Monthly Archives: May 2009

Free-agency review – post-draft through May

The free agent moves should start slowing down at this point, but there are still enough of them that it’s worth comparing them. This relativity comparison includes moves starting after draft day all the way through the the month of May. If you want to see previous comparisons, check out this post and move back from there.

10 – Seahawks (keep LB Leroy Hill; add CB Ken Lucas, FB Justin Griffith and LS Bryan Pittman) – Hill was Seattle’s franchise player, but the team pulled the tag off of him after drafting Aaron Curry. But the team still wanted to keep Hill, and so they ended up hammering out a long-term deal with him. Instead of a one-year, $8 million deal, Hill gets a six-year pact worth up to $38 million with $15.5 million guaranteed. He’s a solid player who will team with Curry and Lofa Tatupu to give Seattle a terrific (if expensive) linebacker trio. Lucas was a Seahawk for six years before moving to Carolina for big free-agent dollars. He’s a big physical corner who doesn’t have great speed but doesn’t need it for his style of play. It wasn’t that long ago that Lucas was a top-5 corner in the league. In fact, the Seahawks never were able to replace Lucas’ physicality after he left following the ’04 season. He probably shouldn’t be a No. 1 corner anymore, but he’s still a solid No. 2. Griffith is the prototypical fullback for a West Coast offense. Pittman had spent five-plus years as the Texans’ long snapper before being sidelined in the StarCaps case last year. He is a professional long snapper who fills a spot that’s been a void in Seattle the last couple of years.

10 (con’t) – Dolphins (add DE Jason Taylor) – Taylor and the Dolphins had an acrimonious divorce last offseason, as Taylor went Dancing with the Stars while new team grand poobah Bill Parcells laid down the law. The Fins dealt Taylor to Washington, but knee and calf injuries limited Taylor’s effectiveness. He played in 13 games, but managed just 3.5 sacks. After the season, Taylor decided he would rather spend the offseason at home in Florida than in the ‘Skins training program, so he asked for his release (and gave up $8 million in the process). Now, he lands back with Miami on a one-year, $1.1 million deal. Taylor had a great career in Miami (117 sacks in 11 years), and he really wants to be a Dolphin again. The team hopes that he can go opposite of Joey Porter to accelerate the team’s pass rush. Motivation shouldn’t be a question for Taylor, who seems excited to be back. And in a limited role, he should still be a quality contributor. All in all, it’s a good investment for the Dolphins, who get a pass rusher and a fan favorite for a budget-conscious price. In the end, the Dolphins got a second-rounder from Washington but only lost Taylor’s services for a year.

9 – Bengals (add S Roy Williams) – Williams had some good seasons as an in-the-box safety in Dallas, even reaching Pro Bowl level. But over recent years, his performance has plummeted as his coverage inadequacies have been exposed. That, plus a hefty price tag, led the Cowboys to cut the cord. Now he heads to Cincinnati, where he’s reunited with ex-Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Zimmer knows what Williams does well and what he can’t do, which gives the Bengals a little better than average chance to use Williams well. Plus, his veteran leadership could help a team that’s slowly building a new defensive nucleus around LBs Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga. On a short-term, incentive-laden deal, it’s easy to see why Cincinnati would take this shot.

9 (con’t) – 49ers (add CB Dre Bly) – The 49ers replaced Walt Harris, who blew out his ACL in minicamp, with Bly, a fellow veteran who has been a long-term starter in Denver, Detroit, and St. Louis and has 40 career interceptions and Pro Bowl nods in ’03 and ’04.. Bly isn’t as big as Harris, and he’s more of a gambler, but he will provide the expertise and veteran play that San Fran needs across from Nate Clements. Bly is also three years younger, and so while he’s not in his prime anymore, he’s not that far past it. It will be interesting to see if Bly’s ball-hawking style fits Mike Singletary’s approach as well as Harris’ more physical play did. But given how late in free agency Harris’ injury happened, Bly is about the best option the 49ers could have come up with. They needed corner help badly, and they got it in this veteran.

