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The NFL free-agent market opened with a flurry, and in this post we’ll try to make sense of it all. We’ll discuss all the major signings between the resumption of play and the August 4 date on which veteran signees could begin practicing.
Panthers (keep DE Charles Johnson, RB DeAngelo Williams, and OLBs Thomas Davis and James Anderson; add NT Ron Edwards, PK Olindo Mare, QB Derek Anderson, TE Ben Hartsock, LB Omar Gaither and Safeties Kevin Payne and Sean Considine) – We discussed Johnson in this post and Williams in this post. Davis is a major impact player who has fought major knee injuries the last few years. While he wasn’t technically a free agent, the team had agreed to either re-sign him or cut him. So Davis got a five-year deal. So did Anderson, who stepped into the starting lineup when Davis was out last year and played quite well. He got a five-year, $22 million contract with an $8.5 million signing bonus. Anderson’s emergence will let the Panthers move Jon Beason back to middle linebacker, and it will give Carolina a powerful LB corps. Edwards fills a major need for the Panthers, who had terrible defensive tackle play last year. That’s why they gave him a solid three-year, $8.25 million deal. Even though the Panthers run a 4-3, they traditionally put one of their tackles right over the center, so Edwards fits in as he moves over from a 3-4. The Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million deal with a $4 million signing bonus. Mare has been terrific the last three years inSeattleafter a mid-career lull, and he’s got a powerful leg on kickoffs. That gives him an edge over Panthers fan (and owner) favorite John Kasay, who’s remained good on field goals into his 40s but who can’t kick off reliably anymore. Anderson, who played for new Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, comes on board as the veteran quarterback who can start Week One if Cam Newton isn’t ready. Hartsock, an ex-Cardinal, got a two-year deal to replace Jeff King as a reliable blocking tight end. Payne, who sat out last year, was a decent starting safety in Chicago and should be worthy of a roster spot. He may have to beat out Considine, a decent safety and strong special-teamer, to win that spot. The Panthers also extended the contract of Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason. Gaither busted out as a starter in Philadelphia last year, but he’s pretty good insurance against another Thomas Davis injury at strong-side linebacker. Like Considine, Gaither played for new Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Philadelphia.
Eagles (add CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, QB Vince Young, OG Evan Mathis, RB Ronnie Brown, OT Ryan Harris, DTs Derek Landri and Anthony Hargrove, S Jarrad Page, TE Donald Lee, and WR Johnnie Lee Higgins) – We discussed the major Asomugha move in this post. Jenkins moves over from Green Bay for a five-year, $25 million deal to provide a pass-rush push inside. He was one of the best defensive linemen on the market, and the Eagles adding him is a big upgrade. Jenkins played in a 3-4 last year, but he’s played in a 4-3 as well, which speaks to his versatility. Babin, who was a first-round pick in Houston once upon a time, bounced around the league (including Philadelphia) before having a breakout season in Tennessee last year. His DL coach with the Titans, Jim Washburn, is now in Philadelphia, so it makes sense that Babin would follow him to the City of Brotherly Love. Babin got a five-year deal worth up to $28 million (but with just $6 million guaranteed) to help the Eagles ramp up their pass rush. Young, who was released by the Titans, gets a one-year deal to back up Michael Vick. Despite his off-field reputation, he’s a pretty good insurance policy for the Eagles, and they could revive his career. Mathis looks to be a backup in Philadelphia, but he’s been a pretty decent starter at guard in the past. That’s a nice addition for depth. Brown may be starting the downhill part of his career, but he provides nice insurance behind starting RB LeSean McCoy. Harris was a good starter at right tackle at times in Denver. He adds depth but could challenge holdover Winston Justice for a starting shot. Landri and Hargrove add depth at a thin position. Landri probably fits better as a spot player; Hargrove can provide some interior pass rush. Page adds depth at safety, which is a young position on the roster. Lee is a blocking tight end with experience in the West Coast offense. Higgins has good return skills but will have trouble cracking the Eagles’ deep WR rotation.
Jets (keep WR Santonio Holmes, CB Antonio Cromartie, OT Wayne Hunter, PK Nick Folk, CB Donald Strickland, Safeties Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, and QB Mark Brunell; add WR Plaxico Burress and S DaJuan Morgan) – We discussed Holmes’ signing and how it establishes him as a No. 1 receiver in this post. Cromartie was the consolation prize after the Jets missed out on Nnamdi Asomugha. Cromartie isn’t the shut down corner that Asomugha or Darrelle Revis is, but he’s good enough to make it hard on opposing quarterbacks. Plus, he’s dangerous if he ever gets the ball in his hands. He got a four-year, $32 million deal. Hunter, who filled in for an injured Damien Woody at right tackle last year, got a four-year, $13 million deal to take Woody’s place permanently now that Woody has retired. Folk performed well in his first year as a Jet and got a one-year deal to return. Strickland, Pool, and Smith are solid players who fit in well in the team’s DB rotation. Smith and Pool fit in as starters; Strickland a nickel back. Morgan adds depth at the position. Burress got a one-year, $3 million contract to replace Braylon Edwards as a starter across from Holmes. It’s a bit of a gamble for the Jets to rely on Burress, who has missed the last two seasons because of his legal problems, but if he’s the same player he was with the Giants he’ll be a nice addition. Brunell came back after being cut.
Chargers (add ILB Takeo Spikes, OLB Travis LaBoy and WR Laurent Robinson; keep S Eric Weddle, OT Jeromy Clary, TE Randy McMichael, S Bob Sanders, OLB Antwan Barnes, NT Jacques Cesaire, and QB Billy Volek) – Spikes, who played for new Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in San Francisco, is a solid veteran who is still a reliable run-down tackler. He’ll be a good fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense, even if his three-year, $9 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus is a little rich given his age. LaBoy is another vet who is a solid but unspectacular outside linebacker. He’s shown pass rush ability in the past, but not in recent years. Weddle was the Chargers’ biggest free agent, and they paid big money to keep him – a five-year, $40 million contract with a $13 million signing bonus and $19 million guaranteed that his agent claimed as the richest contract ever for a safety. Weddle may not be the best safety in the league, but he’s very good. His range at free safety is remarkable, and his presence allows the Chargers more flexibility in pass coverage. They simply couldn’t afford to lose him. Clary got a four-year deal to continue to play right tackle, even though his pass blocking has been suspect. McMichael provides insurance against Antonio Gates injury, while Sanders brings a veteran influence and hard hitting to the strong safety position if he can stay healthy. Barnes bounced around last year but finally found a home that matches his pass-rush skills in San Diego. Cesaire has started at nose tackle the last couple of years and played well. His return stabilizes the front line, because he does a nice job against the run. Volek is a solid veteran hand backing up Philip Rivers. The Chargers know he can be a solid short-term replacement if Rivers were to get injured. Robinson has been hurt a lot, but he’s big and fast. If healthy, he could help replace Malcom Floyd.
Redskins (keep WR Santana Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Philip Buchanon, DE Kedric Golston, and S Reed Doughty; add DT Barry Cofield, DE Stephen Bowen, CB Josh Wilson, WR Donte Stallworth, QB Kellen Clemens, and OL Chris Chester) – We discussed Moss in this post. Cofield was one of the big prizes of the free agent market, and might have been the best defensive tackle available. But it’s odd for Cofield, who thrived in a 4-3 last year, sign to play in a 3-4 in Washington. Maybe he will provide the Redskins a lot of scheme flexibility, but there’s a strong chance he’ll end up being a square peg trying to fit a round hole. That’s not what you want in a guy you’re giving a six-year megacontract. Bowen, who got a five-year, $27.5 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus, is a perfect fit for the system. He’ll step in as a solid five-techinique defensive end, and he’ll really improve the front. With Bowen and Cofield, the Redskins have taken a nice step forward up front. Wilson is a much better fit. He had a nice year in Baltimore last year, and he should provide an upgrade over the departing Carlos Rogers across from DeAngelo Hall. Wilson signed for a reasonable deal as well – three years, $13.5 million with $6 million in guarantees. We discussed all of these defensive additions in this post. Stallworth, who signed a one-year deal, adds depth to a receiving corps that is young aside from Moss. He’s likely a No. 4 receiver at best, but he still does have downfield speed. Clemens never made much of an impact as a second-round pick with the Jets, but like John Beck at one point he was a hot prospect. Clemens likely fits in as a No. 3 QB. Chester, who has been starting at guard for the Ravens, comes over to address a big need on the interior of the Redskins line. He got a five-year contract worth up to $20 million. Brown got a five-year deal to return and play right tackle. He didn’t have his best year last year, but he’s talented enough to play left tackle or right. Buchanon adds depth at corner, but he will miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension. Golston is a decent backup lineman. Doughty adds depth at safety.
