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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Coles a nice complement in Cincinnati

Only a day after T.J. Houshmandzadeh departed for a five-year, $40 million contract, the Bengals moved quickly to replace him, agreeing in principle on a four-year, $28 million deal with Laveranues Coles on Wednesday.

Coles immediately slides in as the No. 2 receiver on the depth chart, though he can hardly be called a "straight swap" in talents, as both No. 1 receiver Chad Johnson and Houshmandzadeh himself probably bring more to the table in terms of raw talent. In a sense, the Bengals actually take a small step backward at the position, even if the 2008 statistics suggest otherwise; Coles (121) outscored Houshmandzadeh (107) in fantasy points, and he blew "Ocho Cinco" (71) out of the water.

Part of the reason for my giving that assessment is the need to factor in the quarterbacks; Ryan Fitzpatrick had a profoundly poor impact on the team's offense in 2008. Carson Palmer by all rights should be healthy in 2009, and if he is, he'll breathe much more life into an offense that was lifeless at times. In fact, with the possible exception of Brett Favre, Palmer might be the most talented quarterback ever to throw to Coles, in which case he'd help mask any sort of statistical decline the receiver exhibited the past two years.

What Coles brings to the Bengals is a sure-handed possession type, as evidenced by his catching 60.3 percent of throws to him, ranking him 12th of the 49 wide receivers targeted at least 80 times. He'll nab his 70-80 receptions and leave Johnson as the big-play, deep-threat option of the two starters. Chances are Coles' 2009 numbers might not be out of line with his 2008 performance, with the main difference being any downside in time Palmer might miss. Though Coles' critics might point out his brittle nature, the fact remains he appeared in all 16 games last season, and has missed four games total the past eight years combined, all of those coming in 2007. He may be perpetually day-to-day, but come Sunday, he's the kind of receiver gritty enough to give it a go even at, say, 85 percent.

Coles finished 2008 ranked 24th in ESPN fantasy points, and that's about right for his draft value looking to 2009. Regard him as a third or fourth fantasy receiver with matchups potential, with a possible boost in value if Palmer should have a standout preseason.

Most hurt by Coles' arrival are Andre Caldwell, Chris Henry and Jerome Simpson. Caldwell, a 2008 third-rounder, loses any sleeper appeal he might have gained following Houshmandzadeh's departure, though he'll probably begin next season third on the depth chart. He might warrant a late-round selection in deeper leagues, though fantasy owners can feel free to scratch the other two off their lists.

• The Saints re-signed deep threat Devery Henderson to a four-year deal Wednesday, providing stability with the team's receiver corps. He won't be a projected starter working behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore, but should provide valuable depth along with Robert Meachem. Henderson is coming off back-to-back-to-back seasons averaging at least 20 yards per reception and brings fantasy matchups potential in the games that Colston or Moore might miss. As a draft-day prospect, though, he's a late-rounder at best.

• Bump up Joe Flacco's fantasy value a tick after news broke Wednesday that the Ravens signed veteran center Matt Birk. A 10-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler, Birk should help continue Flacco's smooth adaptation to NFL competition. Plus, it's not like the rookie quarterback was a disappointment last year, having totaled 13 touchdowns compared to five interceptions in his final 11 regular-season contests. Monitoring their chemistry during the preseason will be key to determining how high Flacco's 2009 ceiling might be, but I can't help but be encouraged about his prospects with Birk on board.

• Having taken some hefty hits defensively in recent days, the Ravens re-signed linebacker Ray Lewis to a three-year contract Wednesday, probably the final deal of his career. Even at 33, Lewis continues to perform at a high level, making his 10th Pro Bowl appearance after leading the team with 160 tackles in 2008. Baltimore's defense has clearly taken some hits with the departures of coordinator Rex Ryan and inside linebacker Bart Scott to the Jets, but with Lewis on board at least there's a little stability. Don't expect another run at the top fantasy spot for this defense, but top-10 value should still be in the cards.