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Who’s rebuilding, who’s reloading? AFC edition

As the NFL draft wound down, and I tried to get Mel Kiper’s voice out of my head, I had an idea – let’s evaluate which NFL teams are rebuilding and which are reloading, and whether each team is taking the right approach. Here’s the AFC edition; the NFC edition is available here.

AFC East

Buffalo is reloading – This isn’t the wisest approach, because the Bills didn’t have enough premium talent and haven’t been contenders. But instead of churning the roster in search of better players in the first year of Chan Gailey’s tenure as head coach, the Bills have largely stuck to the status quo this offseason. Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm are still the quarterback options, and the Bills haven’t rebuilt an offensive line that struggled last year. The main additions – DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis – were designed to help the Bills move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. And the first round of the draft yielded a specialty player in C.J. Spiller whose best role is as a featured gamebreaker, not an every-down back. The Bills seem to be in denial about how lacking in talent they truly are, especially on offense. Verdict: Wrong approach

Miami is reloading – The Dolphins are closer to the surface than the Bills are, and so their decision to reload makes more sense. Trading for WR Brandon Marshall and signing OLB Karlos Dansby are the kinds of big strikes that teams close to the playoffs make to try to get over the top. The Marshall acquisition makes sense, since Chad Henne shows a ton of promise at quarterback and the offensive line is good enough to provide time for Henne-to-Marshall to become an elite combo. Dansby doesn’t make up for the loss of veteran pass rushers Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, but he is a playmaker who perfectly fits the Bill Parcells prototype. It’s hard to say whether these moves will put the Dolphins over the top, but we are comfortable asserting that the arrow is pointed in the right direction. Verdict: Right approach

New England is rebuilding – There’s a stigma to the word rebuilding, because often teams use it as a synonym for giving up. But it’s possible to rebuild without giving up, and that’s the Pats’ approach right now. While they’ve added veterans like Torry Holt, Gerard Warren, and Damione Lewis to fill bit roles, the larger picture shows that New England is trying to infuse youth into its defense with guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, and Brandon Spikes, and into its offense with guys like Rob Gronkowski and Taylor Price. These are the players that will determine whether Bill Belichick’s second decade in New England gets off to a good start. But given the age of New England’s offensive and defensive fronts, rebuilding on the fly in the past two offseasons has been the right call. Verdict: Right approach

New York Jets are reloading – There’s not a team in the NFL headed in a win-now direction more than the Jets are right now. Their offseason additions are littered with veterans like Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor, all of whom are proven vets who should step in a lot quicker than draft picks would have. While draft picks Kyle Wilson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Joe McKnight should find roles quickly, it’s the veterans that will determine whether the Jets can get one step further and into the Super Bowl this season. Verdict: Right approach

AFC North

Baltimore is reloading – The Ravens always do a good job in the draft, and that steady talent infusion over the years has put the franchise in position to keep things pointed in the right direction. But this year, the Ravens put the reloading into overdrive by trading for WR Anquan Boldin, who provides the No. 1 receiver the team has been missing since its move to Baltimore. While rookies Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, and Arthur Jones add depth on defense, the Boldin move is the one that sets the tone that this franchise is going for glory now. We can’t blame the Ravens for taking that tack. Verdict: Right approach

Cincinnati is reloading – Coming off the second division title of Marvin Lewis’ tenure, the Bengals are looking to fill in holes and keep positive momentum. Antonio Bryant is supposed to be the complement to Chad Ochocinco that Cincy was missing without T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and if he can’t perhaps Matt Jones or rookie Jordan Shipley or even first-round TE Jermaine Gresham can. In the draft, the Bengals continued to take talented guys with question marks in Carlos Dunlap and Brandon Ghee, and both are good enough to fill roles right away. And taking a shot on the talented but troubled Pacman Jones is the ultimate win-now move. The Bengals know they have something going, and so they’re going for it. Verdict: Right approach

Cleveland is rebuilding – The Browns know they’re in need of serious changes, as the hiring of Mike Holmgren in the offseason proved. So the team has made wholesale changes, not just at quarterback where Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy arrive, but across the roster. Veterans CB Sheldon Brown, LBs Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, and OT Tony Pashos will help stabilize problem areas, but the team knows they’re not long-term solutions. Instead, the Browns are looking to build around youngsters like Joe Thomas and first-rounder Joe Haden as they try to start a new era in Cleveland. Verdict: Right approach

Pittsburgh is reloading – The Steelers have had a tumultous offseason, but the roster moves they’ve made are a sign that they still consider themselves contenders. Bringing back WR Antwaan Randle El, ILB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden, and QB Byron Leftwich shows that they don’t want much of a learning curve at work in training camp, and drafting C Maurkice Pouncey shows that they wanted immediate help in the first round. The approach is risky, but given how recently the Steelers won the Super Bowl, you can’t blame them for getting the band back together for one last hurrah. They can only hope that the Ben Roethlisberger issues don’t break up the band. Verdict: Right approach

AFC South

Houston is reloading – The Texans are coming off their first winning season, and their offseason approach demonstrates that they think more is in the offing. Unhappy CB Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but first-rounder Kareem Jackson can step in and start. He used the same terminology in college that he will in Houston, and that will ease his transition. The Texans kept WR Kevin Walter and added rookie Ben Tate to a RB group that was problematic at times last year. These moves preserve the status quo and give the Texans a chance to build on their modest ’09 success. Now it’s up to the players and coaches to make the status quo scenario work. Verdict: Right approach

Indianapolis is reloading – The Colts made a few more changes than normal, letting DE Raheem Brock, CBs Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, and OG Ryan Lilja go, but in terms of additions they continued to do what they usually do and build through the draft. Sometimes Indy’s rookies contribute immediately, but more often it’s the second- and third-year players who start to flourish the longer they’re in the system. When a team gets that approach going, the smartest thing to do is to keep the train rolling. And since Peyton Manning and Bill Polian are such good conductors, the train continues to roll along. Verdict: Right approach

Jacksonville is reloading – The Jaguars have a long cut list this offseason, but aside from DT John Henderson none of them were core players. Meanwhile, the Jaguars signed veteran DE Aaron Kampman and traded for MLB Kirk Morrison to add veteran experience to the front seven. On offense, it’s status quo, as the Jags rely on David Garrard, Maurice Jones-Drew, and a young corps of receivers and linemen. This team was barely on the cusp of contention last year, so reloading seems like a strange course, and the success depends on whether Garrard can be a top-10 NFL quarterback or just a league average starter. We’re skeptical, and so we disagree. Verdict: Wrong approach

Tennessee is rebuilding – The Titans embarked on a rebuilding project by saying goodbye to stalwarts like Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They also seem to be willing to let Kevin Mawae go. That means youngsters like Derrick Morgan and Rennie Curran will need to take on bigger roles. With Vince Young at the helm and Chris Johnson on the run, the Titans now have a young offensive corps, and they’re trying to move the same way on defense. That makes sense, even though holes in the secondary make it appear like the rebuilding project isn’t yet done. Verdict: Right approach

AFC West

Denver is rebuilding – The Broncos continue to chase away the vestiges of Mike Shanahan’s era and move to Josh McDaniels’ desired future. So at wide receiver, Brandon Marshall is out and Demaryius Thomas is in. At quarterback, Jay Cutler is long gone, and Tim Tebow is on the horizon. On the offensive line, Ben Hamilton is gone and Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton are in. Meanwhile, the defensive overhaul continues as the Broncos tried to supplement the new 3-4 defense that fell apart in the second half of last year with NT Jamal Williams, DE Jarvis Green, and ILB Akin Ayodele. At some point, Denver will have to spend its highest draft picks on defense to make the rebuilding project stick. But at this point, McDaniels has changed so much that there’s nothing the Broncos can do but go all out on their rebuild. Verdict: Right approach

Kansas City is rebuilding – The Chiefs still have a long way to go in the rebuilding project that began last offseason and that now continues this offseason. S Eric Berry is the prize of this year’s crew, with fellow SEC products Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas also slated to become key contributors. Most of the veteran additions, notably Ryan Lilja and Thomas Jones, are designed to keep the Chiefs from being abysmal as the talent infusion takes effect. There’s still a long way to go in Chiefs land, but at least they’re on the right path. Verdict: Right approach

Oakland is reloading – The Raiders never admit that they’re in the doldrums, but it actually makes some sense this offseason. The defense has a lot of good pieces, and adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston in the draft and Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves via trades should help the front seven’s performance go up a level. But the biggest change is on offense, where Jason Campbell gives the Silver and Black a qualified pro quarterback who will prepare and take advantage of the talent outside. Campbell’s not great, but he’s better than average, and that should allow Oakland to make the most of its other talents. A run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question, and that makes just win, baby, the right approach – finally – for the Raiders. Verdict: Right approach

San Diego is reloading – The Chargers know that they have talent, and so they once again used the offseason to get pieces that will push them over the top. Paying a ransom for first-round RB Ryan Mathews demonstrates this approach, and the Chargers also added cornerback depth with Nathan Vasher, who knows coordinator Ron Rivera’s system. Is it enough for a team that’s been on the cusp a painfully long time? Reloading as the Chargers are is the only way they’re going to find out. Verdict: Right approach

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FR: March signings

As we continue our coverage of free agency, we’ll compare signings from March using Football Relativity. This post includes signings beginning March 11; for signings from the first week of free agency, check out this elongated post.

10 – Jets (added RB LaDainian Tomlinson, S Brodney Pool, and LB Lance Laury; kept FB Tony Richardson) – Tomlinson had a great career in San Diego, but he showed serious signs of slowing down in recent years, with his yards-per-carry average dropping to 3.3 in ’09. So the Chargers eventually had little choice but to release him and move on. With the Jets, Tomlinson should know that he’s taking a subservient role to emerging youngster Shonn Greene, and with Leon Washington returning from an ACL injury, Tomlinson could find carries hard to come by. The positive of that is that Tomlinson will stay fresher, but he’ll have to show a little more patience than he did in San Diego. If Tomlinson knows what he’s signing up for and is willing to be a 10-touch-a-game back, he could help because he provides more contrast to Greene than the departed Thomas Jones would have given. If not, Tomlinson will fade away in a strange-looking uniform, and the two-year, $5.1 million deal the Jets gave him will be wasted. Unfortunately, our hunch points toward the latter scenario. Meanwhile, Pool is a promising player who wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent in Cleveland. He’ll get $1.3 million in a one-year deal with the Jets, where he’ll have a chance to replace the traded Kerry Rhodes in the starting lineup. Richardson is a solid blocking fullback who knows his role and plays it well. Laury, who was not tendered by the Seahawks, is a backup linebacker and special-teams ace.

10 (con’t) – Cardinals (added OLB Joey Porter, QB Derek Anderson, UFA OG Rex Hadnot and UFA LB Paris Lenon; kept UFA OT Jeremy Bridges, UFA LB Monty Biesel, and C Ben Claxton) – Porter, who was released by the Dolphins, is still a quality pass rusher who can make an impact in a  3-4 defense. At age 33, Porter has a lot of miles on his tires, but with 26.5 sacks in the last two years he hasn’t shown signs of major slippage. He helps to replace Bertrand Berry, who said he is retiring, for an Arizona defense that needs playmakers badly after losing Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle in the offseason. Porter isn’t the athlete the departed are, but he can help. While $17.5 million over three years (with a potential $7 million more in incentives) seems rich for a 33-year-old, Arizona was in a spot where it needed a defensive jolt. Porter can still provide that. Anderson, who had one good year out of four in Cleveland, got a two-year, $7.25 million contract in Arizona to back up or even challenge Matt Leinart. Anderson is not consistent, but he has a strong arm, and he’s fearless enought to go for the big play. That has too often led to interceptions, but in the run-first, big-play offense Arizona is moving toward, he could actually be a fit. The fact that Arizona has such a talented corps of receivers makes Anderson a better chance. At the least, he’ll challenge Leinart and force the former first-rounder to step up in order to seize the starting job, and if Anderson does that he’ll be worth the freight the Cards are paying. Hadnot got a three-year, $9 million deal to move over from Cleveland. He’s a physical guard who can also play center and figures to become a starter for Arizona. Bridges, who started several games last year, is a talented tackle who has gotten into trouble off the field. Lenon started for the Rams last year and now moves over to provide a veteran to help fill the gaping hole left by Karlos Dansby. Biesel provides depth but will help more on special teams.

