Tag Archives: chad pennington

The problem with the NFL on CBS

The NFL Today's Boomer Esiason during the Supe...

Boomer Esiason, part of CBS' 1980s brigade. Image via Wikipedia

One of our most popular posts this offseason has been our update on new and moved NFL announcers. And if you go through that post, you’ll notice that CBS has only one entry – Marv Albert replacing Gus Johnson as a play-by-play voice. CBS shuffled its pairings a bit, but the faces and voices are the same.

And that’s the problem with the NFL on CBS. The Eye network has remained so faithful to its announcers that its announcers are becoming irrelevant. As a result, CBS’s coverage sounds aged, spouting cliches and strategies of years gone by instead of the trends of the current day. And that’s because CBS’s analysts haven’t been in the league for years. None of the 12 analysts (studio and game) that CBS announced for 2011 has been in the NFL in the last four seasons. Only one – Bill Cowher – has been in the NFL within seven seasons. And CBS only has three analysts – Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein, and Shannon Sharpe – who played in the 2000s. (See below for more details.)

This isn’t the approach other networks take. Fox, for example, has added players like John Lynch, Chad Pennington, and Michael Strahan, as well as coaches like Brian Billick and Jim Mora to its NFL Sunday crew in recents years. The two dominant franchises of the 2000s – the Colts and Patriots – are represented by Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison on NBC’s Football Night in America. And ESPN and the NFL Network regularly add recently retired players who bring fresh insight and relevant anecdotes.

CBS, meanwhile, trots out the same old, same old from Dan Dierdorf – and features it on its No. 2 team. It relies on quarterbacks from the 1980s – Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms – as its stars. The age shows, as CBS game viewers settle for traditional, surface analysis far too often.

Will CBS ever have a changing of the guard among its analysts? Or do the veterans on the squad have lifetime contracts? Like the NFL itself, NFL announcers should have to fight off a new crop of rookies year after year. But at CBS, they don’t.

And until CBS gets its eye off the past when it comes to NFL announcers, its coverage won’t be anywhere close to what it needs to be.

The last year game analysts were in the NFL (as players or coaches)

CBS: Dan Marino 1999, Boomer Esiason 1997, Bill Cowher 2006, Shannon Sharpe 2003, Phil Simms 1993, Dan Dierdorf 1983, Dan Fouts 1987, Rich Gannon 2004, Solomon Wilcots 1992, Steve Tasker 1997, Steve Beuerlein 2003, Randy Cross 1988

FOX: Howie Long 1993, Terry Bradshaw 1983, Jimmy Johnson 1999, Michael Strahan 2007, Troy Aikman 2000, Daryl Johnston 1999, Tony Siragusa 2001, Brian Billick 2007, John Lynch 2007, Tim Ryan 1993, Jim Mora 2009, Chad Pennington 2010, Charles Davis DNP

NBC: Cris Collinsworth 1988, Tony Dungy 2008, Rodney Harrison 2008

NFL Network: Mike Mayock 1983, Marshall Faulk 2005, Steve Mariucci 2005, Warren Sapp 2007, Michael Irvin 1999, Kurt Warner 2009

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Chad Pennington moves to the booth

Miami Dolphins' Quarterback Chad Pennington si...

Chad Pennington. Image via Wikipedia

For the last two weeks, the day job had me at Wayfarer Camp, so I wasn’t able to keep up with NFL news. One of the items I missed was the fact that Chad Pennington is leaving the field – at least for a year – to move to the announcing booth with Fox. Below are some thoughts on the move; you can see how Pennington’s addition compares to other announcing moves in this updated post.

Pennington, an 11-year veteran quarterback, never had great physical gifts, but he combined adequate arm strength with exceptional intelligence, instincts, and guile to become a first-round draft pick and a multi-year starter with the Jets. But injuries have sapped what little arm strength Pennington had, and so instead of fighting for a job in Miami or elsewhere, he’s going to take at least a year off to move to the NFL on Fox team. Pennington will be paired with Sam Rosen on what was Fox’s No. 5 team last year. It’s actually a pretty plum gig for Pennington – he leaps over recent retirees Trent Green, John Lynch, and Kurt Warner on Fox’s depth chart, falling below only Brian Billick and Jim Mora among recent additions. Pennington’s New York experience and savvy are two promising signs; now he must live up to his broadcast potential. If he does, he adds more depth and recent experience to a Fox lineup that is light years younger and therefore significantly better than CBS’s slate. It’s unclear at this point whether Tim Ryan, Rosen’s former partner, will return to Fox. With Charles Davis moving to college games, Ryan could join the three-man booth with analyst Jim Mora. But Fox would be wise to keep Ryan, who isn’t a high profile name but who has consistently provided great analysis in his nine years with the network.

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Finding a Fit: Matt Hasselbeck

We’re going to start a new series today that will allow us to keep talking football while the lockout drags on. In this series, we’re going to look at free agents and try to match them to their perfect fits. We’ll consider opportunity, skill specificity, personality, and even money as we do this.

We start today with Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks quarterback who will hit free agency if it ever begins. With each of these entries, we’ll give a quick synoposis of who the player is at this point, and then seek to find a fit.

If you’d like to suggest a player for finding a fit, leave a comment or let us know on Twitter.

Matt Hasselbeck, via seahawksgab.com

Synopsis: Hasselbeck is the only quarterback on the free-agent market this offseason who has the talent to be a playoff-quality starter. He has led the Seahawks to six playoff appearances, including one last year, and one Super Bowl in his 10 seasons with the team. While Hasselbeck isn’t the most physically gifted guy, he’s a quintessential West Coast offense quarterback who can spread the ball around and make enough deep throws to keep defenses honest. He’s also a solid locker-room leader who has the kind of personality that a team rallies around. At age 35, Hasselbeck is in decline (his last great season was in 2007), but with a better supporting cast than the Seahawks provided last year, he still could be an above-average NFL starter.

Potential Fits

Seattle – The Seahawks reportedly called Hasselbeck during the one-day lockout lift around the draft to reiterate the fact that they want him back. It makes sense, because Hasselbeck has been a solid starter for the team for a decade. But Seattle has a lot invested in Charlie Whitehurst – both in terms of money and draft-pick equity – and Hasselbeck may have been turned off by the lack of an earlier offer or by Pete Carroll’s decision to trade for Whitehurst last year. Still, though, Seattle is one of the few places where Hasselbeck could still be a two- or three-year starter, which has to enter into his thinking.

Arizona – The Cardinals didn’t draft a quarterback of the future this year, which means they’re hitching their developmental QB wagon to John Skelton and Max Hall for another year. So the Cardinals need a veteran. They’re rumored to prefer Marc Bulger, but Hasselbeck will at least be on their call sheet. With Hasselbeck in place, the Cardinals should be able to stabilize their horrific offensive performance from 2010, which could be enough for them to contend in the mediocre NFC West. But it’s not a West Coast system, which means that Bulger’s probably a better fit for the offense than Hasselbeck would be. Throwing to Larry Fitzgerald would be tempting, as would the chance to be a starter beyond 2011, but this isn’t a perfect fit for Hasselbeck.

Miami – The Dolphins don’t seem to be in love with incumbent starter Chad Henne, but they didn’t draft a replacement for him, and 2010 competitor Chad Pennington has fallen apart physically to the point that he’s no longer an option. Hasselbeck is good enough to push Henne and potentially to keep a team with a solid if unspectacular roster in the playoff hunt. Throwing to Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, and crew and playing behind a top-notch offensive line would be appealing to Hasselbeck as well. The system fit isn’t perfect, but Hasselbeck’s probably the best option for Miami if they want to add a vet who could potentially beat out Henne. That makes this fit an intriguing hypothetical.

Washington – Under coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins are a prototypical West Coast offense team. That’s a fit for Hasselbeck; however, the rest of the situation isn’t. The Redskins don’t protect quarterbacks very well, which is a warning sign for a QB like Hasselbeck who has had some injury problems of late, and they also have a young and unproven receiving corps. Plus, the Redskins seem to think more highly of holdover John Beck and free agent Rex Grossman than others do, which would discourage them from adding Hasselbeck. So even if the Skins jettison Donovan McNabb, as expected, we don’t see Hasselbeck fitting in as the veteran du jour.