Seahawks (add WR Sidney Rice, TE Zach Miller, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OG Robert Gallery, DTs Alan Branch and Ryan Sims, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, and PK Jeff Reed, ; keep DT Brandon Mebane, CB Kelly Jennings, RB Michael Robinson, LB Leroy Hill and DT Junior Siavii) – Once Santonio Holmes re-signed with the Jets, Rice was the best receiver on the market, and Seattle stepped up to sign him to a five-year, $41 million deal with $18.5 million guaranteed. Rice fought injuries last year, but he showed in 2009 that he can be an elite downfield receiver because of his great size and ball skills. His presence will let Mike Williams settle in as a solid No. 2 receiver and shore up a trouble area. Miller, who was a fine receiving tight end in Oakland, wasn’t at a position of need, but his talent was strong enough that the Seahawks gave him a big deal (five years, $34 million, with $17 million guaranteed). He’s a big-time receiving threat. The question is who will get Rice and Miller the ball. The Seahawks couldn’t come to a deal with Matt Hasselbeck, and to replace him they brought in Jackson on a two-year, $8 million deal that basically puts him on equal footing with Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson fell far out of favor with the Vikings last year, but he played well down the stretch in 2008 before Brett Favre hit town. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was with the Vikings at that point, so he knows Jackson’s ability and potential. Still, Jackson will have to grow more consistent and protect the football if he is to knock off Whitehurst and seize the starting job. Gallery was a bust as a tackle, but he’s played well as a guard. Former Raiders head coach Tom Cable is now in Seattle, so he must trust that Gallery can add veteran experience to an offensive line that’s young at tackle with Russell Okung and James Carpenter. Branch was a disappointment in Arizona, but he is huge and moves well, so the Seahawks will try to unlock his potential. Branch got a two-year, $8 million deal with $4 million guaranteed. Mebane was a huge retention for the Seahawks. He was one of the top defensive tackles on the market and had several suitors. Now he returns to create havoc up front. Having a wide body like Branch alongside could allow Mebane to penetrate even more. Robinson is a backup running back who is a decent receiver as well. Hill had played well for the Seahawks in the past, but off-field issues have limited his impact in recent years. Still, he has talent. Siavii adds depth inside. Sims and Wilkerson provide depth. Reed replaces the departed Olindo Mare. Jennings is a good but not great corner who’s probably better suited to play in a nickel set than as a starter.
Titans (add QB Matt Hasselbeck, LB Barrett Ruud, DT Shaun Smith and TE Daniel Graham; keep OG Leroy Harris, FB Ahmard Hall, and DEs Jacob Ford and Dave Ball) – The Titans stole Hasselbeck away from the Seahawks with a multiyear deal. The move will allow the team to develop rookie Jake Locker slowly, and and it will also help the Titans compete in the short term. Hasselbeck should have the personality to mentor Locker, but he’ll have to play better than he has the past 2-3 years if he is to really make the Titans contenders. Still, the team needed a veteran QB, and Hasselbeck was the best available. Smith has a reputation of crossing the line, but he played well for the Chiefs last year. He’s capable of starting and holding his own. Ruud, who was a tackle machine in Philadelphia, isn’t the thumper that departing MLB Stephen Tulloch is, but Ruud brings more athleticism to the position. The Titans will be able to play a little differently with him in town. Harris got a two-year deal to return as a starting guard, but he needs to continue to develop into that role. Graham is a solid blocking tight end with some receiving skills who will help to replace Bo Scaife. Hall is a solid blocking back who had options elsewhere but returned. Ball and Ford are not world-beaters, but they’re at least rotation-quality defensive ends who can hold up on run downs. Neither is going to create a ton of pass rush, though.
Texans (add CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning FB Lawrence Vickers, and P Brad Maynard; keep WR Jacoby Jones, OT Rashad Butler, QB Matt Leinart, and DT Damione Lewis) – The Texans have a lot of talent, but secondary play was their tragic flaw last year. They addressed it with two big signings. Joseph, regarded as the second-best corner on the market, got a monster five-year, $48.75 million deal with a $12.5 million signing bonus to be the lead corner. He played really well in Cincinnati, and he’ll be a huge upgrade. Manning, a versatile player who struggled to find just the right fit in Chicago, comes in to play free safety. He has immense talent if the Texans can figure out where to play him. Manning got a four-year, $20 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. Jones got a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3.5 million in guarantees in the hopes that he’s ready to fulfill his vast potential and emerge as a starter opposite Andre Johnson. The skills are there; the question is whether Jones can unlock them. Butler started four games at tackle as a fill-in last year. Leinart got a two-year, $5.5 million deal with $3.75 million guaranteed, which means the Texans expect him to compete with Dan Orlovsky for the backup spot behind Matt Schaub. Lewis got a one-year deal to play in Houston’s new 3-4; he played in a similar scheme in New England. Vickers, an ex-Brown, replaces Vonta Leach as a blocking fullback. Vickers isn’t as good as Leach, but he’s pretty good. Maynard started to fall off last year, but the vet may find punting easier in warm Houston than it was in cold Chicago.
Ravens (keep OG-OT Marshal Yanda, CB Chris Carr and LB Prescott Burgess; add FB Vonta Leach and S Bernard Pollard) – Yanda, who for years was a solid guard for the Ravens, moved out to right tackle last year and continued to play well. His strong play led to a strong market for his services, but the Ravens stepped up to keep Yanda with a five-year, $32 million deal with a $10 million signing bonus. Yanda is dependable, and his versatility will help him continue to make an impact through the length of the deal. That should make this a good deal for the Ravens. Burgess fits in as a backup outside linebacker. Carr is a solid nickelback who got a four-year deal to return. That’s important, especially after the Ravens lost two secondary starters – Dawan Landry and Josh Wilson – via free agency. Leach got a three-year, $11 million deal to replace LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee in the fullback role. Leach isn’t a great runner, but he’s a terrific blocker and will help Ray Rice tremendously in that role. Pollard is a great in-the-box safety who isn’t great in coverage. His skills mirror Dawan Landry, so he’s a decent replacement despite being older.
Rams (add S Quintin Mikell, OG Harvey Dahl, WR Mike Sims-Walker, DTs Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, CB Al Harris, LBs Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga, and RBs Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams) – The Rams had to cut FS O.J. Atogwe back before the lockout because of a huge escalator, and that was a huge loss. To replace him, they broke the bank for Mikell, an eight-year vet who has emerged as a top safety the last year or two. Mikell got a four-year deal worth $27 million with $14 million guaranteed, so he’ll need to continue to play at an elite level to be worth the price. But his presence will help the Rams defense continue to grow. Dahl is a good guard in large part because of his physical, borderline-dirty style of play. He’ll add an edge up front for a Rams line that features young OTs Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold and C Jason Brown. They could become one of the best front fives in the league now that Dahl’s in town on a four-year deal. Sims-Walker is a big receiver who’s more talented than any on the Rams’ roster. Since Mark Clayton isn’t yet healthy enough to play, MSW could be the Rams’ No. 1 option. Bannan, who got a three-year deal, is a versatile lineman who got cut after a scheme change in Denver. He can be a decent backup inside or outside. Muir, who got a one-year, $1.85 million deal, is in the same boat. Both add good depth. Harris got a one-year deal to see if he can resuscitate his career. He adds veteran wiles at least. Diles is an athletic weak-side linebacker. Poppinga can play outside as well. Norwood and Williams add depth at a position that was razor thin behind Steven Jackson last year. Both are great on third-down; the question is whether one or both can stay healthy.
Jaguars (add MLB Paul Posluzny, OLB Clint Session, S Dawan Landry, CB Drew Coleman, and OG Jason Spitz) – The Jaguars made their splash by signing two linebackers to fix a trouble spot. Posluszny, an ex-Bill, got a six-year, $45 million contract that includes $15 million in guarantees. Posluszny is an athletic player who fits best in a 4-3 like the Jaguars run, not in the Bills’ 3-4. He’s a reliable tackler who also has the athletic ability to get deep in coverage, and he fills an area that was a problem for Jacksonville last year. The price was high, but the fit seems right for the Jaguars. Session, an ex-Colt, got a five-year deal worth $30 million with $11.5 million in guarantees to play on the weak side. He’ll add even more ranginess to the group. After building the defensive line through the draft the last few years, the Jaguars hope Posluszny, Session, and holdover Daryl Smith are ready to make the front seven formidable. Landry got a five-year deal to address safety, which was another big trouble area. Landry’s better in run support than coverage, but he’s a lot better than what Jacksonville had at the position. Coleman, who got a three-year, $7.4 million deal, is better playing in the slot than outside, but he will help a trouble area. We discussed all of these Jaguars defensive moves in this post. Spitz will get a chance to start a left guard.
Colts (keep QB Peyton Manning, PK Adam Vinatieri, S Melvin Bullitt and RB Joseph Addai; add QBs Dan Orlovsky and Nate Davis, LB Ernie Sims, DE Jamaal Anderson, and DT Tommie Harris) – Manning, who was the franchise free agent for the Colts, had some tense moments of negotiation but eventually re-signed for a massive five-year, $90 million deal. He tried to take a little less money to make room for the Colts to re-sign some key players such as Addai, who is still the best back the Colts have despite his age and fragility. Vinatieri got a three-year deal to remain as the Colts’ dependable clutch kicker. Bullitt, who missed most of last season, also got a three-year deal. He’ll be in the mix to start at safety. After Orlovsky was cut by Houston, he quickly got a new gig in Indy. He’ll be an upgrade at backup quarterback. Davis, a bust as a 49ers draft pick, gets a two-year deal in Indy to compete with Curtis Painter for the No. 3 job. We discussed the Colts’ additions of three former first-rounders – Harris, Sims, and Anderson – in this post.
