts. All the data in the world couldn't have found Peyton Hillis last year. It's all about being flexible, adaptable, humble, and standing firm on the few things you really do know (like Cedric Benson stinks).

You can watch Sportscenter 24/7 and listen to Mike and Mike all morning, but in my opinion, that will only lead to the path of frustration and agony. The two most reliable forms of data collection that I know of are YouTube videos and team websites. Not, mind you. I'm talking about You don't want the generic crap, you want the real stuff.

The mlive articles are informative, but if you really want to know anything, scroll down. Read the comments from anonymous fans. That's the only source of unbiased opinion. Go to and find out if people who bleed Kansas City Red really believe Jamaal Charles is the real deal. If you wonder who will start at quarterback in Jacksonville, don't ask the ESPN depth chart. Ask the guys are They will know.

So that's my shtick on fantasy football philosophy. Let's get back to profound realization #1 - there are a lot of NFL teams that really stink.

- - - - - - -

Hope is really the heartbeat of a sports fan, the reason for watching and devoting so much time and energy to a bunch of millionaires who play a silly game. Hope, that one day it will be your team hoisting the trophy and basking in confetti. Hope, that everything falls into place and you get to taste victory, not defeat. For Lions fans, it's been delusional hope for many years. This year, it finally feels real.

And for at least a dozen NFL teams this season, I don't think hope is even part of the equation. Rebuilding seems to be the story of 2011. Six rookie quarterbacks have a chance at starting as soon as week one. Seven new coaches taking over trainwrecks. Teams looking to move past their depressed history and start new with a fresh face. All over the country, teams and fans are secretly rooting for a 1-15 season so they can start all over with Andrew Luck.

Let's take a look at the NFL Power Rankings, starting with the worst of the worst.
32. Carolina Panthers
I'm not ranking them last because they went 2-14 and earned the #1 pick in the 2011 draft. I'm ranking them last because of what they did with that pick. Mark my words: Cam Newton will be the fifth best quarterback in this draft class. I'm not saying he'll bust to a JaMarcus-esque level, although that wouldn't shock me. But he definitely won't turn around a franchise that completely lacks talent at 29 out of 32 starting positions. Steve Smith is finished, DeAngelo Williams is departing in free agency, and the defense only has two NFL-caliber players. Right tackle Jeff Otah is a stud, but he's coming off shoulder surgery and knee problems that cost him the entire 2010 season. Cam Newton will probably start week one, and by the time Carolina is 0-5 they'll be gracious enough to fake an injury and let Jimmy Claussen finish out the season, with a few cameo appearances from Brian St. Pierre. Don't be shocked if Carolina ends up 2-14 again.

31. Washington Redskins
I mentioned earlier that you have to stick firm to the few things you really, truly know. There aren't many, but one of them is this: Mike Shanahan is an idiot. I know he won a couple Super Bowls back in the day, but I'm not questioning the genius of 1997 Mike Shanahan. It's 2011 Mike Shanahan that belongs in a loony bin. Last year he proved this by refusing to cooperate with his two highest-paid players (Haynesworth and McNabb) and consewquently losing them both. He started a different running back every week depending on the weather, and he actually benched McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman, and then defended the decision by praising Grossman for weeks. To further justify his stupidity, Shanahan passed on all the quarterbacks in the 2011 Draft (like I predicted) and took two defensive linemen in the first two rounds. Now, Washington enters the season with John Beck at quarterback, and no running attack to back him up. Oh, and no receivers. Other than Chris Cooley and Trent Williams, no one on that offense belongs in the NFL. Defensively, they've got plenty of talent but managed to rank 31st last season. Barring an unforeseen trade or free agency pickup, you want to avoid all Redskins like the plague this fantasy season.

30. Oakland Raiders
Of all the new coaches, the one I'm least excited about is Hue Jackson. What kind of name is Hue? The reason I've got Oakland ranked way back here, despite last year's 8-8 record, is twofold:

1) They don't have a decent quarterback,
2) They are going to lose Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency.

If you live under a rock or have never read this blog, Asomugha is the best cornerback in the NFL and possibly the best overall player. He's singlehandedly worth 4 or 5 victories, and has kept Oakland from being completely worthless for years. Now, he's gone. Where will he go? Houston, Dallas, Washington, Baltimore, New York, Philly? Maybe even Detroit? There are too many rumors to even guess. He's being quiet about this, but he's a super smart guy, so he'll make a good choice. If I were him, I would go to Detroit, and I'm serious. My fear is that he's smart enough to realize how bad Stafford is, and thus he won't take the Lions seriously as contenders. But if he is duped into believing that Stafford is actually a good QB, we might just get insanely lucky.

All that to say ... the big losers in the Nnamdi Sweepstakes are the Raiders, who will be losing their best player. Since 2005, Oakland has had a top 10 pass defense every season, including 1st in 2006 and 2nd in 2010. Without Nnamdi, they'll be lucky to finish in the top 25. In fact, their defense might break records of futility next season as they try to figure out how to stop stud receivers. It's just been a given that guys like Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne would be shut down. Now ... all hell will break lose. I can't wait til week 15, when Detroit goes to Oakland. Calvin should enjoy 200 yards in that game.

Darren McFadden is getting a lot of buzz as a first-round fantasy pick, and even going in the top 5 in some mocks. I can't believe that. I know he's a super talent, but he's not on the level of a guy like Chris Johnson who can put up monster numbers on a lousy team. Is he? I dunno ... I guess we'll see. Jason Campbell is still slotted as the QB, but Bruce Gradkowski should be, and they'll surely acquire somebody in the next few weeks. Vince Young makes the most sense, since Al Davis is senile and insane. Oh, you can add to their troubles that they were the only team who didn't get a 1st round pick in 2011. Hope 31 year old Richard Seymour was worth it.

29. Seattle Seahawks
Remember when Seattle made the playoffs at 7-9 and then used homefield advantage to beat the Saints? That was neat. Thanks for the fun memory Pete Carroll. Too bad Seattle is completely horrendous and doesn't have a quarterback. It's awfully hard to win in the NFL without a quarterback. As of today, Hasslebeck would start, with Whitehurst just a couple of INTs away from taking his turn. But tons of rumors are swirling about Kevin Kolb, who seems destined to end up in the NFC West. My guess is Arizona, but Seattle would make sense too. That would instantly give Seattle some credibility and maybe move them into the top 25. It would also mean Hasslebeck probably goes elsewhere, maybe Tennessee to tutor Jake Locker. Carson Palmer's name has also been thrown around a lot, which makes a ton of sense considering the obvious USC ties. That's almost too easy, but Pete Carroll is a major tool, so it could happen. Then they just need to sign free agent Reggie Bush and the Transformation of DoucheBaggery is complete.