San Francisco – Per @sportsbarbanter’s suggestion, the 49ers could be a nice fit for Hasselbeck if 2011 is the prime option. Hasselbeck would be a better bridge quarterback to incoming rookie Colin Kaepernick than incumbent Alex Smith, which could put the 49ers in position to contend for a division title. But if the 49ers are indeed committed to bringing Smith back, Hasselbeck will look elsewhere. He won’t want to compete for a starting job in a place where the QB of the future could surpass the winner within a year.

Minnesota – If Hasselbeck wants to be a bridge candidate, Minnesota makes far more sense. The Vikings run a West Coast style system under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and they have enough weapons – Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe, and of course Adrian Peterson – to be an attractive 2011 landing spot. The Vikings tend to be leaning toward throwing 2011 first-rounder Christian Ponder right into the fire, but if they call Hasselbeck, it’s worth his time to listen.

Tennessee – NFL.com’s Mike Lombardi made this suggestion, arguing that Hasselbeck would be a perfect stopgap while rookie Jake Locker develops. Hasselbeck could certainly do it, and new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s system relies on accuracy. But aside from Kenny Britt, the Titans don’t have elite receivers, and that makes us think moving to Nashville could yield nothing more than an average season for Hasselbeck. Thus, this isn’t Hasselbeck’s best stopgap landing spot.

Carolina – The Panthers are the other team with a rookie QB that could look for a placeholding veteran. But Carolina has even more motivation to start its rookie, first overall pick Cam Newton, from day one, which keeps this from being an attractive option for the veteran. Plus, Carolina’s receiving corps may be even worse than Tennessee’s, especially if Steve Smith raises a big stink and gets out of town. We put this fit in the no-chance category.

Oakland – The Raiders don’t seem like a perfect fit for Hasselbeck, but you never know what they’ll do. The deep-ball centric system doesn’t maximize Hasselbeck’s talents, but head coach Hue Jackson is a good enough play-caller that he could cater to the veteran. But with Jason Campbell already on board, and free agent Bruce Gradkowski a solid option to pair with him, the Raiders likely won’t find it worth it to pony up enough money to get Hasselbeck’s attention.

The best fits

1. Seattle – Hasselbeck’s best chance to start beyond 2011

2. Minnesota – Hasselbeck’s best chance for a great 2011 season

3. Miami – Hasselbeck’s best chance to be a multiyear starter if he wants a change of scenery

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FR: New and moved announcers for 2011

Each year, we compare the national TV announcers that enter the NFL business or find new gigs. We will do this using our Football Relativty scale, with 10 being the moves we like best, and 1 being the move that matters least. We’ll add to this comparison as more moves are announced.

NFL Network's Mike Mayock, via blog.49ers.com

10 – Mike Mayock and Brad Nessler, NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football – Once again, the NFL Network revamped its announcing duo, but this time the network got it right. Mayock is NFLN’s franchise player as a draft analyst, and he proved his game analyst chops last year doing Notre Dame games on NBC. Mayock then went on to do one NFL game, the playoff game between the Saints and Seahawks, and his serious approach and insight into game strategy and trends was enlightening. He’ll be a massive improvement over ex-NFLN analysts Joe Theismann, who tends to be a blowhard and falls victim to a disturbing inattention to detail, and Matt Millen, a good analyst who tended to be brought down by Theismann’s act. Mayock works with Brad Nessler, a play-by-play vet who has done mostly college football for ESPN (among other sports) but has had a couple of NFL cameos on the opening-week Monday night doubleheaders. Nessler has a more authoritative voice than former play-by-play man Bob Papa, who merited staying over but won’t get the chance. Still, the Nessler/Mayock pairing feels like a big-time booth, which is something the NFLN has never hit on because of massive weak spots like Theismann or, before him, Bryant Gumbel.

9 – Kurt Warner, NFL Network – Warner, who called a few lower-level games for Fox last season, is moving to NFL Network full time to be a part of GameDay Morning each Sunday, as well as the network’s pre- and post-game for Thursday night games. That job fits Warner better than game analyst, because it will allow him to speak to macro issues and express his thoughtfulness. Plus, Warner adds a new dimension to a pre-game show that doesn’t have a quarterback on it right now. Warner should become a long-time fixture on NFLN, and he gives the network a fourth Hall of Fame caliber player with Marshall Faulk and Michael Irvin (both already in) and Warren Sapp. It looks to be a great fit.

9 (con’t) – Bill Parcells, ESPN – Parcells has bounced between the NFL and broadcasting for nearly two decades now, and he’s proven that he’s an excellent analyst. Now he joins ESPN and jumps onto the Sunday NFL Countdown show. He’ll immediately become a key contributor, because his keen eye for talent and presentation makes him more valuable than fellow ex-coach Mike Ditka. Parcells will also get a draft confidential special and a Super Bowl confidential special, and he’s proven that such shows can be the equivalent of Jon Gruden’s QB camp in terms of insight. Parcells is a TV star, and he’ll be a huge asset to ESPN’s pregame show lineup.

8 – Marv Albert, CBS – Albert is best known for being the voice of the NBA for NBC, TNT, and also the Knicks and Nets, but he has a long legacy of calling NFL games. For nearly two decades, Albert was an NBC play-by-play announcer, spending most of them in the high-profile No. 2 position for the network. But his high-profile personal issues cost him that job in 1997. Albert returned to calling NFL games for Westwood One’s Monday Night Football and playoff radio broadcasts in 2002, and he has called 10 Super Bowls for that network. Now Albert returns to the NFL with CBS, whom he first worked for after the network teamed with TNT to broadcast the NCAA tournament this spring. Albert has a big-time and distinctive voice, and his long history calling games will immediately add depth to the CBS bench. The question is whether Albert will slip into the CBS lineup in Gus Johnson’s former No. 5 spot, or whether he’ll jump a younger voice like Kevin Harlan or Ian Eagle. Given how old CBS’s game-calling crews are as a whole, moving Albert up too high would be a mistake. CBS needs to develop and feature younger voices like Eagle and Spero Dedes more prominently. But if Albert  stays in a mid-tier role, he’s certainly as good as a replacement for Johnson as was available.

7 – none

6 – Chad Pennington, Fox – Pennington, an 11-year veteran quarterback, never had great physical gifts, but he combined adequate arm strength with exceptional intelligence, instincts, and guile to become a first-round draft pick and a multi-year starter with the Jets. But injuries have sapped what little arm strength Pennington had, and so instead of fighting for a job in Miami or elsewhere, he’s going to take at least a year off to move to the NFL on Fox team. Pennington will be paired with Sam Rosen on Fox’s seventh team. Pennington’s New York experience and savvy are two promising signs; now he must live up to his broadcast potential. If he does, he adds more depth and recent experience to a Fox lineup that is light years younger and therefore significantly better than CBS’s slate. Rosen’s old teammate, Tim Ryan, is now with Chris Myers on the No. 5 team as Fox shuffles its lineup.

6 (con’t) – Gus Johnson and Charles Davis, Fox – Gus Johnson has become the internet’s favorite announcer with his emphatic and enthusiastic style. Despite his popularity, though, Johnson’s 15 years at CBS never featured him moving up the ladder all that much. He was always fighting to be on a top-four team for CBS’s NCAA basketball tournament coverage, and Johnson worked with Steve Tasker on CBS’s No. 5 NFL team. Maybe it was too many Bills or Jaguars or Bengals games for Johnson – even though he called crazy plays like this year’s Jaguars Hail Mary or the crazy Brandon Stokely touchdown in 2009’s Week One. Now Johnson moves to Fox, where he will team with Charles Davis to become the network’s top college football voice. Davis, who called BCS games for Fox as well as working on the network’s No. 3 team for the NFL the past two seasons, isn’t flashy, but he’s a terrific analyst who will be a nice counterbalance to Johnson’s enthusiasm (much like Len Elmore has been during March Madness). Johnson and Davis will spend most of 2011 on FX, the Big Ten Network, and other lesser networks, but starting in 2012 they will be the featured voices for Fox’s Pac-12 coverage. They’ll also draw Big 10 and Pac-12 championship games in football and Pac-12 basketball tournaments. That means Johnson and Davis will see less NFL action, filling in on eight-game weeks for Fox. On CBS youngster Spero Dedes could step into the regular rotation as a play-by-play guy. Johnson and Davis spending most of their time on campus is the NFL’s loss, but it’s probably a good career move.