8 – Lions (add LB Larry Foote, OTs Jon Jansen and Ephriam Salaam, OG Toniu Fonoti, and DEs Eric Hicks and Jason Hunter) – Foote had been cut in Pittsburgh for salary-cap reasons. Not only is Foote a Michigan native and alum, he’s an extremely solid inside ‘backer on running downs. He has limitations and probably shouldn’t be trying to drop into coverage, but he is a quality NFL starter who definitely upgrades Detroit’s lion-up. (Sorry.) It’s only a one-year deal, but if Foote provides leadership that term could be extended. Regardless, the Lions’ defense is better today because Foote is there. Jansen quickly latched on with the Lions on a one-year, minimum-salary deal. Like ILB Larry Foote, he’s a Michigan alum who comes home to try to help the first steps of Detroit’s rebuilding process. He might not start, but he provides depth at a trouble spot and should help to mentor ‘08 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus. That’s a good deal for the Lions at the vet minimum. Salaam has started 129 games in his 11 NFL seasons, but he became a backup in Houston last year. Still, given the fact that Detroit didn’t draft a tackle this year, Salaam could find a role for a single season, even with Jansen now around. Hicks and Fonoti are veterans who may not have much left but who are worth a look for a team as talent-depleted as Detroit. Hunter lost his spot in Green Bay when the Packers moved to a 3-4 defense, but he can contribute as a 4-3 end in Detroit.

7 – Browns (add CB Rod Hood and WR Mike Furrey) – Hood, who had started the last two years for the Cardinals, was shoved aside after Arizona added Bryant McFadden. Hood is a big, physical corner who is apt to give up the big play but is an asset against the run and is good enough to start. He steps into a weak spot on the depth chart in Cleveland, and he should surpass Corey Ivy, Eric Wright, or Brandon McDonald to continue as a starter there. As long as the Browns don’t count on him for much man coverage, Hood will help. Meanwhile, the Browns are in serious upheaval at wide receiver. They’ve cut the cord on Joe Jurevicius, and we now must expect Donte Stallworth to miss some time with legal matters related to a deadly car accident he was involved in last year. And that doesn’t even address the persistent Braylon Edwards trade rumors. So Cleveland has tried to reload at receiver, by signing David Patten and drafting Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi in the second round. Now they add Mike Furrey, who bounced through the XFL and the Arena League before establishing himself as a legit NFL receiver. Furrey’s best success has come in Mike Martz systems in St. Louis and Detroit, and he doesn’t have great size, but it’s still easy to see him as an effective inside receiver. If nothing else, he’ll try hard and give some level of certainty at a very uncertain position for Cleveland.

6 – Colts (kept LB Freddie Keiaho and DT Ed Johnson) – The Colts didn’t tender Keiaho a contract as a restricted free agent even though he was a starter last season. But they’re bringing him back on a one-year deal to help in a problem area. Keiaho’s small, but he makes enough plays to warrant some snaps. Johnson is a talented defensive tackle who the Colts let go last year after a drug-possession arrest. He fits a need, and the Colts are making it clear that Johnson has a supershort leash. But if he takes advantage of another chance, he’ll help.

6 (con’t) – Saints (add DE Anthony Hargrove) – Hargrove sat out the entire ’08 season after his third violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. He has been reinstated, which makes him valuable to the Saints, who need DE depth for the first four games of the season pending the disputed suspensions of DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant. Both of those starters face four-game bans for using performance-enhancing substances, but they are appealing in court, and no final decision has come down. So Hargrove ends up being a talented insurance policy if he can stay clean.