9 – none

8 – Bills (added UFA DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis; kept UFA TE Joe Klopfenstein) – As they move to a 3-4 defense, the Bills brought in reinforcements. Davis had a pretty good year as an inside ‘backer for Denver last year and was a nice addition on a two-year deal. Edwards, who got a four-year, $18 million deal to move over from the Ravens, is a sturdy end who can shine in the 3-4. Both are quality additions for a team that desperately needs them.

7 – Browns (added UFA TE Benjamin Watson and QB Jake Delhomme; kept UFA OL Billy Yates) – Watson was an inconsistent talent in New England, but he had some production, and he’s a better tight end than what the Browns had. Tight end is a crucial receiver in the West Coast offense, which is what Cleveland is moving toward, and so making an addition at that position is sensible. Watson got a three-year deal worth $12 million with $6.35 million guaranteed. Delhomme got $7 million over two years while still getting $19 million guaranteed from the Panthers deal he was released from. Delhomme is a terrific locker-room leader, and he has shown a knack for performing well under pressure earlier in his career. But his interception and fumble problems have been stark since his meltdown in a playoff game against Arizona in the 2008 season, and at this point it’s hard to see him breaking that year-long trend soon. Still, Delhomme may be a better answer than Seneca Wallace, who doesn’t have the pedigree of performance Delhomme has over his career. The Browns are getting a little bit of a discount on Delhomme because of his sweetheart Carolina deal, and at those numbers he’s worth a shot. We just don’t expect that shot to come in. Yates is a backup lineman who helps add depth now that Rex Hadnot and Hank Fraley are gone.

6 – Redskins (added UFA RB Larry Johnson, UFA QB Rex Grossman, P Josh Bidwill, and CB Philip Buchanon) – Johnson was released in Kansas City midseason last year as his production waned and his complaints persisted.  Johnson landed in Cincinnati as a backup to Cedric Benson, and he looked a little better, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in Cincy versus 2.9 in K.C. Now Johnson moves to Washington, where he will either work with Clinton Portis or replace him, depending on what the ‘Skins decide to do with their incumbent veteran back. Since Portis’ contract is basically guaranteed, we figure he’ll be back. That’s just as well, because Johnson is no longer a starting-caliber NFL back. He’s better in the role he had in Cincinnati at the end of last year, and spot duty will allow him to keep the limited pop he has left in his legs. The three-year, $3.5 million deal Johnson got indicates that’s the role he’ll have – but the potential of making up to $12 million in incentives indicates that more malcontent behavior could be in the offing if Johnson doesn’t get the ball as much as he wants. Grossman, a former Bears starter, was solid as a Texans backup last year and now moves with ex-Houston offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to Washington. Chances are that Grossman, who got a one-year deal, will back up Jason Campbell. Bidwill was released by the Buccaneers in a cost-saving move after missing the ’09 season, but if healthy he is solid. Incumbent Hunter the Punter Smith is a free-agent, so the Redskins need a fallback option. Buchanon got a one-year, $1.5 million deal to provide help at corner. Buchanon’s a marginal starter but he’s worth that price for depth purposes if nothing else.

5 – none

4 – Chiefs (added OG Ryan Lilja; kept C Casey Wiegmann) – Wiegmann made a Pro Bowl with the Chiefs two years ago and now returns after being cut earlier this offseason. His veteran wiles help a young offensive line. Lilja, who started for the Colts over the past few years before being released this offseason, got a three-year, $7.5 million deal to come to K.C. and help to stabilize the offensive line as well. He’s not an elite guard, but Lilja will be a big upgrade for a Chiefs team that needs solid starters up front.

3 – Packers (kept UFA OT Mark Tauscher, franchise NT Ryan Pickett, and RFA S Nick Collins; added P Chris Bryan) – The Packers rarely get too involved in the free-agent market, instead preferring to develop through the draft. So it’s no surprise that their big strategy has been to re-sign their players. Tauscher, who the Packers brought back at midseason last year to help a horrible offensive line, got a two-year deal to remain at right tackle. He’s a veteran who provides stability until T.J. Lang is ready to seize a starting job. Pickett, the Pack’s franchise player, went from a $7 million tender to a four-year, $28 million deal. He’s done a great job for the Pack after bombing as a first-rounder in St. Louis, and he became even more valuable when he moved to the nose when Green Bay implemented the 3-4 defense last year. Collins, who had been angling for a new contract for two years, got a four-year, $23.4 million deal. He’s a playmaking safety who really adds to the Packers’ defense. Bryan is an Australian Rules Football player whom the Pack hopes can become a solid NFL punter a la Sav Rocca, Mat McBriar, or Darren Bennett. That strategy has actually been pretty successful for NFL teams.

3 (con’t) – Rams (added C Hank Fraley, CB Kevin Dockery, and TE Darcy Johnson; kept LS Chris Massey) – Fraley, who was released by the Browns, isn’t physically gifted, but he’s a rugged center who can help an offensive line that really struggled last year. Dockery and Johnson are former Giants who know now-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo from days in the Meadowlands. Neither is more than a role player, but they could help a roster bereft of talent. Massey got a four-year deal for being a dependable long snapper.

3 (con’t) – Steelers (added UFA ILB Larry Foote; kept UFA QB Charlie Batch) – Foote was a long-time Steeler who was cut before last season and went to Detroit, where he played well. Now he returns to Pittsburgh on a decent deal that’s worth $3.9 million in year one and potentially worth $9.3 million over three years. He should return to the starting lineup for Pittsburgh. Batch provides stability at quarterback, which is vital given Ben Roethlisberger’s legal problems and Dennis Dixon’s inexperience.

2 – Titans (kept UFA CB Rod Hood; added UFA DE Jason Babin and CB Tye Hill) – Hood started for the Cardinals in the Super Bowl two years ago and then went on an odyssey through Cleveland and Chicago before he found a home in Tennessee at midseason. The Titans brought him back because he fit their defense and can provide depth at a position that has been troublesome for them. Babin was an unrestricted free agent who had given the Eagles right to match any contract offer he got, but Philly opted to let Babin leave on a one-year, $1 million deal. Babin has never realized his potential as a first-round pass-rusher, but Tennessee’s defensive line coach Jim Washburn is one of the best, which makes taking a shot on a talented player reasonable, especially at the price Tennessee is paying. Hill, a bust with the Rams, never found a role with the Falcons last year and was released. But he’s fast, and given the Titans’ struggles last year in the secondary he’s worth a shot to see if he can help.

2 (con’t) – Chargers (added CBs Donald Strickland and Nathan Vasher; kept UFA DT Ian Scott) – Scott did a solid job as a fill-in starter at nose tackle for the Chargers last year, and he fits in as at least a backup this season. Strickland, who was released by the Jets, now gets a chance to replace Antonio Cromartie, who was traded to the Jets. Strickland isn’t great, but he’s good enough to be a third corner on a good team or maybe even a starter, so he’s a nice addition for the Bolts. Vasher hasn’t played well in recent years, in large part because of injury, but he performed admirably for Bolts defensive coordinator Ron Rivera back in Chicago, and that led to this chance in San Diego. Vasher, a cover-two specialist, got a two-year, $4.5 million deal

2 (con’t) – Patriots (added UFA TE Alge Crumpler) – After cutting Chris Baker and letting Ben Watson leave via free agency, the Patriots had no experience at tight end. They now have some in Crumpler, who proved in Tennessee that he is no longer the receiving threat he was in Atlanta. But Crumpler is big, and he’s a good blocker, which could make him a fit in the Patriots’ offense. New England should still look for a young tight end, but Crumpler will fit in at least some sets.

2 (con’t) – Dolphins (added C Richie Incognito) – Incognito is a talent who is tempermental on the field and off, and that act wore thin on the Rams, who cut him. But his talent, physical play, and aggressiveness merits a second chance if he can get with the program in Miami. He’s good enough to start if everything falls in line.

1 – Seahawks (added UFA TE Chris Baker, UFA WR Sean Morey, LB Matt McCoy, WR Ruvell Martin, and RB Quinton Ganther) – Baker is a versatile tight end who isn’t great but who fits well as a backup to John Carlson for the Seahawks. Baker got a two-year, $4.75 million deal. Morey is a special-teams dynamo who will make a big difference in that area moving over from Arizona. McCoy played for new Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in Tampa Bay the last two seasons. Martin and Ganther were non-tendered as restricted free agents by the Rams and Redskins, respectively.

1 (con’t) – Buccaneers (added UFA S Sean Jones and LB Jon Alston; kept UFA LB Angelo Crowell and WR Mark Bradley) – Jones was once a great prospect for the Browns, but he left Cleveland and then spent one mediocre year in Philly. Jones has talent to help the Bucs at a problem position, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll actually live up to the promise. Still, he’s worth a look for a Bucs team that needs a ton of help. Alston was not tendered by the Raiders in the offseason despite starting eight games over the past two years. He adds depth to the Bucs’ linebacking corps. Crowell missed last season with an injury, but if he can return to his Buffalo form, he could help the Bucs. Bradley showed some potential in Kansas City, and that led the Bucs to bring him back even though he wasn’t tendered a restricted free-agent offer.

1 (con’t) – Vikings (kept UFA DT Jimmy Kennedy) – Kennedy, like Ryan Pickett a former Rams first-round bust, found a home as the third defensive tackle in Minnesota, and he opted for a two-year, $6 million contract to stay with the Vikings. He’s a key player for the Vikes who may be even more key if the StarCaps case goes against starting DTs Kevin and Pat Williams.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (kept UFA DE Tyler Brayton and OT Rob Pettiti; added CB Marcus Hudson) – Brayton, a former Raider first-round pick, became a sturdy run-stopping end for the Panthers, and they brought him back on a three-year deal to add experience to a defensive line that averaged 23.8 years of age before he was re-signed, according to Darin Gantt. Brayton doesn’t produce a huge pass rush, but he is a legitimate presence who keeps opponents from cheating in their blocking assignments. The Panthers didn’t tender Pettiti, whom they signed out of the UFL, as a restricted free agent, but they brought him back anyway. They signed Hudson, who was not tendered by the 49ers, to add depth at corner.

1 (con’t) – 49ers (added UFA CB Karl Paymah; kept UFA OT Barry Sims) – Sims is a good swing tackle who’s acceptable as a starter in a pinch, and that made him worth $2.1 million in 2010 to the Niners. Paymah is a fourth corner who can plug into the third spot in a pinch. He has good size, but his cover skills are spotty.

1 (con’t) – Bengals (kept UFA S Roy Williams; added WR Chris Davis) – Williams started for the Bengals last year before an injury sidelined him. He no longer has great range or coverage skills, but he’s still an asset against the run.

1 (con’t) – Colts (added OT Adam Terry) – The Colts, who added OG Andy Alleman previously, brought in Terry to continue the project of adding size to their offensive line. Terry, a five-year veteran who was not tendered a contract by the Ravens, missed the ’09 season with injury. He’s more of a third tackle who can fill in on both sides than a starting candidate, but he’ll help provide depth.

1 (con’t) – Eagles (added WRs Hank Baskett and Chad Hall) – Baskett (aka Mr. Kendra) comes back to Philly after a year in Indy marred by his gaffe on the onsides kick in the Super Bowl that proved devastating for the Colts. He’s a big receiver who won’t play much on offense but could help on special teams. Hall, a former Air Force player, is eligible to play now after completing his service requirement. He could end up being an under-the-radar prospect.

1 (con’t)- Lions (added LB Landon Johnson; kept DE Copeland Bryan and UFA S Marquand Manuel) – Manuel and Bryan (who was non-tendered as a restricted free agent) are depth players for Detroit. Johnson was released as a backup in Carolina, but he’s versatile and can provide depth at all three linebacker positions.

1 (con’t) – Bears (added CB Tim Jennings) – Jennings, a former second-round pick, never became a rotation corner in Indianapolis, and he wasn’t tendered a restricted-free-agent offer. But he could find a role as a third or fourth corner in the Bears’ cover-2 system, especially now that Nathan Vasher is out of Chicago.