5 – Jerry Rice, ESPN – ESPn hired Rice, perhaps the greatest player ever, to serve as an analyst for NFL Live, SportsCenter, and the Thursday night Audibles show. It’s an interesting move. Rice is one of the best players ever, but can he translate his expertise into succinct analysis? Many have tried and failed. Still, it’s worth the gamble for ESPN to add someone with Rice’s pedigree. If he works out, it’s a coup; if he doesn’t, he’s still Jerry Rice, which counts for something for the viewer. And since ESPN is easing him in, Rice will have the best opportunity to succeed.

4 – Hugh Douglas, ESPN – Since his retirement in 2004, the former pass-rush specialist has been an engaging and sometimes controversial commentator in the Philadelphia market. Now he moves to the national scene, joining ESPN as a studio analyst who’ll be used on SportsCenter, NFL Live, First Take, ESPN News, and other platforms. It’s not ESPN’s glamour job, but Douglas should get plenty of air time in the role. He’ll definitely make an impression, and his willingness to call out players and coaches will make him memorable. Don’t be surprised if Douglas earns a promotion at ESPN before too long.

4 – Josina Anderson, ESPN – Anderson made a splash as a reporter for the Fox affiliate in Denver, consistently breaking national stories from a local beat. That’s not easy to do, and it led her to a correspondent role on Showtime’s Inside the NFL. Now she moves to ESPN, where she’ll be an NFL reporter with chops. This is a deserved call-up to the national scene.

3 – Eric Mangini, ESPN – Mangini also joins the World Wide Leader as a studio analyst. He worked for ESPN during last year’s playoff run, bringing insight to the Jets/Patriots matchup since he is a Bill Belichick disciple and a former Jets head coach. We’re always all for hiring recently fired coaches, because they see the league in ways few others can. The question is whether Mangini can take that knowledge and communicate it in a way that fans understand and enjoy. Mangini won’t have the big personality of other former coaches turned broadcasters like Herman Edwards or Brian Billick, but like a Jim Mora, he should be able to make some keen insights. It’s a nice addition for ESPN.

3 (con’t) – Damien Woody, ESPN – Woody, who retired this offseason, also latches on with ESPN as an NFL studio analyst. The fact that Woody played all across the offensive line will add to his credibility, and being in the league up through last year helps as well. But Woody must establish his personality pretty quickly so that he’s not lost in the forest of ESPN’s uber-deep analyst roster (which did trim Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn).

3 (con’t) – Heath Evans, NFL Network – Evans retired during training camp and landed with NFL Network. He has experience playing for both the Saints and Patriots, which means he should bring good insight to two of this year’s contenders. He also has an outspoken personality that should help him make a mark. While he wasn’t a big name as a player, Evans has a nice future in television.

2 – Rodney Harrison, NFL Network – Harrison isn’t leaving his high-profile studio job at NBC; he’s merely adding midweek responsibilities with NFL Network. From our perspective, that’s a great thing – we always want to see more of Harrison.

1 – Michelle Tafoya, NBC’s Sunday Night Football – Tafoya has long been a fixture as a sideline reporter, most recently with ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Now she moves to Sunday nights to work with the crew that she did MNF with back in 2004-05. Tafoya is a professional, and she adds good information on the sidelines without devolving into the prepackaged stories that so many other sideliners do. As MNF lessened the duties of its sideline reporters, it makes sense for Tafoya to find a more prominent role. It’s unclear at this point whether Tafoya is joining or replacing current SNF sideliner Andrea Kramer.

1 (con’t) – Alex Flanagan, NFL Network – Flanagan replaces Tafoya as the sideline reporter on NFL Network’s Thursday night games. Flanagan has proven to be a terrific sideliner doing NBC Notre Dame games, as well an NBC playoff game last year, and she’s also a NFL Network host. That makes her a perfect fit for an enhanced role.

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Quarterback solutions for 2011

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

We’ll take a brief break from our playoff coverage to try and give some hope to the teams who landed outside of the final four. To do this, we’re going to break down the quarterbacks who may be available to switch teams this offseason. We’re going to break them down by categories so that you can see just how likely it is that your favorite team can land each guy.

If you have ideas of great matches between a quarterback and a team, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll talk about it.

We’ve also created a post of teams with quarterback needs to help you play a matching game.

Unrestricted Free Agents (Free to sign anywhere)
Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Alex Smith, Marc Bulger, Rex Grossman, Billy Volek, Seneca Wallace, Chad Pennington, Luke McCown, Charlie Frye, J.P. Losman, Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey

First of all, cross Manning and Vick off your list. The Colts and Eagles will not let these franchise quarterbacks leave via free agency, unless something incredibly screwy happens with the new CBA (whenever it is signed). While Manning and Vick are unrealistic pipe dreams, the other guys on this list are on the market. Hasselbeck’s strong postseason play for the Seahawks likely increased his price tag, and he’s likely in line for a multi-year deal now, which may price him out of Seattle given the team’s investment in Charlie Whitehurst. The Seahawks say they want to keep Hasselbeck, but will they be willing to pay him $15 million-plus as a franchise player? We can’t buy that. Therefore, our hunch is that Hasselbeck is the one 2011 starter who could step in somewhere else – especially somewhere with a West Coast type of scheme like Minnesota or Cleveland – and provide an upgrade immediately. Collins and Bulger, both of whom were backups this year, are more of stopgap options. Collins played some in Tennessee with mixed results, while Bulger got a break from the beating he took in St. Louis by sitting behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Neither is a long-term answer, but both could provide competition for an average quarterback or serve as a placeholding starter for a team developing a young QB. Smith is the wild card of this group. He has talent, but it never worked out in San Francisco. But some team might choose to invest and take a look to see if he can step up his play in a more stable situation. Grossman is in the perfect situation in Washington because he’s been with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan longer than Donovan McNabb and seems to be favored over the higher profile QB. If Grossman wants another shot to start, now’s the time to leave after a solid end-of-season performance, but his best chance to succeed and maybe to start is with the Redskins. Volek showed flashes of ability in Tennessee years ago, and he could be a stopgap in Carolina, where the new coach and offensive coordinator saw him practice in San Diego. Wallace is a decent backup who can run the West Coast offense and also move around a bit, but aside from Cleveland president Mike Holmgren, few NFL types see him as more than a No. 3. Pennington was once a quality starter, but his shoulder’s in such bad shape that he’s just a No. 3 at this point. The other guys on this list are not starters but could provide some veteran assurance for a team looking for a third guy.

Limbo Free Agents (Players with four or five years of service who would be unrestricted free agents in a system like 2009 or before but not under the 2010 system)
Tarvaris Jackson (5), Bruce Gradkowski (5), Matt Leinart (5), Kellen Clemens (5), Brodie Croyle (5),  Drew Stanton (4), Tyler Thigpen (4), Matt Moore (4), Trent Edwards (4), Troy Smith (4)

These players may or may not be unrestricted free agents, and all are risky. Gradkowski has had the most success as a starter, making up for physical limitations with gutty play, and it appears he’s not a favorite of Al Davis in Raiderland. He could be a decent stopgap somewhere. Leinart never lived up to his billing in Arizona, but we could see him getting one more shot to compete somewhere. Jackson had his moments in Minnesota, but he was never consistent, and the Vikings have decided he’s not their quarterback of the future. Clemens showed some promise with the Jets before getting stuck, first behind Brett Favre and then behind Mark Sanchez. A change of scenery should provide a better opportunity than he’s had in three years. Croyle is nothing more than a backup. Thigpen had a long chance in Kansas City and a brief chance for the Dolphins this year, but his win/loss record is abysmal. Still, he may be a guy a team wants to bring in as a competitor for a starting job. Stanton had shown little promise until this year in Detroit, where injuries to Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill forced him into action. Stanton played well enough to at least move up from a No. 3 quarterback to a backup, and perhaps even enter a competitive environment. Moore and Edwards have had shots to start in Carolina and Buffalo, respectively, but both lost their jobs. They’re likely to fill in as backups instead of a starting candidates. Smith showed some spark in San Francisco this year, but he looks to be an energetic backup who can step up in a pinch instead of an every-week starter.

Restricted Free Agents (Players with three years experience who could move teams via offer sheet)
Dennis Dixon, Brian Brohm

Dixon, the Steelers’ backup, has had a couple of starting shots and has played OK. He’s not great, but someone might be enamored with his potential. If the Steelers don’t place a high tender on Dixon, he could be targeted. Brohm was a higher draft pick than Dixon, so an offer sheet is more unlikely. His Buffalo tenure has been uneventful.