Falcons (add DE Ray Edwards; keep OT Tyson Clabo, OG Justin Blalock, and OLBs Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson) – Edwards, the second-best defensive end on the market behind Charles Johnson, got a solid but not earth-shattering deal to come to Atlanta – five years, $30 million with $11 million guaranteed. He’ll add pass rush and allow the Falcons to use John Abraham more strategically. That kind of pass rusher was one of the biggest needs for the Falcons, and Edwards was one of the best available. That’s a win for the Dirty Birds. Atlanta fought off a major challenge from the Bills to keep Clabo, who provides physical play at right tackle. The Falcons, who had three OL starters hitting free agency, gave Clabo a five-year, $25 million deal with $11.5 million guaranteed to stay. Blalock got a six-year, $38 million deal to return at left guard. Clabo and Blalock will stabilize a run game and give the Falcons more flexibility with their other guard spot. Nicholas has emerged as a quality outside ‘backer for a Falcons defense that is strong at that left. He got a five-year, $17.5 million contract that includes $7 million in guarantees to stay and help the Dirty Birds get over the hump. Peterson, who plays at the other outside linebacker spot, returns as well. He’s got a ton of experience and still drops into coverage pretty well.
Cowboys (keep OT Doug Free, DEs Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, OL Kyle Kosier, and S Gerald Sensabugh; add DE Kenyon Coleman and S Abram Elam) – The Cowboys had to cut a bunch of salary just to get under the salary cap, but they kept cutting to make sure they could keep Free, who emerged as a starting left tackle last year. Dallas fought off Tampa Bay by signing Free to a four-year, $32 million contract with $17 million in guarantees. If Free develops into an above-average left tackle, he’ll be worth that deal, and he’s young enough to do so. That makes this a wise investment for Jerry Jones. Kosier is a versatile player who can start inside. He got a three-year, $9 million deal. Spears got a five-year, $19.2 million deal to stay and play defensive end. He became a priority when Stephen Bowen went to the division rival Redskins. Hatcher got a $2.5 million signing bonus on a three-year, $6 million deal to help out in the defensive end rotation as well. To add depth after Bowen’s departure, the Cowboys brought in Coleman, a veteran who played for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Cleveland. Elam is another Cleveland import. He’ll team with Sensabaugh, who played well in Dallas last year, to improve Dallas’ safety situation. Both Sensabaugh and Elam got one-year, $2.5 million contracts.
Steelers (keep CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay, OT Willie Colon, OG Jonathan Scott, NT Chris Hoke, RB Melwede Moore, PK Shaun Suisham and P Daniel Sepulveda; add TE John Gilmore) – Taylor, regarded as one of the best corners on the market, stays in Pittsburgh on a four-year deal. His physical style fits the Steelers’ system well, and the system keeps him from being exposed in coverage. He wouldn’t fit any other scheme as well. Gay isn’t as good as Taylor, but he’s been a decent starter for the Steelers. Suisham stepped in for Jeff Reed last season and did a nice job for the Steelers. Colon has battled injuries the last two years, but he has played well when healthy at left tackle. Pittsburgh’s counting on him to man the position at a high level, because they cut Flozell Adams and Max Starks as they gave Colon a five-year, $29 million deal. Scott adds solid depth at several positions. Sepulveda returns to punt for Pittsburgh once again. He’s been effective when healthy. Hoke and Moore are key players at their positions. Gilmore helps to replace departed backup TE Matt Spaeth.
Chiefs (add WR Steve Breaston, NT Kelly Gregg, ILB Brandon Siler and RB LeRon McClain; keep DE Tamba Hali, C Casey Wiegmann, WR Terrance Copper, S Jon McGraw, and CB Travis Daniels) – Breaston showed promise in Arizona, especially when now Chiefs head coach Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator there. He comes in to provide a complement to Dwayne Bowe as first-rounder Jonathan Baldwin develops. Breaston got a five-year deal that includes $9 million in guaranteed money. Gregg, who played for the Ravens, has been a solid plugger up front who frees the players around him to make plays. He’s a nice replacement for the departed Ron Edwards and could be an upgrade if he can maintain his past performance. Siler is a solid inside linebacker who will help against the run. McClain can play tailback but probably fits in better as a versatile fullback. Hali, the Chiefs’ preeminent pass rusher and franchise player, got a long-term deal – 5 years, $60 million with $35 million guaranteed. It’s a high price, but Hali has earned it. Wiegmann, who has played more than 10,000 consecutive snaps since 2001, got a one-year, $2.25 million contract to remain K.C.’s starting center. Copper, McGraw (who got a one-year deal), and Daniels all add experienced depth, which is key after a no-minicamp offseason.
Bengals (add DE Manny Lawson, QB Bruce Gradkowski, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nate Clements, and OG Max-Jean Gilles; keep RBs Cedric Benson and Brian Leonard and S Gibril Wilson) – Lawson is a talented pass rusher who doesn’t have many sacks but still makes an impact. He could spring to life replacing Antwan Odom. He’s certainly worth a one-year, $3 million deal. Gradkowski, who had some success as a starter in Oakland, comes to Cincinnati to be the placeholder until rookie Andy Dalton is ready. Gradkowski played for Jon Gruden in Tampa, so he’ll be comfortable in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s system. He was the right fit to be the Bengals’ Week 1 starter. Howard got a two-year, $6.5 million deal to move over from Oakland and step into the starting lineup. Clements, who never lived up to his massive contract in San Francisco, returns to Ohio (where he played college football) to replace Johnathan Joseph in the starting lineup. Gilles is a massive player who can play either guard spot or even fill in at tackle. He got a one-year, $1.15 million deal. Benson has had off-field problems, but he’s been a decent back for the Bengals. The question is whether his career is on the decline given his age. Leonard, who got a two-year deal, is a versatile back who can run, catch, and block. He’s a key contributor to the Bengals’ offense. Wilson was a starting safety last year. He’s OK but not great.
49ers (keep QB Alex Smith, DE Ray McDonald, and C Tony Wragge; add C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, S Madieu Williams, PK David Akers and OLB Antwan Applewhite) – In one of the worst kept secrets of the lockout, Smith got a one-year, $5 million deal to be the 2011 starter and placeholder for Colin Kaepernick. McDonald got a much bigger deal to provide sturdy play up front – five years, $20 million with $7 million guaranteed. McDonald pushes the pocket more than most think. Wragge, who got a one-year deal, provides depth at center after the loss of David Baas to the Giants. But Goodwin, who came over from the Saints for a three-year, $10.9 million deal with $4 million in guarantees, should become the starter at the pivot. Rogers, an ex-Redskin, takes over for Nate Clements. Rogers has hands of stone, but he’s pretty good in coverage and may be an upgrade over Clements. Williams fills in at safety, which is a position full of question marks right now. Akers, a long-time Eagle, comes to town to replace injured kicker Joe Nedney, who was cut. Akers has a ton of experience if he can keep his skills intact. Applewhite moves over from San Diego to add depth at an outside linebacker spot that’s been hit hard by free agency.
Buccaneers (keep OLB Quincy Black, OG Davin Joseph, and OT Jeremy Trueblood; add P Michael Koenen) – Black, who is the best playmaker among the Bucs’ linebackers, got a big-time deal to stay – five years, $29 million, with $11.5 million guaranteed. He’s playing the weak-side spot that Derrick Brooks made so many plays in for so many years. Joseph is a talented guard who struggled a bit last year but had a Pro Bowl season in 2009. He got a big deal – 7 years, $52.5 million with $19 million guaranteed – to continue to anchor the Bucs’ line. Trueblood is a marginal starter at right tackle, but he still got a two-year deal to ensure continuity on the line. Koenen comes over from Atlanta on a major deal – six years, $19.5 million with $6.5 million guaranteed – to replace Adam Podlesh. Koenen’s also great on kickoffs.
Giants (add C-OG David Baas, P Steve Weatherford, QB David Carr, TE Ben Patrick, and DT Gabe Watson; keep RB Ahmad Bradshaw, OT Shawn Andrews, OG-OT Kevin Boothe, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, and WR Michael Clayton) – After purging three starting offensive linemen, the Giants started the rebuilding process with Baas, who proved with San Francisco that he can be an effective starter at center as well as guard. Boothe got a two-year deal to provide depth at tackle, and he may get a chance to start at left guard. Kiwanuka is a versatile player who has contributed both at defensive end and at strong-side linebacker. With Osi Umenyiora threatening a holdout, the Giants couldn’t afford to let Kiwanuka leave. Weatherford, an ex-Jet, is an upgrade over last year’s punter for the Giants. Plus, he has experience kicking in the Meadowlands. Bradshaw tested the market but stayed in Big Blue with a four-year, $18 million deal with $9 million in guarantees. He’s the best back the Giants have. Patrick is a solid blocker but not much of a receiver. Watson and Clayton were high picks who disappointed elsewhere but still have talent. Andrews, who had been cut, returns and could start again. Carr returns as Eli Manning’s backup after a year in San Francisco.