1 (con’t) – Falcons (added S Matt Giordano) – Giordano was released by the Packers in the offseason, but he could find a home and a role with Atlanta, given the Falcons’ lack of depth in the secondary. Giordano is also an asset on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Saints (kept UFA LS Jason Kyle) – Kyle, a long-time Seahawk and Panther, got a Super Bowl ring as the Saints’ long-snapper last year. Now he gets a return engagement for another year. You don’t notice him, which is the ultimate compliment for a snapper.

1 (con’t) – Giants (added P Jy Bond) – Bond is another Australian Rules Football player trying to make the move to the NFL as a punter. He’s insurance in case the Giants can’t agree to a deal with long-time punter Jeff Feagles.

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Jersey Numbers: Linebackers

This is our next to last post choosing the best players at each position by jersey number. If you have quibbles, 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 and offensive linemen in this post and kickers/punters in this post and defensive linemen in this post. Now we move to linebackers, who can wear numbers in the 50s and the 90s with a few exceptions. If a number is omitted, it’s because no linebacker who has played this season wears those digits.

46 – Vinny Ciurciu, Lions – Ciurciu is the only linebacker currently wearing 46. He has played in six games this year, seeing most of his action on special teams. Now with his fourth team, Ciurciu also has a good locker-room nickname (see the bottom of the linked post).

47 – Brit Miller, 49ers – Miller is the only linebacker currently wearing 47. The rookie out of Illinois has played in two games this season.

49 – Zack Follett, Lions – Follett is the only linebacker currently wearing 49. The rookie out of Cal has played in nine games this year, mostly on special teams.

50 – Curtis Lofton, Falcons – Lofton, a second-year middle linebacker, has emerged as a tackle machine for the Falcons. His growth allowed the Dirty Birds to let stalwart Keith Brooking leave via free agency, and now it’s Lofton who will lead Atlanta’s defense for years to come. Lofton is tied for second in the NFL with 118 tackles. We give him the nod over OLB Mike Vrabel, who had great years in New England and is now a veteran leader in Kansas City. Other notable 50s: Russell Allen, Jaguars; James Anderson, Panthers; K.C. Asiodu, Rams; Antwan Barnes, Ravens; Eric Barton, Browns; Monty Beisel, Cardinals; Rocky Boiman, Steelers; Diyral Briggs, 49ers; Isaiah Ekejiuba, Raiders; Vernon Gholston, Jets; A.J. Hawk, Packers; Erin Henderson, Vikings; Lance Laury, Seahawks; Matt McCoy, Buccaneers; Marvin Mitchell, Saints; Rob Ninkovich, Patriots; Ernie Sims, Lions; David Thornton, Titans; Erik Walden, Dolphins; Philip Wheeler, Colts; Will Witherspoon, Eagles

51 – Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ruud has emerged as a do-everything middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, and he’s one of the few bright spots on the team’s defense. He’s fifth in the league with 113 tackles and also has six passes defensed. He gets the nod over Jonathan Vilma of New Orleans, who may be better in pass coverage. Also worth mentioning are long-time veterans Keith Brooking of Dallas, James Farrior of Pittsburgh, and Takeo Spikes of the 49ers; youngsters Jerod Mayo of the Patriots and Paul Posluszny of Buffalo; and injured Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu. Other notable 51s: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens; Akin Ayodele, Dolphins; Tim Diles, Chargers; Ryan Fowler, Jets; Tony Gilbert, Falcons; Alex Hall, Browns; Clint Ingram, Colts; Ben Leber, Vikings; Corey Mays, Chiefs; Joe Mays, Eagles; Gerald McRath, Titans; Brady Poppinga, Packers; Dan Skuta, Bengals; Chaun Thompson, Texans

52 – Ray Lewis, Ravens – This is a loaded number that features Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers in Carolina MLB Jon Beason, San Francisco MLB Patrick Willis, and Jets ILB David Harris, but Lewis gets the nod for his long, productive career that continues at a very high level. Other notable youngsters include rookie Clay Matthews of Green Bay, Kirk Morrison of Oakland, Daryl Smith of Jacksonville, and injured Browns ILB D’Qwell Jackson. Other notable 52s: Xavier Adibi, Texans; Eric Alexander, Patriots;  Michael Boley, Giants; Cody Brown, Cardinals; Jonathan Casillas, Saints; Channing Crowder, Dolphins; Chris Draft, Bills; Larry English, Chargers; Cody Glenn, Colts; Chad Greenway, Vikings; David Herron, Chiefs; Abdul Hodge, Bengals; D.D. Lewis, Seahawks;  Rocky McIntosh, Redskins; Jamar Williams, Bears; Coy Wire, Falcons

53 – Keith Bulluck, Titans – Bulluck has long been the emotional leader of the Titans’ defense, and he remains a solid sideline-to-sideline player. His three interceptions tie him for the lead among linebackers, and his 10 passes defensed place him second at the position. He’s also among the top 10 in tackles for linebackers. That’s enough to give him the nod over Atlanta’s Mike Peterson, another long-time, solid performer. Other notable 53s: Marcus Buggs, Bills; Derrick Burgess, Patriots; Khary Campbell, Texans; Na’il Diggs, Panthers; Moise Fokou, Eagles; Clark Haggans, Cardinals; James Holt, Chargers; Thomas Howard, Raiders; Larry Izzo, Jets; Rashad Jeanty, Bengals; Bryan Kehl, Giants; Niko Koutouvides, Buccaneers; Paris Lenon, Rams; Jameel McClain, Ravens; Tyrone McKenzie, Patriots; Steve Octavien, Cowboys; Nick Roach, Bears; Matt Roth, Browns; Mark Simoneau, Saints; Bryan Smith, Jaguars; Reggie Torbor, Dolphins; Jeff Ulbrich, 49ers; Demorrio Williams, Chiefs

54 – Andra Davis, Broncos – This number lost its stalwart when Brian Urlacher of Chicago was knocked out for the season. So among a group of solid if unspectacular inside linebackers, we’ll give Davis the nod for his contributions (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) in reinvigorating the Denver defense. Other contenders were Chargers ILB Stephen Cooper and Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch. Other notable 54s: H.B. Blades, Redskins; Jasper Brinkley, Vikings; Prescott Burgess, Ravens; Bobby Carpenter, Cowboys; Brandon Chillar, Packers; Blake Costanzo, Browns; Kenwin Cummings, Jets; Zac Diles, Texans; Troy Evans, Saints; Andre Frazier, Steelers; Jonathan Goff, Giants; Nic Harris, Bills; Geno Hayes, Buccaneers; Gerald Hayes, Cardinals; Will Herring, Seahawks; Freddie Keiaho, Colts; DeAndre Levy, Lions; Stephen Nicholas, Falcons; Jeremiah Trotter, Eagles; Tracy White, Eagles; Sam Williams, Raiders

55 – Terrell Suggs, Ravens – This is a tough call, because Suggs has just 3.5 sacks this season and has missed three games. But on the whole, he’s the most complete linebacker at this position, because he can be a dynamite pass rusher and also do well against the run and in coverage. I’d rather have Suggs that Miami OLB Joey Porter, who has eight sacks thus far this season, or Chicago’s playmaking WLB Lance Briggs, who stars in the featured position in the old Tampa 2 defense the Bears run. Other solid vets wearing 55 include Detroit’s Larry Foote and Denver’s D.J. Williams, while youngsters Clint Session of Indianapolis and James Laurinaitis of St. Louis deserve mention as well. Other notable 55s: Jon Alston, Raiders; Patrick Bailey, Steelers; Desmond Bishop, Packers; Alvin Bowen, Redskins; Stewart Bradley, Eagles; Ahmad Brooks, 49ers; Danny Clark, Giants; Dan Connor, Panthers; Scott Fujita, Saints; Stephen Hodge, Cowboys; Kawika Mitchell, Bills; Kenny Onatolu, Vikings; Keith Rivers, Bengals; Justin Rogers, Chiefs; Junior Seau, Patriots; Reggie Walker, Cardinals; Jamaal Westerman, Jets

56 – Brian Cushing, Texans – It’s hard to imagine giving a rookie like Cushing the honor at a highly populated number like this one, but Cushing has earned it. He’s sixth among linebackers with 116 tackles and also has 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, and a safety. That’s huge impact that earns him the nod over Shawne Merriman of San Diego, who isn’t the same after last season’s knee injury, pass-rushing stud LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh, and solid all-around players Nick Barnett of Green Bay and Bradie James of Dallas. Other notable 56s: Colin Allred, Titans; Charlie Anderson, Dolphins; Robert Ayers, Broncos; Quinton Culbertson, Panthers; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Saints; Justin Durant, Jaguars; Keith Ellison, Bills; Tavares Gooden, Ravens; Tyjuan Hagler, Colts; E.J. Henderson, Vikings; Leroy Hill, Seahawks; Derrick Johnson, Chiefs; Akeem Jordan, Eagles; Kaluka Maiava, Browns; Scott McKillop, 49ers; David Nixon, Raiders; Chike Okeafor, Cardinals; Rod Wilson, Buccaneers

57 – Bart Scott, Jets – New Jets head coach Rex Ryan brought Scott with him from Baltimore as a high-dollar free agent to be the emotional leader and scheme expert in the middle of Gang Green’s defense. Scott has played fine for the Jets, but over the year it’s been fellow ILB David Harris who has emerged as a top-tier player. Still, Scott gets the nod over veteran Dhani Jones of Cincinnati and David Hawthorne, who’s having a terrific season as a fill-in starter at middle linebacker for Seattle. Other notable 57s: Stanley Arnoux, Saints; Kevin Bentley, Texans; Chase Blackburn, Giants; Ricky Brown, Raiders; Victor Butler, Cowboys; Chris Chamberlain, Saints; Jon Corto, Bills; Jordon Dizon, Lions; Keyaron Fox, Steelers; Chris Gocong, Eagles; Mario Haggan, Broncos; Adam Hayward, Buccaneers; Jordan Senn, Panthers; David Veikune, Browns; Matt Wilhelm, 49ers

58 – Karlos Dansby, Cardinals – It’s hard to imagine a better physical specimen at outside linebacker than Dansby, who is a leader on a strong Cardinals defense. He gets the nod over Gary Brackett, an undersized middle linebacker at the heart of the Colts defense. Other notable 58s: Marcus Benard, Browns; Quincy Black, Buccaneers; Thomas Davis, Panthers; Marques Harris, Chargers; Robert Henson, Redskins; Rey Maualuga, Bengals; Slade Norris, Raiders; Antonio Pierce, Giants; Scott Shanle, Saints; Tim Shaw, Bears; David Vobora, Rams; Jason Williams, Cowboys; Pierre Woods, Patriots

59 – London Fletcher, Redskins – Fletcher doesn’t have ideal size, but year after year he is a leader, a reliable tackler, and a playmaker, no matter what team he’s playing for. He’s a great success story as an undrafted player. He gets the nod over Julian Peterson of Detroit and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Other notable 59s: Spencer Adkins, Falcons; Jovan Belcher, Chiefs; Angelo Crowell, Buccaneers; Aaron Curry, Seahawks; Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens; Heath Farwell, Vikings; Larry Grant, Rams; Gary Guyton, Patriots; Ramon Humber, Colts; Brian Iwuh, Jaguars; Brandon Johnson, Bengals; Landon Johnson, Panthers; Brad Jones, Packers; Cato June, Bears; Stanford Keglar, Titans; Ashlee Palmer, Bills; Brandon Siler, Chargers; Pisa Tinoisamoa, Bears; Gerris Wilkerson, Giants; Brandon Williams, Cowboys; Wesley Woodyard, Broncos

74 – Aaron Kampman, Packers – Kampman, who moved from defensive end to outside ‘backer this season as Green Bay implemented a 3-4 defense, kept his old D-lineman number. Kampman didn’t have a great transition season, with just 3.5 sacks in nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. But he’s still a good player, and he’s the only linebacker wearing 74, so he merits a mention.

90 – No linebackers wearing 90 have played a game this season.

91 – Tamba Hali, Chiefs – Hali is emerging as a solid pass rusher in Kansas City, with 7.5 sacks thus far this season. He gets the nod at this number over Cameron Wake, Miami’s CFL import who has 5.5 sacks in his first NFL season.

