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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview – and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Woody wouldn’t in 2011

Damien Woody at a New York Jets mini-camp in F...

Damien Woody. Image via Wikipedia

Amidst the flurry of NFL transactions on Tuesday (posts coming forthwith) came the announcement that Jets ORT Damien Woody had opted to retire. Below are some thoughts on Woody’s career; we compare him to other 2011 retirees in this updated post.

Woody, a former first-round pick in New England, had a long career in which he played virtually everywhere on the offensive line. He started out as a center, making one Pro Bowl for the Pats and starting for the team’s 2001 Super Bowl champ. He then moved to left guard in 2003, starting for another Pats championship squad. He moved on to Detroit as a free agent, starting three seasons at right guard before moving to right tackle. He then spent three more years as a Jet, starting at right tackle. His versatility no doubt elongated his career, and to the end he remained an effective run blocker. He had good if not great athleticism for a lineman, which made him effective as well. After starting 166 games in 12 seasons, Woody can retire knowing that he made the most of his opportunities – no matter where on the offensive line they came. Now the Jets turn to Wayne Hunter, who got a four-year, $13 million contract the same day Woody retired, as their new right tackle.

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FR: 2011 Retirements

Coach Russ Grimm and Alan Faneca of the Pittsb...

Alan Faneca with Hall of Famer Russ Grimm, during their Pittsburgh years. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we use our Football Relativity tool to compare the careers of NFL players who retire. So in this post, we’re comparing 2011 retirees on a 10-point scale, with 10 being the most important retirement and 1 being the least notable. We’ll update this post until the beginning of the 2011 season. (This version is as of August 10.)

10 – WR Randy Moss, Titans – Moss had a 13-year career with incredible highs. He burst onto the scene as a rookie with the Vikings, earning All-Pro accolades as a rookie. He had five Pro Bowls in his first six season with the Vikings, along with three first-team All-Pro nods, but he grew unhappy in Minnesota and his play slumped in 2004. He moved to Oakland, where he had a mid-career lull and seemed to be on his last legs. The Raiders gave up, and Moss went to New England and exploded once again, catching 23 touchdown passes and returning to first-team All-Pro status during the Patriots’ undefeated regular season in 2007. Moss had three 1,000-yard seasons in New England and made two Pro Bowls, but in 2010 the team traded him back to the Vikings. As had happened too often in his career, off-field issues affected Moss in Minnesota, and he was released to land with Tennessee via waivers. Despite the infamous ending to his career, Moss is in the top 10 all time in catches (8th), receiving yards (5th), and receiving touchdowns (2nd). Moss had some lows in his career (as did other prominent receivers of his era), but his highs were as good as any receiver in the post-Rice era. Ultimately, the off-field issues will fade, and Moss will be remembered as a Hall of Fame receiver.

9 – OG Alan Faneca, Cardinals – Faneca has been perhaps the most respected guard in the league over the past 10 years, as proven by his nine Pro Bowl berths and equal number of All-Pro nods. Faneca was a first-round pick by the Steelers, and for a decade he was the earth-mover for Pittsburgh’s run-first offense. For those efforts, Faneca was named to the Steelers’ all-time team. He then moved to the Jets with an incredible contract for a mid-30s guard, andfor two years he continued as an effective run-blocker. He then spent one final season with the Cardinals. Throughout his career, Faneca was durable – missing just two games in 13 seasons – and he proved to be a terrific leader as a veteran. Faneca and Steve Hutchinson are clearly the best guards of their era, and they will be the only two at that position to merit Hall of Fame consideration. Faneca will be a borderline case, but the fact that he is in the conversation speaks to just how fine a career he had.

8 – RB Fred Taylor, Jaguars – Taylor, a longtime Jaguar who had an end-of-career cameo with the Patriots, signed a ceremonial contract to retire in Jacksonville. He had a fine 11-year career, running for 11,695 yards with seven 1,000-yard seasons. For a long time, he was known as the best player never to make a Pro Bowl, but he finally got the Hawaii trip in 2007, his last thousand-yard campaign. He finishes his career at No. 15 on the all-time rushing list, which is quite an accomplishment, and he has a strong 4.6 yards per carry average in his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he is probably the best Jaguar ever. That’s saying something.