Until a QB deal is made, Seattle has to be considered the worst team in a very bad division.

28. Arizona Cardinals
Speaking of Kevin Kolb, most people assume he'll be in Arizona by the end of the summer. If not, Arizona will look to add either Palmer or Bulger or Vince Young or McNabb. Of those, Kolb is by far the best option. But any of them would be an improvement over the Max Hall/ John Skelton combo. Arizona can't run the ball, and the retirement of Hall of Fame guard Alan Faneca won't help. But they do have Larry Fitzgerald, which probably equates to 2 or 3 wins this year.

Defensively, I actually think they're building very well. They had the 4th worst defense in 2010, but adding Patrick Peterson to a secondary that already includes Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie might give them the best CB combo in the NFL. The linebackers stink, and Joey Porter is clearly overrated. But Darnell Docket is a stud DE in the 3-4 system, and Dan Williams is big enough to play nosetackle. The also landed Virginia Tech stud RB Ryan Williams in the second round, who might start right out of the gate and give the 32nd ranked rushing offense a spark.

If they don't improve the quarterback situation, Arizona should be ranked 32nd, and they'll win no more than 4 games. But it's almost a guarantee that they'll do something, and I suspect they'll give up next year's 1st round pick for Kevin Kolb. With Kolb throwing to Fitzgerald, plus adding Patrick Peterson - who might be the NFL's best return man as soon as this season - Arizona could easily win 8 games and the NFC West. Remember, they get to play 6 games against their own division. Even if they add McNabb, I think they've got 7 win potential.

27. Miami Dolphins
It was an awkward winter for the Fins, who chased John Harbaugh (or is it Jim?) but lost him to San Francisco. Then they retained coach Tony Sparano, who had to be thrilled about potentially losing his job. Then star receiver Brandon Marshall was stabbed by his wife, and don't forget about the time when linebacker Channing Crowder confused Anne Frank with Helen Keller. Classic.

If you watched the Lions epic comeback win over Miami last year, you saw a crappy team trying to find its identity with a middling quarterback and a leaky secondary. And amazingly, it wasn't Detroit! Chad Henne completely fell apart during the later half of 2010 and made himself extremely expendable, but Miami didn't buy into rookie QB hype and smartly took Mike Pouncey with the 15th pick. They've got a very solid offensive line, anchored of course by super stud Jake Long. But an offensive line without running backs is kind of like an insurance policy without a car. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both stink, and will be gone next year anyway. Second-round pick Daniel Thomas might be okay, but I never heard of him while he was at Kansas State. Patrick Cobbs will probably start the year in the backfield, but he's a very Maurice Morris kind of player. Solid, durable, but even with a stellar offensive line he's not going to have any explosive plays. Thomas makes a sneaky fantasy pick simply because of how good this O-line is, but I wouldn't count on anything short of mediocrity from the Miami offense.

The defense has some really good players (Cameron Wake and Vontae Davis) and ranked 6th overall last season, but isn't good enough to offset the Henne-led offense. Teams that can't run or pass usually end up 6-10 or worse.

(Just watched Daniel Thomas highlight videos - the guy has no speed whatsoever, but will score 8 or 10 TDs behind Jake Long. Good power.)

26. Denver Broncos
Probably should be ranked worse if you look at their 32nd ranked defense and heinous 2010 campaign, but I like everything John Elway has done this offseason. Hired John Fox, made Kyle Orton the starter (instead of Tebow), drafted Von Miller (instead of Dareus), and took Rahim Moore in the second round. Also, they'll be bringing back DE Elvis Dumervil from the IR and Ryan Clady stills holds down the left tackle position, giving them two elite players at two ultra-important positions. With Fox instilling his 4-3 defense and run-first offense, Denver will be a completely new team this year, finally free from the egomania that plagued them while Josh McDaniels was in charge. Which means they no longer have to worship a shrine of Bill Belichick at practice. I still don't think they'll contend for the AFC West (KC is better than we think), but they'll improve on 4-12. Knowshon Moreno makes a reasonable fantasy pick, and Brandon Lloyd is an obvious 'overrated' choice. For a sleeper, Demaryius Thomas makes sense.

Now for a quick quiz.

What will Tim Tebow be doing in 2014?

A) Playing for the Broncos
B) Playing for someone else, third-string
C) Working at Disney World (dressed in a Prince Charming costume)
D) Smiling

The answer is both B and D. It was a trick question. But by 2016 he'll be out of the league and have a really nice career in broadcasting at the college level.

25. Buffalo Bills
Again, they should be ranked worse if you look at last year's stats. But like Denver they've had a nice offseason and were missing some good players to injury during 2010. Still no quarterback or running game, but the defense is building towards decency and they might have got 3 starters in the Draft. Aaron Williams was a steal in the second round. Kyle Williams is a stud nosetackle. The corners are solid. The linebackers are okay. The offense is putrid, but it's better to have a bad offense than a bad defense. Plus, Ryan Fitzpatrick might not be sexy, but he's a whole lot better than anyone on Seattle, Arizona, or Washington.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars
With the exception of Carolina, the previous six teams were either too stubborn or too smart to select a rookie quarterback in April's draft. The next three teams did, starting with the perennially mediocre Jaguars. Jumping up to pick #10 and drafting Blaine Gabbert, who almost went #1 overall, was a dream come true for Jacksonville, who has the luxury of starting the season with David Garrard and letting Gabbert learn the ropes for a few weeks. I just realized how eerily similar their names are. Let's just call their quarterback Blavid Garbart and say he's not going to be very good in 2011, but he has potential to be a stud by 2013.

Obviously the workhorse of this team is Maurice Jones-Drew, who gets about 300 carries and 50 receptions a season and all the goal-line work, making him an easy fantasy stud. He was a top 3 pick last season and weirdly only scored 5 TDs, despite having 16 and 14 in the previous two years. But you can't complain about 1,640 yards, and that was despite a injury which caused him to miss two games. Pocket Hercules (one of the dumbest nicknames in sports) currently has an Average Draft Position of 10.2, and in my opinion that's a steal. The only other Jags player with fantasy appeal is Marcedes Lewis, who is being drafted as the 10th best tight end but should easily be top 5.

23. Cincinnati Bengals
Offensively, they might be the worst team. A rookie QB with red hair, a terrible offensive line, no running game, and rookie A.J. Green being tripled teamed while Chad Ochocinco sits up in the stands wearing a snoopy costume and tweeting about his desire to run for President of Uruguay or something. Cedric Benson is a free agent who is about to hit the open market, and will be lucky to find a backup job, leaving Bernard Scott as the tailback behind quarterback Andy Dalton. Of course, that's assuming Carson Palmer either retires or is traded. I think he'll retire because no one wants to trade for him, but Pete Carroll is the possible exception. Either way, his chances of playing QB for the Bengals are supermodel slim, especially since they drafted Dalton in the second round.

