Whitaker's Early Bird 2009 NFL Power Rankings

Nolan HackContributor IJune 25, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -  JANUARY 11:  Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants looks on against the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  The Eagles defeated the Giants 23 -11. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

1. New York Giants - 12-4 in '08

I don't care that they don't have Plaxico Burress anymore; this defense is just beyond scary. The team welcomes new Giants Michael Boley & Rocky Bernard, and with Osi Umenyiora coming back healthy, this is scariest defense I've seen since the 2000 Ravens (probably the best defense in NFL history).

Unlike those Ravens, the Giants have a quarterback to make the tough throws just in case. This team is built around running the football, and shutting down opposing offenses. Until somebody gets hurt, or some big trade happens elsewhere, the New York Football Giants have my top spot.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers - 12-4

They are still the champs and their offense got better once Willie Parker was healthy down the stretch of last season. This season they get to see just how good second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall (Parker's back-up) is. Drafting defensive end Ziggy Hood only makes the No. 1 defense in '08, that much stronger.

3. New England Patriots - 11-5

Somehow, some way the Pats found a way to put the ball in the end zone on a regular basis, even without their golden boy. Guess what, the golden boy is coming back, with the exact same offense (minus former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels), along with a defensive beast at outside linebacker in Adalius Thomas.

New England won 11 games with Matt Cassel at the helm, and seven games without Thomas—do the math.

4. San Diego Chargers - 8-8

It seems this list is filled with big time players coming back from injuries, why not continue that trend, with a defense that will be whole again with the return of sack master Shawne Merriman. This defense is built on creating and recovering turnovers and  Merriman's return will glue this defense back together.

LaDainian Tomlinson will get every opportunity to come back to his old form with 'Tank' (Darren Sproles) as his right-hand man.

5. Minnesota Vikings - 10-6

E.J. Henderson will be coming back strong, the Vikes still have the Williams boys, and
Mamma there goes that man, Mr. Jared Allen.

Percy Harvin & Phillip Loadholt solidify the Twin Cities receiving core and offensive line respectively, and say what you want about Sage Rosenfelts, he is an accurate passer (that is until Brett Favre signs on the dotted line), something the Vikings missed a lot of last year including that playoff game vs. Philly.

All Sage will need to do is convert a 3rd-and-5 here and there, and with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor at running back, this offense and this team is better than people think.

Philadelphia Eagles - 9-6-1

Philly might have the best offensive line in the free world, not bad if you have a
encouraging rookie who is basically a younger version of Brian Westbrook (LeSean McCoy). Along with first-round pick Jeremy Maclin, this offense is solid.

The question for this team is on defense. Do they have enough firepower? No big pieces were added on this side of the ball, the same side of the ball that couldn't do anything to stop Larry Fitzgerald and company in the NFC Championship.

7. Tennessee Titans - 13-3

No team was hit harder by free agency then the Titans, who lost the best defensive tackle in the game. The good news is they still have Tony Brown and Kyle Vanden Bosch on their still solid defensive line.

With Justin Gage improving by the minute and the addition of deep threat Nate Washington, the Titans will be able to stretch the field and give more running room to one of the NFL's best rushing attacks.

8. Green Bay Packers - 6-10

The Packers had to be the most disappointing team of 2008. After finishing '07 with a 13-3 record and hosting the NFC Championship, they only won six games last season, due in part to injuries across their offensive line and all across the defense.

Now, the glaring weakness of this team is the offensive line, Chad Clifton is getting older, and there is no real replacement for former Packer Mark Tauscher who had locked down the right side of the line for almost 10 years.

The defense should be much improved with Al Harris, Nick Barnett, and Atari Bigby coming back from various injuries, as well as the big behemoth BJ Raji, and fellow rookie in the highly athletic Clay Matthews coming into to add new dimensions to Dom Capers new 3-4 defense.