92 – Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – In one of the toughest calls of this whole project, we’re going with Dumervil, the NFL leader with 15 sacks, over 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison of Pittsburgh. Both guys play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and both add the fright factor to their respective defenses. But while Harrison may be a better player in pass coverage, Dumervil is having a defensive player of the year caliber campaign in Denver, and so for 2009 we have to opt for him. Other notable 92s: Bertrand Berry, Cardinals; Hunter Hillenmeyer, Bears

93 – Anthony Spencer, Cowboys – Spencer has been a disappointment at outside ‘backer since the Cowboys made him a first-round pick three years ago, but as a full-time player he gets the nod over Jason Trusnik, who has moved into the starting lineup in Cleveland after a midseason trade from the Jets.

94 – DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys – Ware is a preeminent pass rusher with nine sacks this year and 62.5 in five seasons so far. Also deserving mention is Lawrence Timmons, an emerging inside ‘backer for the Steelers. Other notable 94s: Arnold Harrison, Browns; Marques Murrell, Jets; Jyles Tucker, Chargers

95 – Shaun Phillips, Chargers – In a close call, the nod here goes to Phillips, a pass-rushing outside ‘backer who has seven sacks for San Diego, over Cleveland OLB Kamerion Wimbley, who has 6.5 sacks. The six fumbles Phillips has forced was the determining factor. We’ll also shout out to Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson, another emerging pass-rusher. Other notable 95s: Tully Banta-Cain, Patriots; Ali Highsmith, Cardinals

96 – David Bowens, Browns – Bowens came with Eric Mangini from the Jets to Cleveland. He has long been an above-average pass-rushing outside ‘backer, and he has five sacks in that role this season. He gets the nod over declining Patriot Adalius Thomas. Other notable 96s: Omar Gaither, Eagles; Andy Studebaker, Chiefs

97 – Calvin Pace, Jets – Pace missed the first four games of the season due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension, but since returning he has continued to provide pass rush off the edge with six sacks. Other notable 97s: Clint Sintim, Giants; Pierre Walters, Chiefs

98 – Brian Orakpo, Redskins – Orakpo, Washington’s first-round pick, has 11 sacks in his rookie season, including four last week against Oakland. That’s the kind of defensive jolt Washington was hoping for when it drafted him. Other notable 98s: Shawn Crable, Patriots; Parys Haralson, 49ers; Darrell McClover, Bears

99 – Jason Taylor, Dolphins – Taylor spent most of his career as a 4-3 defensive end, but he has seamlessly made the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker over the last few years. After a slow season in his one campaign in Washington, Taylor has six sacks this year for Miami, giving him 126.5 in his 13-year career. Other notable 99s: Kevin Burnett, Chargers; Paul Kruger, Ravens; Manny Lawson, 49ers; Bryan Thomas, Jets; Jeremy Thompson, Packers

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Filed under Football Relativity, Jersey Numbers

FR: 2009 Season Preview

We’ve used Football Relativity for many things this summer, from comparing quarterbacks to comparing rumors to comparing free-agent moves to comparing nicknames. But now it is time to use this Football Relativity pool for what it was originally created – comparing teams to each other.

This is our preseason Football Relativity poll. 10 is the level of the best team or teams; 1 is the level of the worst team or teams. Teams that are on the same level are listed alphabetically, so the order on each level is not a ranking per se. We have no limit on the number of teams on any level, and in the future we may even leave a level empty to show a gap between teams. And this comparison does not attempt to predict record; schedules and other issues could leave teams with worse records on levels above teams with better records. We’ll make division predictions once this post has settled in our minds a bit.

Without further ado, here is the preseason version of Football Relativity. It’s long, but all that means is that your team is covered closely, no matter who your team is. Enjoy.

10 – New England Patriots – The Patriots aren’t a perfect team, but they have enough ability across the board to compare favorably with anybody in the league. The return of QB Tom Brady is obviously a key, and as a welcome-back present the franchise gave its franchise quarterback some grizzled but productive vets – RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, and TE Chris Baker. Those pieces should keep the offense potent, and the offensive line remains solid if unspectacular. The questions for New England are on defense, where Bill Belichick’s schemes are normally extremely dangerous. But New England’s core defensively has gotten kind of old, and the reinforcements have been spottier than you would expect. The premium players are NT Vince Wilfork and DE Ty Warren, who are perfect 3-4 guys, and ’08 rookie Jerod Mayo, who brings a playmaking ability at inside ‘backer that the Patriots hadn’t had in recent years. In the secondary, the Pats need vets Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to step up at corner, or else a rookie like Darius Butler needs to step up. But with youngsters like Butler, Patrick Chung, and Brandon Meriweather in the secondary, the Pats have the physical ability, and you have to believe Belichick and his staff can coach them up. As long as Brady stays healthy, this is going to be an elite team.

10 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The defending Super Bowl champs look like they’re loaded for bear again in ’09. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the smoothest quarterback around, but he always shows up in the end. He has vets Hines Ward and Heath Miller as well as emerging youngsters Santonio Holmes (the Super Bowl hero) and Limas Sweed to throw to, which makes for a potent passing game. The running game should be better this year with Rashard Mendenhall back from injury to help Willie Parker carry the run game load. Melwede Moore gives some injury assurance there. Pittsburgh’s offensive line was pretty maligned last year, but it’s serviceable, and the Steelers drafted a couple of guys who could raise the level of athleticism in that unit. Defensively, the Steelers are loaded. They know how to draft guys who can play their system, and it shows. They’re 6 deep on the defensive line and at linebacker, with playmakers like James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons there to wreak havoc. Plus, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark can do the same. The cornerback position isn’t beautiful, but with enough pressure they can hold steady. Don’t forget that Pittsburgh played the ultimate murderer’s row on its schedule last year – the Steelers catch more of a break this year and may be able to coast a little more late in the season. Regardless, this is a team under Mike Tomlin that can contend again if it keeps its fire.

9 – New York Giants – The Giants are loaded on defense and in the running game, and that’s going to be enough to keep them at the top of the pack in the NFC this season. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, running behind an often unsung but rarely outplayed offensive line, will keep the offense moving down the field. QB Eli Manning makes enough throws to keep the team moving, and while he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver, he has a variety of talented options that should allow him to spread the ball around the field. This team, like the early Patriots Super Bowl teams, may not have a 90-catch receiver but should have three or four or even five with 40 catches or more. That’s difficult for defenses to stop in its own right. On defense, the Giants have reloaded their defensive line by adding Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and getting Osi Umenyiora back from injury. Those guys, plus Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, give the Giants the best D-line in the league. Those linemen create havoc and make enough plays on their own to keep the rest of the defense humming along, but the Giants also have underrated back-seven guys like LB Antonio Pierce and emerging CB Aaron Ross and S Kenny Phillips. This is a deep team at the key DL and RB spots, and that should help the Giants stay at the top of the pack even when injuries come. They’re the class of the NFC as the season opens.

9 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans aren’t a flashy team, but they’re always tough, and that toughness will serve them well again this season. The toughness is reflected in the run game, which stars Chris Johnson and a slimmer LenDale White, but depends on a terrific offensive line led by Michael Roos, who one informal poll (via movethesticks) recently listed as one of the top three linemen in the entire league. The passing game isn’t wonderful, but QB Kerry Collins doesn’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in his career, and the addition of Nate Washington should add a little more pop to the air attack. Defensively, the Titans lose stud DT Albert Haynesworth but still have a four-deep rotation with guys who can make plays. LB Keith Bulluck and CB Cortland Finnegan remain among the league’s elite at their positions as well. The reason the Titans are so good is that they have found and then developed gems like Finnegan (a seventh-round pick) and OT David Stewart (a fourth-round pick). That depth will be tested as the Titans try to replace Haynesworth, but the sense here is that they’ll be able to get enough production at DT to remain a terrific team.

8 – Atlanta Falcons – The team that is making the leap into the upper echelons in the NFL this year is the Falcons, who will build on last year’s surprise to continue moving forward. QB Matt Ryan showed last year that he has the ability and the moxie to be an effective and sometimes even elite-looking quarterback despite his young age. Now, he has all-time great TE Tony Gonzalez as a target, joining top-tier WR Roddy White. Plus, the run game features Michael Turner, a terrific running back, and change-of-pace threat Jerious Norwood. The offensive line played OK last year, and if it can match that level of performance, the offense will once again be dangerous. Defensively, the Falcons rely heavily on DE John Abraham, a pass-rushing demon who had to be spotted last year to keep him healthy. Still, though, he played every game and was a threat throughout. He’s a game-changer who must stay healthy for Atlanta to threaten. Rookie Peria Jerry should help bring a second threat to the front four. The back seven doesn’t have a lot of playmakers, although LB Curtis Lofton could continue to emerge. But this is still a solid defense. The Falcons should follow up last year’s playoff performance with a division title this year, which is an accomplishment in a tough grouping like the NFC South. And a Super Bowl berth, while a bit of a stretch, is within the realm of possibility.

8 (con’t) – Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles would have been a level 9 team had they not had two major injuries as camp opened. While MLB Stewart Bradley and TE Cornelius Ingram weren’t cornerstones, they were potential contributors whose losses sting. Still, the Eagles are a dangerous team. QB Donovan McNabb has more weapons than he’s ever had, from star ’08 rookie DeSean Jackson to veteran Brian Westbrook to rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. If Michael Vick finds a role, all the better for Philly. The biggest question on offense is how the offensive line will fare with two new tackles now that Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are gone. Still, though, a solid offensive line has traditionally been Andy Reid’s speciality. On defense, the Eagles should maintain their attacking style even after the death of long-time coordinator Jim Johnson. DE Trent Cole and DT Mike Patterson are not well known, but they make some plays. The stars are CBs Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, and Sheldon Brown, who provide the ability for the Eagles to blitz. The Eagles aren’t quite of the same caliber as the Giants, but they’re a good team that should make the playoffs. And once they get to the postseason, they have the potential to make a run.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers once again have one of the most talented rosters in the league – the question is how often they will play to that talent. Last year, the Chargers only reached an elite level at the end of the season and in the playoff opener, a win over the Colts. But the talent is undoubtedly there. QB Philip Rivers is emerging as a big-time quarterback, and the leadership qualities he has show over the last season and a half are the kind that a championship-level team needs. He has stalwart TE Antonio Gates and burgeoning star WR Vincent Jackson among many targets. Of course, he also has a solid running game with LaDanian Tomlinson, who appears to be healthy once again, and Darren Sproles, a quick-twitch mighty mite who is able to set off the pyrotechnics at any time. Tomlinson isn’t what he was three or four years ago, but spelling him with Sproles will keep the Chargers moving on the ground. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s good enough to keep Rivers upright and to open holes for the runners. On defense, the Chargers blossomed once Ron Rivera became defensive coordinator and let the dogs out on the blitz. The return of Shawne Merriman from injury and the addition of Larry English in the first round of the draft gives the Chargers much more pass-rushing pop than they had last season, and that pressure should help CB Antonio Cromartie rebound and continue his development into an elite corner. NT Jamal Williams remains the key to the run defense, and he’s as strong at the point of attack as anyone in the league. The Chargers have the tools; the question is consistency. But if they find that consistency, they’re a big-time Super Bowl threat.

7 – Arizona Cardinals – The Super Bowl loser hangover has been well documented over the years, and often these runners-up finish well out of the playoffs. That could happen to the Cardinals, but on paper this team is good enough to win the NFC West again to get into the postseason. The biggest questions are attitude and coaching, because both coordinators, Todd Haley and Clancy Pendergast, are gone.  The offense remains dangerous with QB Kurt Warner and stud WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The addition of rookie RB Beanie Wells will help bring a little more balance to the offense as well, and with Russ Grimm as the run-game coordinator, the ground game could become a bit more featured. The offensive line is good enough to keep the offense running smoothly. While the Cardinals’ offensive power gets a lot of attention, the defense is full of playmakers too. DT Darnell Dockett is a disruptive force, and Arizona hopes and believes that DE Calais Campbell will be the same kind of force this season. At linebacker, Karlos Dansby is a terrific player, and in the secondary S Adrian Wilson is among the best in the league. Even more, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can join the ranks of top-flight playmakers this year after a strong rookie campaign. This is a talented team, especially on defense. The question is whether Arizona can play up to its potential as it finally did in the NFC playoffs last year. The hunch here is that Ken Whisenhunt is a strong enough coach to keep the Cardinals playing reasonably well.