Don't get me wrong, I like Andy Dalton; he was a winner at TCU, he's accurate and mobile, and he might have a decent NFL career. But he's frankly been placed in a no-win situation with the Bengals. A rookie quarterback needs two things: a running game, and an offensive line. Locker and Ponder got extremely lucky landing in Minnesota and Tennessee. Newton, Dalton and Colin Kaepernick got screwed. But Dalton may have got the most screwed of all. Especially if Chad Ochocinco stays on the team. Which he probably won't.

Anyway, the reason Cincy gets ranked #24th and not #32nd is the defense, led by corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph. Joseph is a free agent and pretty highly coveted, but Cincy is going to do everything they can to retain him, and unfortunately for the Lions I think he stays put. The linebackers are really good, with Dhani Jones, Keith Rivers and Ray Maualuga, and Domata Peko is a stud DT. Statistically they were a top 10 defense, and that's mostly impressive considering the worthless offense. If they lose Joseph, I guess you can slide them back to 27. But for now, Joseph is still a Bengal.

Quick note on A.J. Green - he is going to be an incredible pro, but don't take him too high in fantasy. Expect the same numbers that Calvin Johnson put up as a rookie - 750 yards and 5 TDs. But if you're in a keeper league (like me), take a shot on him, because Calvin's second year was 1,300 yards and 12 TDs. And A.J. Green is every bit as good as Megatron.

22. Tennessee Titans
Somehow I think they've overthrown the Vikings as the most drama-burdened team in the NFL. Probably had something to do with the Randy Moss acquisition. But they've also endured the Vince Young saga, several Kenny Britt arrests, the firing of Jeff Fisher, and of course, having Randy Moss. Last year the Titans actually started 5-2 before collapsing on their way to a 6-10 season. The drama began when Vince Young threw his shoulder pads into the stands after a loss to Washington, then he left the stadium without talking to media or teammates, then apologized to Jeff Fisher via text message, but Fisher didn't accept the apology because "I'm not a big text guy," all the while, Randy Moss stood by smirking as the Titans spiraled boisterously into a smoking beautiful mess. Finally owner Bud Adams blew the whole thing to bits, exiling both Fisher and Young. Now, Jake Locker has his work cut out for him, especially with 63 year old Kerry Collins announcing his retirement. Right now Locker's only competition for the starting job is Rusty Smith, which is why the Titans are working feverishly to decide which veteran QB to bring in. Again, the same names are in the mix: Palmer, Hasslebeck, McNabb, Bulger...

If Tennessee loses DE Jason Babin or MLB Stephen Tulloch to free agency, which they probably will, the 26th ranked defense will be even worse. The Lions are certainly in the market for Tulloch, who loves Jim Schwartz. That would be a good one for Detroit.

The good news for Titans fans: Chris Johnson is truly transforming into Barry Sanders. Why? Because the Titans are poised to become one of the worst teams of the next 10 years, just like Barry's Lions. Wouldn't be shocked to see 2,000 yards from Sonic during a 5-11 season. He's my #1 pick.

21. Cleveland Browns
When there are eleven teams in the NFL in worse shape than a team led by Colt McCoy, you know it's going to be a season of haves and have-nots. Peyton Hillis won the cover of Madden (and the accompanying Curse), but left tackle Joe Thomas deserves most of the credit for Hillis's 1,200 yards and 11 TDs. This year it's going to be a platoon between Hillis and Montario Hardesty, and I wouldn't be surprised to see both guys near 1,000 yards. If you believe in the Curse, Hardesty is a pretty smart fantasy pick, because anyone who runs behind Joe Thomas finds success. Colt McCoy has a pretty cushy job, but unfortunately he still lacks a downfield threat to take advantage of the excellent running game in Cleveland. They probably should have drafted Julio Jones instead of trading back, but they picked up Atlanta's 2012 1st round pick in the process, so we'll see how it pans out. Mohamed Massaquoi is supposed to be the downfield guy, but he's nothing special.

This team can grind it out and keep games close, but they can't create many big plays offensively. The defense is slowly rebuilding, and might have found its nosetackle in Baylor's Phil Taylor. But they still have a lot of work to do. They'll improve on last year's 5-11 record, but 8-8 is about as good as they can be.

20. San Francisco 49ers
Pretty much everybody picked the Niners to win the NFC West last season, including me. Mike Greenberg even put them in the Super Bowl. Then, they began the season 0-5 with Alex Smith, switched to Troy Smith, and somehow finished 6-10. But four of those wins were in the division, and the other two were Denver and Oakland. The best team they beat all year was St. Louis. Yikes.

Their big win came in January when they won the Jim Harbaugh Sweepstakes, luring the Stanford coach away from Miami and Michigan and several other offers. Harbaugh hasn't made any big-splash moves yet, but did take Nevada's QB Colin Kaepernick in the second round (Aldon Smith was the first round pick, which I wasn't impressed by). Kaepernick likely won't start, as the team has kept Alex Smith around. I also won't be shocked if they bring in a guy like Palmer or McNabb. Harbaugh can't afford to go 3-13 or something in his first season. Kaepernick isn't ready, Harbaugh knows it, so they'll suffer under Alex Smith for a while longer.

The offense is full of talent, with Gore and Crabtree and Vernon Davis. The offensive line is solid and young, with two first round picks from 2010. That's why everyone assumed they would succeed last year. I won't make the same mistake this year until I see someone who can play quarterback with competency.

On defense, they've got Patrick Willis, a top 10 overall player and the best middle linebacker in a decade. He helped the Niners rank 13th in total defense. Without Willis, they would be the league's worst defense, and probably the worst overall team. But in the NFC West, another 6 wins is likely.

19. Minnesota Vikings
The Brett Favre Experiment ended disgracefully in Minnesota, with our lasting impressions of the ol' gunslinger the thought of him texting his genitals to some young hot reporter while his wife suffered through breast cancer. He helped get Brad Childress fired, threw the ball to a slouching Randy Moss for a few weeks, watched his beard turn gray, and finally hung up the cleats in his locker, next to his trusty Wranglers. It was depressing and pathetic and boring, and frankly, I'm glad it's over. By selecting Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, Minnesota is officially ready to move on.

Normally a rookie QB on a team that just went 6-10 would be ranked worse than 19th. But this is not a normal season. There are an anomalous number of terrible teams in rebuilding mode, and Ponder probably has more talent around him than any of the six rookie quarterbacks. Obviously it all begins with Adrian Peterson.

Just like San Francisco, the Vikings rely heavily on their one elite player. Without AP, they would be utterly noncompetitive. They have many formerly elite players, but Steve Hutchison is 33, Pat Williams is 38, and Antoine Winfield is 34. Jared Allen is still playing at a high level (11 sacks last year) and Kevin Williams is still an elite DT, but their defense has plenty of holes to fill, particularly in the secondary, and the offensive line struggles to protect the quarterback.

