NFL Nation: Bobby Engram
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:
Introducing the real 49ers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shut out San Francisco at Candlestick Park last season, the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977. So much has changed for the 49ers since that game, however. Alex Smith has replaced Troy Smith at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as head coach. Joe Staley is back in the lineup at left tackle. The 49ers will have seven different starters on defense, most representing upgrades. One concern: The 49ers are without nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a potential concern against a runner as powerful as the Bucs' LeGarrette Blount. And to think, Blount would have been a 49er had he not reneged on an agreement with the team as an undrafted free agent.
Marshawn Lynch's opportunity. The Seattle Seahawks' offensive line took pride in allowing no sacks in its most recent game. A repeat performance on the road against the New York Giants isn't realistic. However, this game does give the Seahawks an opportunity to improve their unproductive ground game. The Giants have allowed 100-yard rushers in their past two games. The Seahawks have failed to top 64 yards rushing in three of their four games. Marshawn Lynch has gained 61 percent of his rushing yards after contact this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Seattle's line need to keep defenders off him a little longer.
An unlikely interception drought. Few safeties cover as much ground as quickly as the Seahawks' Earl Thomas, but that has not translated to interceptions. Thomas, after picking off five passes in his first 10 NFL games, has intercepted none in his past 12, counting playoffs. A penalty wiped out an interception for Thomas against Arizona this season. Seattle has collected only two of the 125 interceptions thrown in the NFL this season, and the Giants' Eli Manning has cut down on turnovers dramatically. A turnover from Thomas would certainly help their chances in a game few expect them to win. He's playing too well to go much longer without picking off passes.
49ers staring down history. A victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would leave the 49ers with a 4-1 record for the first time since 2002. Long-snapper Brian Jennings is the 49ers' only remaining player from that season. That 49ers team improved to 4-1 with a 28-21 victory over Seattle. How long ago was that game? One of Jennings' current coaches, Bobby Engram, returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown that day.
The team keeps defeating division opponents at home.
The 49ers have won their last seven NFC West games at Candlestick Park. The average final score: 31-12.
It's something to keep in mind when the Seattle Seahawks visit later Sunday. Seattle is the most recent NFC West team to defeat the 49ers at Candlestick, back in Week 8 of the 2008 season.
Eight 49ers starters from that 2008 defeat remain in the lineup or at least part of the game plan this week: Josh Morgan, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Parys Haralson, Isaac Sopoaga, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. Several 49ers backups and inactive players from that game also remain with the team, including Ray McDonald and Delanie Walker. Alex Smith was on injured reserve and did not play that season.
The Seahawks have had almost zero carryover. Koren Robinson, Walter Jones, Mike Wahle, Keary Colbert, Seneca Wallace, Jordan Kent and current 49ers assistant Bobby Engram were among their offensive starters that day. They're hoping a nearly all-new team can produce different results against the 49ers on the road.
New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh inherits a team that has gone 11-3 in its last 14 divisional games, home or away. Seattle has accounted for two of those three defeats, including in the 2010 opener.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:
World's tallest cornerback: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll emerged from the laboratory this offseason with something I cannot recall seeing at any level of football: a 6-foot-4 cornerback. Brandon Browner, late of the CFL, is expected to make his first NFL start against San Francisco. Seeing him lined up at corner takes some getting used to. Early in camp, teammates initially thought he was a safety and Carroll was testing out some weird new scheme. "When they said he was a corner, I thought maybe now they wanted to go with a 'created' player," receiver Ben Obomanu said. "I have a little cousin who plays NCAA and Madden football. He always creates these 6-7, 6-6 corners. I was like, 'Well, coach Carroll is trying something new.' But when I saw him play, I could see he has been playing corner a long time." Browner is a player to watch in Week 1.
Peterson, Washington and big returns: New rules for kickoffs will produce more touchbacks this season, but return specialists had to like what they saw in the regular-season opener between Green Bay and New Orleans on Thursday night. That game featured a 108-yard kickoff return and a 72-yard punt return, both for touchdowns. The NFC West has its share of big-play returners, with Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson joining a group featuring Leon Washington, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ted Ginn Jr. Those last three combined for six return touchdowns last season. Peterson returned an interception for a touchdown during preseason and nearly broke a long punt return.
Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least meaning: Turnover is such in the NFL that every game is a grudge match or extra meaningful for someone. Quintin Mikell's first game with St. Louis comes against his former team, Philadelphia. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Eagles' former defensive assistant, faces his old boss, Andy Reid, for the first time as a head coach. Derek Anderson's first game with Carolina, albeit as a backup, comes against his former team, Arizona. Cornerback Richard Marshall's first game with Arizona comes against his former team, Carolina. Same goes for new Cardinals tight end Jeff King. Surprising Seattle rookie receiver Doug Baldwin's first NFL game falls against his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, who did not sign him as an undrafted free agent. Bobby Engram's first game as an NFL assistant coach, for San Francisco, comes against his former team, Seattle. Oh, and I seem to recall hearing something about Carroll and Harbaugh facing off in college. Subplots proliferate. As Carroll noted, better have those boom mikes at the ready.
Bradford and the deep ball: The Rams intend to stress defenses with more downfield throws this season. They'll rely more on scheme and creativity than raw speed to set up these opportunities. Doubters will have to credit quarterback Sam Bradford and coordinator Josh McDaniels if the Rams can beat the Eagles' stacked secondary with downfield throws. Philadelphia gave up 54 pass plays of at least 20 yards last season, ninth-most in the league, but they've since added cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Rams managed only 36 such plays, third-fewest in the NFL.
- This season is critical. Crabtree has shown flashes of excellence on the field. He led the team's wide receivers in touchdown receptions last season. Like quite a few young and supremely talented players, Crabtree needs strong guidance in becoming a professional. This team lacks a top veteran wideout for Crabtree to pattern himself after. The team's decision to hire recently retired receiver Bobby Engram as a quality control coach could come into play in that regard. Also, new receivers coach John Morton must reach Crabtree in ways his grizzled predecessor, Jerry Sullivan, did not.
- Structure has been lacking. Crabtree went from relative unknown to superstar quickly during his college career at Texas Tech. He was wise beyond his years in football instincts, but also young and immature. Crabtree also lacked solid support structure. Remember his adviser, the controversial bail bondsman? Who else has had Crabtree's ear? Deion Sanders, one of the all-time greats on the field and someone so talented that the normal rules did not apply to him. Once the 49ers drafted Crabtree, the longest rookie contract dispute in 49ers history ensued. Now, a lockout is keeping the 49ers' new coaching staff from providing the structure and guidance Crabtree obviously needs.
- The fast start hurt him. When Crabtree finally did report to the 49ers as a rookie, he succeeded right away despite having no training camp or minicamps. Veteran teammates were impressed. Crabtree appeared to be on his way to great things. Did the success go to his head? When Crabtree encountered the difficulties that await all NFL players -- recall his rough outing against Seattle in the 2010 opener, when passes intended for him resulted in interceptions -- he did not take ownership. By then, Crabtree had already rankled teammates, notably tight end Vernon Davis.
- The Troy Smith factor. Crabtree's production picked up last season when an injury forced Alex Smith out of the lineup. Backup Troy Smith immediately developed a rapport with Crabtree, on the field and in the locker room. They meshed well. During one stretch, Troy Smith found Crabtree for gains of 12, 13, 28 (touchdown), 9, 15, 21 and 16 (TD) yards with only one incomplete pass along the way. Something to keep in mind when Crabtree tempers his support for Alex Smith.
- Alex Smith has tried to reach out. The quarterback told reporters he had been in touch with Crabtree this offseason and unable to get the receiver to show up for practices. Why wasn't Crabtree there? "Good question," Smith said. "Asking the wrong guy." The implication was clear. When Crabtree finally did show up this week, he wouldn't even acknowledge that Smith was the likely starter heading into the season. These guys obviously aren't on the same page.
- The subplot thickens. Meanwhile, Davis has continued to praise Smith's leadership and overall goodness. You'll recall that Davis and Crabtree had to be separated during practice last year when Davis took issue with the young receiver's overall approach. Said Davis at the time: "I hope he got the message. I think he did, I strongly believe, but if anything I see that I feel is wrong or that needs to be addressed, then I'm going to say something. I don't really have any frustrations with Michael. He just did some things during that time that I didn't like. That's all. ... It was basically taking ownership."