5 – Patriots (add LB Paris Lenon S Brandon McGowan) – Lenon led the Lions in tackles last year with 121, but he figures in more as a backup in New England. He adds depth and probably fills the roster spot that injured third-round pick Tyrone McKenzie would have occupied. McGowan missed all of last season with an injury, but the former Bear is a physical safety who can step in if rookie Patrick Chung isn’t ready to go for the Pats. With Rodney Harrison likely done, the Pats are wise to add some depth at safety.

5 (con’t) – Raiders (add FB Lorenzo Neal, RB Gary Russell, TE J.P. Foschi and S Keith Davis) – Neal has long been the best blocking fullback in the league. He’s still a hammer who can help open holes for Oakland’s talented running backs. Russell is a backup type who had a short-yardage role in Pittsburgh last year. But he’s unlikely to get many carries or even make the opening-game roster with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush ahead of him on the depth chart. Davis played seven years in Dallas and established himself as a special-teams ace, and last year he started half the year at safety. The Raiders probably need someone better to start, but Davis can be a good backup and a very good contributor on specialty units.

4 – Broncos (add LB Nick Griesen and RB Darius Walker) – Griesen was a backup in Baltimore, and so he knows the 3-4 defense and could fit in for Denver, which is implementing the defense but is still looking for players to start, much less fill roles. Walker showed some promise during his two years in Houston, but he’s not of the caliber of Denver’s top running backs Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, or even holdover Peyton Hillis.

4 (con’t) – Bears (add LB Pisa Tinoisamoa and TE Michael Gaines) – Tinoisamoa has limitations, but he fits in as a two-down linebacker alongside Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in Chicago. The Tower (of Pisa) knows Bears coach Lovie Smith from the St. Louis days, so the defense will be familiar. Tinoisamoa is a clean-up tackler who doesn’t make a ton of big plays, but he won’t need to with superstars Briggs and Urlacher there. He should help to stabilize the defense and allow Briggs and Urlacher a bit more freedom to attack, both of which are advantages for the Bears. This seems to be a good fit for the Tower. Gaines is a bulky blocking tight end who doesn’t figure as a receiving threat behind Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark but could be useful as a jumbo-package role player. It’s a shame the Bears have three legit tight ends but such a paucity of wideouts.

3 – Chiefs (add C Eric Ghiacius) – Ghiacius started all 16 games at center for the Bengals last year, and he’ll compete with Rudy Niswanger for a starting job in K.C. Ghiacius is a marginal NFL starter, but it will help the Chiefs to have another veteran around for the sake of depth and competition.

3 (con’t) – Steelers (add WR Shaun McDonald, P Dirk Johnson and RB Verron Haynes) – McDonald had a big year in ’07 with Detroit, but when Mike Martz left his role in the offense diminished. McDonald is small but quick. He fits in as a third or fourth receiver in Pittsburgh, but having a veteran like him around is smart because the Steelers still don’t know how second-year WR Limas Sweed will develop. Johnson, who punted in 13 games for the Cardinals last season, is a marginal NFL punter, but he will at least provide some competition at a spot that was a problem for Pittsburgh last year. Haynes was a long-time Steeler who didn’t play last year. He could end up as a backup running back in a bit role.

2 – Ravens (add QB John Beck and WR Kelley Washington) – After the emergence of Joe Flacco last year, the Ravens don’t really have a quarterback need. They have a young starter and a young promising backup in Troy Smith. But Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron drafted Beck in the second round when he was the head coach in Miami, and so he obviously sees potential in him. So the Ravens gave Beck a one-year contract that could last longer because Beck, with just two years of service time, will be controlled by the Ravens for at least one additional season. This is a low-risk move that could pay off in terms of a future trade if Cameron can restore the luster Beck once had as a prospect. Washington is a big, rangy receiver who had some success as a receiver in Cincinnati but never lived up to his potential. Then he went to New England and became a standout special-teamer, which speaks well of his character as a teammate. He’ll find a special-teams role in Baltimore and provide needed depth at receiver, but it’s unlikely that he’ll move too far up the depth chart.