Further, the Vikings are anticipating a tumultous free agency period, during which several key players are unrestricted. Between WR Sidney Rice, DE Ray Edwards, and LBs Ben Leber and Chad Greenwayand , it only appears the Vikings will be able to retain one or maybe two of them. I would pay Greenway and Leber and let Rice and Edwards walk. But that's just me. Either way, the team as a whole will be forced to take a step backwards.

Of course, Peterson's presence in the backfield means Ponder will have less pressure on him (figuratively and literally) than any other rookie QB, and even with 8 in the box AP is good enough to carry the Vikings to a handful of wins. They'll be competitive and not a complete doormat, but I'm not nearly as scared of them as I have been in years past.

18. St. Louis Rams
I don't watch many college football games, but back in 2008 I watched Oklahoma. I don't remember why, or who they played. I think it was Texas Tech or something. But in those few hours, I realized with absolute certainty that Sam Bradford was going to be a star someday in the NFL. He just that has elusive, intangible "it" factor that QBs need. It can't be explained, but you know it when you see it. Manning defines it, Brady embodies it, Rodgers and Brees found it. And dorks like Matthew Stafford make tens of millions of dollars by pretending to have it. In my humble opinion, Sam Bradford definitey has it. Moreso than even Matt Ryan. Within three years, Sam will be an elite NFL quarterback, and the Rams will be a top ten team.

But for now, there's still too much work to do. Defense matters; so does offensive line. I expect Bradford to make big strides this season, especially with a healthy Mark Clayton and a whole lot of upside with Danario Alexander and Laurent Robinson. It won't shock me if St. Louis ends up signing a free agent WR too, maybe Holmes or Rice or Edwards. Of course they have the always dependable Steven Jackson, and now offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who promises to allow Bradford to throw upwards of 40 times per game. Look at what he did with Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd last season. Bradford is clearly a fantasy sleeper, to the point where he's no longer asleep. Now he's just a mid-round pick. And early than that in keeper leagues.

Last year the Rams went 7-9 with only two wins in the pitiful NFC West. This year they'll win at least 4 division games, maybe 5, and a few extra against duds like Washington and Cincinnati. They've got four extremely tough games - Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore and Pittsburgh - and if Bradford can win one or two of those he will be on his way to elite status.

Looking quickly at the defense that ranked 16th overall last season, you don't see much to get excited about. They retained Atogwe and have Laurinatis in the middle, but the D-line leaves a lot to be desired. Adding Robert Quinn with the #14 pick should help, provided he's not yet another bust at DE for the Rams. The biggest strength of this defense, and this team in general, is head coach Steve Spagnuolo, whom I believe is a defensive genius.

If the Rams are able to add one or two studs in free agency, and if Bradford develops as quickly as I think he might, they could easily go 10-6 in that cake division. For now, I'll say at least 8-8 and a playoff appearance.

17. Houston Texans
Call me crazy, but I'm not buying the hype. Not the Arian Foster hype, not the Wade Phillips hype, and certainly none of the 'Asomugha to the Texans' hype. Why would the league's best corner want to play against Peyton Manning twice a year on a team that's never even been to the playoffs? I'll be surprised if Nnamdi stays in the AFC. The Tampa rumor is gaining some steam. They might offer the most money. We'll see.

Matt Schaub has shown me everything I need to know about his ability to lead a team in close games. He's the antithesis of clutch, and his ability to put up monster numbers is directly related to his ability to have Andre Johnson as a teammate. Without Andre that offense would rank in the bottom 5, and Arian Foster's dream season wouldn't have happened. Arian isn't a bum, but he's not a total stud either. He might be a fringe top 10 running back. Maybe.

A lot of people are way too excited about Wade Phillips becomming the Texans new defensive coordinator, bringing his 3-4 defense and unleashing Mario Williams into the OLB role. Yes, I think Mario might have 20 sacks this year, and and might win D-MVP. It's a perfect system for him. But one great player on a terrible defense does not equate to a playoff team. Ask San Francisco about that. Why are people are forgetting about the epic failure that Wade Phillips was in Dallas? He was fired as an incompetent moron, and months later was signed as a genius. What the heck?

Granted, he's better suited as a coordinator, and he knows the 3-4. But is he really going to turn around a defense that almost broke the record for most passing yards allowed? Their secondary gave up 8.2 yards per passing attempt, a 65% completion percentage, and a QB rating of 100.5. In other words, every quarterback they faced was Aaron Rodgers. Their sorry secondary got scorched by Kerry Collins, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Matt Cassel ... even Tim Tebow.

But on the other hand, Houston nabbed the steal of 2011's draft with OLB Brooks Reed in the late second round, along with J.J. Watt in the first round. That could be two immediate starters in the front 7. Can a great pass rush solve a terrible secondary? It seems Houston and Detroit have the same strategy. Meanwhile, both are desperately praying for Nnamdi Asomugha to return their phone calls.

16. Chicago Bears
Let's get one thing straight: I wanted to rank Chicago a lot higher. As in, worse. Somewhere in the twenties. But I couldn't, for three reasons:

1) There are just so many terrible teams
2) Minnesota is worse than Chicago and Minnesota is a top 20 team
3) Julius Peppers

Notice that none of those reasons have anything to do with Chicago hosting the NFC Championship game. That was a complete sham. If Calvin Johnson's catch was ruled a catch week 1, Chicago goes 10-6 instead of 11-5, and Green Bay wins the division, and Chicago loses in the first round. Instead, the Bears play a home game against the worthless Seahawks (who almost beat them!) and all of a sudden they are one home win away from the Super Bowl. The freaking postseason rules need to be changed so that never happens again.

With all the rookie QBs and unknowns and and McNabbs and Palmers flying all over the place, Jay Cutler might still be one of the 5 worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. At least two rookies will be better than him by the end of the season. His talent is there, or at least his arm strength is. But Cutler is way beyond terrible when it comes to the all-important intangibles. He gets an F- grade in terms of leadership, poise, toughness, moxie, and all those other words that sound like they mean nothing but actually mean everything. A guy like Stafford doesn't have those things so he fakes them; Cutler doesn't even pretend. He just sticks his middle finger up and says "I'm an asshole. Deal with it." Actually, I kind of appreciate that.

But it's not just the intangibles that make Cutler terrible. It's his decision making. Forced passes, not trusting blockers, or trusting blockers too much. Taking sacks at the wrong time, or not taking a sack when he should. Thinking he can throw the ball through a defense. He's just an idiot, plain and simple. His supreme cockiness manifests itself on the field. It's a perfect fit for Mike Martz, who just wants to launch 55 pass attempts per game and see what happens. Poor Matt Forte.