- There's a pattern here. By his actions, Crabtree risks coming off like a player who has been catered to, and expects it to continue. He appears unwilling to meet people halfway. The 49ers' contract offers were not enough. The 2010 exhibition season wasn't important enough for Crabtree to play through lingering neck soreness. Alex Smith isn't good enough to command public acknowledgement from him. Player-organized workouts aren't worth his time even though he had been working out in the Bay Area for weeks. These are the perceptions. Is Crabtree going to change them?
The latest developments on the Crabtree front bear monitoring as the 49ers head toward what remains an uncertain 2011 season. When the lockout finally does end, coach Jim Harbaugh needs to move quickly and decisively in seeing if there's a way to help Crabtree take the next step.
- By my count, six current NFL receivers are older than Burress, who turns 34 in August: Terrell Owens (37), Derrick Mason (37), Donald Driver (36), Brian Finneran (35), Hines Ward (35) and Brandon Stokley (35 in June);
- Thirty players have caught at least 50 passes in a season at age 34 or older, according to Pro Football Reference; Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce and Bobby Engram accomplished the feat for current NFC West teams;
- Burress caught 35 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns over 10 games for the New York Giants in 2008, his last season before serving a jail term on a weapons charge; St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Giants' defensive coordinator that year, giving the NFC West one solid connection to Burress;
- Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm and Ray Horton are among the Arizona Cardinals coaches who were with the Pittsburgh Steelers before Burress signed with the Giants in 2005, giving the NFC West another connection;
- These types of connections can sometimes explain why teams do not pursue players; they know the bad as well as the good;
- My initial feel is that Burress probably will not land in this division; Burress has played his entire career, from high school to the NFL, for teams in the East; I doubt he'll seek out a team in the West after spending two years away from his family;
- Burress wore a Philadephia Phillies hat upon his release Monday, and the Eagles were the team considered most likely to sign him in a survey of ESPN.com bloggers;
- The Rams' situation at receiver remains unsettled; bringing in Burress for a visit could make sense; the Cardinals' situation at receiver is more defined, and at least one Arizona-based reporter is saying there's no chance the Cardinals will sign him; I tend to agree and do not see the need, either;
- Burress is five years older than any receiver on the Rams' roster and nine years older than the team's receivers on average, a potential consideration as the team decides how Burress would fit into the equation;
- The Rams have previously resisted adding older receivers, passing on Owens and Moss over the last couple of seasons; Mark Clayton, who turns 29 in July, is the oldest receiver on the roster;
- Seattle has been aggressive in considering unlikely options, making low-risk bets on Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, LenDale White and others; the team would ideally like to go with younger players at this stage;
- Please let me know if you've seen anything, anywhere, suggesting the San Francisco 49ers would have interest; I do not see a great fit as the team establishes a new program under a first-year coach.
Would you want Burress on your favorite team?
Fitzgerald already has 613 receptions, far more than any other NFC West receiver over the last seven seasons.
In fact, the wide receivers with the most receptions for the Cardinals' division rivals during the same time period -- Torry Holt (St. Louis), Bobby Engram (Seattle) and Arnaz Battle (San Francisco) -- have long since moved on. I ran across Engram in the 49ers' main lobby Wednesday; he's a quality control coach with the team.
History tells us receivers carry more risk than some other positions. For every Fitzgerald, there seems to be a Koren Robinson, David Terrell or Troy Williamson -- high picks that never came close to realizing their potential. Mike Williams' revival with Seattle last season was an exception.
The charts break down every receiver NFC West teams have drafted since 2004. Will the St. Louis Rams add Julio Jones to their list of drafted wideouts?
As in the past, I'll preface each chart with thoughts from the teams' perspectives.
Immediate needs don't matter so much when front-line talent is available ...
Time to start finding replacements for veterans who might not fit into our plans (Terrell Owens for the 49ers, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt for the Rams) ...
These guys might not start, but every team needs secondary options in the passing game ...
We're getting late enough in the draft to consider grabbing a receiver while a few with decent potential remain on the board ...
Time to fill out the roster and hope we find depth for special teams ...
They will in 2011, with a twist: Engram will be coaching for the 49ers, who hired him as an offensive assistant Friday, against a Seattle team featuring Ulbrich as assistant special-teams coach.
