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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Four-way formula: Champ Packers stacked at premium positions

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Want to know what your team needs in free agency? Want to see if your team can be considered a legitimate contender as of this moment, before the free-agency period begins?

I offer you my four-pronged approach to gauging the strength of NFL teams.

We did this a few years back, and with free agency likely playing out over the next few weeks and the opening of camps coming soon thereafter, it feels like a good time to do it again.

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The four-pronged approach is this:

 Rate the quarterback.
 Rate the guys who knock the quarterback down.
 Rate the players who knock down the quarterback's passes.
 Rate the men who keep the quarterback upright.

That means the important positions are quarterback, defensive end or outside linebacker as a pass rusher, cornerback and left tackle.

Strong up the middle? That's your daddy's football. The game is a perimeter game now, which is why my four-pronged approach works in building a team -- and also applies to assessing the fortunes of a team.

I rated the players at each of the four positions from 1-32, based on who is expected to be the starter as of right now. There are some free agents included, players who their teams will try to keep. A player like Nnamdi Asomugha, the top player on the free-agent market, isn't rated among the corners because he isn't on a team yet, and the Oakland Raiders have no plans to bring him back.

Each team is represented by just one player at each position, so the Packers -- with two star corners -- only get one rated. The Steelers, with two great outside rushers, only get one rated.

The top player at each position gets 32 points, all the way down to the bottom player getting one, with one important catch: the quarterback rating is doubled, since that position might be 75 percent of the game the way it is played.

All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, a free agent unlikely to return to Oakland, does not figure into these ratings. (Getty Images)  
All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, a free agent unlikely to return to Oakland, does not figure into these ratings. (Getty Images)  
(That helps the quarterback-strong teams. But if you had to pick the favorites in 2011 at this moment, I would imagine the teams with star power at quarterback would be your top teams anyway.)

The four positions are then added up for an overall cumulative score.

The top team in 2011 based on these rankings is the Green Bay Packers, who also happen to be the defending Super Bowl champions. A scan of the top of the list shows some other teams widely expected to be good.

One of the surprises of these rankings is seeing the Denver Broncos as the sixth-best team. That's because they have elite players at corner (Champ Bailey), left tackle (Ryan Clady) and pass rusher (Elvis Dumvervil). Imagine if they had a real quarterback?

Another surprise to some might be the Detroit Lions sitting at No. 26. Detroit is generally considered a team on the rise, but lacks a premier player at left tackle and is weak at corner. The Lions also are average at pass rusher and Matthew Stafford isn't as highly ranked because he has been hurt. I offer this data to those of you on the Lions-to-the-playoffs bandwagon.

Now if they sign a corner in free agency, it would help. The same goes for the Houston Texans. They have good ratings, except at corner. What if they signed Asomugha? He would be the top-ranked corner and would move them to second in the overall rankings.

I did include Carson Palmer with Cincinnati and Donovan McNabb with Washington. I still think there is a chance they both play for those teams again -- no matter what the rhetoric has been.

I caution that this isn't an exercise in predicting a Super Bowl winner. That will come with time. What this should do is offer a hint at what your team needs to do to become elite, or what they possess to have already entered that category.