2 (con’t) – Redskins (add WR Roydell Williams and OT Jeremy Bridges) – The Redskins won’t have WR depth until second-year players Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly develop, so they take a flier on Williams, a former Titan who didn’t play last season. If he provides competition for Thomas and Kelly, he will have done his job. Bridges started 28 games at guard and tackle in Carolina over the past three seasons, but repeated legal troubles led the Panthers to cut the cord. He needs to be on a short leash, but he is good enough to at least provide quality depth.

1 – Jaguars (add QB Todd Bouman) – Bouman, a third-stringer who was let go in Baltimore after the Ravens acquired John Beck, could move up a spot to No. 2 in Jacksonville if he can beat out Cleo Lemon. You don’t want Bouman to start, but he’s a pro who knows the offense and won’t kill you as a short-term fill-in.

1 (con’t) – Cardinals (add OT Oliver Ross and TE Dominique Byrd) – Ross is a 10-year vet who spent the last two seasons on injured reserve after a decent career in Dallas and Arizona. At this point, he’s probably a long shot to contribute, but why not take a shot if you’re the Cardinals? Byrd is a former Rams prospect who didn’t play last year but could figure into a muddle tight-end situation for the Cards.

1 (con’t) – Giants (add G Tutan Reyes and TE George Wrighster) – Reyes is a huge guard who has been around since 2000. He started three games in Jacksonville last year, but he’s probably better off as a backup who provides veteran wile and can fill in in a pinch. Wrighster is another former Jaguar who has 94 career catches but is more of a backup who will fall in line behind Kevin Boss in New York.

1 (con’t) – Jets (keep TE Bubba Franks) – Franks, a former first-round pick, was an adequate blocker with the Jets last year. He should be a solid complement to receiving threat Dustin Keller once again.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (add OG Justin Geisinger) – Geisinger was a reserve for the Redskins last year, but he could find a roster spot in Carolina. The Panthers have lost their top three OL backups this offseason, and they showed last offseason a strategy bring in low-cost vets and let them compete for jobs. Geisinger at least provides such competition. He’s also the first free-agent addition of the offseason for the cap-strapped Panthers.

1 (con’t) – Rams (add WR Tim Carter) – Carter once showed potential with the Giants, but injuries kept him from making an impact. New Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo must have seen enough to remember Carter and give him another shot. Unfortunately for Carter, it’s a long shot.

1 (con’t) – Texans (add LB Boomer Grigsby) – Grigsby is an undersized ‘backer who can play inside and on special teams.

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The Tower relocates

We were supposed to sign off for the weekend, but we couldn’t ignore the fact that Football Relativity fave Pisa Tinoisamoa – affectionately called The Tower here – landed a new gig with the Bears. It’s a momentous day, reminiscent of when London Bridge moved (at least to me). So here are some thoughts on The Tower’s new home in Chicago; you can compare this move to others in this weekend’s post-draft free agency review.

Tinoisamoa has limitations, but he fits in as a two-down linebacker alongside Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in Chicago. The Tower (of Pisa) knows Bears coach Lovie Smith from the St. Louis days, so the defense will be familiar. Tinoisamoa is a clean-up tackler who doesn’t make a ton of big plays, but he won’t need to with superstars Briggs and Urlacher there. He should help to stabilize the defense and allow Briggs and Urlacher a bit more freedom to attack, both of which are advantages for the Bears. This seems to be a good fit for the Tower – who really should look into a Sears endorsement now that he’s in Chicago. If he becomes the Sears Tower I’m buying a jersey…

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Jansen jettisoned and headed home

A quick note, then some quick thoughts. I’m headed out of town for work this weekend, so aside from a wrap-up of free-agent signings and re-signings since the draft that will go up on Sunday, posting will be dark until the middle of next week. Thanks for the patience… now onto the reason for this post.

The Redskins released long-time offensive Jon Jansen today. Here are some thoughts on that move; you can see how it compares to other post-draft cutbacks in this post.