But refer to point #3. The Bears still have a super elite defensive end who revitalized their defense and was responsible for at least 5 wins. Julius only had 8 sacks, but he drew incessant double teams and forced 3 fumbles along with 2 interceptions. He also demonstrated why he is the best run-stopping DE in the league. The Bears were 2nd in the NFL in run defense, compared to 23rd the previous year. Brian Urlacher got lots of the credit, which is funny considering he's the fifth best player on Chicago's defense. Either way, the Bears aren't a playoff team, but Peppers makes them terrifying, especially when your left tackle is Jeff Backus.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A few years ago it was Houston. Last year it was San Francisco. This year, it's a toss-up between Tampa and KC for which team is getting all sorts of playoff hype despite never accomplishing anything. All the experts will rave about their young talent and potential, and then we'll watch them drudge their way to 7-9. So predictable.

So why am I ranking Tampa 15th, and KC 11th? Because I'm a sucker I guess. A sucker for Josh Freeman at least. I watched three or four complete Tampa games last year, including the Lions win against Tampa's fourth string defense, and found myself mesmerized by Freeman's poise on the field. He's a black pocket passer, which is rare in itself, but strong enough to elude tackles and throw on the run. He's probably third behind Vick and Roethlisberger in his ability to extend plays with his feet, but unlike Vick he keeps his eyes downfield. Maybe Aaron Rodgers is third and Freeman fourth. Either way, he's a freaking stud in the making. And here's a factoid you might not believe - Freeman had the second best INT/attempts ratio in the NFL, behind only Tom Brady. Tom threw one INT per 124 attempts (shattering whatever the record was), and Freeman came in second with one INT per 79 attempts. For Manning, Brees and Rodgers, the numbers are 1:39, 1:30, and 1:43, in case you wondered.

I don't think Freeman was a fluke. I think his accuracy is legit and his decision making is nearly perfect. His arm strength is adequate, his mobility is obviously good, and his coaches and teammates love him. He doesn't have the upside of Ryan or Bradford, but he does have 2 inches and 20 pounds on both of them.

Of course, Tampa has the misfortunate of sharing a division with New Orleans and Atlanta, so they won't make the playoffs in 2011 barring an injury to Brees or Ryan. But with the Black Ben Roethlisberger leading the offense, 9 or 10 wins should be possible, as long as the defense doesn't crumble again.

Oh yeah, and if the Asomugha thing really happens, you can probably pencil them in as division winners. And don't forget about Da'Quan Bowers, who almost got picked #1 overall, and then fell all the way to Tampa at pick #51. I can't wait to see how he returns from the knee surgery. Crap, I got sucked into the hype again.

14. Detroit Lions

Before I get started on what promises to be a long and exhaustive monologue, I suggest you read Tom Kowalski's piece on the Lions free-agency needs. It's wonderful.

If you are too lazy to click the link, it basically says that we need linebackers and CBs. And although fans think we need to improve the offensive line, that ain't gonna happen.

So with Detroit, it's basically the same story as Houston, Minnesota, Tennessee, and a few other teams. We dominate in one particular area (in this case, defensive line), but we have a glaring weakness somewhere else (the rest of the defense). Schwartz is hoping the front 4 will create enough pressure to alleviate our secondary and reduce the number of big passing plays. He's hoping to rack up sacks and take advantage of mismatches up front, and in the process shut down the opposing running attack, allowing us to drop the linebackers into coverage, or play nickel defense. It's a lot to hope for, but our faith is firmly in Ndamukong Suh, and that's a good place to be. Adding Nick Fairley to a front 4 with VandenBosch and Avril seems to solidify this as one of the NFL's best defensive lines. Again, that requires a little optimism, because Fairley might be a complete bust. We just won't know until the games are played.

Offensively, everything hinges on Matthew Stafford. Wait a second ... I'm pretty sure I typed that exact same sentence one year ago. Yup, I did. Then I went on and on for paragraphs about how much I don't like the guy, and then ... he played 29 minutes, got whacked by Julius Peppers, and then hung out with Dr. James Andrews until November.

This year, the catchphrase in football world is "if Stafford can stay healthy." It's so annoying, because we played our best football last year without Stafford. Shaun Hill is a better quarterback. He doesn't have the arm strength or long hair, but he has the accuracy, decision-making, and he doesn't make mistakes. He checks down and moves the chains; he keeps the opposing defense on the field. Hill is our best quarterback, so if Stafford gets hurt again I won't shed a tear.

However, I hope Stafford stays healthy, because I want to see what he can do. I want to see if he can realize his potential. I'm not optimistic, but I'm not hopeless. I would love to be proven wrong. I'm not going to waste 5,000 words talking about what a dork Stafford is when he wears the backwards hat and how he never should have been taken with the #1 overall pick. So far, he's an overpaid bust. I hope that's not how his career ends. I will be watching eagerly.

Truth is, the Lions have a solid C or B at the quarterback position, depending on the week. Stafford has more potential, Hill has more consistency. But the rest of the offense will make the difference, and it will start with the running game.

For the first two weeks of 2010, Jahvid Best appeared unstoppable. He actually led the NFL in fantasy points after week two. Then he came back down to earth, and got turf toe. We started to realize that his magical start to the season was really just one 75 yard screen pass on which the Eagles defense was totally out of position. For the next 14 games, Best averaged a mere 3.2 yards per carry and scored only once. He showed a definite capability in the passing game, with 58 receptions last year, and will serve as a high-quality 3rd down back this year, while splitting carries with second-round pick Mikel Leshoure.

The former Illinois bruiser has 30 pounds on Best and runs much better between the tackles, giving Detroit a perfect RBBC system. This is annoying for fantasy purposes, but better for the offense. Maurice Morris will start the year with 8-10 carries per game while Leshoure adjusts, but by the end of the year look for Best and Leshoure to split the carries fifty-fifty with Morris reduced to a backup role.

So while neither of these players will be the next Barry Sanders, the question should be asked: how good can the tandem be? Specifically, can they be good enough to take pressure off Stafford and give him time to process his reads and make good decisions in the pocket? Will they demand any respect from opposing safeties and OLBs? The answer, unfortunately, is that we'll have to wait and see. Leshoure looks very Mendenhall-like in his highlight videos (hopefully without the conspiracy theories), but I wonder if he has enough speed to compete at the pro level.

At the receiver positions, Detroit is all set with Calvin and Burleson, and hoping to bring Titus Young into a deep-threat role. Pettigrew and Scheffler give us two more viable receivers, and Pettigrew doubles as a solid blocker. In other words, no excuses for Stafford. Everybody loves to hate the Lions' offensive line, but the truth is, it's not that bad. Rob Sims helped a lot last year, and Peterman is great at run blocking. Backus can maul guys in the running game, and Raiola is solid all-around. Cherilus is the weak link, and even he's not terrible. I would love to see Detroit bring in some depth and someone to challenge the starters, but it will have to wait until the 2012 draft before we permanently replace Jeff Backus and get a true franchise left tackle.