7 – QB Kerry Collins, TitansWhen I was in college back in the mid-90s, my summer job was working for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, and the biggest perk of that gig was covering Carolina Panthers training camp each year. So I got to see Collins’ career from the very beginning. Collins’ career with the Panthers started with promise, as he led the team to the NFC championship game in his second season. (Then living in Chicago, I went to Green Bay to cover that Packers/Panthers game and wrote a story about whether Collins was on the verge of becoming a great QB.) But then it all fell apart for Collins in Carolina. He got in a racially-charged fight with a teammate, and then asked out of the lineup, leading to his release. But to Collins’ great credit, he did not let the fact that he busted out of Charlotte make him a bust. He got a second chance with the Giants and led that team to the Super Bowl (where they lost to the Ravens). And after the Giants drafted Eli Manning, Collins had a couple of decent seasons in Oakland and then became a starter in Tennessee, making his second Pro Bowl in 2008 in leading the Titans to the playoffs. Collins’ 16-year career has left him high up the lists of all-time passers, which speaks to his longevity and his productivity. The fact that several teams – the Titans and Panthers included – viewed him as a worthy backup/mentor for young QBs in 2011 speaks to how he completely changed his legacy over the course of his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he had a fine career after nearly losing everything just a few years in. So much for retirement; Collins signed with the Colts two weeks before the season.

7 (con’t) – DT Kris Jenkins, Jets – Jenkins had a terrific two-act career, starring as a 4-3 defensive tackle in Carolina and then making just as much of an impact as a 3-4 nose tackle with the Jets. The result was three All-Pro nods and four Pro Bowl berths in a 10-year career. Jenkins might have been the best defensive lineman in football during his prime in Carolina, at least before major injuries shortened his 2004 season and cost him nearly the entire 2005 campaign. Injuries also cost Jenkins in his last two years as a Jet, although he gave the team a terrific first-season performance after it gave up two draft picks to acquire him in 2008. (His New York star turn was also when we gave him one of our favorite nicknames ever – Jackpot.) Jenkins was hurt too much over his 10 years to make the Hall of Fame conversation, but he was a terrific, impactful player for two strong contenders. That’s a fine legacy to leave.

7 (con’t) – RB Ahman Green, Packers – Green didn’t play in the NFL last year, but over his 12-year career he piled up more than 12,000 yards from scrimmage and 74 touchdowns. After a sputtering start to his career in Seattle, Green was traded to the Packers, and in seven seasons he had six 1,000 yard campaigns for the Pack. He was a terrific West Coast back who could run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. He was recognized with four Pro Bowl berths, and in 2003 he ran for an eye-popping 1,883 yards. Green wasn’t the most dominant back of his era, but he fit his offense perfectly and performed remarkably well. He’s not a Hall of Famer in Canton, but chances are he’ll be recognized in Green Bay one day.

6 – LB Mike Vrabel, Chiefs -Vrabel was the ultimate Bill Belichick player. After four seasons in Pittsburgh in which he was primarily a backup, Vrabel was one of the 19 unrestricted free agents whom Belichick signed for the Patriots after his first season, and thus he became a part of the team-first group that upset the Rams and won the Super Bowl. Vrabel became a mainstay for the Pats, starting at outside linebacker for eight seasons and providing solid play against the run, the pass, and as a rusher. His versatility didn’t just apply to defense; he also played a little tight end in goal-line situations, recording 10 TD catches over the course of his career. When Scott Pioli left the Patriots to become the GM in Kansas City, he got Vrabel as part of the Matt Cassel trade, and Vrabel started for two more seasons as part of the Chiefs’ recent renaissance. Vrabel fit the Belichick wish list to a T – versatile, team-oriented, good but not overly talented, smart, and productive. Now he goes back to his alma mater to help the Buckeyes try to recover from the Jim Tressel mess. Vrabel left a bit of meat on the bone with his playing career, but if he takes to coaching he could become even more of a star in that arena than he was on the playing field.

6 (con’t) – ORT Damien Woody, Jets – Woody, a former first-round pick in New England, had a long career in which he played virtually everywhere on the offensive line. He started out as a center, making one Pro Bowl for the Pats and starting for the team’s 2001 Super Bowl champ. He then moved to left guard in 2003, starting for another Pats championship squad. He moved on to Detroit as a free agent, starting three seasons at right guard before moving to right tackle. He then spent three more years as a Jet, starting at right tackle. His versatility no doubt elongated his career, and to the end he remained an effective run blocker. He had good if not great athleticism for a lineman, which made him effective as well. After starting 166 games in 12 seasons, Woody can retire knowing that he made the most of his opportunities – no matter where on the offensive line they came. Now the Jets turn to Wayne Hunter, who got a four-year, $13 million contract the same day Woody retired, as their new right tackle.