9. New York Jets - 9-7

Rex Ryan has been the most entertaining coach this offseason. The Green Team has already won the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl of OTAs anyway (according to Dolphin LB Channing Crowder).

In my opinion, the Jets look like a carbon copy of the '08 Ravens. Rookie quarterback, rookie head coach, solid o-line, electrifying running game, and a scary defense. Just like with those Ravens this Jets' team has a bully in it's division, ie the New England Patriots.

If the J-E-T-S JETS, JETS, JETS want to do something spectacular this season, they will have to go through the Patriots.

10. Baltimore Ravens - 11-5

The Ravens find them in an interesting predicament in which they lost and gained quality players this offseason.

Arriving in Baltimore are future Hall of Fame center Matt Birk, cornerback Dominque Foxworth, and first-round rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher.

The notable losses being former defensive coordinator and now Jets head coach Rex Ryan, freak of nature linebacker Bartholomew Scott, versatile offensive lineman Jason Brown, and three-time All-Pro Chris McAlister.

All that moving and shaking would having you thinking possible chaos, and your right, it's just not the kind of chaos you would think. Even with Ryan leaving, the Ravens still have the mind set of 'organized chaos', even on the offensive side of the ball, even at times having offensive coordinator calling plays for backup quarterback Troy Smith.

These moves solidify the offensive line, the o-line are tremendously important for the Baltimore Raven philosophy. That philosophy being run the ball till the other team's defense is blue in the face, and play suffocating defense.

Foxworth will give the Ravens a much needed cover corner, while Birk and Oher give the line battle tested experience, alomg with some depth and athleticism, respectively. While Pro Bowler fullback/running back Leron Mclain, second-year runner Ray Rice, and veteran Willis McGahee give Baltimore the NFL's most stubbornly effective running game.

Yes it's true Ryan and Scott are huge losses, but Ray Lewis is still around, as well as vastly underrated outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, to lead this ferocious defense. The Ravens may have finally found some balance with their "organized chaos".

11. New Orleans Saints - 8-8

We all know about the best offense from '08. We also know about the most inconsistent defense from last season. The offense will be more balanced with the Pierre Thomas starting at running back, along with flat-out studs wideout Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey being hopeful to stay healthy for the '09 season.

The defense will get a new identity under veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and what has been for years one of the worst secondaries in the NFL will get a boost from four-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper and most likely soon to be Pro Bowler Michael Jenkins.

12. Houston Texans - 8-8

The Texans—that's right the Texans. An ever jelling offensive line, one of the league's better receiving cores, a young standout at running back in Steve Slaton, and a defense that is getting better with age. This may be the year head coach Gary Kubiac's team finally breaks through with a its first-ever winning season, or better yet its first playoff appearance.

First-round pick Brian Cushing reminds me of Lance Briggs with his nose for the ball and Cushing will immediately improve the Texans' run defense, along with playmakers defensive end Mario Williams, linebacker Demeco Ryans, and cornerback Dunta Robinson, holding down each line of defense.

As good as the Texans will be, the heath and availability of their quarterback Matt Schaub will help determine their success in the AFC South, against mainstays Indianapolis and Tennessee in the NFC South, most notably.

13. Washington Redskins - 7-9

Jason Campbell is D.C.'s quarterback whether you like it or not. While his offense is
basically the same with a couple unnoticed in-house upgrades, in the return of left guard Derrick Dockery, and the health of former 1,000-yard rusher Ladell Betts.

In other words, things will get easier for their franchise player Clinton Portis. The defense is of course much improved, though what team wouldn't be improved by getting the best defensive tackle in the NFL. Add an athletic freak in first-round pick Brian Orakpo, and a holdover from the second half of last season in DeAngelo "all I do is make interceptions" Hall.

The quandary in '09 for this team will be if it can they take the next step. Will they break through? When you're in the best division in football (the NFC East), those are some tough questions to answer.