Saints (add RB Darren Sproles, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Fabian Washington, and OTs Alex Barron and George Foster; keep WR Lance Moore, OTs Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief, LBs Scott Shanle and Danny Clark, Safeties Roman Harper and Chris Reis, and CB Leigh Torrence, add LB Will Herring) – After trading Reggie Bush, the Saints signed Sproles, who proved in San Diego that he can be a game changer as a returner, runner and receiver if used correctly. The Saints’ RB depth should let them feature the diminutive Sproles without wearing him out. If they can do that, the four-year, $14 million deal with $6 million guaranteed will look like a bargain. Franklin came to town on a one-year deal that significantly upgrades the Saints’ front line. (We’ll analyze that addition further soon.) Harper got a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed to return as the starting strong safety. He’s been a very solid player for New Orleans. Moore, an ideal slot receiver, got a five-year deal to stay in New Orleans. He can be a real X-factor for the offense, so it makes sense for the Saints to keep him. Bushrod has started at left tackle for the last two years for the Saints and has held up OK. He had other options in free -agency but wanted to return to New Orleans on a two-year deal. Torrence is a backup corner and special-teams ace, as is Reis, a backup safety. Herring, an ex-Seahawk, adds depth at linebacker, in addition to solid contributors Shanle (two years, $4 million) and Clark. Washington adds depth to help replace the departed Usama Young. Strief is a solid swing tackle, but he’ll have to beat out former first-round picks Barron and Foster to keep his job. Barron and Foster have been disappointments elsewhere.
Bills (keep CB Drayton Florence; add S Brad Smith, LB Nick Barnett, and QB Tyler Thigpen) – Florence played well for the Bills last year, his first in Buffalo. His reward is a three-year, $15 million deal. Thigpen started for the Chiefs in 2008, but his skills fit a Pistol offense that few teams use. Bills head coach Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator during Thigpen’s best NFL season, so he will be able to make the most of the QB’s skills if Ryan Fitzpatrick gets hurt or falters. This is a good match of player and coach for a backup quarterback. Smith, an ex-Jet, got a four-year, $15 million contract. He can make an impact as a slot receiver, option quarterback, and kick returner, which creates a lot of options for the Bills. Let’s just hope having Smith run the Pistol isn’t one of them. Barnett, who was cut by the Packers, will help replace Paul Posluszny. Barnett, who’s more physical than Posluszny, should fit the 3-4 defense better than the former Bill did. Barnett got a three-year, $12 million deal with $6 million guaranteed.
Vikings (keep PK Ryan Longwell and OT Ryan Cook; add WRs Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, DL Remi Ayodele, and OT Charlie Johnson)– Longwell has been a reliable kicker for the Vikings, so they anted up to keep him with a four-year, $12 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus. Jenkins, who got a three-year deal, never lived up to his status as a first-round pick in Atlanta, but he has great size and speed and is a willing blocker. He won’t replace Sidney Rice, but he’s going to get a chance to. At the least, his presence will allow the Vikings to continue to play Percy Harvin in the slot. Aromashodu showed some promise with the Bears, but he fell out of favor last season and was not tendered a free-agent contract. Still, his ability and size makes him worth a shot for the Vikings, especially since their biggest target, Sidney Rice, left in free agency. Ayodele did a nice job as a rotation player for the Saints. He’ll provide depth behind the Williams wall and help to fill in during their suspensions. Johnson and Cook add depth at offensive tackle, and Johnson may start after Bryant McKinnie’s release.
Cardinals (add OGs Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack, LB Stewart Bradley, WR Chansi Stuckey, CB Richard Marshall, and TE s Todd Heap and Jeff King) – Colledge, who was a starter for the Packers, moves over to provide help at a big trouble spot. He’ll also take over some of the veteran leadership role that the retired Alan Faneca had last year. Womack, an ex-Brown, is versatile enough to fill in at guard or tackle. He’s an ideal sixth lineman. Bradley is a big, physical inside linebacker who has seen his skill sapped by injuries the last two years. Still, he’s worth a look to see if he can return to form. Stuckey adds depth at receiver after the departure of Steve Breaston. Marshall’s 2010 season wasn’t good, but in previous years he was a good starter for the Panthers. He will get a chance to start in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and on a one-year deal he’s a nice addition. Heap, a longtime Raven, got a two-year deal to return to Arizona, where he played his college ball. Heap will add an element that hasn’t been in the Cardinals passing game in past years. King, a solid blocker who also has good receiving skills, becomes the tight end complement for Heap and rookie Robert Housler in Arizona. King got a one-year deal.
Browns (add S Usama Young, RB Brandon Jackson and CB Dmitri Patterson; keep PK Phil Dawson, TE Evan Moore and DE Jayme Mitchell) – Dawson, a reliable kicker who was the Browns’ franchise player, signed for the guaranteed one-year tender of about $3 million. Young, an ex-Saint, can play corner but likely fits in as a starting free safety with the Browns. He brings ability and locker-room leadership to the mix. Patterson, an ex-Eagle, was exposed as a starter last year, but he’s good enough to be a nickel back, and he fills a need position. Moore emerged as a good pass-catching tight end last year and could earn a bigger role. Jackson got a two-year, $4.5 million contract. He fits in as a good third-down back for the West Coast offense, although he showed last year he’s not a starting caliber back. Mitchell didn’t play much after coming over via trade last year, but the Browns see him as a starting tight end in their new 4-3 defense. He got a two-year deal.
Packers (keep PK Mason Crosby, WR James Jones and FB John Kuhn) – The Packers re-signed Crosby, who has been a solid kicker even in bad winter weather, to a five-year deal. Jones was looking to move up the depth chart by moving in free agency, but he didn’t find a deal to his liking. His return means the Pack remains incredibly deep at receiver. Kuhn is a blocking full back who can catch and can run in short yardage. He fits the Packers better than any other team, and so re-signing makes sense.
Raiders (keep OLB Kamerion Wimbley, S Michael Huff, OT Khalif Barnes, C Samson Satele, OG Justin Smiley, OLB Jarvis Moss and LS Jon Condo; add QB Trent Edwards and OT Stephon Heyer) – Wimbley, the Raiders’ franchise player, had his best season since his rookie year last year, but that doesn’t mean his massive five-year, $48 million contract with a whopping $29 million guaranteed is a good deal. That deal was necessary so that the Raiders didn’t take the full brunt of the franchise tag this year. Huff had a breakout year at safety last year, but he didn’t find big money on the open market. The Raiders happily took him back. Barnes got a one-year deal to return as a starter at tackle while youngsters at the position develop. Moss, whom the Raiders picked up off the scrap heap last year, was a first-round bust in Denver, but he has enough pass-rush ability to be a solid backup at a one-year, $1.25 million price. Condo is a dependable long-snapper for the Raiders’ elite specialists, so he’s worth keeping around. Edwards comes to town as Jason Campbell’s new backup. Satele, Smiley, and Heyer (who got a one-year, $1.7 million deal) add depth at offensive line, and a couple of the trio could end up starting.
Dolphins (keep DE Tony McDaniel; add ILB Kevin Burnett, OLBs Jason Trusnik and Jason Taylor, QB Matt Moore, DT Ronald Fields and OT Marc Colombo) – With trade negotiations for Kyle Orton falling apart, the Dolphins added Moore, who was a bust as a starter in Carolina last year but who might be good enough to keep Chad Henne on his toes. Moore’s no Orton, but he should be an average backup. McDaniel got a two-year deal to remain as a backup defensive lineman. Trusnik, most recently with Cleveland, is a solid outside linebacker and special-teams player who provides quality depth behind Koa Misi and Cameron Wake. Trusnik got a two-year deal as well. Taylor does as well, returning to the team he has spent most of his career with for the third time. Taylor can still make a play or two as a featured pass rusher. Burnett got a big deal – five years with $10 million in guarantees – to replace Channing Crowder at inside linebacker. Burnett’s more athletic (and less annoying) than Crowder. Fields is an inside plugger who can back up Paul Soliai. Colombo has ties to Tony Sparano from the Dallas days, and it appears the Dolphins are moving Vernon Carey inside so that Colombo can start at right tackle. But Colombo didn’t really hold up at the position last year, so that plan seems risky.
Bears (add P Adam Podlesh, TE Matt Spaeth, WRs Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, RB Marion Barber, DE Vernon Gholston, DT Amobi Okoye, and C Chris Spencer; keep DT Anthony Adams and LB Nick Roach) – After cutting stalwart Brad Maynard, the Bears brought Podlesh over from Jacksonville on a five-year deal worth more than $10 million. The Bears traditionally have among the best special teams in the league, so adding Podlesh’s stronger leg to the mix will make a difference. Spaeth, an ex-Steeler, replaces blocking TE Brandon Manumaleuna. He’s not as bulky but is a better receiver out of short-yardage sets. Williams was a bust in Dallas, but he had his best season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz in Detroit. He’s a worthwhile gamble, especially since the Bears don’t have a receiver with his kind of size. Hurd is a nice depth signing at wide receiver; he’d be a quality fourth option at the position. Adams got a two-year deal to return as a solid tackle who can play over the center. He’s solid and allows the guys around him to make plays. Barber got a two-year, $5 million deal to add some physicality to the running game. The question is whether injuries limited him in Dallas, or whether his career is winding down. Gholston and Okoye, both disappointments as first-round picks, are rebuilding projects for Rod Marinelli, considered one of the best defensive line coaches around. Both got one-year deals, and if Marinelli turns them into forces, it will be a huge win. Roach got a two-year, $4.5 million deal to return as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. After failing to come to a deal with long-time center Olin Kreutz, the Bears added Spencer on a two-year deal. The former first-round pick was never great in Seattle, and his style is more finesse than physical. But O-line coach Mike Tice is one of the best in the league, so he might be able to get a little more out of Spencer’s talent.