6 (con’t) – QB Marc Bulger, Ravens – Bulger’s career started with a whimper, but before he was done he made some pretty significant impacts in the NFL. The sixth-round pick by the Saints in 2000 landed with the Rams and broke into the starting lineup in 2002. Before long, he had replaced Kurt Warner as a triggerman in Mike Martz’s Greatest Show on Turf offense, and Bulger wasn’t much of a drop-off. He made Pro Bowls in 2003 and 2006 as he completed 60-percent plus of his passes and had three 20-plus TD seasons. But Bulger also took a terrific beating, suffering at least 37 sacks in five different seasons (plus 26 in a half season in 2005). By 2007, Bulger’s performance in St. Louis started to decline, and he lost the starting job for good in St. Louis in 2009. Last season, Bulger didn’t play as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore. And this season, he had the chance to return to Baltimore as a backup, or to fight for starting jobs in Arizona and Carolina, among other places. But Bulger’s heart wasn’t in it any more. Bulger leaves with a solid 10-year career that far outpaced his draft position. Leaving that kind of legacy – and leaving when you want – is a pretty fond way to say goodbye.

5 – OG Stephen Neal, Patriots – After a 10-year career, all with New England, Neal retired just after the 2011 season. He leaves as a major scouting success story. Neal never played college football, instead wrestling collegiately at Cal State-Bakersfield. But he developed into a starting guard for the Patriots, holding down a steady job at right guard from 2004 until this season. Neal started in one Super Bowl and claimed three rings overall. His career typifies the kind of player development and scouting acumen that contributed to the Patriots’ success, and he deserves credit for taking utmost advantage of his unusual opportunity.

5 (con’t) – S Donovin Darius, Jaguars – Darius, the Jaguars’ first-round pick in 1998, had a strong career for the team, playing nine seasons for the team, all as a starter. He was always a solid safety during his long Jacksonville tenure. Darius last played for the Dolphins in 2007, but he signed a one-day contract in February so he could retire with the team for which he started 105 games.

5 (con’t) – LB Dhani Jones, Bengals – Jones played 10 years for the Eagles, Giants, and Bengals, and he ended up as a starter in the last nine of those seasons. While he was never an impact player, he was always a smart and reliable center of the defense he was on. His last three years with the Bengals were at the level of his best, which speaks to his consistency. Jones had the ability to keep playing, but his varied media interests made it easier for him to walk away before his skills eroded.

4 – LB David Thornton, Titans – Thornton, who missed the 2010 because of a hip injury, decided to hang up his cleats instead of trying to rebound. The former fourth-round pick developed into an eight-year starter in the NFL with the Colts and Titans, and at his best he was a clean-up outside linebacker who occasionally made a big play with a pick or a sack. He had a nice career, both for the Colts who drafted him and for the Titans who inked him to a big deal as a free agent.

3 – CB Ellis Hobbs, Eagles – Two serious neck injuries forced Hobbs to retire after six seasons with the Patriots and Eagles. Hobbs was only a full-time starter for two years in New England, but he provided a ton of excitement as a kick returner and also notched 10 interceptions in 79 career games. Hobbs is still talented enough to at least play as a nickelback in Philadelphia, but neck injuries are nothing to mess with. So he ends his career early with some good plays but also some regret.

3 (con’t) – PK Matt Stover, Ravens – Stover broke into the NFL with the Browns in 1991, and for nearly 20 years he was the franchise’s kicker, first in Cleveland, then in Baltimore. He made two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl despite kicking in conditions that were often unfavorable. Stover After 18 years with the Browns/Ravens, Stover lost his job, getting a late-season cameo with the Colts to conclude his career. (Coincidentally, my wife and I visited Baltimore in 2009 during the week of a Ravens/Colts game. Stover was the center of all the coverage. I’ve never seen more game coverage focused on a kicker than that week.) In his two decades, Stover connected on an impressive 83 percent of his kicks – a number even more impressive because he was in the low 70s in each of his first three seasons. Stover isn’t a Hall of Fame kicker – the bar at the position is impossibly high – but he could end up in the Ravens Hall of Fame given his lengthy career there.

3 (con’t) – ILB Channing Crowder, Dolphins – After six years and 74 starts, the Dolphins cut Crowder this offseason and replaced him with Kevin Burnett. Crowder then said he would retire and pursue a media career instead of seeking to land with another team. Crowder still has something left in the tank as a run-down player, but he’s never had the athleticism to be an every-down linebacker. He’s a marginal inside 3-4 starter who ended up having a decent career.

2 – DE Paul Spicer, Jaguars – Spicer wasn’t drafted, and he had to bounce around and visit the CFL before getting his best shot to play in Jacksonville. He took advantage of the opportunity the Jaguars offered, playing nine years for the team and finally emerging as a starter over the last four. He finished his career with 28.5 sacks, including two 7.5-sack seasons. Spicer, who last played in 2009, signed a one-day contract to retire with Jacksonville in February.

2 (con’t) – OG Justin Smiley, Raiders – Smiley, who started 78 games over seven seasons with the 49ers, Dolphins, and Jaguars, retired during training camp after signing with the Raiders. His performance had slipped due to nagging injuries, but Smiley was once a decent starter.