Jansen was a stalwart of the Redskins’ offensive line for 10 seasons after joining the team as a second-round pick. He started 123 games in that time, almost all at right tackle. He was a physical run blocker who held his own in the passing game as well. He missed most of the 2007 season with an injury, though, and last year he only started 11 games. Although he was never a Pro Bowler, he was generally an asset as a starter until the last couple of years. But declining performance, coupled with a contract that lasts until 2011, made him expendable. The Skins don’t really have a replacement lined up, unless they want to depend on Jeremy Bridges or recent fill-in Stephon Heyer. So they may have to invest in a veteran – someone like a Jon Runyan – to fill in until they get a replacement ready to go.

Jansen quickly latched on with the Lions on a one-year, minimum-salary deal. Like ILB Larry Foote, he’s a Michigan alum who comes home to try to help the first steps of Detroit’s rebuilding process. He might not start, but he provides depth at a trouble spot and should help to mentor ’08 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus. That’s a good deal for the Lions at the vet minimum.

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OP: End of the Lucky Horseshoe

Time for an outlandish prediction, or if you’d rather, a little preja vu…

The future arc of the Indianapolis Colts has been brewing in my mind for a while now, ever since Tony Dungy decided to retire after the 2009 season. And as the offseason has gone on, I’ve become more and more convinced that the horseshoe that has been pointed up for so long in Indy is going to turn downward. I’ve said as much in private email conversations for a while now, and now I’m goin’ public.

To leave the land of the metaphor and say it plainly, here’s the prediction:

The Colts won’t win 10 games this year.

That’s a big deal, because the Colts won at least 10 games in each of the 7 years of Dungy’s tenure (2002-08). In fact, Indy won at least 12 regular season games in each of the last six years.

But that run will come to an end this offseason. And here’s why:

*Jim Caldwell isn’t up to it – We’ve gone into this at great detail here on the site. (You can read here how I compare the Caldwell hiring to others this offseason and read here what I don’t like about Caldwell’s career path.) I lived through the Caldwell experience at Wake Forest when I was a student there, and while he is a very nice man he’s not a good coach. He came to Wake Forest with a Joe Paterno pedigree, and he gets this Colts job with a Tony Dungy pedigree. But a pedigree is not a guarantee. I simply can’t believe in Caldwell as an NFL coach.

*Staff turnover – The Colts apparently hired Caldwell as Dungy’s successor in waiting to preserve staff continuity. But that didn’t work, because the Colts will have new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. The offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, retired (along with OL coach Howard Mudd) in fears of losing pension money. Moore and Mudd will remain as consultants, and their replacements – Clyde Christensen as offensive coordinator and Pete Metzelaars as line coach – have been in Indy for 7 and 5 years, respectively. But losing Moore and Mudd cuts the staff’s overall experience, and something will get lost in transition. Even Peyton Manning has questions about how it’s going to work.

On defense, the Colts wanted a more aggressive scheme than Dungy’s patented Tampa 2, and so they encouraged coordinator Ron Meeks to resign. (He landed in Carolina.) That smacks of a new coach’s arrogance in trying to implement his system and his way. The Colts’ defense wasn’t great, but it was OK, and the personnel fit it. But Meeks was replaced by Larry Coyer, who has a reputation of being blitz happy from his previous stops. There’s no way the current personnel – which haven’t been upgraded on defense – can take a huge step forward with the new scheme with the current personnel. Instead, I expect a step back, if not two. And the fact that Coyer and Caldwell used to work together makes me wonder if cronyism, not strategy, prompted the move.

Caldwell also cut special-teams coach Russ Purnell loose. That’s not a big deal, except it’s another sign that Caldwell is trying extremely hard – too hard, in our opinion – to put his own stamp on the team. The team was winning 12 games a year, and a failed college coach wants to put his stamp on it?  That’s just not a good idea.