I already said what needs to be said about the defense. We need linebackers and cornerbacks. DeAndre Levy can play MLB, but our OLBs on the current roster don't have NFL talent. Our best cornerback is Chris Houston, an unrestricted free agent who isn't even very good. We have to be honest and say our chances at Nnamdi are maybe 5%, and constellation prize Jonathan Joseph is still a pipe dream. I won't be shocked to see Detroit trade in the next two weeks to acquire viable defenders, even if we have to sacrifice potential starters at other positions.

For Detroit to be ranked the 14th best team in the NFL and yet have D-minus talent at outside linebacker and cornerback proves a few things. It proves that there are a lot of terrible teams, it proves how awesome Suh and Calvin are, and mostly, it proves that it's better to have only 2 positions of weakness instead of 5 or 6.

I analyzed the Lions' schedule back in April , and not much has changed. I know this sounds stupid, but we can realistically start out 6-0. Our toughest game is at Green Bay week 17, but hopefully by then the Packers will rest their starters. At New Orleans week 13 will be a killer. We should be able to beat Carolina week 11 with our backups, and Denver and Oakland are winnable road games. By my rankings, 9 of our 16 games are against teams worse than us, and the Cowboys and Chiefs are only a couple spots ahead. Don't get too excited, but we're probably the second best team in the NFC North.

Depending on how much you love or hate Stafford, you can see anywhere from 5-11 to 11-5 on the schedule. I see somewhere around 9-7.

13. Dallas Cowboys
I hate ranking the Cowboys one spot ahead of the Lions, but they have less weaknesses, a better quarterback, and a better coach. They also have DeMarcus Ware, who is an even bigger stud than Calvin or Suh. A few of their players, namely Jay Ratliff and Miles Austin, really underperformed last year, and Tony Romo spent the year injured. But the 6-10 record had more to do with the team quitting on Wade Phillips than an accurate representation of their talent.

With Austin, Witten and Dez Bryant, this offense should score plenty of points, in real-life and fantasy, and Romo should have a rebound season. This team makes too much noise to fly under the radar, but I don't think people expect them to be quite as good as they'll be. And as I've already said about a dozen other teams, if they land Asomugha they'll be even better.

12. NY Jets
Rex Ryan released a book in which he guarantees Super Bowl wins, makes fun of Tom Brady’s hair, and lashes out at former players for being “selfish” and “lazy.” Sounds like the only book on earth I am less likely to read than Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue.

Unfortunately, this is a stacked Jets team, and they play with more confidence than any other team. Ryan is a loudmouth obnoxious jerk, but truth be told, he’s a great coach. Sadly, the Jets will probably find themselves in the playoffs again, or at least close.

It’s weird, because last year the Lions outplayed them up and down the field and rightfully should have won that game. If not for a missed Suh extra point (when I’m sure Nick Harris could have made that extra point 500 times in a row), or an incomplete Stanton pass on third-down when taking a knee would have basically clinched the game, or a horrifically idiotic Julian Peterson penalty with 40 seconds left and the Jets needing to go 30 yards with no timeouts in order to kick a game-tying field goal … anyway...

The Jets are going to have a tumultuous free agency trying to hold on to Braylon and Santonio and Cromartie. They'll probably lose at least two of those guys. But Rex Ryan has a knack for motivating scrubs into overperforming, so I’m not concerned about them. As long as Revis and the inside linebackers Scott and Harris are healthy, the Jets D will carry them to at least 7 wins. The Jets are yet another team that dabbles in the Nnamdi rumors, but I don't buy it.

The offense won't be the same if they lose Holmes, although losing Braylon wouldn't hurt too bad. They've got loads of depth at the WR position, a decent running game, a top 10 tight end, and a great offensive line anchored by the league's best center. Mark Sanchez has an easy job; any improvements he makes in his third year are just gravy.

11. Kansas City Chiefs
I don't know why I'm ranking a Matt Cassel team in the top 12. He's the only quarterback in the top 12 who completely stinks. I guess I am delusional enough to believe that Jamaal Charles is every bit as good as Chris Johnson, maybe better, and KC's defense is well on its way to being legit.

Last year the Charles/Jones duo led Kansas City to the NFL's best rushing offense, but it helped that they also ran the ball 20 times more than any other team. In terms of YPC, they were fourth. It was frustrating to own Charles last season in the B League, because in a typical Chiefs game the box score looked like this:

Jamaal Charles, 14 rushes, 110 yards
Thomas Jones, 17 rushes, 45 yards

It was frustrating, but ultimately, smart. They kept Charles from being overworked and kept his legs fresh for the playoffs. It was smart, but then they ran into a Baltimore team that doesn't let anybody run. If they drew a different matchup, they might have surprised somebody. Wait, I forgot, they still have Matt Cassel.

This year, everyone expects Charles to take over the full-time job while Jones becomes a backup or possibly gets traded. Because of that possibility, consider Charles the 3rd overall pick in fantasy, behind CJ and AP. Adding wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin with the #26 pick gives Cassel a 6'5" red-zone threat to accompany Dwayne Bowe, and the always entertaining Dexter McCluster makes for a fun slot/utility guy. He's like a mix between Reggie Bush and somebody no one has ever heard of.

The defense has a couple of young studs in Tamba Hali and Eric Berry, an emerging shutdown corner in Brandon Flowers, and a solid DE in Shaun Smith. They ranked 14th in defense last year, 10th in sacks, and 9th in turnovers. The defense is far from spectacular, but it's not a pushover unit. With four games against the dregs of the AFC West, plus home games against Buffalo and Miami, KC should have no problem winning at least 7 or 8 games, which might give them a shot at the AFC West if San Diego flops again. But I don't think they will.

10. NY Giants
One of the biggest players in this free agency frenzy, the Giants are expected to change their roster dramatically in the next two weeks. They've got to decide whether to retain Ahmad Bradshaw and Mathias Kiwanuka, not to mention Steve Smith and Barry Cofield, and simultaneously upgrade the linebacker position and the O-line. They are in direct competition with the Lions for guys like Stephen Tulloch and Barrett Rudd.

The top ten ranking might seem a little unjust because the Giants lack star-power, but it's their stability and well-roundedness that make them more viable contenders than the Jets or Cowboys or Chiefs. New York ranked 10th in passing, 6th in rushing, 9th in passing defense, and 8th in rushing defense. No other team ranked in the top 15, let alone top 10, in each of those 4 categories.