Not every player wants to grind away at coaching. It's good for the game when players as respected as Ulbrich and Engram do decide to go that route, even if it's strange for the rest of us to see them wearing unfamiliar colors.
This is Engram's first coaching job. He played for Chicago from 1996 through 2000, then with Seattle through the 2008 season. He finished with Kansas City in 2009. Engram's strong rapport with Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would become a natural storyline if San Francisco pursued Hasselbeck in free agency.
Engram's background in the West Coast offense makes him a natural hire for San Francisco. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh had long since left the Chicago Bears by the time Engram arrived as a receiver, but they'll speak a similar language from a scheme standpoint.
Engram and 49ers offensive line coach Mike Solari were together with Seattle in 2008.
More than four years later, referee Bill Leavy put Super Bowl XL back in the spotlight by recently admitting he blew some calls in the game. On Tuesday Holmgren, now president of the Cleveland Browns, reacted to the news.
"Of course I was disappointed at the time, and because it was the Super Bowl, I still think about it on occasion," Holmgren said. "But like anything in this business, if you let it linger it's going to have an adverse effect on what you do moving forward.
"We didn't play our best football that day. Had we played better and coached better, those calls might not have made a difference. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes, and you can't hold one person accountable for the final outcome of that game."
Several former Seahawks applauded Leavy's admission but said the loss still stings.
"On a whole, unless they're going to come out and say 'Hey, here's the trophy and here's your ring,' it's not going to make a difference," Browns quarterback and former Seahawk Seneca Wallace said.
Added former Seahawk Bobby Engram: "I hope [Leavy] feels better about himself. He's human and we all make mistakes. I'm sure he was trying his hardest, but it was difficult for us to overcome some of those missed calls."
Holmgren led two different franchises -- Seattle and Green Bay -- to Super Bowls and is now in his first year attempting to turn around the Browns, who finished 5-11 last season.
With training camp approximately two weeks away, here are eight AFC North players who could be heavily debated and on the roster bubble this summer:
1. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Case against: Jones sat out last season for off-field reasons. He has said and done the right things so far in Cincinnati, but he's on a very short leash with the league office. One mishap and Jones could be off the team and out of the league for the rest of the year. But if he stays clear of trouble, he has enough ability to make the team and contribute.
Chances of making team: 80 percent
2. Matt Jones, WR, Bengals
Case for: Jones has good size and experience. The former first-round pick had 166 career receptions and 15 touchdowns during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Outside of starters Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, Cincinnati has a pretty young group of receivers. That could give Jones a chance to earn roster spot if he's polished enough to contribute now for the defending AFC North champs.
Case against: After sitting out all of 2009 because of off-field issues, Jones appears to have lost a step. This spring he hasn't looked nearly as explosive as the freakish athlete who impressed at the NFL combine in 2005. Similar to Adam Jones, it's possible that Matt Jones can regain some of his form in the process of a grueling training camp. Jones also has an inexpensive, team-friendly contract, which the Bengals can easily terminate if they don't like what they see.
Chances of making team: 40 percent
3. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals
Case for: Despite a lack of production, Simpson has stuck around for two reasons: draft status and lack of receiver depth. It's hard for teams to give up on second-round picks. The Bengals invested a lot in Simpson and still want to get a return on their high pick, even if it means an extended wait. In the past, the Bengals haven't had a lot of receiver depth, which has allowed Simpson to make the 53-man roster. But that has changed this year, as Cincinnati's receiving corps has a lot of competition.
Case against: The Bengals appear tired of waiting on Simpson, who has one reception in two seasons. They drafted two rookie receivers to compete for roster spots, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. This is a make-or-break training camp for Simpson. He showed occasional flashes in practice but not nearly enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff when it matters in the regular season. Entering his third NFL season, there are no more excuses for Simpson not to produce.
Chances of making team: 50 percent
4. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Case against: Health has always been an issue for Williams. He has played in 16 games once in his four-year career. Baltimore has kept Williams because of his potential, but at some point the Ravens would like to see consistency. To do that, Williams must stay healthy to find a role on a Ravens team with very high expectations.
Chances of making team: 70 percent
5. John Beck, QB, Ravens
Case for: Beck knows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system well from their days together with the Miami Dolphins. Beck's future in Baltimore could come down to Troy Smith's situation. There have been rumors of interest in Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries in training camp and preseason could also increase Smith's trade value this summer, which would gift wrap the No. 3 quarterback job for Beck.