14. San Francisco 49ers - 7-9

I am telling you folks, this is year the 49ers return to being the San Francisco 49ers. Head coach Mike Singletary led this team to a 5-4 finish, had the defense ranked seventh in the NFL from the time he took over, and his appointed quarterback Shaun Hill finished the season 5-3 (7-3 career record).

The defense has the best middle linebacker (and maybe best overall linebacker, take your pick him or Demarcus Ware) in the NFL, one of the leagues best corners in Nate Clements, and one of the league's better defensive lineman in Justin Smith.

The offense received a gift (you can thank Al Davis on your way out) in draft pick Michael Crabtree to give this team it's first true No. 1 receiver since Terrell Owens. Josh Morgan who is poised to be the team's No. 2 wideout, showed signs of breaking out last season when healthy.

Glen Coffee, the team's third-round pick in the '09 draft, will finally give Frank Gore some much needed help, as Gore is reunited with fullback Moran Norris (who helped pave the way for Gore when he broke the Niners' single-season rushing record in 2006).

The offensive line is being groomed to be bruising and hard-nosed with the break out of '08 second-round pick right guard Chilo Rachel and standout left tackle Joe Staley, people, these won't be your same old Niners in more ways than one.

15. Dallas Cowboys - 9-7

First, let's be honest, losing the annoying, yet highly productive Terrell Owens is not
going to make the Dallas Cowboys a better team.

Second, losing longtime Cowboy Greg Ellis on the other side is a calculated gamble, and giving former first-round pick Anthony Spencer the freedom to start opposite the best outside linebacker since the original L.T., in Demarcus Ware.

The offense should go to more of a run-based attack—let's face it that is what their beefy and at times slow-footed offensive line is built for in the first place. The strengths of the offense are running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones and maybe the best tight end in the game, Jason Witten, who can block and get those tough third down conversions.

When you have Roy Williams as your top receiver you better be a run-first team anyway, because he is a possession receiver, who catches the ball over the middle, and he does not stretch the field (Owner Jerry Jones is hoping Miles Austin will do that, will see).

16. Carolina Panthers - 12-4

Now, I know the quarterback situation hasn't been resolved, and for whatever reason
Panther brass thinks there is no quarterback problem (especially since Carolina gave Jake Delhomme a five-year extension), but if you have a set of eyes you know there is.

The positive side of this football team is well, everything else. There's a great running game, maybe the best receiver in football in Steve Smith, a mauling offensive line led by All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross, and a solid defense led by fellow All-Pro middle linebacker Jon Beason and future HOF defensive end Julius Peppers.

Since the quarterback situation is erratic at best, I can promise you 13-3 in '09 is an impossibility.

17. Chicago Bears - 9-7

The Bears have a franchise quarterback! What is this 1943 (the Sid Luckman days)?

The worry is who in the free world is Jay Cutler gonna throw to? Matt Forte and Greg Olsen that's who. That's not gonna cut it, yes they have Devin Hester, though the bulk of his catches are gonna be screens and deep balls (especially with Cutler's rocket arm), and I'd be ok with that, if there was a true No. 1 receiver on the Bears' roster, but there isn't (phoning Anquan Boldin, or maybe even Plaxico Burress?).

The good thing is even with the decline of the once mighty defense this team had in the middle of this decade, Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and hopefully future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace (who the Bears signed in free agency), can help offset the fact the Bears defense isn't dominant anymore. Mainstay safety Mike Brown is gone, Brian Urlacher is getting older, and there is still no 10-plus sack guy on this defense.

Even with all the moves Chi-town made this off-season (all the big ones being on offense), there won't be a huge uptick in wins in 2009.

18. Seattle Seahawks - 4-12

People forget this is the most successful team in the NFC West in the this decade.

The main reason Coffeetown fell and couldn't get up in 2008, was injury after injury, after injury. There was no bigger injury than Matt Hasselbeck's back problems, which appear to be gone.