*The divisions are labor – The Colts have made hay in an AFC South that is traditionally a so-so division. Jacksonville and Tennessee have each been good at times, but rarely at the same time. But Tennessee should be tough this year, and Jacksonville (who always gives the Colts problems) should bounce back. Plus, Houston continues to get incrementally better. It will be hard for the Colts to get to 4 wins in the division. The Colts play the NFC West out of conference, which will help the win ledger, but drawing the entire AFC East plus a road game at Baltimore is no bargain. (Thanks to Andy for starting my thought process on the schedule.)

*Roster rut – If you look at the transactions ledger, the Colts have only added one free agent from another team – backup linebacker Adam Seward. They have lost some key players, including P Hunter Smith, DT Darrell Reid, CB Keiwan Ratliff, and most notably WR Marvin Harrison. The problem is that marginal draft picks will have to replace most of these guys. While that long-term strategy works, in the short term that could lead to some growing pains. And this is a team with too much in flux to afford many growing pains.

All in all, I see the Colts slipping noticably this year – even with Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne, and the other stars there. The personnel depth has always been so-so because the Colts had so many stars, and that will show up negatively especially as the defense attempts to change schemes.

And remember how fortunate the Colts were to get to 12 wins last year. Over the first half of the season, the Colts were 3-4 including two white-knuckles wins over Minnesota and Houston that could have easily gone the other way. The Colts will not be good enough this year to turn those white-knucklers into wins, and the difference will show in the win/loss record. The horseshoe isn’t lucky enough to save the Colts in 2009.

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Arrington axed

This was worth commenting on… The Broncos released RB J.J. Arrington today, just a few months after they signed him as a free agent. Here are some thoughts on the cut; you can see how it compares to other post-draft releases in this post.

The Broncos added Arrington as part of their free-agency binge, and even with the glut of running backs Denver brought in – Arrington, Correll Buckhatler, Lamont Jordan, and rookie Knowshon Moreno – Arrington looked to have a solid role based on underrated his triple threat skills. But Arrington had a knee injury in Arizona, and he never was healthy enough to pass a physical in Denver. But Arrington had a knee injury in Arizona, and he never was healthy enough to pass a physical in Denver. The Broncos lost about $100,000 but had protected themselves against a greater loss by the way they structured Arrington’s contract.  His departure won’t be a huge blow at running back, but he would have helped if he had been healthy.

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FR: Quarterback battles

Training camp is still two months away, but some quarterback battles are starting to crystalize across the NFL. We expected some of these battles to take place; others are surprise appearances. But there are enough of them that we thought it would be interesting to compare these battles using football relativity. Here’s how it will work: 10 is the battle most likely to impact a team’s fate, and 1 is a battle least likely to matter. This rating includes the quality of the players in the battle as well as how long the battle will go on.

For more on these (and other) quarterbacks as individuals, check out this post on the top signal callers for 2009 and beyond. And this site of NFL depth charts has become a resource that I’ve gone back to several times now, and so I thought it was worth a link.

10 – Vikings (combatants: Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and potentially Brett Favre) – Jackson and Rosenfels both have talent, and they both have moments in which they look like they should be NFL starters. Rosenfels is a long-time backup who has 12 career starts in eight years and a career passer rating of 81.5, which is slightly above average. But Rosenfels also seems to make the killer mistake at the killer time way too often. Jackson was demoted at the beginning of last season, only to reclaim the starting job when Gus Frerotte was hurt, and at the end of the season Jackson played really well. His passer rating for the season was 95.4, which is a standout mark. But Jackson’s tendency to make a killer mistake showed up in the playoffs, when his pick-6 ultimately cost the Vikings the wild-card game against Philly. If either Rosenfels or Jackson put it together and played consistently, the Vikings’ championship chances would rise, because the rest of the team is contender-caliber. But the question is whether either guy can be consistent, and whether Brad Childress and company will stick with the guy they pick. Plus, the specter of Brett Favre looms over the situation, but would that even be an improvement?