2 (con’t) – FB Heath Evans, Saints – Evans, a 10-year veteran, retired when he didn’t find an offer to play in 2011. Instead, he got an offer to join the NFL Network as an analyst. Evans played 10 years for the Seahawks, Patriots, Dolphins, and Saints, starting a few games at fullback along the way. He leaves the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and a future gig – that’s not a bad way to go out.

1 – Ken Dorsey – Dorsey, who played six years in the NFL with Cleveland and San Francisco between 2003-2008, last played in the CFL in 2010. The former national championship quarterback at Miami started just 13 NFL games but was a quintessential backup. He appears headed down the Jason Garrett career path, as Dorsey is now coaching Cam Newton at IMG’s academy in Florida. A QB coach position somewhere is probably next for Dorsey, who could be a bright coaching prospect in a few short years.

1 (con’t) – TE Ben Patrick, Giants – After four years in Arizona, Patrick signed with the Giants. But once he got into training camp, he opted to retire instead of fighting for a roster spot. Patrick had 45 catches in 42 career games, and was known more for his blocking than his receiving.

1 (con’t) – OT Billy Yates, Browns – Yates bounced around the NFL for nine seasons, but he started just 11 games and played in just 25 in his career. Still, he earned a Super Bowl ring in New England and also played for the Dolphins and Browns. That’s not a bad career.

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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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The final cuts

Yesterday, we prepared for the coming NFL lockout (or, as reports today suggest, extended negotiating window) by looking at the last signings before the league year ended. Now we’re going to look at the final cuts teams have made before the deadline.

The Bears cut DT Tommie Harris. Image via bearsgab.com

Bears cut DT Tommie Harris, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, and OT Kevin Shaffer – Harris, once the league’s preeminent 4-3 under tackle, has been sapped by injuries and is no longer an impact player. So instead of paying $3 million in offseason bonuses to keep him, the Bears let the former All-Pro go. Harris showed he still had life in his legs with a strong playoff performance against the Seahawks, but at this point he needs to be a featured role player, not a regular starter, so that his legs last longer. Hillenmeyer, a versatile backup and special teams player who had his moments as a starter, is fighting concussions and may not be able to play again. Shaffer, a veteran who served as a third tackle last year, couldn’t hold up as a starter and therefore wasn’t worth the freight.

Redskins cut RB Clinton Portis, OG Derrick Dockery, OLB Andre Carter, and DT Ma’ake Kemeoatu – Portis is going the way of old running backs, and as his performance declines his outsized personality becomes more of a locker-room stumbling block. Dockery, brought back to play guard last year, is a replacement-level player who was making too much money. Carter had a good 2009 season, but he didn’t fit the Redskins’ 3-4 defense in 2010. He could find a nice home as a pass-rushing specialist for a 4-3 team. Kemeoatu’s rebound from an Achilles injury in 2009 didn’t go well, making him too expensive for his performance.

Jets cut NT Kris Jenkins, OT Damien Woody, OLB Vernon Gholston, OLB Jason Taylor, and TE Ben Hartsock – The Jets cleared cap room by letting four vets and one major draft bust go. Jenkins has missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, which means he’ll have to plug in somewhere at a much lower price tag. Woody, the starting right tackle, is also trying to come back from injury. Taylor made a few plays but wasn’t a huge impact player, and retirement is lurking for him. Gholston, on the other hand, missed out on a $9 million contract escalator because he failed to record a sack or forced fumble in his first three years. The former top-6 pick has done nothing to validate his draft stock, and anyone that brings him in would be just taking a flyer on the former Jet.

Broncos cut DE Justin Bannan, NT Jamal Williams, TE Daniel Graham – Bannan and Williams, both signed last year, got $14 million in guarantees to step in and start in the Broncos’ 3-4 defense. But now, with John Fox replacing Josh McDaniels and the 4-3 defense coming in, they became extraneous pieces. They’re just more examples of McDaniels’ epically poor performance as a pro personnel evaluator. Graham, a Mike Shanahan signing, would have made more than $4 million next season, so the Broncos decided on the less costly route. He’s still an elite blocking tight end, and that will get him a job elsewhere, although not at the same price.

Lions cut LB Julian Peterson and RB Kevin Smith – Peterson was once the best all-around linebacker in the game, but as he left his prime he became less of a factor for the Lions. Now that he’s 11 years into his career, it’s fair to assume that Peterson’s best days are past. Maybe he can become a specialist and plug in with a contender somewhere, but his jack of all trades days are done. Smith had a nice first couple of years with the Lions, but he has been set back so much by a 2009 ACL injury that he lost the ability to contribute. Now, after falling behind Jahvid Best and Maurice Morris on the depth chart, he’s been released. If he can show he’s healthy, he could be a decent fill-in somewhere, but that seems like a long shot at this point.