Trade (These players are under contract in 2011)
Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton – UPDATE: Carson Palmer?

These names are more speculative, but they’re likely to be targeted to some degree or another. The Titans definitely want to be rid of Young, and if they can’t trade him, they’ll release him. At some point, some team will give up a late-round pick to get an exclusive shot at rehabilitating a former top-3 pick who has a winning record as a starter. McNabb may draw some interest as well, although he’s clearly in his decline phase and isn’t worth more than a mid-round pick. But with just one year left on his contract, don’t be shocked to see McNabb shopped. Like McNabb, Orton signed a one-year extension during the season, only to see the starting job go to a younger player during the year. Since Tim Tebow is longer for Denver than Orton is, the Broncos might consider dealing Orton at the right price – likely a mid-round pick. It’s unlikely that the Packers will deal Flynn, but after his solid debut start against the Patriots late this season he’ll be a dream answer for teams looking for a young starter. If the price gets high enough, the Packers might make a move. But the cream of this crop is Kolb, who has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable price. Certainly, the Eagles would prefer to keep Kolb to back up Vick, whose versatile style exposes him to more of an injury risk than other QBs. But if the Eagles were offered a first-round pick, they’d have to consider trading Kolb and letting young prospect Mike Kafka step in as their backup. That’s a move that Andy Reid’s mentor Mike Holmgren used time after time in Green Bay to build draft equity. Kolb has shown enough in his starting stints to be considered an average NFL starter right away with the promise to emerge into even more.

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Rise/Sink/Float Week 11

Each week, we preview teams that are moving up and moving down in our weekly Football Relativity comparison. We’ll analyze all 32 teams on Tuesday.

Thomas Jones scores for the Chiefs. Via espn.com

Rise – Kansas City Chiefs – After a bad loss last week, the Chiefs responded by taking care of business in a convincing victory over the Cardinals at home. It was important for Kansas City to reassert its Arrowhead home-field advantage, and the fact that Oakland lost meant that K.C. got back the AFC West lead as well. The Chiefs needed a win badly, and to get such a convincing one was a good sign for a playoff contender.

Sink – Miami Dolphins –  The Dolphins were offensively inept against the Bears on Thursday night, not just because of the absence of QBs Chad Pennington and Chad Henne but also because of injuries on the offensive line. Those two issues could be fatal to Miami’s playoff hopes, because if they can’t run the ball, there’s no way Tyler Thigpen can produce enough offense to keep Miami in games.

Float – Washington Redskins – The Redskins pulled out a win in Nashville 19-16, but the game confirmed what we believe the Redskins to be. While Washington is a competitive team, they can’t pile up enough offense to contend against top teams, and even in this game against a quarterback named Rusty Smith, it took two personal-foul penalties to keep them going on their game-winning drive.

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Henne out, Pennington in

Chad Henne (left) and Chad Pennington

There have been a lot of quarterback switches in the NFL this year, but few were more surprising than Miami’s decision this week to replace ostensible QB of the future Chad Henne with veteran Chad Pennington. Below are some thoughts on the move and the mood in Miami, and some fantasy football takeaways as well.

At 4-4, the Dolphins are at a crossroads. Their brutal schedule has led them to fall two games behind the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East, and given the stacked nature of the conference, Miami probably needs to catch one of those teams to have a realistic playoff chance. But that doesn’t mean that pulling Henne was the right move. Henne hasn’t been great, but he has completed 63.5 percent of his passes and averaged 237.5 yards per game. The big problems are that he has just eight TD passes with 10 interceptions. (However, some of those interceptions are not blameworthy, according to Aaron Schatz and our analysis of the Dolphins/Ravens game.) Henne threw three picks against Baltimore and also fumbled twice. (Miami recovered both, and they were Henne’s first fumbles of the season.) That provides a little bit of an impetus for change now, and it’s obvious the Dolphins want more plays from the passing game given their acquisition of Brandon Marshall in the offseason. But Henne is far more likely to get the ball downfield than Pennington, who is uberaccurate but not strong-armed.

Maybe Pennington can keep the chains moving a little more consistently than Henne, especially given the fact that Miami isn’t getting the chunks in the running game that they had in the past. If the idea is to use Pennington to find Marshall and Davone Bess on short passes to open things up for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, then maybe this move helps Miami a little bit in the short run. But in the long run, Henne is the only guy Miami has who has a chance of carrying the offense into the future. Our sense is that the move to Pennington isn’t going to be the key to get Miami into the playoffs.

More problematic is the overall attitude in Miami right now. The Dolphins are moving the right way, and they have added a ton of young talent over the past few years. But for some reason, upper management and ownership doesn’t seem happy with the job head coach Tony Sparano and GM Jeff Ireland are doing. After Bill Parcells’ departure earlier this year, there are rampant rumors that Carl Peterson, ex-Chiefs president, is coming on board. And those rumors make this QB change look like a panic move by leadership that’s trying to protect their jobs. That’s not a good attitude to have, and it’s frankly silly for the Dolphins to turn things over at this point in the rebuilding process because things are picking up. But if ownership pressure is forcing a win-now mentality, that pressure is going to end up being counterproductive for the Dolphins – just like this QB change will.

Fantasy Football perspective
Pennington’s arrival keeps a limit on Marshall’s value. Marshall is on pace for a 104-catch, 1,236-yard game, but he has just one touchdown this season, and Pennington isn’t going to toss him many deep balls that will help him get to the end zone more frequently. Bess, meanwhile, should still catch a lot of short-range balls, which should allow him to stay in the running as a No. 3 receiver. Brian Hartline’s value falls off, to the point where you can’t start him unless he gets on a roll.

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RP: The draft strategy that fails

As the NFL draft approaches, among the hot names are QBs Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow, and Colt McCoy. Part of this was because of Jon Gruden’s outstanding special on ESPN featuring all four QBs in the film room, but an even greater part is because of our obsession with quarterbacks. While Bradford will go No. 1 and Clausen will go in the first half of the first round (at least according to our mock draft), Tebow and McCoy have a far greater range of possibilities. One of them, of course, is having a team trade into the second half of the first round to take them. But our research shows that this strategy in the NFL draft is a poor one.

We looked back over the past 13 drafts to study the quarterbacks taken between 17 and 32. And it’s remarkable to look back and see how many of the teams who traded up to take one of these quarterbacks flat-out failed.

2009 – Josh Freeman, Buccaneers, 17th (trade up)
2008 – Joe Flacco, Ravens, 18th (trade up)
2007 – Brady Quinn, Browns, 22nd (trade up)
2006 – none
2005 – Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 24th; Jason Campbell, Redskins, 25th (trade up)
2004 – J.P. Losman, Bills, 22nd (trade up)
2003 – Kyle Boller, Ravens, 19th (trade up); Rex Grossman, Bears (trade down)
2002 – Patrick Ramsey, Redskins, 32nd (trade up)
2001 – Drew Brees, Chargers, 32nd (second round)
2000 – Chad Pennington, Jets, 18th
1999 – none
1998 – none
1997 – Jim Druckenmiller, 49ers
(This site helped us track trades up and down)

So six teams traded back into the first round to take quarterbacks – the Ravens for Boller and then Flacco, the Redskins for Ramsey and then Campbell, the Bills for Losman, and the Browns for Quinn. (The Freeman trade by the Bucs last year just moved them up two spots in the draft.) And of these six, only Flacco could be viewed as a success, and of the remaining five only Campbell has becomea regular starter for his team.

This bust rate of 66 percent is far above the general bust rate for first-round quarterbacks over the same time period, and it goes to show that teams anxious to find a quarterback of the future end up reaching for guys who aren’t able to succeed. Maybe this says more about the teams doing the reaching than about the players themselves – could any rookie QB have succeeded in the situation Losman found himself in in Buffalo, or in Quinn’s circumstances in Cleveland? Assign blame however you wish – the bottom line is that this is a strategy that fails.

This begs the question of whether a team should move into the first round this week to ensure that they get Tebow or McCoy, both of whom appear to be second-round talents. And the answer that our research shows is no. The teams that tend to employ this failed strategy tend not to be ready for such quarterbacks to come on board, and as a result the quarterbacks who need development and coaching don’t get it.