The Giants were also 5th in sacks, 1st in 3rd down defense, and remarkably, they led the league in both takeaways and giveaways. Eli Manning led the NFL with 25 interceptions despite being only 8th in attempts, and his QB rating of 85.3 was pedestrian to say the least. With an arsenal of weapons and a top-notch offensive line, Eli doesn't have any excuses. If his last name were VanderMeer instead of Manning, he would be on the hot seat.

9. San Diego Chargers
Ranking the 9-7 Chargers, who began the year 2-5, inside the top 10 might be my dumbest move. You might think it's because their defense and offense both ranked #1 overall last season. But it's not. Frankly, I think their defense stinks. The reason they ranked 1st in pass defense was because they only played against 2 quality quarterbacks all season. They had the most hideously easy schedule in the league and still managed to lose 7 games. They lost to Seattle, Cincinnati, Oakland (twice), and the Rams. Not impressive. I know their special teams was responsible for at least two of those loses, but still. That defense doesn't have a single stud player other than Eric Weddle, and he's about 50% likely to leave as a free agent. Two of the starting linebackers are unrestricted, the defensive line isn't great, and the corners are just okay. I have no idea how they ranked #1 overall defensively even with that silly schedule, but it surely won't happen again.

But as long as they've got a healthy Phillip Rivers, they've got the fifth best quarterback in the NFL and that will win some games. With Gates and Vincent Jackson, Rivers has two super passing options, and the offensive line is stacked with two or three potential Pro Bowlers. If Ryan Matthews is a bomb at running back, the Chargers probably still go 10-6. But if Matthews makes major progress in his second season, as I suspect he will, the Bolts could reasonably go 12-4 or better, despite the more challenging schedule this season.

Rivers is really good.

8. Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Vick used to kill dogs. Now he kills defenses. And he'll be the first quarterback taken in just about every fantasy draft.

7. Indianapolis Colts
Arguably the best quarterback of all time is still playing at a very high level, but the running game stinks, the O-line stinks, the defense is mediocre at best (ranked 20th overall), and Reggie Wayne is 32 years old but plays like he's 42. In a few days Manning will sign a contract to make him the highest paid player in the NFL - which he certainly deserves - but by doing so he'll hinder his team from being afforded the cap space needed to acquire a top-notch defender or pass protector. They got OT Anthony Castonzo in the draft, who could start immediately at left tackle and might be fantastic. They've still got Dallas Clark, who is freaking awesome. But the rest of the team kind of stinks. Except of course for Freeney and Mathis, the league's best tandem of DEs. But that's all the defense has.

However, let's just be honest: at this point in his career, Peyton Manning is single-handedly worth at least 9 victories, regardless of his teammates, regardless of the schedule. If the offensive line can make improvements and the running game can become somewhat useful, Indy is assured 12 wins. If the defense can step up just a little bit and keep Peyton from having to score 30 points every game, Indy could easily get a first-round bye, and might win 14 or 15. But, those are big ifs. The running game looked completely futile last season. Thankfully, I drafted Donald Brown in something like 11 of my 12 leagues. He finished the year with 497 yards and 2 TDs. Thanks Donald.

I should probably mention: the 2012 Super Bowl will be played in Indianapolis.

6. Atlanta Falcons
When they traded up to pick #6 and got Alabama's wideout Julio Jones, Atlanta instantly became a trendy Super Bowl pick. Now they've got Jones paired up with Roddy White, and the already potent Falcons offense is even more dominant. Right? But wait a second. Michael Turner is coming off a career-low 4.1 YPC, and was slower and more inconsistent in 2010 after being given something like 750 carries the previous two years. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is gone. Not sure if he's retired or not, but he's got nothing left. Atlanta is now talking about picking up Todd Heap. Eeek. So while the receivers are now set, I'm not sure that Atlanta's offense will be any more dominant than it was last year, when they ranked 15th in passing and 12th in rushing. I expect the passing numbers to jump into the top 5, while the rushing numbers drop into the mid-20s. In short, don't draft Michael Turner in the first round, but definitely take Ryan and Roddy if you can.

But to make a truly accurate assessment of their offense, it would help to know just how good Julio Jones is. Some receivers picked in the top 10 become Calvin Johnson, and others become Charles Rogers. Every top 10 pick is amazing until they actually play. Julio had a dazzling two-year career at Alabama complete with tons of accalades and no character concerns, so he seems like a safe bet. His size and run-after-catch ability have likened him to Terrell Owens or Brandon Marshall. But I have to wonder how good his numbers would have been if the Heisman-winning running back weren't on his team in college? I'm probably being nit-picky.

Really, the difference between 9-7 and 14-2 will be the defense. Atlanta's offense is going to be really good. Maybe not unstoppable, but definitely good. But their defense is a question mark right now. Last year they ranked 16th overall, but created plenty of turnovers, including 22 interceptions, 4th most in the league. But they lacked speed around the edge and recorded only 31 sacks, 20th most. John Abraham had 13 of those sacks, and at age 33 he's starting to slow down. Atlanta really wanted to improve their pass rush in the draft, but instead traded all their chips for Julio. No doubt he's a great talent, but it was a huge risk. They gave up this year's second rounder and next year's first rounder.

The strength of the defense is clearly the cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Despiting being undersized (5'10" each), both are excellent coverage corners and are both capable of single coverage. This allows the linebackers to stuff the middle and allowed budding star Curtis Lofton to rack up 118 tackles. Over the next few days, I expect Atlanta to furiously pursue Minnesota's Ray Edwards, looking for a pass rusher to complement and eventually replace Abraham. I don't think Edwards is all that special, but he's an improvement.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Since losing the Super Bowl, it's been a treacherous five months for my least favorite football team. First, Rashard Mendenhall tweeted that he thinks 9-11 was an inside job and made a complete ass of himself. Then Hines Ward got a DUI at 2am in Georgia and got released with no punishment, which makes the supposed nice guy of the Steelers an obvious scumbag. Then James Harrison said that if Roger Goddell were burning to death, he "wouldn't piss on him to save his life." He also called the Commissioner a "devil," a "crook," a "dictator," and a gay racist. Oh, and let's not forget their quarterback, who raped a teenager last year and got slapped on the wrist. All in all, they are a team that definitely embodies the term "classy."

There are a few reasons I chose to rank them sixth, despite my initial feeling that they were a top three team.

1) Roethlisberger is super overrated. I've always said, he's a below-average quarterback until the 2 minute drill, and then he suddenly becomes unstoppable.
2) Hines Ward is getting really old. He's a glorified tight end right now. Mike Wallace is going to see plenty of double teams and isn't #1 receiver material. The passing game is going to suffer.
3) Let's not forget, this is a horrible offensive line. It has been since 2008 when Alan Faneca left. They are one of the worst lines in the league at protecting the quarterback.
4) The cornerbacks aren't good and never have been. When Troy Polamalu was hurt in 2009, the Steelers pass defense gave up nearly 300 yards a game. Resigning Ike Taylor isn't a good move.