Packers cut TE Donald Lee, S Derrick Martin – Lee has put in some good years with the Pack, but the emergence of JerMichael Finley and the play of Andrew Quarless give the Packers better, cheaper options.

Seahawks cut TE Chris Baker – Baker has had some moments as a receiving tight end, but his chance to back up John Carlson was taken by youngster Cameron Morrah this year.

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RP: Building philosophies

As we analyze the NFL’s final four, we thought we’d look at the most significant building philosophy of each remaining team. This was Chase’s idea put through a little bit of a filter. It’s interesting to see that there’s not just one way to build a team, as you’ll see below.

Indianapolis Colts
Key strategy: Second day of the draft – Obviously, Peyton Manning is the key acquisition for the Colts, and he was the first overall pick in the draft. But with so many guys paid so much money, building depth on the second day of the draft is crucial. And the Colts have done this with OTs Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem, WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, LB Clint Session, S Antoine Bethea, and DE Robert Mathis are all second-day draft picks who have developed into above-average players. Bethea and Mathis are even more than that – among the better players at their positions in the league. Those reinforcements are complimented by rookie free agents like CB Jacob Lacey, DT Antonio Johnson, and an all-time classic, C Jeff Saturday, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl center despite not being drafted.
Significant strategy: First-round hits – Manning, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Reggie Wayne, and TE Dallas Clark are all premium players – that’s an incredible hit record. RB Joseph Addai isn’t at that superstar level, but he’s a very good player too.
Key waiver pickups: OG Ryan Lilja, DT Daniel Muir – Lilja started all 16 games at left guard this year, while Muir has emerged as a key player in the DT rotation this year.
Least significant strategy: Signing free agents – The only unrestricted free agent signee currently on the Colts’ roster is PK Adam Vinatieri, and he’s not even active. The Colts scour the market for castoffs, not for high-dollared players, because they do such a good job of hitting on superstars in the first round. They have no players acquired by trade either. It’s all about the draft and rookie free agents for the Colts.

Minnesota Vikings
Key strategy: Big splash – No team in the NFL has tried to make more big splashes than the Vikings. Signing Brett Favre is the latest example, but there are many others – OG Steve Hutchinson, the highest-paid guard in league history at the time; CB Antoine Winfield, who was a big-dollar signing from the Bills back in 2004; and DE Jared Allen, who was the prize in a huge trade with Kansas City last offseason. Those big splashes seem a bit strange in a medium market like Minnesota, but they’ve gone a long way toward giving the Vikings a corps of superstars.
Significant strategy: Draft success – Like the Colts, the Vikings have done a good job on the first day of the draft, finding stars like RB Adrian Peterson, DT Kevin Williams, and WRs Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin and stalwarts like LB Chad Greenway, CB Cedric Griffin, TE Jim Kleinsasser, and OTs Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt.
Key free-agent signings: Free agency –  The Vikes have hit not just on the big splashes but on other free-agent signings like DT Pat Williams, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, RB Chester Taylor, S Madieu Williams, and PK Ryan Longwell. Those guys are important players who, in the case of Williams and Shiancoe, have become important contributors to the team’s core group.

New Orleans Saints
Key strategy: Free agency – The Saints signed QB Drew Brees in free agency, and that in itself is reason to make this the key strategy for the team. The Brees signing was the most important free-agent signing of the last decade and will end being on par with Green Bay’s signing of Reggie White as an all-time signing if Brees eventually leads the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. But Brees isn’t the only key free-agent signing by the Saints – S Darren Sharper and CB Jabari Greer were significant upgrades to the Saints’ secondary this offseason that made a huge difference throughout the season and last week, and LB Scott Fujita has been a great low-cost signing since he joined the team in 2006.
Significant strategy: Draft – Not only have the Saints found premium players early in the draft – RB Reggie Bush, DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Will Smith, DE Charles Grant, and WR Robert Meachem were all first-round picks, and S Roman Harper and CB Tracy Porter were second-rounders. All play key roles. But the Saints have also found value in the mid-rounds with OG Jahri Evans and OT Jermon Bushrod, and they made one of the best seventh-round picks of all time in WR Marques Colston.
Key trade acquisitions: LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Scott Shanle, TE Jeremy Shockey – Vilma is an impact player, and Shanle is a starter. Shockey provides another key target when he can stay healthy.