If teams employ this strategy Thursday night with Tebow and McCoy, it’ll be the draft strategy that fails once again.

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Filed under Football Relativity, NFL draft, NFL trades, research project

FR: First week signings

The opening week of free agency wasn’t quite as frenetic as usual, but there was still a ton of news that emerged. So we decided to compare the impact of each team’s signings using Football Relativity, with 10 being the team that helped itself the most and 1 being a team that barely made a ripple. This post covers signings between the opening of free agency on March 5 until March 10, when the secondary market began to form.

Note that trades are not reflected in the comparison. We compare all 2010 offseason trades, including Anquan Boldin, Antonio Cromartie, Corey Williams, Kerry Rhodes, and more, in this growing post.

10 – Bears (add UFA DE Julius Peppers, UFA RB Chester Taylor, and UFA TE Brandon Manumaleuna) – The Bears, who don’t have a pick until the third round of this year’s draft, went whole hog in free agency and came up with their top three targets. The prize, of course, is Peppers, who’s still an elite pass rusher at age 30 and will make a huge difference for Chicago. The Bears had a bunch of so-so rushers but no studs, so Peppers provides that top-end rush and should help guys like Alex Brown be more productive across from him. Sure, Peppers isn’t always completely into games, but he still performs at a high enough level that he will help. He’s overpaid with $40 million guaranteed in the first three years of his six-year deal, but the Bears had to overpay to lock him up. That made it worth it. On offense, Chicago added Taylor, who’s a solid all-around back who complemented Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. Now Taylor will earn more of a 50-50 split with Matt Forte, and Taylor’s pass-catching skills look to be a fit in Mike Martz’s new offensive scheme. Taylor is 30, which makes a three-year deal with $7 million guaranteed and $12.5 million total a little dicey, but he has always been a part-time player, which could extend his career a bit. Manumaleuna is a block-first tight end who better fits the new Martz scheme, which isn’t always great at protecting the passer. He got a five-year deal and $6 million in guaranteed money. Chicago’s spending spree is out of character, but the pressure is on head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo, and with no draft picks free agency was the only way to infuse talent into a mostly mediocre roster.

9 – Dolphins (added UFA LB Karlos Dansby, kept UFA QB Chad Pennington and UFA NT Jason Ferguson) – Dansby was one of the big prizes on the free agent market, and his bruising style on the inside is a great fit for the physical 3-4 style the Dolphins use. Dansby can support against the run and drop in coverage effectively, and he’ll make a big play too, as he did against the Packers to win a memorable playoff overtime thriller. He becomes the heartbeat of Miami’s defense with his five-year, $43 million deal that includes $22 million in guaranteed money. Pennington nearly left Miami because the Dolphins wouldn’t give him a no-trade clause, but the team gave him a one-year $2.5 million with a $1.5 million trade kicker in case he has to relocate during the season. Pennington becomes the mentor and understudy to emerging young starter Chad Henne, and he’ll be one of the best backups in the league at an incredibly fair price. Ferguson is a solid nose tackle who fits Bill Parcells’ scheme like a glove, but he will miss the first eight games of the 2010 season on a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Still, he could provide a late-season spark, and playing half a year may actually keep him healthy.

9 (con’t) – Giants (add S Antrel Rolle and QB Jim Sorgi) – Rolle broke free from the Cardinals for money reasons, not performance reasons, and coming off his first Pro Bowl he broke the bank with a five-year, $37 million deal that will pay him $22.5 million over the first three years. Rolle is a physical freak, and he developed into a playmaker once he moved from cornerback to free safety. He fills a huge need for the Giants, who fell apart in the back end last year after Kenny Phillips got hurt. With Rolle and Phillips, safety becomes a strength for the Giants, who need to get back to playing defense at an elite level to return to contender status. Sorgi, who was released by the Colts, will compete with Rhett Bomar to back up Eli Manning.

8 – Falcons (add UFA CB Dunta Robinson, kept UFA CB Brian Williams, UFA QB Chris Redman, and UFA LS Joe Zelenka) – The Falcons’ secondary was a huge problem last year, especially after Williams went down with a season-ending injury. So it’s no surprise the Dirty Birds broke the bank to add Robinson from the Texans on a six-year, $57 million contract with $25.5 million in guaranteed money. Robinson is a talent, but his performance isn’t always consistent. Still, the former first-round pick is well above the league average, and he was undoubtedly the best corner on the open market. Keeping Williams on a one-year deal adds some veteran stability across from Robinson and gives the Falcons more depth. Redman got a two-year, $5.6 million contract to remain as Matt Ryan’s backup. Redman has resuscitated his career in Atlanta and proven he’s a good emergency fill-in and short-term option. Zelenka came in at midseason last season as a fill-in long snapper and did a decent job. It’s always good to see a fellow Demon Deacon get a gig.

8 (con’t) – Lions (add UFA WR Nate Burleson and WR Bryan Clark, UFA DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, and CB Jonathan Wade; kept UFA OT Jon Jansen, UFA TE Will Heller, and UFA LB Vinny Ciurciu) – The Lions didn’t get as crazy as their NFC North rivals in Chicago, but Detroit tried to take another step forward in adding talent to their roster. Burleson, who got $11 million guaranteed in a five-year, $25 million deal, was up and down in Seattle, but at his best he’s a really nice No. 2 receiver. The Lions plan to put Calvin Johnson and Burleson in as their starters with Bryant Johnson at No. 3 to help Matthew Stafford continue to develop. On defense, the Lions add Vanden Bosch, who played for head coach Jim Schwartz’s defenses in Tennessee and should be a good leader for a young unit. Vanden Bosch may not produce commensurate with his four-year, $26 million contract that pays $10 million in 2010, but he will play hard and set a tone for a defensive line that also added DT Corey Williams via trade and that should be adding a big-time rookie force at tackle in either Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh. The Lions still have a long way to go, but it looks like they have a plan now under Schwartz, and that’s a positive sign. Detroit also maintained some depth by re-signing Jansen, Heller, and Ciurciu to short-term deals. None are core players, but they all filled roles acceptably last year and helped to shore up the bottom of Detroit’s roster. Wade, a former Ram, and Clark, a former Buccaneer, were not tendered as restricted free agents by their teams but still might provide an upgrade at the bottom of the Lions’ roster.

8 (con’t) – Jaguars (added UFA DE Aaron Kampman and UFA WR Kassim Osgood; kept UFA OG Kynan Forney and RFA DT Atiyyah Ellison) – The Jags have spent a ton of high draft picks on defensive ends lately, but they haven’t been able to generate a pass rush. So they sign Kampman, who thrived in Green Bay until the Pack switched to a 3-4 defense. Kampman, who got $11 million guaranteed in a 4-year, $26 million deal, is coming off a knee injury, but he has 54 career sacks and is known for his high motor. The Jags are hoping not only that Kampman performs but also that his example inspires Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey to prepare better. Osgood is a special-teams ace who longs for a chance to play receiver, and the Jaguars are thin enough there that Osgood could find a role behind Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas. His deal is worth $6.675 million over three years, but the deal has up to $4 million in incentives if Osgood thrives on offense. Ellison, a backup defensive tackle, signed his restricted free agent tender, and Forney returns as a backup as well.

7 – Broncos (added UFA DE Justin Bannan, UFA DE Jarvis Green, NT Jamal Williams, and RB J.J. Arrington; kept UFA OG Russ Hochstein and UFA WR Brandon Lloyd) – Bannan was a solid backup 3-4 end in Baltimore who looks to have the ability to move up to a starter level, and he’ll get the chance to do so in Denver. He’s solid against the run and holds blockers well to allow others to pass rush. That could make him a good complement to Green, who is more of a pressure producer as a backup 3-4 end. Both guys improve the Broncos’ defense, which started hot last year but fell apart as the season progressed. Green got a four-year deal worth a maximum of $20 million with $7.5 million paid in the first two years, while Bannan got a five-year deal worth $22 million with $10.5 million guaranteed. Williams was released by the Chargers after a great career there, and if he can stay healthy he still should be an effective nose tackle on run downs. He got a three-year deal worth $16 million with $7 million in guaranteed dough. Bannan, Green, and Williams may give the Broncos an entire new starting defensive line, which will really help the depth of that unit and shore the Broncos up against the run. Hochstein came over with Josh McDaniels from the Patriots last year, and he ended up starting 10 games at guard. He’ll remain as a veteran presence on a very solid line. Lloyd is a fourth receiver who may step up if Brandon Marshall departs. Arrington signed with the Broncos last offseason but wasn’t healthy after microfracture surgery. Denver released him then, but obviously still wants to see if Arrington can provide the spark he gave the Cardinals during their Super Bowl run a couple of seasons ago.