Case against: If nothing happens on the trade front, the Ravens have an interesting decision to make between Smith and Beck. With Joe Flacco, Marc Bulger and Smith, Beck is probably the team's fourth quarterback right now, which naturally makes him the odd man out. If Smith is still on the roster, Beck will have to make up ground the old-fashioned way and outperform Smith in the preseason to win a roster spot.
Chances of making team: 40 percent
6. Bobby Engram, WR, Cleveland Browns
Case for: The Browns have little depth and little experience at receiver. Engram potentially could provide both. The 14-year veteran played for Cleveland president Mike Holmgren when both were with the Seattle Seahawks and knows what to expect. Engram recently had a big year in 2007, when he had 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He also can serve as a mentor to young receivers such as Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.
Case against: It's questionable what Engram, 37, has left. Last season he had only five receptions in five games for the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmgren is hoping Engram has one more decent year left in him to help Cleveland's struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009. But if there's any team Engram can make this year, it's the Browns.
Chances of making team: 60 percent
7. James Davis, RB, Browns
Case for: Davis was arguably Cleveland's biggest rookie surprise last summer when he led the team in rushing during the preseason. But high expectations were crushed when a season-ending shoulder injury limited Davis to only two games. Now he's back for his second season and looks healthy.
Case against: Cleveland's situation at running back is very crowded. One of the best things Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did this offseason was put together a solid group of rushers. The Browns traded up to draft tailback Montario Hardesty in the second round and got Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade. Last year's leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, also returns to make for a versatile group of ball carriers. All three running backs are ahead of Davis on the depth chart. So barring injury, Davis looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.
Chances of making team: 35 percent
8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Case against: Although the Steelers may end up with a bargain, no team is afraid to put a sixth-round pick on the practice squad. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, which means he may need some time to learn a pro-style offense. But Dwyer could pan out in a limited role.
Chances of making team: 75 percent
They are among the most talked about assistants in the division, and in many ways it's a very tough spot to be in. When things go right, the players executed. But when things go wrong, it's the offensive coordinators who get blamed for poor play calling. All four face different challenges in 2010.
Here's a look at the coordinators for each team:
Offensive coordinator: Bruce Arians
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 7
Biggest challenge: The start of the season will be trying for the Steelers as star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serves his conditional six-game suspension. With good behavior Roethlisberger could return after four games, which is the expected outcome. But Pittsburgh has had the luxury of Roethlisberger making magic out of broken plays and will need to be more structured and conventional to win during the first month of the season. Expect Arians to earn his money trying to scheme without his best offensive player.
Biggest strength: Even with the trade of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers still have a good group of veteran skill players. Hines Ward is coming off another 1,000-yard season, Heath Miller is the top tight end in the division, and tailback Rashard Mendenhall is a budding talent. Also look out for second-year receiver Mike Wallace. The NFL game didn't seem too big for him as a rookie, and Wallace seems primed to break out in his first year as a starter.
Biggest weakness: For Pittsburgh, it's scoring touchdowns. Despite a 4,000-yard quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, the Steelers averaged 23 points per game last season. That's not a bad number, but you would expect more points with the amount of yards Arians' unit produced last year. The offensive line struggled mightily in the red zone, and Willie Colon's season-ending Achilles injury doesn't help. Mendenhall also needs to get better at getting the tough yards, especially with Roethlisberger not in the fold early.
Forecast: I don't have particularly high hopes for Pittsburgh's offense with Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon under center. Teams will stack the box against Mendenhall until Pittsburgh proves it can pass. The offensive line also has questions. But once Roethlisberger comes back, this unit is talented enough to get hot in the second half of the season. But will it be too late?
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 24
Biggest challenge: The biggest hurdle facing Bratkowski and the Bengals' offense is creating balance. It was very one-dimensional last year, particularly late in the season. Outside of Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco, there were no legitimate threats in the passing game. As a result, Cincinnati overhauled its offense via the draft and free agency by adding receivers Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Biggest strength: Despite the flashy additions in the passing game, the running game remains the most proven commodity for Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is coming off a career year and his first 1,000-yard season, and Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are decent backup options. The Bengals' offensive line also is very good at controlling and moving the line of scrimmage. But the unit wasn't as solid in pass protection for quarterback Carson Palmer.