Prisco's 2011 Four-Pronged Rankings
Overall Rankings Quarterbacks Pass rushers CBsTackles 
1. Green Bay Packers 1421. Peyton Manning, Colts1. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys1. Darrelle Revis, Jets1. Jake Long, Dolphins
2. Philadelphia Eagles 1271. Tom Brady, Patriots 2. Clay Matthews, OLB, Packers2. Tramon Williams, Packers2. Joe Thomas, Browns
3t. Indianapolis Colts 1173. Aaron Rodgers, Packers3. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts3. Champ Bailey, Broncos3. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
3t. San Diego Chargers 1174. Drew Brees, Saints 4. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears 4. Asante Samuel, Eagles4. Ryan Clady, Broncos
5. Pittsburgh Steelers 1155.  Philip Rivers, Chargers5. Mario Williams, DE-OLB Texans5. Devin McCourty, Patriots5. Jason Peters, Eagles
6. Denver Broncos 1086.  Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers6.  James Harrison, OLB, Steelers6. Brandon Flowers, Chiefs6. Jordan Gross, Panthers
7. Dallas Cowboys 1077. Michael Vick, Eagles7. Tamba Hali, OLB, Chiefs7. Leon Hall, Bengals7. Andrew Whitworth, Bengals
8. New England Patriots 1068. Matt Ryan, Falcons8. Cameron Wake, OLB, Dolphins8. Brent Grimes, Falcons8. Donald Penn, Buccaneers
9. Atlanta Falcons 1049. Matt Schaub, Texans9. Justin Tuck, DE, Giants9. Aqib Talib, Buccaneers9. Doug Free, Cowboys
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10110. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers10. Elvis Dumervil, DE, Broncos10. Vontae Davis, Dolphins10. Marcus McNeil, Chargers
11. Cincinnati Bengals 9811. Joe Flacco, Ravens11. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens11. Jerraud Powers, Colts11. Michael Roos, Titans
12. Houston Texans 9712. Eli Manning, Giants12. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings12. Quentin Jammer, Chargers12. Michael Oher, Ravens
13t. Kansas City Chiefs 9613.  Tony Romo, Cowboys13. John Abraham, DE, Falcons13. Antoine Winfield, Vikings13. Chad Clifton, Packers
13t. New York Jets 9614.  Carson Palmer, Bengals14. Brian Orakpo, OLB, Redskins14. Joe Haden, Browns 14. Rodger Saffold, Rams
15t. Baltimore Ravens 9415. Sam Bradford, Rams15. Trent Cole, DE, Eagles 15. Cortland Finnegan, Titans15. Duane Brown, Texans
15t. Miami Dolphins 9416. Jay Cutler, Bears16. Shaun Phillips, OLB, Chargers 16. Ike Taylor, Steelers16. Max Starks, Steelers
17. New Orleans Saints 9017. Matt Cassel, Chiefs17. Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers17. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cardinals17. Jeff Backus, Lions
18. New York Giants 8818.  Mark Sanchez, Jets 18. Aaron Kampman, DE, Jaguars18. Terrell Thomas, Giants18. Bryant McKinnie, Vikings
19. Chicago Bears 7819. Donovan McNabb, Redskins19. Cliff Avril, DE, Lions19. DeAngelo Hall, Redskins19. Joe Staley, 49ers
20. St. Louis Rams 7720. Kyle Orton, Broncos20. Chris Clemons, DE, Seahawks20. Charles Tillman, Bears20. Eugene Monroe, Jaguars
21t. Minnesota Vikings 6621. David Garrard, Jaguars21. Will Smith, DE, Saints21. Ron Bartell, Rams21. Matt Light, Patriots
21t. Washington Redskins 6622.  Matt Stafford, Lions22. Jason Babin, DE, Titans22. Mike Jenkins, Cowboys22. Branden Albert, Chiefs
23. Cleveland Browns 5923. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills23. James Hall, DE, Rams23. Jabari Greer, Saints23. Jermon Bushrod, Saints
24t. Jacksonville Jaguars 5724. Jason Campbell, Raiders24. Kamerion Wimbley, OLB, Raiders24. Stanford Routt, Raiders24. Sam Baker, Falcons
24t. Tennessee Titans 5725. Alex Smith, 49ers25. Carlos Dunlap, DE, Bengals25. Leodis McKelvin, Bills25. Russell Okung, Seahawks
26. Detroit Lions 5326. Chad Henne, Dolphins26. Shawne Merriman, OLB, Bills26. Dominique Foxworth, Ravens26. David Diehl, Giants
27. Carolina Panthers 4927. Matt Hsselbeck, Seahawks27.  Adrian Clayborn, DE, Buccaneers27. Marcus Trufant, Seahawks27. Levi Brown, Cardinals
28t. Buffalo Bills 3928. Christian Ponder, Vikings28. Aldon Smith, OLB, 49ers28. Rashean Mathis, Jaguars28. Trent Williams, Redskins
28t. Oakland Raiders 3929. Colt McCoy, Browns29. Calvin Pace, OLB, Jets29. Nate Clements, 49ers29. Demetrius Bell, Bills
28t. San Francisco 49ers 3930. Jake Locker, Titans30. O'Brien Schofield, OLB, Cardinals30. Glover Quin, Texans30. Jared Veldheer, Raiders
28t. Seattle Seahawks 3931. Cam Newton, Panthers 31. Jermaine Cunningham, OLB, Patriots31. Chris Gamble, Panthers31. Gabe Carimi, Bears
32. Arizona Cardinals 27 32. Derek Anderson or John Skelton, Cardinals  32. Marcus Benard, DE, Browns 32. Chris Houston, Lions 32. Anthony Castonzo, Colts 

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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