7 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens aren’t the flashiest team, but they are a tough, physical team that is a pain to play and a tough out. In that way, they fit the personality of coach John Harbaugh. It all starts on defense, where the Ravens have several truly blue-chip players. DE Haloti Ngata is among the league’s best front-line players; Terrell Suggs is one of the best pass rushers; Ray Lewis is still a huge presence at middle linebacker; and Ed Reed is the class of the league at safety. It’s remarkable that they have such premiere players at each level of the defense, and that starpower shows game after game. Offensively, the Ravens have a smashmouth offensive line, although the tradeout of Matt Birk for Jason Brown at center is a bit of a downgrade. The running game is dangerous with Le’Ron McClain, Ray Rice, and vet Willis McGahee. The question is the passing game with second-year QB Joe Flacco. Flacco’s targets feature veterans Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, both of whom have been so banged up that they’ve lost their explosiveness, and youngsters like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams who have talent and show flashes but aren’t consistent. Unless Flacco takes a sizable leap forward this year, the passing game will end up being what holds the Ravens back from being a division winner and major Super Bowl contender. Still, this is a team no one wants to play.

7 (con’t) – Green Bay Packers – Last year, the Packers had a great offense and an abysmal defense. That’s why they’re moving from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 plan. That kind of transition normally takes a couple of years to make fully because the personnel a team needs in the front 7 to make the switch takes a while to accumulate. But the Packers have done a better job than most teams of piling up that talent to make the switch more quickly. Rookie DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews fit the scheme well, as well as holdovers NT Ryan Pickett and LB Nick Barnett. The questions are DE turned OLB Aaron Kampman, who must prove he can generate pass rush from a two-point stance, and LB A.J. Hawk, who hasn’t really lived up to his top-5 draft position yet. But the front seven is in good shape with the potential to be in great shape, which measn the team can take a big step forward. The secondary features veteran CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris, who played OK last year but must pick it up for the defense to truly shine. On offense, the Packers do shine, thanks to the rapid development of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has the luxury of throwing to a deep WR corps led by Greg Jennings and veteran Donald Driver, and RB Ryan Grant is good enough to keep defenses from pinning their ears back on the rush. The offensive line is not outstanding, but it did well enough for Rodgers last year. All in all, this is a talented team that could usurp the Vikings in the NFC Central after last year’s 6-10 debacle.

7 (con’t) – Minnesota Vikings – All the news in the offseason for the Vikings has been about Brett Favre, which is understandable but ironic because Favre is probably the weak link for the Vikings team. The question is whether the weak link will break and kill the entire chain. Favre fell apart at the end of last year, and his penchant for turnovers won’t overcome the biggest problem that Tarvaris Jackson had last year. Favre is just as likely to throw the killer pick as Jackson, and he’s more likely to break down because he can’t escape like Jackson can. Jackson is a promising prospect who is now lost to the Vikings emotionally, and that’s a killer. So Favre must play well, or else the Vikings have set themselves back 3-5 years. Brad Childress is all in with Favre, and that’s not a position I would like to be in. The move is a shame, because the Vikes are loaded everywhere else on the field. On offense, RB Adrian Peterson is probably the league’s best, and Chester Taylor is a wonderful complement. WR Bernard Berrian had a fine year as a deep threat in his first year in Minny, and Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe are decent targets as well. Even better, the offensive line is full of road-graders like Steve Hutchinson, still the best guard in the league, Bryant McKinnie, and rookie Phil Loadholt. Defensively, the Vikes star DE Jared Allen, who can play the run well and generate pass rush, and space-filling DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Kevin is the more likely Williams to get penetration and blow up plays. LBs E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are improving as players, and Minnesota has one of the better unsung corners in Antoine Winfield. This is a deep, talented team that would reach the 8 level with Jackson as the starting QB and could be a 9 with a top-8 quarterback. But Favre will cost the Vikings a game or two, and that will be enough to let the Packers or perhaps the Bears sneak past them in the standings. That means their all-in move will end up going bust.

6 – Carolina Panthers – For most of the regular season last year, the Panthers were a level-9 team and one of the best four squads in the league. But they melted down in a home playoff game vs. Arizona, in large part because Jake Delhomme turned the ball over five times. But the Panthers didn’t make many upgrades in the offseason because their salary cap was strapped by Julius Peppers’ franchise tag. The Panthers kept Peppers, at least for one more year, which means they’re all-in with him kind of like the Vikings are with Brett Favre. The gamble has a better chance of paying off in Carolina, because Peppers is still a Pro Bowl-level player. He bounced back from an absentee ’07 season with 14.5 sacks last year, and his pass-rush ability is what gives a solid defense claws. The Panthers lost space-eating DT Maake Kemeoatu to a training-camp injury, which could inhibit Damione Lewis’ underrated ability to get in the backfield. That could also make it harder for MLB Jon Beason to roam and make plays. Still, the Panthers have front-7 playmakers, and the secondary is strong with CBs Chris Gamble (coming off a sterling season) and Richard Marshall. The Panthers’ offense is a running-game clinic. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the beneficiaries, but the real credit goes to a monstrous offensive line starring OTs Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, OG Travelle Wharton, and C Ryan Kalil. There aren’t a lot of weak links in that group. The passing game runs hot and cold because Delhomme does, but it can also fling it to Steve Smith and hope for the best because Smith makes so many plays. This is a star-studded team that could be held back by Delhomme, but if he plays OK they’ll be a playoff contender. Atlanta is the NFC South favorite, but the Panthers remain a threat.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys– It’s unusual that the Cowboys have been overshadowed this offseason, although they created that shadow with Jerry Jones’ massive video board. Regardless, this is a team that hasn’t gotten much attention, but it still has much of the talent that Bill Parcells accumulated while he was there. That shows most on defense, where OLB DeMarcus Ware, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league, and emerging NT Jay Ratliff lead a quality front seven. It would help if OLB Anthony Spencer, like Ware a former first-round pick, steps up to take some pressure off of Ware, who had 20 sacks last year. The secondary has had problems, although CB Terence Newman is a good player. The questions for the Cowboys are on offense. Now that Terrell Owens is gone, Dallas needs Roy Williams to emerge as a big-time receiver. The trade Dallas made for Williams paid for him at that level, and if he doesn’t deliver, the passing game will be a struggle for QB Tony Romo. But if Williams does step up, he and TE Jason Witten can be a dynamic receiving duo. The running game has capable legs in Marion Barber and second-year men Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But the offensive line, which is huge and aging, needs to return to its form of a couple of years ago. This means you, Flozell Adams and Leonard Davis. The Cowboys have talent and can be a playoff team once again, but there are a lot of ifs that have to come through for that to happen, especially in the loaded NFC East.

6 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – No team has been more consistent this decade than the Indianapolis Colts. They’ve won 12 games in each of the last six seasons, earning one Lombardi trophy in the process. But it’s a pipe dream to think that this team will continue its impressive 12-win streak in 2009. In fact, we’re making the outlandish prediction that the Colts won’t even win 10 games this year. Among the reasons why: The loss of head coach Tony Dungy will hurt, in part because Jim Caldwell isn’t good enough to keep the Colts’ stampede going. He’s a failed college coach, and we’ve researched and determined that this kind of hire very rarely works for NFL teams. Marvin Harrison is gone, and while he was declining, his absence, combined with the offseason turmoil surrounding coordinator Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd, means that the offense won’t be quite the machine that it has traditionally been. QB Peyton Manning was good enough to overcome that last year, when he willed the Colts to 12 wins after a rough start, but it’s hard to see him overcoming even more obstacles with a similar level of success this year. The bigger problems are on defense, where S Bob Sanders is hurt (again) and where the new head coach canned coordinator Ron Meeks in an effort to get a more aggressive defense. That approach doesn’t fit the personnel well, which means that that Colts could be even more vulnerable on defense than they have been in recent years. Indy is still a winning team, but they’re not as good as the Titans in their division, and they’ll face challenges from the Texans and Jaguars as well. This season will mark the end of an era for the Colts.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins catapulted from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, and now the test is to see if they can stay at that level of performance. Given the talent on the roster, that seems unlikely. Miami is full of good but not great players, and they must play at or over the heads again next year if Miami is to make the playoffs again. Chad Pennington is the perfect quarterback for Miami’s style of play, because he makes the right decision and then executes well. He doesn’t have name targets, although Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess have shown talent. It would really help if the Dolphins got some big plays out of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., who has great speed but inconsistent production. The running game features Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, and we may eventually see Pat White running out of the Wildcat offense Miami sprung on the league last year. Miami sought to get bigger and better on the offensive line, signing Jake Grove to play center to join huge tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey. On defense, the Dolphins created a pass rush thanks to Joey Porter’s renaissance year at outside ‘backer. It’s hard to see vets like Porter and NT Jason Ferguson as top NFL players for much longer, but they were standouts last year. Instead, the Dolphins will need youngsters like DE Philip Merling, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson, and rookie CB Vontae Davis to infuse the defense with impact in order to stay at the same level. It’s only reasonable to expect a step back from the Dolphins last year, but this team is well-coached enough by Tony Sparano and his staff and well-managed enough by Parcells to make that half step and still stay in playoff contention.

6 (con’t) – New Orleans Saints – It is the best of times, it is the worst of times in New Orleans. (Sorry that’s a Dickens reference and not a New Orleans reference; I’ll try to do better.) Sean Payton’s offense is outstanding, led by QB Drew Brees, who is making his case to join Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the group of the best signal-callers in the league right now. Brees nearly broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards last year, and he should be lethal again this year. He has a deep stable of targets led by Marques Colston outside and Reggie Bush and Lance Moore inside, and there are enough other options that Brees always has an open guy to throw to. The running game lost stalwart Deuce McAllister but still has Pierre Thomas, who is a rising star, as the main back with Bush as a change-of-pace threat. The line is solid, although OLT Jammal Brown needs to bounce back from his training-camp injury to keep things moving at full effectiveness. While the offense is a galaxy of stars, the defense too often looks like a Confederacy of Dunces. (There’s your Nola literary reference!) The defense was gashed over and over again last year, and that’s what forced the Saints into last place in the competitive NFC South. New coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his attacking style (he’s from the Jeff Fisher/Buddy Ryan school of defense), but does he have the pieces? The defensive line has talent in Will Smith and Charles Grant, but they don’t produce nearly often enough. The return of second-year DT Sedrick Ellis from injury should help. At linebacker, Jonathan Vilma must prove that he’s more than just a tackler, and in the secondary the Saints hope the additions of CBs Jabari Greer (free agency) and Malcolm Jenkins (first round) help stabilize what has been a subpar unit. The offense is good enough that even a slight swing up in defensive performance could make the Saints the sixth worst-to-first team in the NFC South in the last nine years, but counting on this collection to deliver is risky. So for now, we’ll count the Saints among the fringe playoff contenders who have a reasonable hope to go 9-7.

5 – Chicago Bears – In Chicago, it’s all Jay Cutler, all the time, because the Bears are so psyched about having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for the first time since the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cutler has a great arm and a prickly personality, but he definitely is an upgrade for the Bears. The question is who he’s going to throw the ball to, and the answer should be tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen, who had  54 catches and five touchdowns last year, is the most potent of the Bears’ solid cadre of supplemental receivers. RB Matt Forte, who’s great carrying the ball, is also a big threat as a receiver, and TE Desmond Clark is solid both blocking and receiving. But Cutler doesn’t have great outside receivers. Devin Hester is dangerous when he gets his hands on the ball, but he’s not a natural receiver. Earl Bennett, Cutler’s college teammate at Vanderbilt, didn’t have a single catch in his rookie season. So Cutler will have to spread the ball around instead of relying on studs like Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal as he did in Denver. The Bears’ offensive line is OK blocking for Forte and the run game, but changes at tackle mean an aging Orlando Pace and an unproven Chris Williams (like Cutler a first-rounder from Vandy) will have to deliver time for Cutler to throw. On defense, the Bears have a great reputation based on great history, but there are questions. DT Tommie Harris, the disruptive engine that makes everything go, is battling knee injuries and probably won’t be 100 percent at all this year. The question becomes whether he can make plays in his current state. DE Alex Brown is a good pass rusher, but other options like Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson can help him. At linebacker, Brian Urlacher’s performance is slipping from its peak, but not so rapidly that he can’t be an asset. Lance Briggs is probably the bigger playmaker in that unit. The real questions the Bears face on defense are in the secondary, where CB Nathan Vasher has really slipped and CB Charles Tillman is hurt. If the Bears don’t find stability there, Cutler will have to be a shootout machine even more than he was in Denver last year. The Bears went 9-7 last year, which was probably an overachievement, but even with Cutler they’ll need to answer a lot of questions to have a winning record again. A .500 mark seems more likely.