Lions (add CB Eric Wright, LBs Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, and WR Rashied Davis; keep QB Drew Stanton, CBs Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, OL Dylan Gandy, LB Bobby Carpenter, and PK Dave Rayner) – Wright has played pretty well in Cleveland, and he got a one-year deal to address a huge need area for the Lions. Wright’s at least good to be a top three corner. Houston returns as a starter. He was Detroit’s best corner last year, and he’s good enough to be a solid starter. Detroit couldn’t afford to lose him. Durant, an ex-Jaguar, got a two-year deal to upgrade the linebacking corps that was such a problem last year. Tulloch will be an even bigger upgrade; he was hoping to hit it big in free agency but took a one-year, $3.25 million deal to reunite with Jim Schwartz. The Lions will be glad he did, because he’s a big-time thumper at middle linebacker. Davis, an ex-Bear, is a fine special-teams cover player who can contribute at wideout in a pinch. Stanton, a former second-round pick, played well in relief last year and provides a solid backup option. McDonald played in six games, starting two, as a backup corner last year. Rayner filled in for long-time kicker Jason Hanson after Hanson got hurt; now Rayner has a chance to steal away Hanson’s job. Gandy got a two-year deal. Carpenter returns to add LB depth.
Broncos (add RB Willis McGahee, WR David Anderson, TEs Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario, and DT Ty Warren) – McGahee, who had been released by the Ravens, got a four-year, $9.5 million deal to come in as Knowshon Moreno’s backup. It’s a ridiculous deal for an older running back who hasn’t shown much pop in recent years, and the fact that it takes away from Moreno’s carries makes it even worse. Anderson, who was released by the Texans, adds depth at wide receiver. Fells (an ex-Ram) and Rosario (an ex-Panther) have shown pass-catching potential, but neither has been consistent. Still, they should help the passing game. Warren, whom the Patriots cut after he failed a physical, got a two-year, $10 million deal with $2.5 million guaranteed to help the Broncos move to a 4-3. Warren and trade acquisition Brodrick Bunkley now form the center of that defense. Warren has been great at points in his career, but he must prove he is now healthy enough to still play well. Still, he’s a nice and necessary addition for Denver.
Patriots (keep OT Matt Light, RB Sammy Morris and RB Kevin Faulk) – Light returns to play left tackle, but now he’s a place holder until Nate Solder is ready. Still, he provides good insurance for the Pats on Tom Brady’s blind side. Morris, a versatile back who takes snaps at tailback and fullback, re-signed on a one-year deal. Faulk, who missed much of last season due to injury, returns as the Patriots’ do-everything back. But with the emergence of young backs, Faulk could face an uphill battle for a roster spot.
There’s not much real NFL news out there as the lockout continues, but that hasn’t stopped the rumors from floating around. Kevin Kolb remains a hot prospect for several teams at quarterback, while rumors are that the Redskins are prepared to go with John Beck as their starting quarterback.
Since both Kolb and Beck are former second-round picks, I was curious to dig back through drafts of past years to see how such picks have done in the NFL. The results of this research project were startling, and they revealed that both the second and the third rounds of the NFL draft have become the quarterback dead zone.
Only 14 percent of quarterbacks (5-of-35) taken in the second and third rounds since 1997 have been successes – and that’s if you grade generously and count Kolb as a success. And if you start grading after the first third of the second round, the success rate plummets even more to 7 percent (2-of-29).
Let’s look back at the drafts to see how these failures have happened. Our guess is that you’ll look at this list and marvel at just how poorly teams have done drafting quarterbacks in the dead zone. And after the list, we’ll make some conclusions.
FYI, Quarterbacks who we’re grading as successes are in all caps below. We went back through the 1997 draft, since there’s only one QB left in the league who entered before then (Kerry Collins, 1995).
2011 – Andy Dalton (CIN, 35); Colin Kaepernick (SF, 36)
2010 – Jimmy Clausen (CAR, 48)
2009 – Pat White (MIA, 44)
2008 – Brian Brohm (GB, 56); Chad Henne (MIA, 57)
2007 – KEVIN KOLB (PHI, 36); John Beck (MIA, 40); Drew Stanton (DET, 43)
2006 – Kellen Clemens (NYJ, 49); Tarvaris Jackson (MINN, 64)
2001 – DREW BREES (SD, 32); Quincy Carter (DALL, 53); Marques Tuiasosopo (OAK, 59)
1999 – Shaun King (TB, 50)
1998 – Charlie Batch (DET, 60)
1997 – JAKE PLUMMER (ARIZ, 42)
2011 – Ryan Mallett (NE, 74)
2010 – Colt McCoy (CLE, 85)
2008 – Kevin O’Connell (NE, 94)
2007 – Trent Edwards (BUFF, 92)
2006 – Charlie Whitehurst (SD, 81); Brodie Croyle (KC, 85)
2005 – Charlie Frye (CLE, 67); Andrew Walter (OAK, 69); David Greene (SEA, 85)
2004 – MATT SCHAUB (ATL, 90)
2003 – Dave Ragone (HOU, 88); Chris Simms (TB, 97)
2002 – Josh McCown (ARIZ, 81)
2000 – Giovanni Carmazzi (SF, 65); Chris Redman (BALT, 75)
1999 – Brock Huard (SEA, 77)
1998 – Jonathan Quinn (JAX, 86); BRIAN GRIESE (DEN, 91)
History tells us that to have any chance of success with a second-round quarterback, you have to take him in the first 10 picks of the round. That’s what the Bengals did with Andy Dalton and the 49ers did with Colin Kaepernick this year. But after the first 10 picks of the round, the chances of success plummet and stay low through the third round.
And we discussed last year how trading into the back end of the first round for a quarterback is a strategy that fails. In other words, it seems like the best chance for success with a quarterback isn’t just taking one early – it’s taking one in the first 15-to-20 picks. Spending a second- or third-round pick is an even worse risk than the 50/50 shot a first-round QB is.
Meanwhile, lower-round quarterbacks – Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, David Garrard, Matt Hasselbeck, and of course Tom Brady – have had more success than the QBs taken in the dead zone of the second and third rounds. While it’s been a few years since a late-round or undrafted QB has rocketed to stardom, finding a QB that way is ironically a better bet than taking one in the second or third round.
All this history points does not bode well for recent draftees like Jimmy Clausen (who appears headed down the traditional second-round path) and Colt McCoy (who has shown a bit more promise). And it makes us wonder whether the Patriots’ 2011 gamble on Ryan Mallett will end up like their selection of Kevin O’Connell three years before.
We’ll see if Dalton, Kaepernick, Mallett, or any other young quarterbacks can escape the trend. But for now, we have no choice but to believe in the force of the QB dead zone.
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.
As the NFL season draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to play a game of what if? So we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison to see which of these what-ifs could have impacted the fates of their teams the most this season.
10 – What if Troy Polamalu hadn’t gotten hurt? You could argue that no player more impacted a defense than Polamalu, the do-everything free safety who added a free-ranging scary element to Pittsburgh’s defense. But in Polamalu’s absence, the Steelers gave up late passing touchdowns and lost games to Chicago (Week 2), Cincinnati (Week 3), Kansas City (Week 11), and Oakland (Week 13). It’s impossible to say how many of those games the Steelers would have won with Polamalu in there, but there’s no way they would have surrendered leads in all of those games with 43 playing. Polamalu’s injury was a huge reason that the Steelers’ Super Bowl defense was so mediocre and ultimately ended with the team missing the playoffs.
9 – none
8 – What if Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been healthy for home games vs. Eagles and Saints in Weeks 13 and 14? The Falcons finished 9-7, and they were a terrific home team with the exception of the two games Ryan missed against Philly and New Orleans. Both were tough games, but if the Falcons pulled off a win in one or both of those games, they could have easily been a playoff team. (Beating Philly would have put both teams at 10-6 and given Atlanta the tiebreaker.) Those two home games were Atlanta’s playoff push, and not having Ryan for them ultimateky ended up being a killer.
7 – What if the Panthers had gotten simply average quarterback play instead of the multiple stinkers that Jake Delhomme gave them this season? If you had to pick the player who had the worst season, it might well have been Delhomme, who threw 18 interceptions in just 11 games and finished with an abysmal passer rating of 59.4. But if Delhomme had avoided just a couple of meltdowns – three interceptions vs. Buffalo in Week 7 or four interceptions vs. the Jets in Week 12 – perhaps the Panthers would have a couple more wins and would be in the playoffs instead of finishing 8-8.