6 – Chiefs (added RB Thomas Jones, UFA DT Shaun Smith, and UFA WR Jerheme Urban; kept UFA LB Mike Vrabel, UFA WR Chris Chambers, and RFA RB Jackie Battle) – Jones ran for 1,400 yards with the Jets last year, but the team decided to save money and feature youngster Shonn Greene instead. Now Jones lands in Kansas City, where he will be used in tandem with Jamaal Charles, last year’s breakout runner. Jones is a great teammate who is still pretty productive on the field, and his presence will help to keep Charles healthy, which may help Charles maintain his effectiveness through the Chiefs’ rebuilding project and into what the team hopes is a renaissance. By giving Jones a 2-year, $5 million contract with another half-million in incentives, the Chiefs get the right to use up the rest of the juice in Jones’ legs, while Jones gets a chance to go out on his own terms. It sounds callous, but that’s as much of a win-win as a 30-plus running back can get in the NFL nowadays. Smith is a talent who can rub organizations the wrong way, but he’s big enough to play as a 3-4 end, which is a plus. Urban played for Chiefs head coach Todd Haley in Kansas City and is talented enough to be a solid No. 3 receiver for the Chiefs behind Chambers and Dwayne Bowe. Vrabel, brought in last year to help the Chiefs change their culture, will return on a one-year deal worth $3 million in salary and roster bonuses. After starting 14 games last year, Vrabel looks to play a key role this year as well. Chambers, a late-season waiver pickup, thrived after coming to Kansas City, and the Chiefs rewarded him with a three-year, $15 million contract with $5.9 million in guaranteed money. He’ll be Matt Cassel’s deep threat. Battle played just five games last year but should provide depth and special-teams ability.

6 (con’t) – Bengals (added UFA WR Antonio Bryant; kept UFA DT Tank Johnson) – It seems like Johnson’s repeated transgressions are ancient history, as he found a home in Cincinnati and had a really good ’09 season at the heart of the Bengals defense. Johnson turned around his career to the point that the Bengals gave him a four-year contract. While there will always be a risk associated with Johnson, rightly or wrongly, because of his history, the Bengals simply couldn’t afford to lose such a good player. Bryant is a big-time talent who has had some terrific seasons, most recently in 2008 in Tampa Bay, but who has also been a problem child at times. Cincinnati has had some success with this type of player, and in terms of talent Bryant was the best available wideout. He has the speed to open up the field across from Chad Ochocinco and the ability to become the kind of playmaker the Bengals lacked on the outside last year. Bryant got a four-year deal worth $28 million, which is really good receiver money, but that’s probably a number the Bengals had to get to in order to seal the deal.

5 – Patriots (kept franchise UFA NT Vince Wilfork, UFA CB Leigh Bodden, UFA LB Tully Banta-Cain, UFA OG Stephen Neal, and UFA RB Kevin Faulk; add LB Marques Murrell) – Wilfork is an elite run-stuffing nose tackle, and that makes it no shock that the Patriots franchised him. So it’s no surprise that they locked him with a deal reportedly worth $40 million over five years. He’s a key cog in making the Pats’ D work. Bodden revitalized his career in New England with a solid year at corner. His more physical style fits the Pats’ scheme, and after looking around on the market he got a solid deal to stay – four years, $22 million, with $10 million guaranteed. Banta-Cain broke out with a 10-sack season in ’09, which made him desireable on the open market. The Pats rewarded him with a three-year, $13.5 million deal that will pay him $7 million in 2010 and that includes an addition $4.5 million in upside. He’s a bit player, not a core player, but his performance was good enough to be rewarded. Neal remained a starter in New England, and the Pats keep him on a two-year deal. Neal’s a strong player who’s good in the run game, and he was one of the better guards available on the open market, so it behooved the Pats to keep him. Faulk has been with the Pats for his entire 11-year career, and he continues to be a solid third-down back. He’ll return for yet another season and seems to want to retire as a Pat. Murrell wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent by the Jets, but he’s a solid special-teams player, which will give him a shot to make the Pats’ roster.

5 (con’t) – Colts (kept UFA LB Gary Brackett, added UFA OG Andy Alleman) – Brackett made it to the open market, but the Colts ponied up $12 million guaranteed in a five-year, $33 million deal to keep their defensive captain. Brackett is a horse for the course – he excels at middle linebacker in the Colts’ scheme but might not fit many other systems. The Colts perhaps could have gotten him a hair cheaper, but owner Jim Irsay made keeping Brackett a priority, and in an uncapped year that approach works. Alleman has bounced around, but he’s big and versatile enough to be a backup at all three interior positions or even start in place of the recently released Ryan Lilja. The Colts moved so quickly to add him that you have to figure they saw something in him.

5 (con’t) – Packers (kept UFA OLT Chad Clifton and RFA S Nick Collins) – The Redskins took a big run at Clifton, but he ended up sticking around in Green Bay for $20 million over three years with $7.5 million guaranteed. That’s a premium price for an older player, but Clifton is still an effective (if not overpowering) blind-side protector. Given the beating Aaron Rodgers took over the first half of last season, losing Clifton would have been a huge detriment to the Pack’s playoff hopes. Collins, the Packers’ Pro Bowl safety, signed his restricted free agent tender.

5 (con’t) – Texans (add UFA OG Wade Smith; kept UFA WR Kevin Walter and UFA P Matt Turk) – Walter was perhaps the best wideout to hit the open market, and he got a serious look from the Ravens before Baltimore pulled the trigger on the Anquan Boldin deal. So Walter went back to the Texans to be Andre Johnson’s running mate. Walter got a five-year deal worth $21 million with $8 million guaranteed, which is a nice haul for a No. 2 receiver. That makes sense, because Walter excels in that role. Turk is in his 40s, but he had a nice year for the Texans, and they rewarded him with a one-year deal worth $1.85 million with $400,000 in signing bonus. That’s a nice but not ridiculous deal for a solid punter. Smith, who was a Chief last year, is versatile enough to start at guard or center or even fill in at tackle. The Texans believe he can be an interior starter for them, which is why they gave him a four-year, $12 million deal with $6.25 million guaranteed.

4 – Browns (added UFA OT Tony Pashos and UFA LB Scott Fujita, kept UFA S Ray Ventrone, renegotiated KR Josh Cribbs) – The Browns looked to add solid veterans by paying Fujita $14 million, $8 million of it guaranteed, over three years and giving Pashos $10.3 million over three years. Fujita is a good leader who played pretty well as an outside ‘backer in New Orleans’ 4-3 but may move inside in the Browns’ 3-4. His leadership outpaces his play at this point in his career, but Fujita is still OK. Pashos can play right tackle or even move inside to guard if the Browns spend the seventh overall pick on a premium tackle. He’s not great, but he’s physical enough to get the job done on a line that has premium players in Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, and Eric Steinbach.  Ventrone is a backup and special-teamer who got a three-year, $2.2 million deal. The Browns also tied up a huge loose end by finally getting a long-term deal done with Cribbs, their stud kick returner who’s getting a bigger and bigger role on offense. Cribbs will now get $7 million guaranteed as part of a three-year, $18 million deal.

4 (con’t) – Redskins (added UFA OT Artis Hicks, UFA TE Sean Ryan, and NT Maake Kemeoatu; kept UFA C Casey Rabach, UFA DE Phillip Daniels, UFA OT-OG Mike Williams, and RFA LB Lorenzo Alexander) – Hicks is a versatile offensive lineman who can play either tackle or guard position, and his versatility makes him a nice addition. The Redskins, who have huge offensive line needs, could try Hicks at left tackle if they don’t draft one early, but if they do Hicks will find a starting spot elsewhere. For a three-year, $9 million deal with $3 million guaranteed, that’s a find. The Redskins also kept Rabach, a solid center, on a three-year deal worth $12.3 million, and brought back former draft bust Mike Williams on a three-year deal. The moves don’t make the Skins’ O-line elite, but they do provide some solidfying pieces that will look good if the Skins get Russell Okung or another prospect at the top of the draft. Alexander got a three-year deal worth up to $3.8 million with a $1.1 million guarantee to serve as a backup outside linebacker and special-teamer. Daniels got a two-year deal worth $2.16 million to be a backup defensive end in Washington’s new 3-4 scheme. Kemeoatu, who was cut by the Panthers, is coming off an Achilles injury, but when healthy he’s a run clogger big enough to play nose tackle in the Redskins new 3-4. With a two-year, $7 million deal, Kemeoatu becomes a price-friendly option at nose tackle, which is really a position of scarcity. Ryan is a block-first tight end who provides depth behind Chris Cooley and Fred Davis.