But despite those things, the Steelers will continue to win ugly games because of their great defensive line, phenomenal linebackers, All Pro safety, and perhaps the best coach in football.

4. New Orleans Saints
It was a toss-up whether to rank the Saints ahead of the Falcons, because Atlanta had the sexier offseason by getting Julio and went 13-3 last season, compared to 11-5 for New Orleans. Both teams are about equal defensively, though the Saints ranked 4th against the pass and have a better all-around unit. Atlanta has the clear advantage in the running game, and a much better receiving corps than New Orleans. All in all, Atlanta has a slighty better team.

But the difference is that Matt Ryan is an up-and-coming star, while Drew Brees already is a star. Brady and Manning are the #1 and #2 QBs until proven otherwise, and Rodgers passed Brees to be #3. But the gap between #4, Brees, and #5, Phillip Rivers, is absolutely huge. Brees is utterly elite. Rivers is a super talent but not really a winner. Right now, Matt Ryan and Mike Vick are 6 and 7, and then there's another huge gap until you get to number 8, which could be Flacco, Schaub, Roethlisberger, Romo, Eli, or quite possibly Josh Freeman. By the end of the season, I think Flacco, Freeman and Bradford will be 8, 9 and 10 in some order, and people will start to see Roethlisberger and Eli for the overrated losers that they are.

"But they won Super Bowls!"

Yeah, so did Trent Dilfer. Unless the quarterback is one of the five best players on the team, he shouldn't get credit for the championship.

3. Baltimore Ravens
My 2010 Super Bowl champ let me down, but if you watched the AFC Championship they really should have won that game. They outplayed Pittsburgh and blew a 14 point lead. If Roethlisberger doesn't convert a 3rd and 18 with 2:30-something left, the Steelers punt and Balitmore has to go 70 yards in 2 minutes with 2 timeouts just to kick a field goal and win. I digress.

Despite the diappointment of Anquan Boldin's first season in Baltimore, I still think this team is totally stacked. I would have to be an idiot to pick Baltimore to go all the way again this year, but I just might be an idiot. The addition of CB Jimmy Smith should help shore up a shaky secondary right away. This is a team with very few weaknesses: elite offensive line, top 10 player at RB and WR, a fringe top 10-ish quarterback, the best DT in at least a decade, the best MLB ever, the second best safety in the league, and some pretty good role players on defense. They are well-coached, well-led from within the locker room, and have no excuses not to win at least 12 games again. The only issue is whether Flacco makes the jump from good to great. He needs to improve his accuracy and quick decision making. Only Jay Cutler was sacked more times, and with Baltimore's great offensive line that shouldn't be the case.

Maybe I'm being stubborn, but I really see Baltimore as the most complete team in NFL, with the fewest weaknesses. I think Haloti Ngata is an absolute monster, but I kind of hate him because he's the only reason I can't call Ndamukong Suh the best DT in the league. I think Anquan Boldin will have the season he should have had last year. And I think Joe Flacco will continue to improve, albiet slowly, and the Ravens should win another 12 or 13 games and have another solid shot at the Super Bowl.

2. New England Patriots
Last year's regular season champs, the 14-2 Patriots, led the NFL in scoring by almost 100 points. Tom Brady won the MVP unanimously behind one of the greatest masterpieces in NFL history. He didn't skip a beat, but actually got better when his team traded Randy Moss and evolved into a dink-and-dump offense. He utilized two rookie tight ends and a washed-up Deion Branch to complete 66% of his passes and record a QB rating of 111.0, the highest since his insane 2007 season (117.2). Tom put up 36 TDs and 3,900 yards on 492 passing attempts ... all while throwing only 4 interceptions. By comparison, Jay Cutler threw 4 interceptions in a single game ... all to the same player. Brady threw less interceptions than Todd Collins, who attempted only 27 passes all season. He averaged an INT once every 123 passing attempts. Words and statistics fail to capture the true brilliance of his season.

Defensively, they had some holes, especially against the pass. They allowed the 3rd most passing yardage, behind only the Texans and Redskins. But part of that is attributed to the large leads they often had late in games, which forced opposing offenses to forego the run. (Related note: New England led the NFL with 25 interceptions) With studs Devin McCourty (7 picks) and Jerod Mayo (led the NFL in tackles with 175), not to mention the ruthless genius calling the plays, I'm not overly concerned about their defense.

So if you're anticipating the fall of the Patriots' dynasty, you might want to keep waiting. It's not going to be 2011. No player is more dominant than Tom Brady. And with massive rookie Nate Solder added to the offensive line, I'm not buying into the belief that Brady's protection is wearing down. The running game should be improved too. Expect another season 3900 yards and 35 TDs and at least 12 wins. The AFC East is theirs once again. I will say 13-3 - their schedule is breezy except for two games against Indy and Pittsburgh.

1. Green Bay Packers
They won the Super Bowl, they have a top 3 quarterback, and a top 20 overall player in Clay Matthews. Tramond Williams is a stud CB, might even be better than Charles Woodson, and when your 4th best defender is AJ Hawke that's pretty good. JerMichael Finley will be back and might emerge as the league's best tight end.

That's it for now.

**Update in case you haven't heard.

Matt Hasslebeck to the Titans, 2-year contract. He'll start week 1 and as long as he can until Locker is ready. Good move for everyone. Makes CJ the no-doubt #1 pick, which he was already.

Tavaris Jackson to the Seahawks. He'll compete with Whitehurst and Leinart for the starting job. ....Sometimes, it's best just not to say anything.

McNabb to the Vikings! Just got settled earlier today. The trade is for a couple of sixth-round picks. How silly. This helps Christian Ponder get a chance to develop, but McNabb doesn't strike me as the mentoring type. Good news for Detroit I guess. McNabb wasn't so scary last year.

Also, Santonio is staying with the Jets for $50 million, which means Braylon and Cromartie are on the way out. My guesses would be Braylon back to Cleveland and Cromartie to the Texans. Charles Johnson agreed to take $72 million from the Panthers in exchange for maybe 8 sacks a year over the next 5 years and a couple injuries, which cements Carolina as the most doomed franchise in the NFL.

Oh, and Washington signed DT Barry Cofield for 6 years, meaning Albert Haynesworth is officially replaced, and presumably looking for a job. Cofield is a solid pickup, but not nearly enough to help Washington. The Cowboys resigned LT Doug Free, Houston kept Jacoby Jones, and Jacksonville heisted Buffalo's stud linebacker Paul Posluszny, giving them a very quality ILB to replace Kirk Morrison and moving them up from #24 to #23 in the rankings.

The Lions still haven't done anything. They are still chasing Stephen Tulloch presumably. They better do something soon.

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