6 – none
5 – What if the Titans had won in overtime in Pittsburgh in Week 1? The season opened on a Thursday-night in Pittsburgh with the Titans putting up a valiant effort against the Steelers, only to fall short and lose 13-10 in overtime. But that loss started a slide that didn’t end until the Titans found themselves 0-6. Tennessee staged a valiant comeback, and fought back to finish at 8-8, but the early-season hole was too deep to dig out of, and Tennessee missed the playoffs. But a Week One win might have helped Tennessee pull out a couple more close games early on, and that would have been enough for this talented team to become a scary opponent in the playoffs.
4 – none
3 – What if Cleveland took Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the draft? Instead of taking Sanchez, the Browns traded down twice, gaining two marginal starters and a sixth-round pick in the process. But the Browns’ future might look better with Sanchez playing with Braylon Edwards, Jerome Harrison, and Josh Cribbs around him (not to mention Joe Thomas protecting him). They could have gained almost as much as the pittance they got in exchange for moving down by trading Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, or both. Instead, the Browns’ future roster is a big question mark. Meanwhile, the Jets would have played with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Would they still be a playoff team? (Thanks to Chase for this idea.)
2 – What if the Broncos hadn’t gotten a miracle win in Week 1? Few teams had as much offseason controversy as the Broncos, who traded away QB Jay Cutler after a spat with head coach Josh McDaniels and then weathered plenty of petulance from WR Brandon Marshall. But in Week One, the Broncos caught a huge break when Brandon Stokley caught a deflected Hail Mary pass around midfield and took it for an 87-yard touchdown in the game’s final minute for the Broncos to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 12-7. That win loomed large as the Broncos started 6-0. Without that early success, it’s quite possible that McDaniels could have lost his team early, and a bad start would have led to huge questions about the decision to trade for Kyle Orton instead of hanging with Cutler. Instead, the Broncos had a solid first season under McDaniels despite a slow finish, and McDaniels’ gruff ways didn’t lose all of the locker room (only part of it).
1 – What if the Ravens had kept Matt Stover at PK instead of trusting Steven Hauschka? – Hauschka, whom the Ravens moved up from kickoff specialist to full-time kicker at the start of the 2009 season, missed a 44-yard potential game-winner in Week 6 at Minnesota and a 38-yarder in that would have gotten Baltimore within one score against Cincinnati the next week. The Ravens still snuck into the playoffs, but one more win would have made them more comfortable and also given them a playoff game in Cincinnati instead of Baltimore.
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.
1 – None – Sorry Warren Moon and Jeff George, but no significant quarterback in the NFL is currently wearing No. 1.
2 – Matt Ryan, Falcons – Two young quarterbacks wear No. 2, and Ryan, who is the future of the franchise in Atlanta, is an easy choice over JaMarcus Russell, who apparently cannot be the future of the franchise in Oakland. Other notable 2s: Brian St. Pierre, Cardinals; Chris Simms, Broncos, Sage Rosenfels, Vikings
3 – Derek Anderson, Browns – Anderson is no good and is having an even worse year, but he’s the only quarterback who has seen the field this season that wears No. 3, so he wins this by default. But you can go ahead and expect Anderson to lose to a kicker or punter in the final jersey number comparison. Other notable 3: Matt Moore, Panthers
4 – Brett Favre, Vikings – There’s no question that Favre is not only the most significant No. 4 currently playing now; he may be the best No. 4 in the history of the league. Part of that is that 4 was never a popular number before Favre, and part of it is of course Favre’s longevity and production. Other notable 4: Kevin Kolb, Eagles
5 – Donovan McNabb, Eagles – When McNabb first started wearing No. 5, it seemed like a bit of a novelty for a quarterback. But now this is a popular number. Still, McNabb remains the standard-bearer, both for his current play and his long and storied career. But it’ll be interesting to see how long McNabb can hold off up-and-coming Joe Flacco to keep the claim on 5. Other notable 5s: Kerry Collins, Titans; Trent Edwards, Bills, Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders
6 – Jay Cutler, Bears – Cutler narrowly wins this number’s honors over rookie Mark Sanchez, simply because Cutler has a little longer pedigree. At the end of the year or next year, the decision could be different. Other notable 6: Pat White, Dolphins
7 – Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers – Big Ben wears 7 in honor of John Elway, one of the greatest 7s of all time. Now Roethlisberger is writing his legacy at the number with two Super Bowl titles very early in his career. The fact that Big Ben seems to be emerging as a passer is a sign that his career may actually be starting an upswing just now. Other notable 7s: Matt Cassel, Chiefs; Chad Henne, Dolphins; Byron Leftwich, Buccaneers; Matt Leinart, Cardinals; Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings; Michael Vick, Eagles
8 – Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – This was a tough call. Matt Schaub of the Texans is having by far a better year than Hasselbeck, but Hasselbeck has a much better career at this point. So we’ll side with experience over the present, knowing full well that we might want to flip the tables on this number very soon. Other notable 8s: Kyle Orton, Broncos; David Carr, Giants; Brian Hoyer, Patriots
9 – Drew Brees, Saints – Brees may be for the early 2010s what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were for most of this decade. He’s at the top of his game, piling up numbers with great accuracy and providing great leadership to boot. And if he can get a Super Bowl ring this year, his status will only grow. As good as Dallas’ Tony Romo, Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer, and Jacksonville’s David Garrard are, they aren’t in Brees’ league. Other notable 9: Matthew Stafford, Lions
10 – Eli Manning, Giants – Manning isn’t a perfect quarterback, but he’s good and he’s won his share of games and then some. That’s enough to earn him the 10 spot over declining players like Marc Bulger of St. Louis and Chad Pennington of Miami. Other notable 10s: Matt Flynn, Packers; Brady Quinn, Browns; Vince Young, Titans; Troy Smith, Ravens
11 – Daunte Culpepper, Lions – There are no current star quarterbacks wearing 11, so we’ll give this honor to a former star in Culpepper who has started a couple of games this year. Other notable 11s: Josh Johnson, Buccaneers; Alex Smith, 49ers; Mark Brunell, Saints; Kellen Clemens, Jets
12 – Tom Brady, Patriots – It’s an easy call to give the honors at 12 to Brady, who’s already got the resume of an all-time great. Plus, Brady continues to perform at the highest of levels. He remains the real deal. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a good quarterback, but he’s outside Brady’s echelon. Other notable 12s: Brodie Croyle, Chiefs; Kyle Boller, Rams; Josh McCown, Panthers; Jim Sorgi, Colts
13 – Kurt Warner, Cardinals – This is another easy call, as Warner is playing at a high level 10 years after he burst on the scene in St. Louis. His career has been a little up and down, but at his best there are few better than Warner. Other notable 13: Shaun Hill, 49ers
14 – Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – Fitzpatrick isn’t great, but he’s the only QB wearing 14 who has even played this year. Dan Fouts must be ashamed.
15 – Seneca Wallace, Seahawks – This is another slow number, as Wallace and Washington backup Todd Collins are the only quarterbacks wearing 15. We almost gave this to Tim Tebow in advance, but we’ll stick with NFL players for now.
16 – Charlie Batch, Steelers – At least we had a choice at 16 between Batch, the former Lions starter who’s now Big Ben’s backup, and Tyler Thigpen, who had some good games in K.C. last year before going to the Dolphins via trade this year.
17 – Philip Rivers, Chargers – Rivers isn’t on the Brees-Manning-Brady level, but he may be the best of the next batch of quarterbacks. He’s productive and continuing to grow as a leader and late-game threat. Other notable 17s: Jason Campbell, Redskins; Jake Delhomme, Panthers
18 – Peyton Manning, Colts – There’s no question here that Manning is by far the best 18 not only at quarterback but at any position in the league. No player is doing more to elevate his team this season than Manning, who is carrying his team to the top of the pack once again.
19 – NONE – No quarterbacks are wearing 19 this year either. Apparently young QBs need to see more Johnny Unitas highlights.
Every year, once NFL opponents are determined, there’s a lot made of the strength of schedule. But this year, some of these figures are pretty deceiving. So I thought we’d examine these numbers to see which of these stats are true and which should be seen with a wink.
A few notes first: An NFL team’s schedule has 14 of 16 games determined by rotation and the other 2 determined by the previous year’s finish. Each year, a team plays:
*6 division games (home and away against the other 3 division teams)
*4 games against another division from its own conference – pairing are AFC East and South; AFC North and West; NFC East and South; NFC North and West
*2 games against the similar-finishing team from the other two divisions in its own conference – so, for example, Carolina finished first in the NFC South and is playing the NFC East; it will also play the first-place teams from the NFC West (Arizona) and North (Minnesota)
*4 games against a division from the other conference – pairings are AFC East/NFC South; AFC North/NFC North; AFC South/NFC West; and AFC West/NFC East
We’re going look at the strength of schedule based on opponents’ 2008 winning percentage and see which numbers are lying and which numbers are worth noting. First, some overarching thoughts…
*The strong results of the NFC South and AFC East cause teams in those divisions to move to the top of the list (they make up the top 8 teams on the list.) The 6 intra-division games and the fact that these division are playing each other inflates their numbers. But that’s not a fluke, because those divisions look to be strong again. Of these teams, the Jets and Buccaneers have QB questions that could cause them to take steps back, and those steps back could end up looking huge in the standings because of the level of competition.