Biggest weakness: Right now the biggest question for Cincinnati's offense is at fullback. The Bengals have finally moved forward without Jeremi Johnson, who was constantly battling weight problems. Now the unproven Fui Vakapuna looks like the early favorite to win the job. Look for Cincinnati to run a lot of multiple-receiver and tight end sets this year. So the fullback position may not be as important.
Forecast: The Bengals will rely on a lot of new parts, including Bryant, Gresham and Shipley. But if a majority of these options pan out, Cincinnati could be a dangerous unit. Benson's off-field issues may be something to watch in case a suspension is looming. But other than that, expect Bratkowski and the Bengals to be much better than last year's No. 24 ranking.
Offensive coordinator: Cam Cameron
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 13
Biggest challenge: Managing egos will be a unique challenge for Cameron. With the exception of quarterback Joe Flacco, every starting skill player for Baltimore has been to the Pro Bowl. That's a lot of talent and a lot of players who want the ball. Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice, Derrick Mason, Le'Ron McClain, Todd Heap and Willis McGahee all feel they can help the team win. But there will be weeks when Cameron must tell Boldin he's a decoy and games when Rice will get only 10 carries. How will they react? Winning solves a lot of problems. But if this team experiences a significant losing streak, look out.
Biggest strength: Versatility is something that Baltimore's offense has lacked in the past. But that's no longer the case. The Ravens should be able to win games on the ground and through the air this year, which was the goal this offseason for general manager Ozzie Newsome. Boldin's acquisition was huge for the passing game, and Rice still hasn't reached his ceiling as an NFL running back. Cameron believes Baltimore has the potential to be a top-five scoring offense, and on paper there's no reason to doubt that.
Biggest weakness: There aren't many weaknesses on this unit. But if I had to nitpick, Baltimore's depth on the offensive line isn't the greatest. Injuries happen all the time in the trenches. An injury at offensive tackle to Michael Oher or Jared Gaither, for example, would result in a significant drop-off in talent.
Forecast: There is a lot of preseason hype surrounding the Ravens, and the offense shares those extremely high expectations. This unit has talent, depth and a developing third-year quarterback in Flacco, who, if healthy, should put up career-best numbers this season. As long as Cameron can get everyone to play nice and share the football, this offense should be one of the NFL's most effective units.
Team: Cleveland Browns
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 32
Biggest challenge: The Browns do not have a lot of talent to work with offensively. During Cleveland's four-game winning streak to end last season, Daboll had to get by with a lot of running and Wildcat formations with Josh Cribbs. Much of Cleveland's success will hinge on veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had more than twice as many interceptions (18) last year than touchdowns (eight). If Daboll can get a bounce-back season out of Delhomme, that will be a good starting point for Cleveland's offense to improve.
Biggest strength: The left side of the offensive line is one of the NFL's best. Joe Thomas is considered by many to be the best left tackle in football, and Eric Steinbach has been a quality guard for years. Cleveland also hit in last year's draft with first-round pick Alex Mack, who appears to be one of the league's up-and-coming centers. This trio provides some stability to an otherwise unstable offense.
Biggest weakness: Cleveland's offense has several holes but the biggest is at wide receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi had a decent rookie year, but he's likely not ready to be a No. 1 receiver. Brian Robiskie had a good offseason but remains unproven, and Chansi Stuckey isn't a game-breaker. The Browns this week also added veteran Bobby Engram, who turned 37 this year. A case can be made that this is the worst group of receivers in the league.
Forecast: The Browns were ranked last in '09, so there's nowhere to go but up. There are a lot of question marks, and I don't see enough upgrades across the board to be optimistic about this unit. Whether Delhomme at this stage of his career is an upgrade over Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson also remains to be seen.
This was the best team in franchise history by the critical measures. It had a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, the best offensive line in the NFL, the league MVP at running back and a defense that played its best where it mattered -- in the red zone. Rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu brought direction to a defense lacking leadership.
Coach Mike Holmgren always said he needed his best players to be at their best for a team to approach its potential. This team had that, but clutch contributions from role players sent the 2005 squad on its way.
Receiver Joe Jurevicius added toughness at receiver while catching 10 touchdown passes, offsetting injuries to Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram.