3 – Titans (add LB Will Witherspoon) – Witherspoon, who was cut by the Eagles, got a three-year, $11 million deal with $5 million guaranteed to come to Tennessee. He’s a weak-side linebacker who’s good in coverage and still has pretty good range, and he can play in the middle in a pinch as well. His arrival may mean that Keith Bulluck’s long and storied Titans career is over.

3 (con’t) – Eagles (added CB Marlin Jackson; kept RFA FB Leonard Weaver and RFA WR Jason Avant) – Weaver was a nice surprise as a fullback for the Eagles last year, making plays in the run game and the passing game. His bruising running style will be a nice complement to LeSean McCoy as the Eagles begin a new era in the backfield sans Brian Westbrook. The deal Weaver got – three years, $11 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – shows that Weaver will be more than a traditional fullback going forward. Avant, who emerged as a solid No. 3 receiver, got a five-year deal worth $18 million with $8 million in guarantees as the Eagles try to keep their young trio of receivers – Avant, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin – together to bridge from the Donovan McNabb era (whenever it ends) to the Kevin Kolb regime. Jackson never panned out as a first-rounder in Indianapolis, but the Eagles believe he can make the move from corner to free safety to solve a spot that has been a problem since Brian Dawkins left. It’s a low-cost move worth $2 million this year but potentially worth $6 million over two years if Jackson becomes a quality starter.

3 (con’t) – Steelers (kept UFA S Ryan Clark; added UFA S Will Allen, UFA WR Arnaz Battle, OT Jonathan Scott, and WR Antwaan Randle El) – Clark was one of the underrated prizes of the free-agent class, and Pittsburgh couldn’t afford to lose him. Keeping the big-hitting complement to Troy Polamalu is a boon for the Steelers, and the four-year, $14 million contract isn’t prohibitive. The Steelers also added Allen from the Buccaneers as a backup safety on a three-year, $4.5 million deal with a signing bonus of $975,000. Allen gives insurance against Polamalu’s injury history and also could plug into a nickel corner role. At receiver, Pittsburgh added Battle, a rangy receiver and special-teams ace from the 49ers, and brought back Randle El, who thrived as a slot receiver in Pittsburgh before becoming a big-money bust in Washington. Battle got a three-year, $3.975 contract with a $975,000 signing bonus, and Randle El got a three-year deal as well. Those two signings, along with the presence of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, could mean the release or trade of former second-round pick Limas Sweed. Scott played under new Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler in Buffalo the last two years, but he didn’t get a tender offer from the Bills. Given the Steelers’ lack of O-line depth, he could stick in Pittsburgh.

2 – Rams (added UFA DT Fred Robbins and UFA QB A.J. Feeley; kept RFA S Craig Dahl and RFA TE Daniel Fells) – Robbins played for Steve Spagnuolo with the Giants, so it’s no surprise that he got the call to come to St. Louis for up to $12 million over three years. Robbins is more of a run stopper than a pass rusher inside, but he played well for Spags before. Feeley got $6 million plus escalators over two years, which is above-average backup money. But if the Rams draft a quarterback as expected, Feeley may be a place-holding starter as 2010 opens. Dahl is a backup who plays well on special teams. Fells made a few key plays last year and got a deal potentially worth $1.5 million if he shines this year.

2 (con’t) – Ravens (kept UFA WR Derrick Mason and RFA DT Lamar Divens) – Mason was the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver last year, but with Anquan Boldin coming over via trade he’ll move a peg down the hierarchy. But that may be the best for both Mason and the Ravens, since at age 36 he’s slowed just a bit. Mason is still a solid receiver, especially on shorter routes, and he’ll be a reliable option across from Boldin who teams will still have to account for. That’s worth a 2-year, $8 million deal with $3.5 million paid in the first year. Divens is a backup defensive end who could get more run with the departure of Justin Bannan.

2 (con’t) – 49ers (added UFA QB David Carr; kept UFA LB Matt Wilhelm) – Carr revitalized his career a bit as a backup with the Giants, and the Niners opted to add him to replace Shaun Hill behind Alex Smith. Carr got a two-year deal worth $6.25 million with $1.87 million in incentives. That gives San Fran two former No. 1 overall picks at quarterback. Wilhelm bounced around a little during last season but became a useful backup and special teamer for the Niners once he arrived by the bay.

2 (con’t) – Bills (kept UFA S-LB Bryan Scott; added UFA OT Cornell Green) – Scott, a former safety, was pressed into duty as a starting outside linebacker last year, and he held up pretty well despite being undersized. Having started both at strong safety and outside linebacker makes him valuable to the Bills, who trust him enough to put him on the field. So they’ll pay him $3 million over two years (a little over the minimum) to keep him around. Green, who once upon a time won a Super Bowl ring with the Buccaneers, started as a Raider last year but was penalty-prone. Still, given how young the Bills’ line is, getting any help – especially at the penurious price of $9 million over 3 years – is a bit of a positive sign.

1 -Cardinals (kept UFA TE Anthony Becht and RFA TE Stephen Spach) – Becht was a first-round pick once upon a time, but he’s bounced around a lot in recent years. He found a home in Arizona, though, starting 10 games last year as a blocking tight end. He’ll return on a one-year, $950,000 deal to continue opening holes for a Cardinals offense that appears to be shifting more and more toward the run game. Spach is also a quality blocker who has a little more juice in the passing game. They form a serviceable but not spectacular duo.

1 (con’t) – Chargers (kept UFA TE Kris Wilson and UFA DE Alfonso Boone; claim RB Marcus Mason on waivers) – Wilson became more valuable to San Diego when Brandon Manumaleuna left for Chicago. He’s a block-first tight end who complements Antonio Gates nicely, and at $1.7 million over two years, he’s barely making above the minimum. Boone is a solid backup in the Bolts’ 3-4 and knows Ron Rivera’s system well. So his two-year deal provides stability among the reserves for San Diego. Mason was a Redskins backup who has a bit of promise but didn’t fit the system Mike Shanahan is bringing to Washington.

1 (con’t) – Raiders (kept OT Khalif Barnes) – The Raiders did not tender Barnes a contract as a restricted free agent, so the one-year contract to which they signed him is probably at a cheaper level than the tender would have been. Barnes, a former Jaguars starter, played in two games and started just two last year. Still, he has physical ability, and that always makes the Raiders drool.

1 (con’t) – Saints (kept UFA S Pierson Prioleau, UFA C Nick Leckey, and UFA CB Leigh Torrence) – Leckey, Torrence, and Prioleau signed one-year deals to return as backups for the Saints. Prioleau was the team’s top tackler on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Jets (kept UFA TE Ben Hartsock) – Hartsock, who came to the Meadowlands from Arizona last offseason, did a good job as the Jets’ best blocking tight end. He provides a nice complement to receiver extraordinaire Dustin Keller last year.

1 (con’t) – Vikings (added PK Rhys Lloyd; kept UFA S Benny Sapp) – Lloyd, who wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent by the Panthers, is a kickoff specialist who will take some pressure off of Ryan Longwell, now age 36. Sapp is a nickel back who started seven games in relief last year. He’s a nice extra piece to have, but he shouldn’t be a core starter.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (added WR Wallace Wright) – The Panthers are in cost-cutting and age-cutting mode, but they did add Wright, who didn’t get tendered by the Jets as a restricted free agent. Wright is a special-teams dynamo who had 45 tackles in the last two seasons.

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Free-Agency Preview: Class of the class

As the free-agent market opens (midnight eastern Friday morning), I thought I’d list the cream of the crop (as I see it) at every position. I’m not a scout, so I probably am leaving some people out, but here’s a pretty good list by position. I’ve only included players that are unrestricted on the market, so that eliminates all the restricted free agents as well as the franchise players.