The most serious problem Seattle will face in '09 is the offensive line, with former franchise left tackle Walter Jones on the downside of his career, and still no replacement for future Hall Of Famer Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks will have to find some way to make sure their Pro Bowl quarterback stays upright, as well as open holes for Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett.

A rookie named Aaron Curry will be headlining a improved defense, Curry being a huge reason why. Along with the return of sack master Patrick Kerney and the arrival of the huge Colin Cole who has been brought in to help improve a run defense that has to go against the likes of Frank Gore and Steven Jackson twice a year.

19. Atlanta Falcons - 11-5

If you thought Matt Ryan was good in his rookie season, look out! Tony Gonzalez gives Ryan an option over the middle to go along with big-play wide out Roddy White. We know the running game will be there with o-linemen Justin Blaylock and Todd McClure to pave the way for the great combo of Michael 'Burner' Turner and Jerious Norwood.

The reason I don't have the Falcons higher is I don't think they can get pressure on the opposing team's quarterback on a consistent basis, especially with one-trick pony the Falcons have in two-time All-Pro John Abraham, meaning he has nobody to take the pressure off and help him get to the signal caller (the starter opposite Abraham at defensive end is former first-round pick Jamaal Anderson who has two career sacks. That's a huge problem when you have very little talent in the secondary.

20. Arizona Cardinals - 9-7

You know the game, lately the team that loses the Super Bowl digresses the very next
season. With these Cardinals you can actually see it coming. They play in an underrated division, with a young and hungry San Francisco team charging at their heels and a rejuvenated Seattle squad that is poised to retake the division they won four straight times, before the Cards won the NFC West last year.

This Cardinal team (most notably on defense) overachieved all of last season. The one big ray of improvement is in first round pick Chris "Beanie" Wells, who is sure to give this team the running back it so sorely needs.

That being said, an already average defense has become worse, by releasing versatile linebacker Travis Leboy, and by having a discombobulated defensive line, which had no current starter reach six sacks last season.

Look for one of the NFL's most recent and consistent trends will continue in 2009.

21. Indianapolis Colts - 12-4

For those of you wondering why I have a team two years removed from a Super Bowl, 20th out of a possible 32, it's because Indy's run defense or lack there of is still a huge problem, even if they used their second-round draft pick on defensive tackle Fiola Mata.

On the other side of the ball, and with Marvin Harrison gone the Colts' pass-heavy attack has no true No. 2 receiver (barn burner Anthony Gonzalez is best used in the slot as the No. 3 receiver).

I like the safe first-round pick in running back Donald Brown; he could to be prove to be a poor man's Deangalo Williams.

Injuries are the main thing that keeps ripping this team's offensive line apart. As solid a tackle as Tony Ugoh is, he is injury prone, as is stand out left guard Ryan Lilja.

Everyone's favorite head coach, Tony Dungy, has departed along with the only offensive coordinator Peyton Manning has ever had, Tom Moore.

The first year at Lucas Oil Stadium wasn't too enjoyable for Colts' fans, the second may be worse.

22. Miami Dolphins - 11-5

The surprise of the '08 season will have a tall order defending their division title in '09.
Miami has one of the NFL's toughest schedules, as well as being in one the league's toughest divisions.

However, you have to give Bill Parcells and Co. credit, they have added some pretty nice pieces to a very interesting football team. Getting one of the franchise's greatest players, Jason Taylor, to tag team with 2008 Pro Bowler Joey Porter, and rejuvenating the  Dolphin secondary in signing converted free safety Gibril Wilson (over 90 tackles in '08) after losing cornerback Andre Goodman (five picks in '08) in free agency, and drafting the best corner in April's draft in Vontae Davis.

Of course snatching up former Mountaineer quarterback Pat White to give an already multi-dimensional offense some extra intangibles, doesn't hurt either.

23. Buffalo Bills - 7-9

The Bills 2009 offseason was all about adding help. Big-play threat Lee Evans finally got some help by being paired with Terrell Owens, and the staple of Buffalo's defense Aaron Schobel is getting his by having rookie sack specialist Aaron Maybin on the other side of the defensive line.