On defense, backup cornerback Jordan Babineaux made a season-altering play by picking off Drew Bledsoe with 14 seconds remaining during a 13-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7. Seattle had lost two of its first four games that season. Beating the Cowboys heading into the bye was important, but the matter in which Seattle won the game proved transforming.
"My hope is that every time you can win a game like this where it looked a little grim for a while but they you pull it out, it really helps you down the road," Holmgren said afterward. "It really helps your confidence. Organizations need to win games like this at some point."
The Seahawks had tied the score with 46 seconds remaining on Hasselbeck's 1-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Ryan Hannam (after another backup, receiver Jerheme Urban, made a 22-yard reception at the 2-minute warning). Babineaux returned Bledsoe's pass 25 yards, getting out of bounds in time for Josh Brown to kick the winning field goal as time expired.
Most impressive win: The 2005 team was at its dominant best during a 34-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game.
Advanced chemistry: Teams release injured backups regularly without repercussions, but veteran players protested when management released Urban instead of placing him on injured reserve following a foot injury in November. Urban had made an impression on teammates while catching seven passes for 151 yards. Management gave in to Seattle's veteran leadership, rescinding Urban's release and placing him on IR. The unusual move reflected the strength of the Seattle locker room during a special season.
1984: This was the only team in franchise history to rank among the NFL's top five in points scored and points allowed. Kenny Easley was the NFL's defensive player of the year. Steve Largent and Daryl Turner combined for 22 touchdown receptions. Defensive ends Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green combined for 27.5 sacks.
1983: Other Seattle teams had better regular-season records, but the 1983 team recorded two playoff wins, including an upset shocker in Miami. The 2005 Seahawks were the only other Seattle team with more than one victory in the same postseason.
2007: Losing Hutchinson during the previous offseason hurt, but Hasselbeck set a career high with 28 touchdown passes. Alexander topped 100 yards rushing in an overtime road defeat at eventual NFC champion Chicago in the divisional round.
Bruce, 37, leads all NFL players in receiving yardage (15,208) since he entered the NFL in 1994. Bruce's on-field role had diminished almost to nothing recently, but he still emerged from the 2000s trailing only former Rams teammate Torry Holt in receptions and receiving yards for NFC West teams during the decade (see chart).
Bruce joins Walter Jones and Kurt Warner among NFC West legends retiring this offseason. Another former star, Orlando Pace, remains without a team for 2010. They could all be eligible for Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration at the same time.
These are my picks, and they’re open for debate. Add your picks in the comments section below.
1. Walt Patulski, defensive end (first overall, 1972): Who? Exactly the point. He played four uninspiring years for the Bills and one more for the St. Louis Cardinals.
2. Mike Williams, tackle (fourth overall, 2002): A good case can be made for Williams to be at the top of this list. He spent four mediocre seasons at right tackle, not even making it over to the blindside.
3. Tony Hunter, tight end (12th overall, 1983): In arguably the greatest first round in NFL draft history, the Bills managed to find a dud two slots ahead of the pick they used on Jim Kelly. Hunter lasted two seasons in Buffalo, starting 12 games and catching 69 passes.
4. Terry Miller, running back (fifth overall, 1978): It's tough to replace O.J. Simpson, but the Bills thought they had their man with Miller. He rushed for 1,060 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. Over his next -- and final -- three seasons combined, he rushed for 523 yards and one touchdown.
5. Perry Tuttle, receiver (19th overall, 1982): In two seasons with the Bills, he managed four starts and 24 receptions. Taken one slot after him was Mike Quick.
1. Eric Kumerow, defensive end (16th overall, 1988): Three seasons, zero starts, five sacks.
2. Billy Milner, tackle (25th overall, 1995): He lasted two NFL seasons, starting nine games at right tackle as a rookie. In his second season, the Dolphins traded him to the St. Louis Rams for Troy Drayton. The Rams cut Milner, who retired.
3. Sammie Smith, running back (ninth overall, 1989): He showed promise here and there, rushing for 831 yards and eight touchdowns in his second season. But he was hated by Dolfans for his costly fumbles.
4. Jason Allen, defensive back (16th overall, 2006): He has made a dozen career starts and contributes most of his time to special teams.