*Conversely, the fact that Detroit went 0-16 unnaturally deflates the other three NFC North teams (ranked the bottom three in strength of schedule against) as well as the rankings of the AFC North (22, 25, 28 and 29). I think Detroit will be at least competitive this year (I could see them with a minimum of four wins and as many as six or seven), and that would put those teams’ schedules in the middle of the pack more than at the bottom. Four games would cause huge movement in this standings.
*Other teams that skew these rankings, at least in my opinion: Seattle is better than a normal 4-win team, Green Bay is better than a normal 6-win team, Kansas City is better than a normal 2-win team, San Diego is better than a normal 8-win team, and Jacksonville is better than a normal 5-win team. On the other hand, as mentioned before, Tampa Bay and the Jets are not as good as normal 9-win teams because of their QB situations, and Tennessee is not as good as a normal 13-win team (I’d put them more at 9 or 10 wins). I’d also put Miami and Carolina down as teams that are ranked about 2 wins better than they really are. So while Tennessee and Jacksonville balance each other out a bit for teams playing the AFC South, teams playing the AFC West have a little tougher draw than it appears.
(These strength of schedule numbers courtesy of ESPN.com)
1. Miami Dolphins (opponents 152-104, .594) – While having the Jets and Bucs at home would seem to help their cause, road trips to Jacksonville and San Diego would mitigate this. Getting the division-winner draw of Pittsburgh at home and San Diego on the road really hurts as well. This schedule is one reason that Miami’s fortunes should fade a bit.
2. Carolina Panthers (opponents 151-104-1, .592) – No gimmes at home, with Philadelphia and Minnesota the toughest, but neither those nor Washington, Buffalo, or Miami is a completly daunting matchup. The road schedule, though is Brutal – at New England, Dallas, the Giants, and Arizona, with only a trip to the Jets as a “respite.”
3. New England Patriots (opponents 151-105, .590) – The only scheduling break the Pats got was having their schedule-determined road game at Denver and getting Tennessee at home instead of on the road. This is a gauntlet.
4. Atlanta Falcons (opponents 150-105-1, .588) – The Falcons have a little better run at home than division foe Carolina, thanks to home games vs. Chicago, Buffalo, Miami, and Washington. The road schedule is similarly tough, though, with only a trip to San Francisco as a potential break.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (opponents 148-107-1, .580) – Like their division brethren, the Bucs have an awful schedule. Even a road game at Seattle is tough because of the Seahawks’ home-field edge. This schedule plus an uncertain QB situation portends bad things for the pirates by the bay.
6. Buffalo Bills (opponents 146-110, .570) – Sure, having Terrell Owens should help, but that road schedule is brutal. In addition to their division games, they go to Atlanta and Carolina, Jacksonville and Tennessee, and what should be an improved Kansas City team. Can you see them with more than 2 road wins? Me neither.
7. New York Jets (opponents 145-110-1, .568) – While they drew the strong AFC South and NFC South, they also got Cincinnati at home and a trip to Oakland. They never win at Oakland, but that’s still a better fate than the rest of their division faced. Still, with a young quarterback (either Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez), this schedule sets them up for a decrease in the win column.
8. New Orleans Saints (opponents 142-113-1, .557) – New Orleans got the biggest break in its division, getting the Lions and Jets at home and a road trip to St. Louis. By finishing last in their division at 8-8 in ’08, the Saints are set up to take a step forward in ’09.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (opponents 137-119, .535) – The home schedule sets the Eagles up for a run toward the division title, because games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Denver, and Kansas City all look to be winnable. The road slate is tougher, although trips to Chicago and Oakland could be fruitful.
10. New York Giants (opponents 134-120-2, .527) – The home schedule looks brutal with non-division games with Arizona, San Diego, Atlanta, and Carolina, all of whom should be playoff contenders. But road games at Kansas City, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Denver all provide opportunities for wins.
11. Dallas Cowboys (opponents 131-123-2, .516) – Seattle and Oakland at home? Good. Atlanta, Carolina, and San Diego at home? Tough. The road schedule, aside from a trip to Green Bay, is at least palatable.
11. (tie) Jacksonville Jaguars (opponents 132-124, .516) – While this schedule is ranked toughest in the division, it’s not too bad. Road trips to the Jets, Cleveland, Seattle, and San Francisco are manageable, while getting the Rams, Bills, Dolphins, and Chiefs at home is pretty favorable. Like the rest of its division, Jacksonville has a schedule that sets up for a playoff run.
13. Indianapolis Colts (opponents 131-125, .512) – New England is the only out-of-division home game that looks to be a stern test, while the road schedule isn’t daunting aside from the trip to Baltimore and maybe Arizona. It appears Indy got a little more favorable schedule than division rival Tennessee.
14. Tennessee Titans (opponents 130-126, .508) – The Titans’ home slate isn’t that rough, although Arizona, San Diego, Miami, and Buffalo aren’t pushovers. Road games at New England and Pittsburgh are no picnic, though.
15. Houston Texans (opponents 129-126-1, .506) – The Texans have the kind of home schedule out of division that could push them above .500 for the first time. Only the game against the Patriots is daunting. Meanwhile, the road schedule has some low-hanging fruit with trips to St. Louis and Cincinnati. This schedule makes a wild-card run more than a passing thought.
16. Washington Redskins (opponents 125-129-2, .492) – Washington has by far the easiest home schedule in the NFC East, with games against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Denver, and St. Louis. Road trips to Detroit and Oakland are also doable. All this means the Redskins could be a team that gets a schedule bump in the standings.
17. Kansas City Chiefs (opponents 123-131-2, .484) – Three really tough home games against Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Philly hurt the Chiefs’ chances, but the problems in division should help them at least double last year’s 2-win total.
17. (tie) San Diego Chargers (opponents 123-131-2, .484) – Playing the NFC East is tough with trips to Dallas and the Giants, as well as trips to Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Still, 10 wins seems realistic given the advantage the Chargers should have in division.
19. Denver Broncos (opponents 122-132-2, .480) – Denver will need to hold its own at home against New England, the Giants, and Dallas in order to keep up with the Chargers. Only Cincinnati on the road seems like a winnable road game.
19 (tie). Oakland Raiders (opponents 122-132-2, .480) – Getting the Bengals and the Jets at home should help the Raiders’ cause, but aside from a road game at Cleveland, there’s not much to suggest the Raiders can be much better than last year’s 5-11 mark.
21. Detroit Lions (opponents 119-136-1, .467) – The Lions rank significantly higher on this list than their NFC North competitors, but that’s because they don’t have the 0-16 Lions on the books twice. But their home schedule is fairly tough, because Pittsburgh, Arizona, and even Washington present challenges. If you’re trying to find the streak-breaker, it’s Cleveland or St. Louis at home or maybe a road game at San Francisco or Cincinnati.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (opponents 119-137, .465) – There’s room on this home schedule for some wins over Denver, K.C., Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Cincinnati actually caught a better slate than Baltimore even though the Ravens’ ranking is lower.
22 (tie). St. Louis Rams (opponents 119-137, .465) – It looks to be a tough one for the Rams, who host the Colts, Texans, Packers, Saints, and Vikings. Can you see them winning any of those games? The road games, aside from a trip to Detroit, are no picnic either. This could easily be the team on the clock for the 2010 NFL draft based on this schedule.
24. Seattle Seahawks (opponents 117-139, .457) – The Seahawks will have a chance to reestablish their home-field advantage against Tampa Bay, Chicago, Detroit, and perhaps Jacksonville. This schedule gives them a chance to bounce back and maybe make a run back to the NFC West title.
25. Cleveland Browns (opponents 114-140-2, .449) – Cleveland caught one of the worst slates in its division because it will have to fight off San Diego, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Jacksonville at home. They’ll probably need a few road wins to keep up with Cincinnati and stay out of the AFC North basement.
26. San Francisco 49ers (opponents 113-142-1, .443) – The Niners host Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, but they also get visits from the Bears and Lions. The road schedule out of division is tough all the way across.
27. Arizona Cardinals (opponents 113-143, .441) – Arizona’s home-field advantage will be tested by games against Minnesota, Carolina, Indianapolis and even Houston. The road schedule includes humdingers at the Giants, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, but trips to Chicago and Detroit are milder.
28. Baltimore Ravens (opponents 111-143-2, .438) – While Pittsburgh caught a favorable home schedule, the Ravens are staring at trips to San Diego, New England, Green Bay, and Minnesota out of division. That’s tough sledding. Thankfully, only Indy is a real out-of-division challenge on the home slate.
29. Pittsburgh Steelers (opponents 110-144-2, .434) – After facing the league’s toughest schedule last year and fighting through it, the Steelers get a much better draw this year. Their toughest non-division games – San Diego, Tennessee, Green Bay, and Minnesota – are all at home. This is the kind of schedule that makes home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs a real possibility.
30. Green Bay Packers (opponents 109-146-1, .428) – This is a soft home schedule thanks to games vs. Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Seattle. The road schedule is a little tougher than the rest of the division faces with a games at Super Bowl teams Pittsburgh and Arizona.