However, the Bills forgot to help a one other important Bill, that one being quarterback Trent Edwards, who won't have very long to throw the ball because the team focused on building its offensive line to cater more to run-blocking rather than to try to protect their quarterback.

Brad Butler is the starting right tackle (Butler is a converted guard), the left tackle Langston Walker (who was the former right tackle for the Bills, when Jason Peters was around the last two seasons), and rookie Eric Wood is the new right guard (Wood played center in college at Louisville).

I have no doubt the Bills defense will get better and mature and the running game will surely continue to churn up yards, but backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick better be ready to step in at a moment's notice, and Bills' fans better be ready to weather the storm of T.O.'s ever-present rumblings.

24. Jacksonville Jaguars - 5-11

Conventional wisdom says the Jags 2009 season will be a good one, one reason being that head coach Jack Del Rio's coaching record is bi-polar, good one year, bad the next. The other reason being, the Jags will have something they didn't have last season, a healthy offensive line.

Left guard Vince Manuwai who has been solid as a rock ever since being drafted by the Jacksonville in 2003, played only one game and then went on injured reserve, with a knee injury. Along with getting Manuwai back healthy, the Jags drafted tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, in the first and second rounds respectively, along with signing veteran Tre Thomas in free agency.

So all is well in North Florida right? Wrong. The backfield will be missing the franchise's biggest contributor in Fred Taylor, and newly crowned all-purpose back Maurice Jones-Drew has nobody worth talking about to back him up. Torry Holt was a huge addition, but who else is quarterback David Garrard going to throw to?

The Jags play in a very competitive division and have new offensive coordinator and there still are no solid playing partners for in Pro Bowler cornerback Rashean Mathis. All things considered the Jags might be fighting for third place in the AFC South this season.

25. St. Louis Rams - 2-14

Toughness. A word and feeling Scott Linehan's Rams lacked. Toughness is something new head coach Steve Spagnoulo will enstill in this football team, even with the departures of '08 leading tackler, Pisa Tisamoa, future Hall of Famers Torry Holt and Orlando Pace.

The additions are something to get excited about if your a Ram fan: second overall pick tackle Jason Smith, free agent pickup Jason Brown, a versatile lineman who will play play center for St. Louis, and four-year starter at the Ohio State University, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (who I'm sure will be anchoring this defense for a while).

Quarterback Mark Bulger will have his last shot to make his case to be the guy at quarterback, and he'll actually have the chance to stand up in the pocket and throw the football with the new additions on the O-line. Steven Jackson will also have more room to roam, but again will have to do it all by himself, with nobody capable to back him up, and no adequate receiving core in sight.

This Ram team will be improved, just don't expect too much, too soon.

26. Detroit Lions - 0-16

I can put this in writing: The Detroit Lions will win a football game in 2009. They just won't win that many, which sadly is gonna step up in Motown.

The offensive line is still kind of pedestrian, while Detroit signing vet Jon Jansen who will give the line depth, and right tackle Gosder Gherilus will look to improve on his inconsistent rookie campaign. Calvin Johnson will still be double-teamed every play, but I will say this, look for Kevin Smith to make a run at 1,000 yards rushing this season.

The defense is improved, with new starting middle linebacker Larry Foote making one of the most curious transitions in NFL history (going from the Super Bowl champion Steelers to the 0-16 Lions), and five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Julian Peterson, who will both make a great trio with one of the few good draft picks Matt Millen ever made, a certain Ernie Sims who has topped the 110-tackle mark ever since he was drafted three seasons ago.

Kevin Smith has continued the tradition of Lions making an absent predictions in saying the 2009 Lions will make the playoffs (former Lions predictions: Jon Kitna's prediction of 10 wins before the '07 season—Kitna's Lions fell short and only won seven that year, and Roy Williams was quoted as saying his former team would score 40 points on the Bears before a game with Chicago—the Lions actually failed to even score 10 points, finishing with seven).

