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NFC look has Saints, Cowboys with a wealth of blue-chippers

With the AFC player and coach rankings still being debated, it's time to reveal the NFC side of things to keep the discussion going.

To review, I'm breaking down the amount of blue- (those among the top 10 at their position) and red-chip players (top 15) on each team. Along with the players, I am also identifying six blue-chip coaches (more on this later).

The importance of each position is weighed by a point system. For example, having a blue-chip quarterback is more important to winning than having a blue-chip kicker.

So without further ado, here's my look at the NFC.


Blue-chip players: DT Darnell Dockett and WR Larry Fitzgerald.

The Cardinals have many talented, young guys who might become red- or blue-chip players soon (receiver Steve Breaston comes to mind). While they have a solid supporting cast, losing blue-chip quarterback Kurt Warner without a blue or red replacement is the main question in Arizona.


Blue-chip players: WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez and DE John Abraham.

Red-chip players: G Harvey Dahl, RB Michael Turner and DT Jonathan Babineaux.

For the Falcons to take another step, they must get some of their other guys to reach the red level (starting with Matt Ryan) and get Turner to return to blue.


Blue-chip players: OT Jordan Gross, WR Steve Smith, RB DeAngelo Williams, LB Jon Beason and HC John Fox.

Red-chip players: OT Jeff Otah and RB Jonathan Stewart.

The obvious problem with the Panthers is their lack of a top-level quarterback, but they also need reserves to step up and fill the void of the veterans the team has lost, especially on defense.


Blue-chip players: LB Lance Briggs and DE Julius Peppers.

Red-chip players: TE Greg Olsen (receiving).

Don't worry, Bears fans, this is not as bad as it looks in terms of talent on your team. The Bears clearly must get better performances from some of their high-price players. More than just Tommie Harris or Jay Cutler playing better, Chicago must improve the offensive line. By the way, I reluctantly put Olsen as a red tight end in part because I made the Jets' Dustin Keller a red in a similar role.


Blue-chip players: DT Jay Ratliff, DE/LB DeMarcus Ware, TE Jason Witten, C Andre Gurode, WR Miles Austin and QB Tony Romo.

Red-chip players: LB Anthony Spencer, CB Mike Jenkins and CB Terence Newman.

The concerns about the Cowboys entering the season are reflected in their grades above. Only one offensive lineman is on this list, and please don't tell me guard Leonard Davis belongs because, if you watch tape, he does not.


Blue-chip players: None.

Red-chip players: WR Calvin Johnson.

Things are lean in Detroit right now, but they will have more players to add to the list next year, including possibly quarterback Matthew Stafford. Wondering why Johnson is red and not blue? He is a talented player and athlete who can make an impact, but he is limited in his route tree (all vertical routes) and has to become a more complete receiver.


Blue-chip players: QB Aaron Rodgers, CB Charles Woodson, WR Greg Jennings and TE Jermichael Finley.

Red-chip players: WR Donald Driver, CB Nick Collins, LB Clay Matthews, and DT Cullen Jenkins.

Although the Packers are talented, they must hope their offensive line improves and their age at corner does not hurt them down the stretch.


Blue-chip players: QB Brett Favre, G Steve Hutchinson, RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams and DE Jared Allen.

Red-chip players: WR Sidney Rice, DT Pat Williams (run only), DE Ray Edwards, WR/RS Percy Harvin and OT Bryant McKinnie.

A very talented team that has the right blend of players on both lines to make an impact. The key will be not if the blue quarterback shows up, but rather if Favre can be a blue-chip player at 41.


Blue-chip players: QB Drew Brees, FS Darren Sharper, LB Jonathan Vilma, G Carl Nicks, G Jahri Evans and HC Sean Payton.

Red-chip players: DT Anthony Hargrove, WR Marques Colston, OT Jermon Bushrod and SS Roman Harper.

No Reggie Bush, no Jeremy Shockey, no Pierre Thomas? Have I lost my mind? No, not at all. In fact, Bush and Shockey did not even come close to making the list. Thomas is a good back, but not a dominant runner. Most of the success in New Orleans comes from the talents of Brees, and the coaching of Payton. Both of them enhance the supporting cast.


Blue-chip players: G Chris Snee and C Shaun O'Hara.

Red-chip players: WR Steve Smith and QB Eli Manning.

For the Giants to return to the playoffs, they need their defensive line to be honest with themselves and admit they had a bad year. Neither DE Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck were close to being red or blue players, which is one of the reasons the Giants struggled. Four offensive players and no defensive contributors on the list? No wonder why they allowed more than 400 points last season.


Blue-chip players: WR DeSean Jackson, FB Leonard Weaver and DE Trent Cole.

Red-chip players: TE Brent Celek (receiver), OT Jason Peters, CB Asante Samuel and OT Winston Justice.