New York Jets
Key strategy: Trading up on draft day – The Jets traded up in the draft to acquire of their most important players: QB Mark Sanchez, CB Darrelle Revis, and ILB David Harris. Revis is the Jets’ best player, and Harris is the best player in a stacked linebacker corps. and Sanchez is a key part of the future as well. In addition, playoff revelation Shonn Greene was acquired via trade-up in the third round of the ’09 draft. The aggressiveness that Mike Tannenbaum has shown on draft day has paid off in big ways for Gang Green.
Significant strategy: Free agency  – The Jets have a ton of high-profile free agents – LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard this year joined guys like OLB Calvin Pace, OG Alan Faneca, and OT Damien Woody. All are vital players for this team.
Key draft picks: C Nick Mangold, OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, TE Dustin Keller, WR Jerricho Cotchery – Mangold, a late first-rounder, is the best center in the league right now, and Keller has been one of the team’s best offensive weapons in the offseason.
Key trade acquisitions: RB Thomas Jones, WR Braylon Edwards, CB Lito Sheppard – Jones has paid off big for the Jets, while Edwards and Sheppard have had their moments more inconsistenly since joining the Jets this season.

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Jersey Numbers: Offensive Linemen

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post and running backs in this post. Now we move to offensive linemen, who wear numbers between 60 and 79, although some wear numbers in the 50s.

One more thing: Because offensive linemen are harder to evaluate statistically, my choices may be different than yours. We’ve tried to at least mention each lineman who has started a game this season plus a few significant guys who have not played yet this season due to injury. Leave a comment to let me know where I’m crazy, and we may change the jersey number winners when we make a final judgment of the best players league-wide by number.

50 – Ben Hamilton, Broncos – Hamilton has been with the Broncos for nine years and is still a starter, with seven starts this year at left guard. He’s also started at  center in his career for a line that is almost always above-average. Other notable 50: Edwin Williams, Redskins

51 – Dominic Raiola, Lions – Raiola has been with the Lions since 2001 as a center, and he continues to serve as a full-time starter. The team re-signed him to a four-year deal in the offseason. Other notable 51: Chris Morris, Raiders

54 – Brian Waters, Chiefs – Waters joined the Chiefs in 2000 as an undrafted free agent, and he has become a Pro Bowl-caliber guard. Although his performance is slowly starting to slip with age, Waters still earned Pro Bowl honors last season (for the fourth time) and has started all 11 games this season. Other notable 54: Eugene Amano, Titans

55 – Alex Mack, Browns – Mack was the Browns’ first-round pick last April, and he has started all 11 games this season at center for Cleveland. He’s one of just five rookie linemen to start every game this season. Other notable 55: Chris Myers, Texans

57 – Olin Kreutz, Bears – Kreutz has long been one of the league’s top centers, and he has started almost since he first entered the league back in 1998. The six-time Pro Bowler is also considered one of the leaders of the Chicago locker room.

59 – Nick Cole, Eagles – Cole has emerged as a full-time starter this season for the first time, seizing the right guard job from Max Jean-Gilles and starting every game thus far.

60 – Chris Samuels, Redskins – Samuels has missed several games this season with a neck injury that could end up being career ending, but this is a nod to his long, terrific career. So we opt for him over two solid centers, Shaun O’Hara of the Giants and Jason Brown of the Rams. Other notable 60s: Brad Butler, Bills; D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets; Max Unger, Seahawks; Ike Ndukwe, Chiefs

61 – Nick Hardwick, Chargers – Hardwick missed much of the season with a knee injury he suffered in Week One, and it’s no coincidence that the Chargers’ running game has struggled in his absence. The former Pro Bowler’s return in the final month of the season should give the Bolts a jolt. Other notable 61s: Stephen Neal, Patriots; Casey Rabach, Redskins

62 – Casey Wiegmann, Broncos – Wiegmann, who has played for the Jets, Bears, and Chiefs as well as his current team, the Broncos, made his first Pro Bowl with Denver last year. He has started 138 straight games for the Bears, Chiefs, and Broncos, which is the best total for any center in the league. Other notable 62s: Andy Alleman, Chiefs; Justin Hartwig, Steelers; Max Jean-Gilles, Eagles; Brandyn Dombrowski, Chargers; Nate Livings, Bengals; Todd McClure, Falcons; Chilo Rachal, 49ers

63 – Jeff Saturday, Colts – No offensive lineman is as essential to his quarterback as Saturday is to Peyton Manning. Saturday can keep up with Manning’s constant audibles and check-with-mes and make just the right line calls to keep his signal-caller protected. No wonder Saturday is a three-time Pro Bowler with a new, long contract from the Colts. Other notable 63s: Jacob Bell, Rams; Justin Blalock, Falcons; Roberto Garza, Bears; Dan Connolly, Patriots; Geoff Hangartner, Bills; Kyle Kosier, Cowboys; Brad Meester, Jaguars; Scott Mruczkowski, Chargers; Manny Ramirez, Lions; Lyle Sendlein, Cardinals; Will Montgomery, Redskins; Scott Wells, Packers; Chris White, Texans; Bobbie Williams, Bengals