You can't fault Smith's enthusiasm, especially after being a part of maybe the worst team in NFL history. The Lions won't make the playoffs, but they are sure to improve on their disastrous '08 season.

27. Oakland Raiders - 5-11

Al Davis made another big mistake—actually maybe two—reaching for both Darrius
Heyward-Bey—over fellow wideouts Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin with the seventh overall pick and in the very next round picking safety Michael Mitchell with the 47th overall, when some draft experts didn't even have Mitchell being picked at all in the draft.

Not all is lost in Raider Nation, Oakland still has one of the most promising rushing attacks in the NFL, led by Run DMC ('08 fourth overall pick Darren McFadden), along with a hard-nosed runner in Justin Fargas, and the man who had 177 yards and two touchdowns in the '08 season finale in Tampa, that man being 6'1", 245-pound Michael Bush.

The Raiders also have a top-two corner in Nnamdi Asomugha to lead the secondary and a flashy young return man in Johnnie Lee Higgins (three punt return touchdowns in '08).

There is some promise Oakland, just not enough to make any kind of playoff run.

28. Cleveland Browns - 4-12

Ever since it became apparent that Cleveland was not the team we thought they were during the 2008 season, with the hype and overhype, the Brownies have been in panic mode ever since.

They don't know who their quarterback is, there was even a report that everybody but, franchise left tackle Joe Thomas and defensive staple at middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson were available for a trade (yes that included nose tackle Shaun Rogers). Big-play receiver Braylon Edwards has been at the forefront of trade rumors, and he may be on his way out.

Eric Mangini is a the new head coach and already there is a dark cloud over Cleveland, or should I say another dark cloud (I guess ever since Jim Brown and Otto Graham left, there has been a dark cloud over this franchise).

Wideout Donte Stallworth may never play in the NFL again, or at best maybe not at all this season. Not to mention there were two huge departures on both sides of the ball for the Brownies, with former starting safety Sean Jones going to Philly in free agency, and talented yet volatile tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. going to Tampa Bay via trade.

There is so much going on in Cleveland and most of it is negative.

29. Cincinnati Bengals - 5-11

The Bengals are the fourth-worst team in the NFL, to tell you the truth, I'm actually surprised I have them this low.

But let's face it, outside of No. 85 (wide receiver Chad whatever his name is) and No. 9
(quarterback Carson Palmer) this team's best players are very young, offensive tackle
Andre Smith is a rookie, linebacker Rey Maualuga also a rookie, and fellow Trojan outside linebacker Keith Rivers is coming off of jaw surgery and is in his sophomore season in the league.

Cincy has a bright future, just not a bright present. The offensive line is being re-tooled, the running game is almost non-existent with Cedric Benson—off all people—as the Bengals lead back.

The defense has problems getting sacks, no Bengal has had 10 sacks in a season, since 2006 (Robert Gathers, who has had 6 sacks in the last 2 years), in fact no Bengal has four sacks in one season, since '06.

The Cincinnati Bengals are in rebuilding mode, plain and simple.

30. Denver Broncos - 8-8 -

I don't exactly know what new head coach Josh McDaniels has been trying to do this
offseason. Trading away the franchise quarterback, when last season the offense was far from a problem. Now there is talk of star receiver Brandon Marshall being halfway out the door. McDaniels isn't doing himself any favors, especially being a young head coach who is trying to get control of a NFL football team.

As I said the offense was not the problem in 2008, the defense however still is. Even switching coordinators may not do it, as the Broncos brought in former Niners HC Mike Nolan to coach up the defense in the Mile High City. Nolan will switch up the Denver D to a hybrid 3-4. For the Broncos sake that will hopefully help stop a run defense that gave up 5 yards a carry in '08 (which tied for second-worst last season).