31. Minnesota Vikings (opponents 107-148-1, .420) – For a first-place schedule, the Vikings are set up for success, with home games against San Francisco, Seattle, and Cincinnati and road games at Cleveland and St. Louis. The Vikings do face toughhome matchups against the Giants and Ravens.
32. Chicago Bears (opponents 105-149-2, .414) – For a team at the bottom of the rankings, this slate presents difficulties, most notably home games against Pittsburgh, Philly, and Arizona. But of the non-division road games, only Baltimore and Atlanta should be stern tests.
Training camp is still two months away, but some quarterback battles are starting to crystalize across the NFL. We expected some of these battles to take place; others are surprise appearances. But there are enough of them that we thought it would be interesting to compare these battles using football relativity. Here’s how it will work: 10 is the battle most likely to impact a team’s fate, and 1 is a battle least likely to matter. This rating includes the quality of the players in the battle as well as how long the battle will go on.
For more on these (and other) quarterbacks as individuals, check out this post on the top signal callers for 2009 and beyond. And this site of NFL depth charts has become a resource that I’ve gone back to several times now, and so I thought it was worth a link.
10 – Vikings (combatants: Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and potentially Brett Favre) – Jackson and Rosenfels both have talent, and they both have moments in which they look like they should be NFL starters. Rosenfels is a long-time backup who has 12 career starts in eight years and a career passer rating of 81.5, which is slightly above average. But Rosenfels also seems to make the killer mistake at the killer time way too often. Jackson was demoted at the beginning of last season, only to reclaim the starting job when Gus Frerotte was hurt, and at the end of the season Jackson played really well. His passer rating for the season was 95.4, which is a standout mark. But Jackson’s tendency to make a killer mistake showed up in the playoffs, when his pick-6 ultimately cost the Vikings the wild-card game against Philly. If either Rosenfels or Jackson put it together and played consistently, the Vikings’ championship chances would rise, because the rest of the team is contender-caliber. But the question is whether either guy can be consistent, and whether Brad Childress and company will stick with the guy they pick. Plus, the specter of Brett Favre looms over the situation, but would that even be an improvement?
9 – none
8 – Jets (combatants: Kellen Clemens and Mark Sanchez) – Clemens, a former second-round pick, has only gotten one extended chance to start (half a season in ’07), but he’s the veteran hand who has the reins to begin. That means that Sanchez, who didn’t have that many starts at USC, has a real shot to be the opening day starter. I believed in Sanchez over Matthew Stafford at draft time, but even a Sanchez-phile like me isn’t sure about the wisdom of starting him from Day One. I like Sanchez’s attitude and confidence, but that could be shaken if he performs poorly, especially in the media jungle of New York. The Jets could have used a Byron Leftwich type of guy as a bridge, but they didn’t get one in the offseason. So while there’s a ton of upside potential here, there’s lots of downside potential as well. It’ll be interesting to see whether Sanchez can show enough to demonstrate that he’s ready to go when the season opens, especially with a team that looks to repeat on last year’s winning record.
7 – Browns (combatants: Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff) – Everyone will have an eye on this battle through training camp because of Quinn’s golden boy status and Anderson’s one shining year in ’07. Anderson isn’t consistent, but he has a big arm and can get hot enough to throw with the best of them. Quinn doesn’t throw as powerfully, but he’s more consistent and more suited to a timing offense. It seems like the new Browns coaching regime under Eric Mangini would favor Quinn, who would be a bit easier to build a run-first offense around, but that’s merely a guess. A small part of me is afraid that Mangini is silly enough to give Brett Ratliff, the former Jets’ No. 3 QB who came over in the Mark Sanchez draft day trade, a shot. Ratliff played well in the preseason last year, but preseason QB phenoms who can’t play when the real games start are far too common to count on Ratliff. But Mangini appears to have a man crush on Ratliff, and that’s worrisome when figuring out whether Anderson or Quinn has the edge.
6 – Broncos (combatants: Kyle Orton and Chris Simms) – It’s quite a fall for Denver from Jay Cutler, a Pro Bowl level talent, and two workmanlike journeymen like Orton and Simms. Simms, like Leftwich, gets a lot of attention as a prospect, but he hasn’t played significant snaps since 2006, and he didn’t get a lot of attention in free agency. He’s probably good enough to be OK, but he’s not a winning quarterback unless there’s a really good team around him. (And there’s not in Denver, at least not at this point.) Orton has a similarly strange career path – he started 15 games as a rookie in ’06, then sat behind Rex Grossman for two years before becoming a starter again last year. He played OK in Chicago, and he has actually shown more upside than Simms, but Orton isn’t going to scare anyone. He’s good enough to be an average NFL starter, and he’ll have a few moments where he looks better than that, but Orton isn’t a guy you can build a team around – no matter what Josh McDaniels thinks.
5 – Buccaneers (combatants: Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Freeman) – At one point this offseason, McCown was resigned and told he would have a chance to win the starting job in Tampa Bay, and even after Leftwich came on board and Freeman was selected, McCown still asserted the job was his to lose. We still figure that McCown will lose it, most likely to Leftwich, who looked impressive as a Steelers backup last year. But remember that Leftwich looked pretty rotten the two previous years in Jacksonville and Atlanta. He’s good enough to challenge McCown, and probably best him in ’09, but he’s not a long-term solution, no matter how personable he is. Freeman doesn’t really figure into the competition this year, but he is the QB of the future. The question is how soon that future will come – late in 2009, 2010, or even later. The Bucs look like they’ll take a step back before taking a step forward, and it’s possible that Leftwich is good enough to keep them competitive and around .500. But it’s also easy to see Tampa slipping to 6-10 or even worse.
4 – Raiders (combatants: JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Garcia) – Russell, a former No. 1 overall pick, started a full season last year, and while his touchdown-to-interception ratio was OK at 13 to 8, his completion percentage of 53.8 didn’t cut the mustard. He’s still the future in Oakland, but the Raiders added Jeff Garcia as a backup. That’s where the dysfunction begins. Garcia is still a solid performer who can lead a team and move it downfield, and performance-wise he’s a really good backup quarterback. But he doesn’t have the personality of a backup. It’s not that he will try to undercut Russell, but Garcia won’t be the supportive caddy. Instead, he’s going to try to beat Russell out, whether that’s the best thing for the future of the organization or not. And it’s not the best thing for Garcia to beat out Russell. The Raiders need Russell to be the answer if they are to build a foundation, but the 39-year-old Garcia doesn’t care. He just wants to start as many games as he can before his career is over. And that mindset could lead to a lot of tension in Oakland going into Game One – especially if Russell struggles in the preseason.
3 – 49ers (combatants: Shaun Hill and Alex Smith) – The expectations on Hill, a former undrafted free agent, and Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, couldn’t be more divergent. But it’s Hill who has the leg up on the job in San Fran going into the season. Hill spent five full seasons in the league before he threw his first pass, but he played well at the end of the ’07 season, and when he became the starter in ’08 he continued to perform. In the 12 games he’s played over the last two seasons, Hill has completed 64 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns versus just 9 interceptions. His career passer rating of 90.5 makes you take notice. Smith, on the other hand, has just one halfway decent season out of the three that he played, and he missed all of last season due to injury. He would have been cut by the 49ers in the offseason had he not taken a big pay cut. Hill is more consistent in the short passing game, and he can run an offense effectively. But he’s not the kind of quarterback who can shoulder the burden of carrying a team to the win. Smith has the talent but hasn’t put it together in the four different systems the Niners have used since he was drafted. So while Hill has a clear leg up in this competition, Smith should still be more than an afterthought. He still has enough talent that he could take advantage of a chance to play. That’s no certainty, but it should be a consideration.
2 – Lions (combatants: Daunte Culpepper, Matthew Stafford and Drew Stanton) – This isn’t a battle as much as it is a test of Stafford’s readiness. Stafford will be the guy in Detroit when he’s ready, but even though he was a 2 1/2-year starter in the SEC, most draft analysts didn’t think Stafford would be ready right away. Until the Lions want to throw him in there, it appears that Culpepper will be the caretaker. It’s a strange role for a guy who was briefly one of the top 5 QBs in the game (circa 2004), but injuries have robbed Culpepper of most of his elite skills. Although Culpepper is in better shape than he was after signing midseason in Detroit, it would be foolish to expect great play out of him. The Lions can only hope that Culpepper doesn’t kill them until Stafford gets in there. And don’t expect a Joe Flacco type of situation here; Drew Stanton, a former second-round pick, might get the nod instead of Stafford were Culpepper to get hurt before opening day.
1 – Rams (combatants: Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller) – This isn’t a battle most people are expecting, but I’m forecasting that at some point the heat is on Bulger big time. That point could even come in the preseason. Bulger has a good reputation, but the last 2 years his passer ratings have been 70.4 and 71.3. Those numbers aren’t good, and with a new coaching staff who has no loyalty to Bulger (despite his bloated contract), a change is possible. I’ve always had a predisposition to like Boller – maybe because I saw both of his really good games – but he has talent, and if he puts it together he could well be a better option than Bulger. So keep an eye on St. Louis to see if a battle develops under the arch under center.