5 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s the same old story for the Bengals this year. Yes, they have talent. But they also have character problems. Usually, the character problems win. But there were signs of life for Cincy at the end of last year, as the Bungles started 0-8 but finished 4-3-1. The biggest sign of life now is the return of QB Carson Palmer, who is still an upper-echelon guy in the NFL. When he went out last year with a shoulder injury, the Bengals fell apart because backup Ryan Fitzpatrick just wasn’t good enough. Now Palmer is healthy, and he’s aiming for holdovers Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry and newcomers Laveranues Coles and TE Chase Coffman. That’s a strong group despite the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, especially if Henry (usually a troublemaker) is as focused and determined as he appeared to be in the preseason. The Bengals’ running game should be better with a full season from Cedric Benson, who found a good fit in Cincy after busting out in Chicago. The offensive line is a pretty tough unit, but there are questions, especially since rookie ORT Andre Smith held out so long. Defensively, the Bengals made progress last year. Domata Peko is an underrated defensive tackle, and the linebacker corps is getting younger and better with second-year man Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga. The Bengals also have promising corners in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, and they brought in S Roy Williams from Dallas, who can still be a big hitter as long as they don’t ask him to do much in pass coverage. There’s talent here,  and head coach Marvin Lewis had won at least seven games every year until last season. That decline can be largely attributed to Palmer’s absence, and that makes a return to respectability possible. The playoffs are still a long shot, because it’s hard to imagine Cincy passing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but a .500 record is a goal that can be reached.

5 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans, in some quarters, are a trendy pick to make the jump. It’s easy to see why that pick is trendy. The offense is loaded with playmakers, starting with WR Andre Johnson, who can make an argument for being the best receiver in the league. He’s not alone, though, because WR Kevin Walter, TE Owen Daniels, and RB Steve Slaton are all dangerous when they get the ball in their hands, and they all get the ball in their hands often. The triggerman is Matt Schaub, who is an above-average quarterback when he stays healthy. That just hasn’t happened often enough, as Schaub has missed five games in each of the past two seasons. His backup, likely Rex Grossman, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performer who won’t match Schaub’s productivity often enough. It would help if the Texans’ offensive line continued to develop, because that unit is still a question mark. On defense, Houston has spent a ton of high picks with mixed results. Former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams has turned into an elite defensive end, and he could surpass his 12-sack total from last year if free-agent signee Antonio Smith can draw some coverage. But DT Amobi Okoye followed up a good rookie season with a so-so sophomore one, and fellow former first-rounder Travis Johnson was so disappointing he was dealt to San Diego. Still, there’s some havoc-wreaking potential up front. At linebacker, rookie Brian Cushing could provide playmaking ability to supplement what tackle-machine MLB DeMeco Ryans can do. In the secondary, Houston has an unsung corner in Fred Bennett and a hyped corner in Dunta Robinson, whose feast or famine tendencies could be even more pronounced after he held out the entire preseason. There’s a lot of flashy talent on this team, but they haven’t been able to put it together to get past 8-8 in their franchise history. The guess here is that something – a Schaub injury or something else – will come up to keep them from jumping that hurdle again in ’09.

5 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Usually a contender, the Jaguars fell apart last year, in large part because of widespread offensive line issues. So it makes sense that Jacksonville made offensive line priority No. 1 in the offseason by signing longtime Eagles OT Tra Thomas and then drafting Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton in the first two rounds. There’s now a lot more depth on that unit, which should translate to more offensive production. David Garrard is a solid quarterback, though he’s yet to show that he can stand out from the rest of the NFL pack at that position. And RB Maurice Jones-Drew is a pinball-shaped dynamo who has produced both as a runner and a receiver. It will be interesting to see if Jones-Drew can maintain his big-play potential now that he’s more of a featured back instead of a complement to the departed Fred Taylor. Along with remaking the offensive line, the Jags also redid their entire WR corps, with Torry Holt coming over to provide veteran wile and production and youngsters like Mike Sims-Walker, Jarrett Dillard, and Mike Thomas to fill out the unit. It would help if TE Marcedes Lewis continues to develop and if Troy Williamson finally lives up to the potential he showed as a first-round pick back in Minnesota. On defense, the Jags lost some of their identity by letting Marcus Stroud go to Buffalo in ’08. Stroud’s former running mate, John Henderson, has shown inconsistent production and a spotty work ethic that keeps him from being an impact player. Young DEs Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves didn’t make a splash as rookies, and the Jaguars need them to take two or three steps up this year to make the front seven scary. At least Jacksonville has a top-flight corner in Rashean Mathis, who is probably the best corner you’ve never heard of. S Reggie Nelson is a playmaker too. While the Jags can’t possibly have the injury issues they had last year, there are still too many questions in too many places to consider them a real threat to contend with Tennessee or even Indy and Houston in the south. Given the strength of their division, Jack Del Rio’s crew is in a battle just to avoid being in last place again. They may win a few rounds of that fight, but they’re not getting past the .500 mark.

5 (con’t) – San Francisco 49ers – Last year, the 49ers started 2-7, changed head coaches by installing Mike Singletary, and then surged to a 5-2 finish. Singletary knows what kind of team he wants – a smashmouth, run-first unit on offense and an attacking crew on defense. The question for this team isn’t style but personnel. Shaun Hill is effective at quarterback, but he’s not a standout. The receivers, led by vet Isaac Bruce and holdover Josh Morgan, are nothing special. TE Vernon Davis, though he showed signs of getting it at the end of last season, still hasn’t come close to living up to his top-10 draft status. And Frank Gore, a solid runner, is sometimes too injury prone to last. Still, given the talent on offense, a run game featuring Gore and perhaps rookie Glen Coffee is the best approach, and Singletary wants to play that style, so at least that’s a fit. The offensive line has no monster talents, but it will be tough and physical, which is a start. On defense, the Niners really have only one standout – MLB Patrick Willis, who can make plays sideline to sideline and will make virtually every tackle in between. It remains to be seen, though, if this defense can move from being tough to being dangerous on the pass rush. Former first-round pick Manny Lawson is the most likely candidate to lead such a transition, but that’s far from a sure thing. The Niners suffered a big loss when CB Walt Harris suffered a season-ending injury in minicamps, but Nate Clements is still an above-average corner, and vet Dre Bly could help. The 49ers have attitude and hope, but the talent level isn’t there for a major run. If the NFC West is won at 9-7 again, the 49ers could be in the picture, but if Arizona steps forward, San Fran doesn’t have long enough legs to keep up. A .500 record is a far more likely outcome.

4 – Buffalo Bills – The Bills, perhaps sensing that they were irrelevant, signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to a one-year deal. As a one-year gamble, it makes sense, but if you believe that T.O. is enough to put the Bills over the top, you’re fooling yourself. While the Bills have some good players, there are far too many holes for this team to contend against a powerhouse like New England or even a solid squad like Miami. Owens and Lee Evans make a dynamic receiver duo, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish provide great depth at the position. But Trent Edwards has yet to show that he’s a big-time quarterback who can get the ball to all those targets, and even if he’s capable the offensive line is just too young (starting rookie OGs Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) to provide consistent protection. The run game with Marshawn Lynch is OK, or maybe even a little above average, but Lynch must sit out the first three games of the season. The fact that the Bills canned coordinator Turk Schonert just before the season shows that they still haven’t settled on what they want their offensive identity to be. On defense, the Bills need DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay to live up to the pass-rush potential they’ve shown at times but not consistently. Rookie Aaron Maybin can be part of the solution there, but he’s not big enough to be play a heavy load of snaps. LB Paul Pozluszny is a quality player, but he’s not going to provide juice at that position. One thing the Bills do have is good corners in Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin. If the D can get pass rush pressure, those corners can take advantage, and they’re extremely dangerous on returns. The Bills are a weird team in that they have good pieces on some levels and very few pieces on others, and that’s going to lead to inconsistency that will ultimately doom their playoff hopes – or even their dreams of a .500 record.

4 (con’t) – New York Jets – New head coach Rex Ryan isn’t afraid of the spotlight. He’s challenging opposing players, making bold proclamations, and basically just making himself known. Unlike most new head coaches, he also takes over a team that at 9-7 was competitive last year. But it remains to be seen whether the Jets can match even that moderate level of success with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ offense will have to rely on the running game, led by the dependable Thomas Jones and the explosive Leon Washington, to carry them. The fact that the offensive line, led by C Nick Mangold and veteran OG Alan Faneca, is of high quality will help. But the Jets really don’t have a lot of receiving threats to help Sanchez – only TE Dustin Keller is a true big-play threat, and only WR Jerricho Cotchery is of starting caliber on the outside. The offense will need the defense to keep them in games. Ryan brought ILB Bart Scott over from Baltimore with him to make sure his scheme and, as importantly, his personality translated to his new setting. He and fellow ILB David Harris make a terrific twosome inside. But the Jets don’t have the pass-rushing studs that Ryan enjoyed with the Ravens. Calvin Pace, who had a solid season last year, will miss the first four games because of suspension, and ’08 first-rounder Vernon Gholston was a ghost as a rookie. NT Kris Jenkins is a massive mound of man in the middle, but he wore down and lost effectiveness as the season wore on. The Jets need to do a better job of giving him breaks, but they don’t really have the depth to be able to do so. In the secondary, the Jets have a playmaker in S Kerry Rhodes and a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis. There are a lot of good pieces on this team, especially on defense, but the lack of an outside pass rush or an outside passing game will ultimately prove fatal. Ryan should be able to get 6 wins or so easily, but the next three needed for playoff consideration will be beyond the Jets’ reach.

4 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – At one point, I had the Seahawks slated to bounce back from last year’s 4-12 debacle and win the NFC West. But the signs in training camp haven’t been good, and the offensive line has been hit by injuries significant enough to make a rebound far more improbable. New head coach Jim Mora gets QB Matt Hasselbeck back to begin the season which is good; without Hasselbeck, the Seahawks aren’t going anywhere. But with him, their version of the West Coast offense can be potent enough. Last year, the Seahawks went through so many wide receivers that the offense never had a chance to develop rhythm or thrive. By adding reliable WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks got a No. 1 receiver who can take the pressure off their complementary players. The best of those complements is TE John Carlson, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Seattle’s running game won’t scare anyone with vets Julius Jones and Edgerrin James, but at least both players can catch the ball out of the backfield. Up front, both OLT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer suffered training-camp injury setbacks that will sideline them to begin the season. That’s a huge problem that could really inhibit the offense early. Defensively, the Seahawks have a solid pass-rusher in Patrick Kearney, but he doesn’t have much help up front. Free-agent Colin Cole was a nice addition, but he can’t make up for the departure of Rocky Bernard. The Seahawks have invested heavily at linebacker with first-rounder Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, and Lofa Tatupu, and while that group is good vs. the pass and the run, they’re going to have to force some turnovers and get some sacks for this defense to work. Losing CB Marcus Trufant for at least the first six games of the season is another injury issue for the Seahawks to overcome. At his best, he’s a premium cover corner, but injuries kept him from being at his best last year as well as this one. In a best-case scenario, you could see Seattle making a playoff run, but injuries have already taken that scenario off the table. Instead, the likely scenario is a third-place finish in the NFC West.

4 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – In a tough division, the Redskins are falling behind. Offensively, QB Jason Campbell just hasn’t progressed enough to be the franchise’s standard-bearer. He will finally get to play a second season under the same offensive coordinator this year, but the Redskins have so little faith in him that his leash is incredibly short. He doesn’t exactly have wonderful targets to help him. Santana Moss is a good but not great receiver, and Chris Cooley is just a hair below Pro Bowl level at tight end. Young receivers like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas would help, but they’re not emerging at this point. The run game is strong with Clinton Portis, but he’s one of those backs with so many carries in his back pocket that you wonder how much longer it will be until he begins to slip. The offensive line is already slipping, with players like OLT Chris Samuels beginning to show their age. Defensively, the Redskins need pass rush. Rookie Brian Orakpo is the most likely person to provide that rush outside, and high-dollar DT Albert Haynesworth can do the same inside. If they both become playmakers, then the Redskins D will have sharper teeth than in years past. MLB London Fletcher is still an effective clean-up ‘backer, and safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton are a young duo that is an asset as well. Plus, CB DeAngelo Hall played well after his complete failure of a tenure in Oakland, and Carlos Rogers has come around too. There are a lot of nice pieces in place in Washington, but many of the ones on offense are getting old just as the pieces on defense are coming on. If the planets align, it’ll work, even in a tough division. But the odds of the planets aligning are just too slim to count on much – in large part because Planet Campbell is so far in outer orbit that he won’t come around quickly enough.