In a 3-4 you must have a dominating nose tackle in the middle, something the Broncos do not. The good news is first-round pick Robert Ayers quick-stepping capabilities will be well served in Nolan's hybrid 3-4 as he will be playing both on the line as a defensive end on early downs to help stop the run, and standing up as a outside linebacker on passing downs.

One of the keys to this defense is the health of top-two corner Champ Bailey, who missed seven games last season. The good thing for Bailey is he may finally have a solid starter opposite him in former Dolphin Andre Goodman who picked off five balls in '08 (though Goodman may prove to be a one-year wonder, before '08 he never had more than three interceptions in a single season).

Kyle Orton won't be Jay Cutler, but will have a first-round pick in running back Knowshon Moreno. Orton (that is if Brandon Marshall stays in Denver) will have a solid base on offense.

With all that being said, the loss of Jay Cutler and the fact this defense has too many holes, the D in Denver should stand for disappointment during the '09 season.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 9-7 -

I will hand it to the Bucs for being gutsy and taking a chances, by trading up in the draft to take raw talent quarterback Josh Freeman. But the problem is he's not ready to take an NFL team to the promise land just yet (that is if he ends up starting Week 1 to begin with).

Tampa is another team with a brand new and very young head coach in Raheem Morris, who takes over for the fiery Jon Gruden. Morris will have big shoes to fill, as Gruden delivered this franchise's only NFL Championship.

Jim Bates takes over for the ingenious Monte Kiffin (who joins his son Lane at the University of Tennessee). Bates will have his hands full this season, with future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks being released in the offseason, and veteran cornerback Ronde Barber a year older at age 34.

The defense will shift out of the famed Cover 2, but will stick with the 4-3, as Bates likes to also use quick linebackers (as did Kiffin), though part of Bates' scheme is to use his two defensive tackles to occupy the middle, which Bates' will now try to use to free up the fourth overall pick in 2007, defensive end Gaines Adams to get to the quarterback more often.

The offense will take a expected step back, especially in terms of the passing game with a new quarterback, if it's Freeman, or if it's so-so vets Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich (both have already struggled in OTAs). The running game however will have a plethora of options with the Wind from New York's Earth, Wind, & Fire, Derrick Ward, to along with Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham.

The Bucs play in a very competitive NFC South, and will be in a rebuilding year. The Falcons, Saints, and Panthers, each play Tampa Bay twice.

32. Kansas City Chiefs - 2-14 -

The Matt Cassel era has begun—Wait a minute...Who is Cassel going to throw to?

Dwayne Bowe is K.C.'s No. 1 receiver, and then... there's no one else to pass to. Tony Gonzalez left, delivering a significant blow to the Chiefs' passing game.

The running game however may be a little better than it was last season, with new Chiefs' acquisition right guard Mike Goff, and the availibility of $45 million-man Larry Johnson, who had legal trouble in 2008.

Third overall pick defensive end Tyson Jackson will be used as a building block in the Chiefs' new 3-4 scheme, opposite former LSU teammate '07 fifth overall pick Glen Dorsey (who switches from defensive tackle in a 4-3 to defensive end in a 3-4).

2005 first-round bust Derrick Johnson switches over from outside linebacker to middle linebacker, as Zach Thomas comes over from Dallas as K.C.'s new TED linebacker. These new switches and additions are in hopes to help a team that was third-worst, in rushing yards given up per game, in 2008.

Not only trying to beef up this run defense, another switch will be made by former defensive end Tamba Hali, who will play standing up as an outside linebacker, there have already been reports about Hali having trouble off the snap in the new scheme. While former Patriot Mike Vrabel comes in to play opposite Hali, they will both try to help a Chief team that ranked a NFL worst in sacks with only 10.

The Chiefs had the second-worst record in '08 (tied for second with their in-state neighbor, St. Louis), that's because the Detroit Lions had a historic 0-16 season—the Chiefs won't be so lucky this time.

Or maybe they will be lucky, lucky enough to have the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.


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