64 – Jake Grove, Dolphins – The Dolphins brought Grove over as a high-dollar free agent to bring a more physical style of play to their center position, Ironically, Grove was replaced in Oakland by another 64, Samson Satele, the man he replaced in Miami. The Dolphins were happy with the trade. Other notable 64s: David Baas, 49ers; Zach Strief, Saints; Kasey Studdard, Texans; Anthony Herrera, Vikings; Kyle Cook, Bengals; Leroy Harris, Titans

65 – Andre Gurode, Cowboys – Several quality lineman, including OGs Eric Steinbach of Cleveland and Brandon Moore of the Jets, wear 65. But Gurode has made the last three Pro Bowls at center for Dallas, so he gets the nod. Other notable 65s: Louis Vasquez, Chargers; Jeremy Trueblood, Buccaneers; Mark Tauscher, Packers; Chris Spencer, Seahawks; Justin Smiley, Dolphins; John Sullivan, Vikings; Ryan Lilja, Colts; Barry Sims, 49ers; William Beatty, Giants; Mike Brisiel, Texans; Chris Chester, Ravens

66 – Alan Faneca, Jets – Faneca has long been one of the best guards in the league, and he’s provided a jolt for the Jets in his two seasons there since moving from his long Steelers tenure. So he still gets the nod over fellow guards David Diehl of the Giants and Derrick Dockery of the Redskins. Other notable 66s: Cooper Carlisle, Raiders; Jeromey Clary, Chargers; Kyle DeVan, Colts; Hank Fraley, Browns; Ben Grubbs, Ravens; Evan Mathis, Bengals; Stephen Peterman, Lions; Mark Setterstrom, Rams; Mansfield Wrotto, Seahawks; Donald Thomas, Dolphins

67 – Jamaal Jackson, Eagles – Jackson, a former undrafted free agent, took over the Eagles’ starting center job midway through the 2005 season and has started every game since. We’ll give him the nod over another good young center, Ryan Kalil of the Panthers. Other notable 67s: Josh Beekman, Bears; Joe Berger, Dolphins; Dan Koppen, Patriots; Andy Levitre, Bills; Vince Manuwai, Jaguars; Kareem McKenzie, Giants; Rob Sims, Seahawks; Tony Ugoh, Colts; Damien Woody, Jets

68 – Kevin Mawae, Titans – Mawae has long been one of the league’s best centers, and last season he returned to the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2004. He gets the nod at this number over OG Kris Dielman of the Chargers, who has made the last two Pro Bowls. Other notable 68s: Doug Free, Cowboys, Richie Incognito, Rams; Jon Jansen, Lions; Chris Kemeoatu, Steelers; Seth McKinney, Bills; Frank Omiyale, Bears; Keydrick Vincent, Panthers; Adam Snyder, 49ers

69 – Jordan Gross, Panthers – Although Gross has been shelved for the rest of the season, he has been a top-level player both at right tackle and now at left tackle. He made his first Pro Bowl last year at a left tackle, and his mauling style makes him solid blocking for the run as well as the pass. That gives him the nod over Giants OG Rich Seubert. Other notable 69s: Mike Gandy, Cardinals; Jamon Meredith, Bills; Steve Vallos, Seahawks; Chester Pitts, Texans

70 – Leonard Davis, Cowboys – Davis, a massive guard, has made the last two Pro Bowls, even though his size can get out of hand and limit his quickness. Still, he’ll get the nod over OLT Jamaal Brown, who has missed the whole season for the Saints, and youngsters OT Donald Penn of Tampa Bay, OG Logan Mankins of the Patriots, and OG Travelle Wharton, who has moved to left tackle to fill in for Jordan Gross in Carolina. Other notable 70s: Khalif Barnes, Raiders, Alex Barron, Rams; Rex Hadnot, Browns; Daniel Loper, Lions; Langston Walker, Raiders; Eric Wood, Bills; T.J. Lang, Packers

71 – Michael Roos, Titans – For years, 71 has been the domain of Seahawks great OLT Walter Jones, but Jones has missed the entire season. So we’ll give the nod here to Roos, a left tackle who made the Pro Bowl last year for the first time. He gets the nod over Jason Peters of the Eagles, who hasn’t played the last couple of years at the same level he performed at around 2007; young Ravens OLT Jared Gaither; and Vikings rookie ORT Phil Loadholt. Other notable 71s: Russ Hochstein, Broncos; Kendall Simmons, Bills; John Wade, Raiders; Josh Sitton, Packers

72 – Vernon Carey, Dolphins – Carey is turning into a solid right tackle for the Dolphins. He has incredible size, which is part of the reason that the Dolphins spent so much to re-sign him in the offseason. We’re giving him the nod over two-time Pro Bowl OLT Matt Light of the Patriots, who seems to be starting to decline as a player. Other notable 72s: Sam Baker, Falcons; Erik Pears, Raiders; Tra Thomas, Jaguars; Jason Spitz, Packers; Ryan Tucker, Browns; Darnell Stapleton, Steelers