3 – Cleveland Browns – The Dawg Pound had better hope new coach Eric Mangini knows what he’s doing, because his “reclamation” project looks more like razing the foundation. Kellen Winslow is gone, WR Braylon Edwards and DE Corey Williams are rumored to be next, and Mangini seems to believe that keeping his starting quarterback a secret is a good idea. Whether it’s Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn starts,  he’s going to wish he had better targets. Edwards is talented but inconsistent catching the ball, and aside from Josh Cribbs there’s little big-play ability. Jamal Lewis is a workhorse running back who is becoming more of a plowhorse by the carry, but at least rookie James Davis shows promise. The Browns do have a building block in OLT Joe Thomas, and they dealt out of a top-5 draft position to take C Alex Mack, who could develop into a solid guy too. Of course, Mangini will have to start Mack for that to happen, but the Mangenius is too smart for that. On defense, Shaun Rogers is one of the top 3-4 nose tackles in the league, but Williams struggled to move from a 4-3 tackle to a 3-4 end. Former first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley has shown pass-rush potential from the OLB spot in the past, but last year he disappointed. One player who didn’t disappoint was ILB D’Qwell Jackson, who established himself as a tackling machine. In the secondary, Mangini is counting on Abram Elam, who came over in the draft-day dealing but who never could establish himself as a full-time starter with the Jets. The Browns have a few premium players, but not enough, and Mangini’s insistence on having things his way will lead to a step back before it leads to any steps forward.

3 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – There are teams that are bad, and there are teams that are bad with a plan. The Chiefs are bad, but they have a plan that should pay off – just not this year. New GM Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley brought in QB Matt Cassel to run the offense going forward, and if Cassel can approach the ability he showed in New England last year, that will be a good move. Cassel has one stud receiver in Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley showed his potential more frequently last year than he had in the past. Vet Bobby Engram provides stability to help the offense keep moving in the short term. The run game still revolves around Larry Johnson, who actually had decent stats when he played last year. He’s still an above-average NFL back. Haley knows what he wants his offense to look like, so much so that he canned coordinator Chan Gailey just before the system to make sure that the offense is structured his way. The Chiefs are still looking for OL help and depth, but they do have a cornerstone in OLT Branden Albert. On defense, the Chiefs are moving to a 3-4, and we can expect them to go through the normal growing pains. First-rounder Tyson Jackson must settle in as a keystone defensive end, like Richard Seymour used to be, in order to make the front line work. Glenn Dorsey, a top-5 pick two years ago, doesn’t really fit this system, and so he might end up being moved for cents on the dollar. The Chiefs brought in Mike Vrabel from New England to help make the transition and hopefully to help OLB Tamba Hali, the team’s best pass rusher, adjust to the new system. Hali and Jackson are the key pieces up front; their fates will largely determine the fate of the defense. The Chiefs don’t have enough premium players to compete — only Bowe, Albert, Hali, and maybe Jackson and Cassel fit that bill – but they should be better this year. And if Pioli and Haley can upgrade the talent level going into next year, this team could start to take a leap.

3 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – When I first started the preview process, I pegged the Rams as the worst team in the league. But the more I thought and prepared, the more I realized that there is hope in St. Louis. That hope is mostly because Steve Spagnuolo comes to a team that has some defensive building blocks in place. DE Chris Long had just four sacks in his rookie season, but he should become a solid run-stopping defensive end with pass rush potential. (Think of Justin Smith or Philip Daniels at their best.) Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis steps into the middle to provide stability and solid tackling, and that should free OLB Will Witherspoon to roam and make more plays like he used to in Carolina. And the secondary has unknown but quality players in CB Ron Bartell and S O.J. Atogwe. This is a defense on the rise. The problem is offensively, where neither QB Marc Bulger nor RB Steven Jackson has been able to stay healthy enough to produce. While Jackson is a good bet to bounce back, it’s likely Bulger’s best days are over. What won’t help Bulger is the fact that his best receivers are an over-the-hill TE Randy McMichael and under-the-hill WRs Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson. Avery needs to emerge as a true No. 1 guy for the Rams offense to click, and while he has the potential to do so, it may still be a year early for that. What will help Bulger, who has been battered as much as any NFL quarterback in recent years, is the addition of rookie OT Jason Smith. The Rams are starting Smith on the right side but need to move him to the left tackle spot ASAP instead of trying to salvage former first-rounder Alex Barron who has proven he can’t do that job. The Rams will be better than last year’s 2-win team, but ultimately Bulger will cost them the chance to leap ahead into playoff contention. Still, five or six wins would show Rams fans that the hope they want really is there.

2 – Denver Broncos – Josh McDaniels is a good offensive mind, but so far he’s shown he doesn’t have the skills to be a head coach. He doesn’t deal with his players well, and he doesn’t seem to have the willingness and/or the ability to adjust his precious “system” to the realities of his roster. So Jay Cutler is gone and Brandon Marshall is very unhappy, leaving the Broncos without their two most impactful players from ’08. Without that impact, there’s little hope in Denver this year. Cutler’s replacement, Kyle Orton, is a competent NFL quarterback, but he has yet to show that he’s better than that. He has one terrific slot-type receiver in Eddie Royal (think Wes Welker from the scheme McDaniels coordinated in New England), and if Marshall is willing to play, he’ll be a great asset outside. The depth at receiver is spotty, although TE Tony Scheffler (who was in McDaniels’ doghouse early) is a really good weapon in the passing game. Denver’s running game will revolve mainly around rookie Knowshon Moreno, who has loads of potential. Denver does have a strong offensive line, with OLT Ryan Clady back after a sterline rookie season. ORG Chris Kuper and ORT Ryan Harris are quite good as well. So there is hope on offense, even with the passing game changes. The problems are on defense, where the Broncos are trying to install a 3-4 scheme that they don’t yet have the personnel for. Rookie Robert Ayers fits into the OLB role on one side, and free-agent Ronald Fields fits as a nose tackle. But the other main contributors from last year – Elvis Dumervil and D.J. Williams – have to prove they can fit this scheme. And unless they can, the defense will be average at best. Denver also reworked the secondary around Champ Bailey, signing veteran safeties Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill and CB Andre Goodman. There’s just been too much upheaval in Denver this year for me to feel good about what the Broncos are doing, and this team could easily bottom out this year. McDaniels’ people skills, not his football skills, will be tested severely, and we’ll have to see how he responds to a test it appears he didn’t expect when he took the job.

2 (con’t) – Detroit Lions – After an 0-16 debacle, the Lions are trying to remake everything. I believe they’ve gotten the right guy at the helm to do it. Jim Schwartz is a tough yet progressive coach who assimilates as much info as he can to make a decision. That’s a crucial quality as the Lions turn over a huge percentage of their roster. QB Matthew Stafford will start out of the gate as a rookie, and while he will struggle, he has a big arm and a bigger security blanket in all-league receiver Calvin Johnson. The Lions have worked on acquiring receiver depth this offseason to help Stafford, and they drafted rookie TE Brandon Pettigrew as well to help the cause. The running game features Kevin Smith, who had an OK season as a rookie and who still has the potential to flourish in better surroundings. Detroit’s offensive line still needs work; the good players are old, and the young players aren’t good yet. That’s not a good combo. Defensively, the Lions added vets like LBs Julian Peterson and Larry Foote and CBs Anthony Henry and Philip Buchanon to help stabilize a unit that was awful last year. None of those guys (except for maybe Peterson) can still be a good playmaker, but they won’t blow assignments like the Lions did so often last year. Rookies FS Louis Delmas and DT Sammie Hill will start and try to start a youth movement. Detroit still has a long way to go, but they’ll be better this year and a little more competitive. Even a three- or four-win season would be a step in the right direction, and more wins than that could be cause for celebration. Don’t count on celebration, but this ship is finally pointed in the right direction.

1 – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders’ dysfunction has been evident all offseason. To wit: the last-second trade for DE Richard Seymour; signing guys like Jeff Garcia and Terdell Sands and then cutting them before the season; and of course the reputed game of Tom Cable’s Punchout in a coaches meeting. (We’re not saying Cable punched a guy; we’re saying some people said he did.)  Hey, at least they didn’t fire their offensive coordinator during training camp. (Oh wait; they don’t really have one.) You can say a lot about the way the Raiders are run off the field, but let’s look at what Oakland has on the field. They do have a great stable of running backs with Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush. They do have a young quarterback in JaMarcus Russell who still has promise that he could grow into. They do have an underrated young tight end in Zach Miller. They do have the best cornerback in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha. They have a terrific young linebacker in Kirk Morrison. So there are pieces in place. But the Raiders don’t have proven wide receivers, especially with Chaz Schilens sidelined as the season starts. They don’t have a great offensive line, which mitigates the impact of the running game and makes Russell’s development difficult. The Raiders don’t have an impactful front four on defense, unless Seymour and Greg Ellis find a fountain of youth. They don’t have great depth anywhere. This roster has a few nice pieces, but there’s simply not enough quality in enough places for them to compete regularly. That’s poor front-office planning. So while the Raiders may jump up and win a game or two you don’t expect them to during the year, they’re going to be among the most hopeless teams out there on a week-to-week basis.

1 (con’t) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s a bad year to be a pirate in the NFL, because the Raiders and the Buccaneers begin the season on the lowermost level of our comparison. The Bucs unloaded stalwarts like Derrick Brooks, Kevin Carter, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard, instituting a new era under new head coach Raheem Morris. The beginning of the era is going to be very bumpy. Byron Leftwich is the starter at quarterback, but his slow delivery is going to get him, a receiver, the offensive line, or all three killed. He’s simply not good enough, but he’s a good guy who can be a place-holder until Josh Freeman is ready midseason. The running game features a returning Cadillac Williams (is he healthy?), import Derrick Ward, and holdover Earnest Graham. Leftwich is throwing to Antonio Bryant, who had a breakout year last year in his return from utter NFL obscurity, and new tight end Kellen Winslow. These are guys who have been good but who aren’t dependable in the least. The offensive line is OK but not great, although OLT Donald Penn is a prospect to watch. The fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodinski was jettisoned just before the season isn’t a good sign that all these pieces are coming together on offense. On defense is where the Bucs’ makeover is going to take time. The only front seven guy who is a building block for sure is MLB Barrett Ruud, although DE Gaines Adams has shown potential. In the secondary, safety Tanard Jackson is suspended for the first four games, but he and Aqib Talib are supposed to be the guys who take over a unit that has been Ronde Barber’s for years. The Bucs simply haven’t replaced the talent they got rid of in the offseason, which means that they’re going to struggle this year. The fact that Leftwich just isn’t good enough will make those struggles more pronounced, to the point that the Bucs could be the worst team in the league. Morris may be the guy for the future, but his beginning right now isn’t going to be pretty.

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Free-agency review – post-draft through May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lions’ tales of a Furrey Foote

First of all, I apologize for the headine. Couldn’t resist.
Second of all, if you want Brett Favre stuff, scroll down or click.
Third of all, there’s a mega-research project on coaching trees going on-line tomorrow.
Now let’s get to it. There were several moves in the NFL yesterday, and the two most interesting had to do with a former Lion and a future one. So here are thoughts on LB Larry Foote going to Detroit and WR Mike Furrey going to Cleveland.

The Browns are in serious upheaval at wide receiver. They’ve cut the cord on Joe Jurevicius, and we now must expect Donte Stallworth to miss some time with legal matters related to a deadly car accident he was involved in last year. And that doesn’t even address the persistent Braylon Edwards trade rumors. So Cleveland has tried to reload at receiver, by signing David Patten and drafting Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi in the second round. Now they add Mike Furrey, who bounced through the XFL and the Arena League before establishing himself as a legit NFL receiver. Furrey’s best success has come in Mike Martz systems in St. Louis and Detroit, and he doesn’t have great size, but it’s still easy to see him as an effective inside receiver. If nothing else, he’ll try hard and give some level of certainty at a very uncertain position for Cleveland.