Justice played well last year and surely will surprise everyone by being on this list, but he is deserving of a spot. However, Peters, a perennial Pro Bowler, barely made it. He improved late in the season, but was far from being the dominating tackle the Eagles need. Philly is young and might double this list next year, but it has to get more from the defensive line and quarterback Kevin Kolb must make an impact.


Blue-chip players: LB Patrick Willis, TE Vernon Davis and P Andy Lee.

Red-chip players: Nickel rusher Manny Lawson, nickel DT Justin Smith, DE Isaac Sopoaga, FS Dashon Goldson NT Aubrayo Franklin and RB Frank Gore.

The 49ers finished fourth in the league in points allowed and in examining their list, it is easy to see why they were so good defensively. They have young talent that can control the line of scrimmage. Still, their ability to take the next step depends on quarterback Alex Smith playing well for 16 games.


Blue-chip players: RB Steven Jackson.

Red-chip players: None.

Like the Lions, the Rams have a long way to go to improve the roster and be able to compete on the highest level. The scary part is that none of the Rams' recent first-round picks (DE Chris Long, OT Jason Smith) show signs of making this list.


Blue-chip players: None.

Red-chip players: DT Brandon Mebane.

Wonder why the Seahawks only won five games and were equally bad on offense and defense? MLB Lofa Tatupu would make the list, but he only played in two games and that does not allow him to qualify. If healthy, QB Matt Hasselbeck can make the list as a red, which will helps the Seahawks immensely.


Blue-chip players: OT Donald Penn and CB Aqib Talib.

Red-chip players: TE Kellen Winslow (receiving), MLB Barrett Ruud, FS Tanard Jackson.

The Buccaneers have some nice pieces in place, but it will take at least one more year of acquiring players to have a playoff roster.


Blue-chip players: QB Donovan McNabb, DT Albert Haynesworth and HC Mike Shanahan.

Red-chip players: TE Chris Cooley, OLB Brian Orakpo, MLB London Fletcher and DE Andre Carter.

If the Redskins fix their offensive line, they will be a team to contend with down the stretch because they have a blue coach and quarterback.

One coach to go

With the number of great coaches out there, it's been difficult to narrow the blue-chip list down to six. If you've been keeping count, I've named five so far: Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher, John Fox, Mike Shanahan and Sean Payton.

As Duke Ellington once said, "I don't need more time, I need a deadline." However, in doing this series, I wish I did have more time, especially when deciding on which coaches qualify.

Fisher and Belichick were easy picks. So was Fox. Any coach who can win in the league today despite the quarterback deserves my respect. Fox is a free agent at the end of the year and might be the most sought-after commodity.

I can almost envision Browns coach Eric Mangini calling Fox early one morning at some point during the season and asking: "How did you win with this guy at quarterback?" On a secured phone line, of course.

Payton was another easy choice. What I love most about Payton is that he shed his non-tough-guy image and became extremely tough-minded. He understood what was needed to get himself and the Saints over the top. In that honest self evaluation, he became a blue-chip coach.

Mike Shanahan was another obvious call. He has won before and is now motivated to prove he is still the best. Being let go in Denver has restored his fire. With that new motivation, Shanahan will prove he is an outstanding coach. It also helps to have a blue quarterback.

Now, not to make this the NFL version of "American Idol," but I have one blue-chip spot remaining and, frankly, I need more time.

I like so many coaches in the league right now, it should be an easy choice. However, so many coaches are not true head coaches, but rather completely running one side of the ball.

Payton is involved in all aspects of the team, yet he still calls the offensive plays. He realized the whole team needed his personality and this is one of the reasons he was successful last season.

To be a blue coach, you have to run the team and impact the game -- and winning a Super Bowl makes a case that much stronger. All things that Steelers fans are thinking makes coach Mike Tomlin a candidate. And they are right. I had Tomlin as a blue and then changed my mind. Not because I do not like Tomlin, but rather because I needed more time to ponder -- with all due respect to Ellington.

My list of other candidates are:

Eagles coach Andy Reid, who despite his frequent mistakes managing the game has done an incredible job in Philadelphia. His ability to get a team to the conference title game is amazing, but without McNabb, I am reluctant (or just need more time) to give him the nod.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin is one of the best game managers in football. Add a Super Bowl win to his accomplishments and he does have all the qualities that a blue coach must have. But is he a blue coach today?

The Ravens' John Harbaugh, the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, the Packers' Mike McCarthy and the Colts' Jim Caldwell are all seem to show blue qualities, but they are too young and do not have enough wins under their belts -- yet. And calm down Jet fans, Rex Ryan might be a blue someday, but he needs to become a better game manager.

On Sunday, I will finalize my last blue coach and take one last look at my list of players before unveiling my team rankings.

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