9 – none

8 – Jets (combatants: Kellen Clemens and Mark Sanchez) – Clemens, a former second-round pick, has only gotten one extended chance to start (half a season in ’07), but he’s the veteran hand who has the reins to begin. That means that Sanchez, who didn’t have that many starts at USC, has a real shot to be the opening day starter. I believed in Sanchez over Matthew Stafford at draft time, but even a Sanchez-phile like me isn’t sure about the wisdom of starting him from Day One. I like Sanchez’s attitude and confidence, but that could be shaken if he performs poorly, especially in the media jungle of New York. The Jets could have used a Byron Leftwich type of guy as a bridge, but they didn’t get one in the offseason. So while there’s a ton of upside potential here, there’s lots of downside potential as well. It’ll be interesting to see whether Sanchez can show enough to demonstrate that he’s ready to go when the season opens, especially with a team that looks to repeat on last year’s winning record.

7 – Browns (combatants: Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff) – Everyone will have an eye on this battle through training camp because of Quinn’s golden boy status and Anderson’s one shining year in ’07. Anderson isn’t consistent, but he has a big arm and can get hot enough to throw with the best of them. Quinn doesn’t throw as powerfully, but he’s more consistent and more suited to a timing offense. It seems like the new Browns coaching regime under Eric Mangini would favor Quinn, who would be a bit easier to build a run-first offense around, but that’s merely a guess. A small part of me is afraid that Mangini is silly enough to give Brett Ratliff, the former Jets’ No. 3 QB who came over in the Mark Sanchez draft day trade, a shot. Ratliff played well in the preseason last year, but preseason QB phenoms who can’t play when the real games start are far too common to count on Ratliff. But Mangini appears to have a man crush on Ratliff, and that’s worrisome when figuring out whether Anderson or Quinn has the edge.

6 – Broncos (combatants: Kyle Orton and Chris Simms) – It’s quite a fall for Denver from Jay Cutler, a Pro Bowl level talent, and two workmanlike journeymen like Orton and Simms. Simms, like Leftwich, gets a lot of attention as a prospect, but he hasn’t played significant snaps since 2006, and he didn’t get a lot of attention in free agency. He’s probably good enough to be OK, but he’s not a winning quarterback unless there’s a really good team around him. (And there’s not in Denver, at least not at this point.) Orton has a similarly strange career path – he started 15 games as a rookie in ’06, then sat behind Rex Grossman for two years before becoming a starter again last year. He played OK in Chicago, and he has actually shown more upside than Simms, but Orton isn’t going to scare anyone. He’s good enough to be an average NFL starter, and he’ll have a few moments where he looks better than that, but Orton isn’t a guy you can build a team around – no matter what Josh McDaniels thinks.

5 – Buccaneers (combatants: Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Freeman) – At one point this offseason, McCown was resigned and told he would have a chance to win the starting job in Tampa Bay, and even after Leftwich came on board and Freeman was selected, McCown still asserted the job was his to lose. We still figure that McCown will lose it, most likely to Leftwich, who looked impressive as a Steelers backup last year. But remember that Leftwich looked pretty rotten the two previous years in Jacksonville and Atlanta. He’s good enough to challenge McCown, and probably best him in ’09, but he’s not a long-term solution, no matter how personable he is. Freeman doesn’t really figure into the competition this year, but he is the QB of the future. The question is how soon that future will come – late in 2009, 2010, or even later. The Bucs look like they’ll take a step back before taking a step forward, and it’s possible that Leftwich is good enough to keep them competitive and around .500. But it’s also easy to see Tampa slipping to 6-10 or even worse.