Quarterback – Chad Pennington (Mia.), Jake Delhomme (Car.) – Pennington is the only quarterback in the market I’d consider as an option for a training-camp competition, because he’s consistent and accurate, but Delhomme could find a similiar role.

Running back – Thomas Jones (NYJ), Chester Taylor (Minn.), Ladell Betts (Wash.) – At age 32, Jones shouldn’t get a long-term deal, but he’s a fine option for 2010. Taylor is a good fit in two-RB sets because he’s a good blocker and receiver who can also carry the load when necessary. Both are better at this point than recent releases and fellow over-30 running backs LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, or Jamal Lewis. Betts becomes an under-the-radar choice as a No. 2 back after being released by the Redskins.

Wide receiver – Antonio Bryant (TB), Derrick Mason (Balt.), Kevin Walter (Hou.), Nate Burleson (Sea.), Terrell Owens (Buff.), Torry Holt (Jax.), Kassim Osgood (S.D.) – Bryant is wildly inconsistent, but he’s the only guy in this group with the potential of being a No. 1 receiver. Mason is still a dependable guy who fits as a No. 2 receiver, and Walter can make some plays in that kind of role as well. Burleson is a little too up-and-down to be a No. 2, but he is a nice option. Owens’ skills are declining to the point that he’s barely a No. 2., and the same is true for Holt. Osgood, a special-teams ace, never got much run at receiver for the Chargers, but he’s big and fast, which may lead someone to give him a chance he hasn’t yet had in the NFL.

Tight end – Ben Watson (NE), Brandon Manumaleuna (SD) – Watson is inconsistent, but he can be a passing-game threat. Manumaleuna is a big, sturdy blocking tight end who would fit as a nice piece with Mike Martz’s new Chicago system or perhaps a Wildcat team.

Center – Kevin Mawae (Tenn.), Casey Rabach (Wash.) – Mawae and Rabach are both veterans who still perform acceptably but won’t get long-term deals. Still, a team with a short-term need has options.

Guard – Bobbie Williams (Cin.), Rex Hadnot (Cle.), Stephen Neal (NE), Keydrick Vincent (Car.) – Williams is a big guard who’s good in the run game and OK in pass protection. At age 33, he’s not in his prime, but he’s got a few good years left. Vincent, who started the last two years in Carolina, is a similar player whose performance is a tick below that of Williams. Hadnot isn’t great, but he’s still a good player who is an acceptable NFL starter. Neal is undersized compared to the other massive guards in this group, but he’s still an above-average player as well. None of these guys will get overpaid, but a couple of them at least should get multi-year deals.

Offensive tackle – Mike Gandy (Ariz.), Chad Clifton (GB), Barry Sims (SF), Tra Thomas (Jax.) – There’s little to no tackle help to be found, as Clifton and Thomas are on their last legs and Sims is a fill-in at best. Gandy is probably the best option. He’s started at left tackle for the Cardinals the last three years, and while he’s better in the run game than in pass protection, he gets by. And at age 31, he’s still an acceptable starting option going forward.

Kicker – Neil Rackers (Ariz.), Shayne Graham (Cin.) – Neither Rackers nor Graham had his best year, but both have been solid in recent campaigns. They could provide an upgrade for teams with inconsistent young kickers. Cundiff

Defensive ends (4-3) – Julius Peppers (Car.), Aaron Kampman (GB), Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tenn.), Charles Grant (NO), Adewale Ogunleye (Chi.), Leonard Little (STL), Tyler Brayton (Car.), Ryan Denney (Buff.)  – This is perhaps the most stacked position in free agency, and Peppers of course is the class of the group. Although he’s 30, he’s still a premium pass rusher, and as a player who has been known for so-so effort, he could be reinvigorated by a change of venue. He’ll get the biggest deal in this free agent market. For teams that miss out on Peppers, Kampman and Vanden Bosch are nice options. Both still have a little pass rushing juice and are sturdy vs. the run. Grant never lived up to his potential as a first-rounder, but he has talent and could get a look as a fresh-start candidate. Ogunleye is a formerly productive pass rusher who has moved into the solid but unspectacular part of his career, while Little is probably just a situational pass rusher at this point. Brayton is a solid run-stopper but not much of a sack man. Denney is like Brayton but even older.

Defensive ends (3-4) – Dwan Edwards (Balt.), Justin Bannan (Balt.), Jarvis Green (NE), Vonnie Holliday (Den.) – The Ravens reportedly want to keep both Edwards and Bannan, who are key rotation players on their front 3, but it’s likely that at least one of those guys will get a big deal elsewhere. Edwards could be one of the big winners in this free-agent market. Green and Holliday are veterans who are solid 3-4 ends and great options for teams looking to fill a rotation spot.

Defensive tackles (4-3) – Tank Johnson (Cin.), Damione Lewis (Car.), Jimmy Kennedy (Minn.), Fred Robbins (NYG) – Johnson is well known for his legal problems, but he was on his best behavior last year in Cincinnati, and he played well too. He’s the best 4-3 tackle on the market by far. Kennedy, a former bust with the Rams, showed some flashes as a backup tackle who can slash into the backfield on occasion. Robbins is more of a fill-in who could fit as a fourth tackle at a veteran minimum salary. Lewis, a late cut, is a pretty productive slashing tackle but is more effective as a backup than a full-time starter.

Nose tackles (3-4) – Jason Ferguson (Mia.), Hollis Thomas (Car.), Maake Kemeoatu (Car.), Jamal Williams (SD) – All of these guys are long in the tooth, but they can plug the nose. With so many nose tackles franchised this year, this is a scarce position, and that may help their marketability. Kemeoatu is the youngest of the group, but he’s coming back from a major Achilles injury. Williams and Ferguson are more accomplished, but health and age are big concerns.

Outside linebackers (3-4) – Joey Porter (Mia.), Jason Taylor (Mia.), Tully Banta-Cain (NE), Derrick Burgess (NE) – The outside pass rushers are all veterans. Porter had 26.5 sacks over the past two years and is still a quality pass rusher. Taylor has slipped a little below that level, but he’s still a quality situational rusher. Banta-Cain had just 12.5 sacks in his first six seasons, but he had 10 for the Patriots last year in what was either a breakout season or a fluke. Some team may outbid the Patriots hoping for the former. Burgess is the consolation prize in this group.

Linebackers – Karlos Dansby (Ariz.), Gary Brackett (Ind.), Keith Bulluck (Tenn.), Antonio Pierce (NYG), Scott Fujita (NO) – Dansby is another prize in this market. He’s a 3-4 inside backer who’s big enough to play on the strong side in the 4-3, and he’s a playmaker with great range at both spots. He’ll get a huge deal somewhere. Brackett is more of a system player, but he’s an impactful 4-3 middle linebacker despite being undersized. Bulluck has been a terrific weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 for many years, but at his age he’s starting to slip. Still, he’s a good starting option who would also be a great leader. Fujita isn’t the athlete Bulluck is, but he’s also a starting-quality player. Pierce has been a top 4-3 middle ‘backer, but injuries are a huge concern. But if he can pass a physical, he can help a team.

Cornerbacks – Dunta Robinson (Hou.), Leigh Bodden (NE), Lito Sheppard (NYJ), William James (Det.) – Robinson has talent, but his production last year didn’t match his franchise-player salary. He’s not a shut-down corner, but he is a talent who will make good money. Bodden had a solid year with New England, repeating some of the success he had in Cleveland. His year in Detroit was a bust, but on the whole he’s proven his worth. James is a veteran who’s good enough to start, although he’ll need help over the top. Still, corner desperate teams could do worse than James. Sheppard is a talent who thinks more of himself than his play merits, but he’s still a top-3 cornerback for most teams if he’s willing to take a role instead of star.

Safeties – Antrell Rolle (Ariz.), Ryan Clark (Pitt.), Darren Sharper (NO), Mike Brown (KC), Jermaine Phillips (TB) – Rolle is a big-time play maker with great range and great size who is hitting the market because his contract is outsized. But he’s one of the few impact players on the market, and that should lead to a pay day. Clark is a big-hitting strong safety who has limited range but still has made big plays for the Steelers in recent years. Sharper had a big impact on the Saints in ’09, but his age makes a long-term contract unwise. Still, Sharper can help. If a team is looking for veteran wiles but can’t get Sharper, Brown and Phillips are options.

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