73 – Jahri Evans, Saints – Earlier this week, I heard ESPN’s Trent Dilfer call Evans the best guard in the league. Steve Hutchinson might argue, but that’s enough for us to give Evans the nod over a strong field of 73s that includes OT Marcus McNeil of San Diego, OG Harvey Dahl of Atlanta, OT Joe Thomas of Cleveland, and OT Eric Winston of Houston. Other notable 73s: Shawn Andrews, Eagles; Mackenzy Bernadeau, Panthers; Eben Britton, Jaguars; Kirk Chambers, Bills; Daryn Colledge, Packers; Anthony Collins, Bengals; Adam Goldberg, Rams; Chris Kuper, Broncos; Marshal Yanda, Ravens; Ramon Foster, Steelers; Jake Scott, Titans

74 – Nick Mangold, Jets – Mangold, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, has emerged as one of the league’s best young centers. Now in his fourth season, he looks like he’ll be a preeminent linemen for years to come. So we give him the nod over massive Vikings OLT Bryant McKinnie and standout rookie Ravens ORT Michael Oher, whose story is told in the outstanding movie The Blind Side. Other notable 74s: Jermon Bushrod, Saints; Willie Colon, Steelers; Cornell Green, Raiders; Ryan Harris, Broncos; Stephon Heyer, Redskins; Winston Justice, Eagles; Joe Staley, 49ers; Chris Williams, Bears; Damion Cook, Lions; Charlie Johnson, Colts; Dennis Roland, Bengals; Wade Smith, Chiefs; Will Svitek, Falcons; Reggie Wells, Cardinals; Maurice Williams, Jaguars; Ray Willis, Seahawks

75 – Davin Joseph, Buccaneers – Joseph isn’t well known, but he’s part of a solid Buccaneers line. The right guard made his first Pro Bowl last season. Other notable 75s: Levi Brown, Cardinals; Marc Colombo, Cowboys; Eugene Monroe, Jaguars; Chad Rinehart, Redskins; Robert Turner, Jets; Ryan O’Callaghan, Chiefs; Nate Garner, Dolphins; Mario Henderson, Raiders

76 – Steve Hutchinson, Seahawks – At a loaded number, Minnesota’s Hutchinson is the best of the bunch. He’s the highest paid guard in the league, and he’s earned every penny of that deal by playing like the best guard in football for many years now. He’s a big reason the Vikings’ run game is so potent. So he gets the nod over OLT Flozell Adams of Dallas, OG Chris Snee of the Giants, legendary OT Orlando Pace of the Bears, and rookie OT Sebastian Vollmer of the Patriots. Other notable 76s: Branden Albert, Chiefs; Stacy Andrews, Eagles; Jeff Backus, Lions; Chad Clifton, Packers; Robert Gallery, Raiders; Jonathan Goodwin, Saints; Levi Jones, Redskins; Deuce Lutui, Cardinals; Tyler Polumbus, Broncos; Jeremy Zuttah, Buccaneers; Duane Brown, Texans; David Stewart, Titans

77 – Jake Long, Dolphins – Long, the former No. 1 overall pick, has stepped in as a terrific left tackle in Miami. He should be a bellweather left tackle for years in the league. He gets the nod over Baltimore C Matt Birk, who has long been a force, and underrated Bengals OT Andrew Whitworth. Other notable 77s: Gosder Cherilus, Lions; Tyson Clabo, Falcons; Brandon Frye, Seahawks; Nick Kaczur, Patriots; Damion McIntosh, Seahawks; Uchi Nwaneri, Jaguars; Carl Nicks, Saints; Tony Pashos, 49ers; Jason Smith, Rams; Floyd Womack, Browns; Randy Thomas, Redskins; Demetrius Bell, Bills

78 – Ryan Clady, Broncos – It’s a golden era for young left tackles, and Clady may be the best, at least as a pure pass blocker. He gave up his first sack in his season and a half in the NFL earlier this year, which is amazing for such a youngster. He’s a true blue-chipper. Other notable 78s: Allen Barbre, Packers; Jordan Black, Jaguars; Mike Pollak, Colts; John St. Clair, Browns; Max Starks, Steelers; Jon Stinchcomb, Saints; Adam Terry, Ravens

79 – Jeff Otah, Panthers – Otah is another young tackle, only he plays on the right side. He’s a big, physical run blocker who perfectly fits the style that Carolina wants to play. Other notable 79s: Jon Runyan, Chargers; Trai Essex, Steelers; Mike Goff, Chiefs; Todd Herremans, Eagles; Artis Hicks, Vikings; Jonathan Scott, Bills

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