5. Yatil Green, receiver (15th overall, 1997): I nearly listed Ted Ginn here, but he added value as a return specialist and actually won a game for the Dolphins last year. Green's career lasted eight games.
New England Patriots
1. Kenneth Sims, defensive end (first overall, 1982): Sims played a full season just once in his eight seasons and played three games or fewer three times. He recorded 17 sacks
2. Eugene Chung, offensive lineman (13th overall, 1992): Chung started 14 games as a rookie and all 16 as a sophomore, but that was all. Chung played three games in 1994 and was gone.
3. Chris Singleton, linebacker, and Ray Agnew, defensive tackle (eighth and 10th overall, 1990): I couldn't pick one without the other. The Pats traded the third overall pick to the Seattle Seahawks for these two. The Seahawks took future Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy. In between Singleton and Agnew, the Dolphins drafted potential Hall of Fame tackle Richmond Webb.
4. Hart Lee Dykes, receiver (16th overall, 1989): Two seasons, 18 starts, 83 receptions, seven touchdowns, out of football.
5. Andy Katzenmoyer, linebacker (28th overall, 1999): A neck injury was at issue, but he left the team without permission and was cut after his second season. He made 14 starts.
New York Jets
1. Blair Thomas, running back (second overall, 1990): Over four seasons with the Jets, he rushed for five touchdowns.
2. Johnny "Lam" Jones, receiver (second overall, 1980): He finished his career with 138 receptions for 2,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. Art Monk might've been the better choice.
3. Dave Cadigan, guard (eighth overall, 1988): He spent six seasons with the Jets, but he totaled 13 starts through his first three seasons. The Minnesota Vikings found Hall of Fame guard Randall McDaniel with the 19th pick.
4. Reggie Rembert, receiver (28th overall, 1990): A triple whiff. The Jets couldn't sign Rembert and were forced to deal him. They sent him to the Cincinnati Bengals for offensive lineman Scott Jones and linebacker Joe Kelly. Rembert finished his career with 36 catches and one touchdown.
5. Alex Van Dyke, receiver (31st overall, 1996): I considered Vernon Gholston here, but went with Van Dyke based on his 26 career catches and three receivers taken soon after him. Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad and Bobby Engram did OK.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Larry Fitzgerald also seemed worthy after posting three 1,400-yard seasons and staking the Cardinals into a late lead with a dramatic 64-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLIII.
"I'm hard pressed to come up with [a tight end] better than Vernon Davis," wrote regular blog contributor Mind of no mind. "But if there is nobody better, then maybe we should drop the TE from the team and go with 3 WR with Bruce."
Such was the give and take as I sifted through nominations left on the blog and on my Facebook page. One request I couldn't quite accommodate: finding a spot for the legendary Kim Il Zong, a ka The Zonger.
A position-by position look at my NFC West all-decade team follows. Thanks to Adam from Mesa, Ariz., for getting the conversation started (download his suggested team here).
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Let's rank the offenses in the AFC West.
In making our decision, we considered every aspect of the unit. We took into account the passing game, the running game, blocking and coaching. Here is how we saw it:
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|The Chargers' offense runs through Philip Rivers.|
Of course, it all starts with quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers, 27, is emerging as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL after three seasons as a starter. He threw for 4,009 yards last season.
His top targets are tight end Antonio Gates, who remains a premier player at his position, and receiver Vincent Jackson. A big receiver, Jackson is a deep threat who has a penchant for making big plays in important games.
Rivers works well in Norv Turner's system. Turner might have his detractors based on his work as a head coach, but his prowess as an offensive coach cannot be denied. Rivers has made strides under Turner.
The Chargers' run game is also top notch, even though superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson is showing signs of decline. Still, Tomlinson, who turned 30 in June, has to be counted as a 1,100-plus yard rusher until he proves he can no longer produce. His backup, Darren Sproles, is a key.
The diminutive Sproles is a terrific change-of-pace back who has proven he can help win games when Tomlinson is out. Expect to see Sproles get more carries this season as Turner tries to utilize both running backs.
San Diego's offensive line isn't as strong as it was a couple of years ago, but if the unit can stay healthy and rookie Louis Vasquez can come along at guard, it should be fine.
Overall, this is a strong group and the best offense in a division that is fairly decent on that side of the ball.