4 –  Raiders (combatants: JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Garcia) – Russell, a former No. 1 overall pick, started a full season last year, and while his touchdown-to-interception ratio was OK at 13 to 8, his completion percentage of 53.8 didn’t cut the mustard. He’s still the future in Oakland, but the Raiders added Jeff Garcia as a backup. That’s where the dysfunction begins. Garcia is still a solid performer who can lead a team and move it downfield, and performance-wise he’s a really good backup quarterback. But he doesn’t have the personality of a backup. It’s not that he will try to undercut Russell, but Garcia won’t be the supportive caddy. Instead, he’s going to try to beat Russell out, whether that’s the best thing for the future of the organization or not. And it’s not the best thing for Garcia to beat out Russell. The Raiders need Russell to be the answer if they are to build a foundation, but the 39-year-old Garcia doesn’t care. He just wants to start as many games as he can before his career is over. And that mindset could lead to a lot of tension in Oakland going into Game One – especially if Russell struggles in the preseason.

3 – 49ers (combatants: Shaun Hill and Alex Smith) – The expectations on Hill, a former undrafted free agent, and Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, couldn’t be more divergent. But it’s Hill who has the leg up on the job in San Fran going into the season. Hill spent five full seasons in the league before he threw his first pass, but he played well at the end of the ’07 season, and when he became the starter in ’08 he continued to perform. In the 12 games he’s played over the last two seasons, Hill has completed 64 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns versus just 9 interceptions. His career passer rating of 90.5 makes you take notice. Smith, on the other hand, has just one halfway decent season out of the three that he played, and he missed all of last season due to injury. He would have been cut by the 49ers in the offseason had he not taken a big pay cut. Hill is more consistent in the short passing game, and he can run an offense effectively. But he’s not the kind of quarterback who can shoulder the burden of carrying a team to the win. Smith has the talent but hasn’t put it together in the four different systems the Niners have used since he was drafted. So while Hill has a clear leg up in this competition, Smith should still be more than an afterthought. He still has enough talent that he could take advantage of a chance to play. That’s no certainty, but it should be a consideration.

2 – Lions (combatants: Daunte Culpepper, Matthew Stafford and Drew Stanton) – This isn’t a battle as much as it is a test of Stafford’s readiness. Stafford will be the guy in Detroit when he’s ready, but even though he was a 2 1/2-year starter in the SEC, most draft analysts didn’t think Stafford would be ready right away. Until the Lions want to throw him in there, it appears that Culpepper will be the caretaker. It’s a strange role for a guy who was briefly one of the top 5 QBs in the game (circa 2004), but injuries have robbed Culpepper of most of his elite skills. Although Culpepper is in better shape than he was after signing midseason in Detroit, it would be foolish to expect great play out of him. The Lions can only hope that Culpepper doesn’t kill them until Stafford gets in there. And don’t expect a Joe Flacco type of situation here; Drew Stanton, a former second-round pick, might get the nod instead of Stafford were Culpepper to get hurt before opening day.

1 – Rams (combatants: Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller) – This isn’t a battle most people are expecting, but I’m forecasting that at some point the heat is on Bulger big time. That point could even come in the preseason. Bulger has a good reputation, but the last 2 years his passer ratings have been 70.4 and 71.3. Those numbers aren’t good, and with a new coaching staff who has no loyalty to Bulger (despite his bloated contract), a change is possible. I’ve always had a predisposition to like Boller – maybe because I saw both of his really good games – but he has talent, and if he puts it together he could well be a better option than Bulger. So keep an eye on St. Louis to see if a battle develops under the arch under center.

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Cleveland rocks the Hood

The Browns added CB Rod Hood today. Here are some thoughts on Cleveland taking on Hood; you can see how this move compares to other free-agent moves since the NFL draft in a post coming later this week.

Hood, who had started the last two years for the Cardinals, was shoved aside after Arizona added Bryant McFadden. Hood is a big, physical corner who is apt to give up the big play but is an asset against the run and is good enough to start. He steps into a weak spot on the depth chart in Cleveland, and he should surpass Corey Ivy, Eric Wright, or Brandon McDonald to continue as a starter there. As long as the Browns don’t count on him for much man coverage, Hood will help.

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