Meanwhile, the Lions add ex-Steeler Larry Foote, who had been cut in Pittsburgh for salary-cap reasons. Not only is Foote a Michigan native and alum, he’s an extremely solid inside ‘backer on running downs. He has limitations and probably shouldn’t be trying to drop into coverage, but he is a quality NFL starter who definitely upgrades Detroit’s lion-up. (Sorry.) It’s only a one-year deal, but if Foote provides leadership that term could be extended. Regardless, the Lions’ defense is better today because Foote is there.

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Post-draft cutbacks

We’ve done two cutbacks posts thus far this offseason, one detailing cuts before free agency opened and one between the beginning of the new league year and the draft. But after the draft, there were some pretty significant cuts, and so we decided to begin a new post to compare those. This is once again a relativity poll with 10 being the most significant cuts and 1 being cuts that are merely worth mentioning. We’ll continue updating this post, so check back.

10 – Cardinals (cut RB Edgerrin James, DE Travis LaBoy, and CB Rod Hood) – James was a high-dollar free-agent acquisition three seasons ago, and he had two good seasons before beginning to decline last season. With the emergence of Tim Hightower last year and the selection of Beanie Wells in the first round, James became extraneous. The question is whether he has enough left to still contribute somewhere or if he’s just having the end-of-career dropoff that all running backs seem to have. Regardless, he’s had a great career with more than 12,000 rushing yards. LaBoy was one of Arizona’s big-money signings last year (5 years, $22 million), but injuries limited his effectiveness, and he only had four sacks last year. His price tag was just too high. Hood started 14 games last year, but he wasn’t good enough, and the Cards replaced him with Bryant McFadden in free agency.

9 – Bengals (cut OT Levi Jones, RBs Chris Perry and Gary Russell, S Mike Doss and Ps Kyle Larson and Ryan Plackemeier) – Jones was once a top-10 pick, and he started for a long time for Cincinnati. But injuries sapped his effectiveness over the past few years, and the Bengals finally replaced him by drafting Andre Smith at No. 6 overall this year. Jones would have been cut earlier, but Cincinnati waited to get his replacement in house before pulling the plug. Jones could still land somewhere as a backup tackle who’s good enough to play in a pinch but probably can’t play 16 games without getting dinged up. For his sake, we’ll hope he lands with a contender in that kind of role after years of meaningless games in Cincy.  Perry was a former first-round pick who fought injuries so often that he never really lived up to his potential. He was talked about as a starter going into the ’08 season after the Bengals released Rudi Johnson, but injuries derailed him again. Still, Perry is a good enough pass catcher to at least get a look as a third-down back elsewhere if he can stay healthy. Russell was a waiver claim from Pittsburgh just before the draft, but after the Bengals picked two backs, he became expendable. Doss was a former Colts prospect who disappointed for a second team. Larson and Plackemeier were cut after the Bengals drafted Kevin Huber, who looks to take over the punting job.

8 – Cowboys (cut DE/OLB Greg Ellis) – Ellis came to Dallas in 1998 in the midst of a firestorm, because the Cowboys picked him in the top 10 instead of selecting Randy Moss. While Ellis was never the difference maker that Moss was and is. He had 77 sacks in his career and was also a solid run-stopper. When Bill Parcells came to Dallas and switched the defense to a 3-4, Ellis was unhappy with his role. Still, as an outside linebacker, he tallied 12 sacks and won comeback player of the year honors in ’07 coming off an injury. That would suggest the Ellis still has something to contribute in a limited pass rushing role somewhere like Carolina or Washington. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will rely on former first-round pick Anthony Spencer to finally emerge as an impact guy. But Spencer has a long way to go to fill Ellis’ shoes.

7 – Steelers (cut ILB Larry Foote and P Dirk Johnson) – Foote has started every game for five years in a row, but ’07 first-rounder Lawrence Timmons is ready to take that spot.  Foote is a solid run-stuffer who has to come off the field in obvious passing situations. Those limitations made his $2.8 million salary-cap number too rich for the Steelers.

7 (con’t) – Redskins (cut OT Jon Jansen and WR James Thrash) –  Jansen was a stalwart of the Redskins’ offensive line for 10 seasons after joining the team as a second-round pick. He started 123 games in that time, almost all at right tackle. He was a physical run blocker who held his own in the passing game as well. He missed most of the 2007 season with an injury, though, and last year he only started 11 games. Although he was never a Pro Bowler, he was generally an asset as a starter until the last couple of years. But declining performance, coupled with a contract that lasts until 2011, made him expendable. The Skins don’t really have a replacement lined up, unless they want to depend on Jeremy Bridges or recent fill-in Stephon Heyer. So they may have to invest in a veteran – someone like a Jon Runyan – to fill in until they get a replacement ready to go. Thrash, a 12-year vet, failed his physical due to a bulging disc in his neck. He’s never been a top receiver, but he’s always found a role as a backup and special-teams dynamo. He carved out a pretty good career, and Washington seems open to bringing him back if he gets healthy. But if this is it, he should be proud.

6 – Lions (cut CB Travis Fisher, OT George Foster, QB Drew Henson, and LB Alex Lewis) – Fisher was brought over last year from St. Louis to be a starter, but Detroit spent most of this offseason signing corners to replace him. He still considered himself a starter, which might have been why the new regime cut the cord so quickly. Still, Fisher will latch on somewhere. Foster, a former first-round pick in Denver, was part of the package the Lions got in exchange for CB Dre Bly a couple of years ago. But Foster never lived up to his potential, and after Detroit added Jon Jansen and Ephriam Salaam this offseason, someone had to go, and Foster was that someone. Henson, a former top prospect both in baseball and football, was Detroit’s No. 3 quarterback last year, but he was released as the Lions put in a claim on John Beck (see above). Henson’s chances to make it in the NFL are just about gone. Lewis was a five-year Lion who played most on special teams, but he became replacable as Detroit worked to improve its talent at linebacker this offseason.

6 (con’t) – Falcons (cut QB Michael Vick, C Alex Stepanovich and OT Renardo Foster) – It’s hard to know how to compare Vick, who hasn’t played in two years, to other cuts because at this point, the Falcons have moved on. They have a new franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and a new playing style. Plus, they were basically forced to release Vick so that they didn’t end up having to pay him when he is eventually reinstated. So Vick is now free to try to find a team. His talents fit the new Wildcat fad across the league, but it’s going to be hard for a team to stomach the firestorm of publicity (or even criticism) that would come with signing Vick. This release is just the next step in a drama that still has miles to go. Stepanovich and Foster were once both prospects, but they fell in line as mere backups in Atlanta. Maybe a change of scenery will help, or maybe they’re just not all that good.

5 – Rams (cut LB Pisa Tinoisamoa) – Tinoisamoa — known as as The Tower here on FR — was the Rams’ leading tackler in 2008 with 135 stops, so it was somewhat surprising that he was released just after the team’s first minicamp. But the Tower Pisa was leaning too much the previous two years as he missed a bunch of time with injury. Once the Rams invested a second-round pick in James Laurinaitis, the Tower’s starting spot was gone. He’s not special, but he’s an effective inside ‘backer who can clean up tackles if he’s protected. With so many teams moving to 3-4 defenses, there will be someone who can use the Tower at one of those inside spots, at least for two downs. He doesn’t merit a big contract, but he does deserve a starting spot in the league.

4  – Broncos (cut RBs Selvin Young and J.J. Arrington, LBs Boss Bailey and Louis Green) – Young entered last year as a starter, but injuries limited him to just eight games. After drafting Knowshon Moreno and signing three vets, there was no more room for Young in Denver. He should end up as a backup somewhere in the league, though. The Broncos added Arrington as part of their free-agency binge, and even with the glut of running backs Denver brought in – Arrington, Correll Buckhatler, Lamont Jordan, and Moreno – Arrington looked to have a solid role based on underrated his triple threat skills. But Arrington had a knee injury in Arizona, and he never was healthy enough to pass a physical in Denver. The Broncos lost about $100,000 but had protected themselves against a greater loss by the way they structured Arrington’s contract.  His departure won’t be a huge blow at running back, but he would have helped if he had been healthy. Bailey, brother of Broncos star CB Champ Bailey, started six games last year before suffering a knee injury and undergoing microfracture surgery. The former Lion is undersized and hasn’t performed well enough in the pros to really carve out a role. If he can prove he’s healthy, he might find a roster spot for a team that plays a 4-3, but this knee surgery might prove to be the end for him. Green is a special-teams ace who is replacable, especially considering the system change the Broncos are undergoing right now.

3 – Saints (cut DTs Brian Young and Hollis Thomas and LS Kevin Houser) – Young is a solid veteran who has been so battered by injuries that his effectiveness has been severely limited. Unfortunately, this could be the end of the line for him, but if he gets healthy he can fit into someone’s rotation as a backup. Thomas is a huge inside player who missed most of last season with injury. Because of his size, someone will take a look to see if he can still play 15-20 snaps a game. Houser had been the Saints’ long snapper since 2000, but the team decided Jason Kyle was an upgrade there and so they made the switch and cut Houser. He should find work elsewhere, either in camp or because of injury during the season.

3 (con’t) – Buccaneers (cut QB Brian Griese) – Griese’s second tour of duty in Tampa Bay came to an end, and it wasn’t unexpected. After signing Luke McCown to a backup-quality deal in the offseason, then adding Byron Leftwich, and then drafting Josh Freeman in the first round, there was simply no room for Griese. The 11-year veteran still has enough to be a decent backup if he wants to keep playing, but he also has been around long enough that retirement could be an option. If it is, the former third-round pick who succeeded John Elway can rest in the fact that he had a solid if unspectacular career.

2 – Dolphins (cut QB John Beck) – Beck was a second-round pick in ’07, but once his advocate Cam Cameron was fired, he quickly fell out of favor with new decision-maker Bill Parcells. It took just one year for Chad Henne to pass Beck as the Dolphins’ signal-caller of the future. Beck still has talent, so he’ll get another shot (apparently next in Detroit as a backup).

2 (con’t) 49ers (cut S Jimmy Williams) – The former Atlanta second-round pick was out of football last year after flaming out with the Falcons. The 49ers had signed him earlier in the offseason as a flier, but he obviously didn’t leave an impression during minicamps, because he was quickly released. Williams has size, but how many chances does he have left?

2 (con’t) Jaguars (cut CB William James and QB Cleo Lemon) – James, formerly known as Will Peterson, spent eight years in the NFL, the last one with Jacksonville. He’s probably a marginal NFL player at best at this point, which means he’s a roster fill-in but not much more. Lemon was once thought to have potential, and he actually started some games with the Dolphins, but Jacksonville chose to go with Todd Bouman as its backup quarterback instead. Lemon at this point is no better than a No. 3 QB.

2 (con’t) – Jets (cut TE Bubba Franks) – Franks, the long-time Packer, had only six catches in his first season with the Jets in ’08. In fact, his primary role might have been as terminology translator for Brett Favre once Favre joined the Jets in training camp. The Jets resigned Franks in the offseason but released him on the eve of training camp. That seems to indicate that Franks is getting very close to the end of his career.

1 – Chargers (cut TE Scott Chandler and CB DeJuan Tribble) – San Diego gave up on Chandler, a fourth-rounder in ’07, and Tribble, a sixth-rounder last year, after selecting this year’s draft picks.

1 (con’t) – Patriots (cut RB Patrick Pass) – Pass, one of only 7 Patriots who was on all three Super Bowl winners, has been out of football since 2007. He signed with the Patriots in early June but was released one week later, which seems to indicate that he is in fact done with his NFL career.

1 (con’t) – Raiders (cut LB Stryker Sulak) – In an unusual move, the Raiders cut Sulak, a sixth-round pick, before he even signed a contract or reported to training camp. That’s either a failure in scouting – teams should have enough players on their draft board that a sixth-rounder is someone they like – or an organizational cheapness that’s regrettable. Either way, it’s not a good sign. Sulak, who hasn’t gotten a paycheck or any signing bonus yet because he had not yet signed, could land somewhere else, but he would basically be an undrafted free agent there who faces long odds to make a roster.

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