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Postgame Points: Titans/Jaguars

For National Football Authority, we get an up-close-and-personal look at the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of our sleeper teams of the year, as they beat the Tennessee Titans 16-14. Click here to read about the debuts of Matt Hasselbeck and Luke McCown, the Maurice Jones-Drew controversy, the Jaguars’ strong defensive performance, and how Kenny Britt nearly won the game for Tennessee by himself.

Jaguars RB Deji Karim vs. Titans OLB Akeem Ayers, via tennesseetitans.com

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Quarterback solutions for 2011

Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks

Matt Hasselbeck. Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Football Relativity: QB quandaries

After a training-camp season full of quarterback stability (only Arizona made an in-camp change), a whopping eight teams ran into quarterback issues by Week Two. Below, we compare the significance of these quarterback issues, given how close teams are to contending and how good the quarterback options are. We’ll do this using Football Relativity, with the 10 level noting the most pressing QB quandary and the 1 level marking one that doesn’t change a team’s fortunes at all.

10 – Philadelphia Eagles (Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick) – Kolb missed Week 2 due to the after-effects of a concussion, and Vick had a big game against the Lions. Vick has completed 64 percent of his passes and thrown for three TDs without an interception, and he has run for 140 yards. He looks revitalized after a disappointing return to the NFL in 2009. At first, the Eagles said they’re sticking with Kolb, who became the franchise quarterback when Philly traded Donovan McNabb. But then the Eagles reversed field (a Vick-ian maneuver) and named Vick the starter not just for Week 3 but going forward. It’s shocking that the Eagles pulled the plug on Kolb after just one half on the field, but Vick’s solid performance won the day. The question is what happens if Vick’s two good games turn into inconsistent play. Philly is a talented team, but unless Vick really is back, the way they’ve handled their QB situation could end up scuttling the season.

9 – none

8 – Tennessee Titans (Vince Young vs. Kerry Collins) – After three turnovers, Vince Young was yanked out of the Titans’ loss to the Steelers, and Collins came in to lead Tennessee’s only TD-scoring drive. Of course, Collins also had two turnovers as well. Jeff Fisher has said there’s no question that Young is the starter, but Collins is a capable quarterback who proved in 2008 he can step in for Young and lead the Titans to the playoffs. (Of course, in 2009 Young replaced Collins and led the Titans from an 0-6 start to an 8-8 finish.) So Young needs to perform well in the next couple of games, or else the clamor for Collins will really pick up.

7 – none

6 – Carolina Panthers (Matt Moore vs. Jimmy Clausen) – The Panthers are making the switch from Moore, the December superstar in ’07 and ’09, to the rookie Clausen after Moore turned the ball over six times and failed to generate much offense in his first two starts. Clausen is polished for a rookie, but he’s still just a rookie who will make mistakes. Given the talent Carolina has elsewhere on the field, quarterback play that rises from putrid to mediocre could help, but the question is whether Clausen is wily enough at this point to be even that small of an upgrade over Moore.

5 – Arizona Cardinals (Derek Anderson vs. Max Hall) – The Cardinals opted for Anderson, a scattershot quarterback with a big arm, over the cautious check-down man Matt Leinart in training camp, but Anderson’s inconsistency has outweighed his potential thus far. Hall, a rookie out of BYU, lurks as a potential replacement. Hall is more of a quick-hitting trigger man who doesn’t have the big arm but might be better equipped to get the ball to Arizona’s strong stable of receiving targets. So if Anderson struggles and the Cards start to fall behind in the lowly NFC West, Hall will get a shot.

4 – Oakland Raiders (Bruce Gradkowski vs. Jason Campbell) – The Raiders brought in Campbell to bring stability to the QB position in place of JaMarcus Russell, but Campbell lasted six quarters until he was benched. Campbell has talent, but he makes enough mistakes to offset his ability to throw the ball downfield. Gradkowski is a Jeff Garcia-type of scrapper who doesn’t have a big arm but does find ways to move a team. The question is whether Gradkowski would be exposed if he played 3-4 games in a row. But for now, the Raiders should try to keep the spark Gradkowski lit last week aflame.

3 – Pittsburgh Steelers (Charlie Batch vs. Byron Leftwich) – Dennis Dixon won the Steelers’ September starting job in training camp, but he suffered a torn meniscus against Tennessee that will sideline him at least until Ben Roethlisberger returns. So now Pittsburgh must choose between Batch, the ultimate placeholder, and Leftwich, who had some good games for Pittsburgh back in 2008 but looked awful for the Bucs last year. Leftwich may have a little more upside, but he’s got such a slow delivery at this point that Batch might actually be less of a liability. But the bottom line is that the Steelers will win the next two games because of defense, not Batch or Leftwich, and so in the end it really doesn’t matter much which guy starts.

2 – Jacksonville Jaguars (David Garrard vs. Todd Bouman) – Garrard threw four picks against the Chargers and was replaced by Luke McCown, but McCown blew out his knee at the end of the game and will miss the rest of the season. Jacksonville brought back Bouman to be Garrard’s backup, but the injury means there’s no question that Garrard is the guy.

1 – Buffalo Bills (Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Trent Edwards) – The Bills made the switch from Edwards to Fitzpatrick, but both quarterbacks have frankly proved that they’re not good enough to be regulars on the NFL level. No matter who plays, the Bills are among the league’s worst teams in terms of QB play, and they have few hopes of winning.

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FR: Training Camp Trades

This post compares the trades that happened during training camp. As usual, we’re using a 10-point scale to compare, with the 10 level being the most important trades and the 1 level being the least important.

Check this post for a look at trades from the draft until the beginning of training camp and this post for a look at trades from earlier in the offseason.

10 – Raiders acquire DE Richard Seymour from the Patriots for 2011 1st-round pick – Seymour was once the best 3-4 defensive end in football, and when he played on that level he was the best player on New England’s championship defenses this decade. But his play has declined in recent years, in large part due to injury, and now at age 30 he’s no longer an impact player. That explains why the Patriots, who have also lost long-time defensive stalwarts like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison this offseason, were willing to surrender Seymour. He should bring a veteran influence to Oakland, although Raider-land is often immune to that kind of positive osmosis (just ask Warren Sapp). The Raiders are paying a high price, giving up a 2011 first-rounder for a guy with just one year left on his contract. So Seymour had better deliver for them on the field and in the locker room, or else this will go down as a major fleecing. The ironic thing is that this trade was made possible when the Patriots got Derrick Burgess from the Raiders earlier in camp. When you look at the trade as Seymour and third- and fifth-round picks in exchange for Burgess and a 2011 first-rounder, the deal swings even more heavily in New England’s favor.

9 – Patriots acquire DE Derrick Burgess from the Raiders for 2010 3rd- and 5th-draft picks – Burgess, who had 38.5 sacks in his four years in Oakland but only 3.5 last year, had become disgruntled as a Raider, and so he’s been seeking a trade all offseason and into training camp. He finally landed in New England (as had long been rumored) in exchange for 3rd- and 5th-round draft picks in 2010. Burgess fits in New England as a situational pass rusher but not much more. Still, given the veteran nature of the Pats’ roster, and given the luck New England has had with Raiders castoffs like Randy Moss, we can count on Burgess finding a nice niche and filling his role well. For the Raiders, a third-round pick, even two years out, is fair value for a player of Burgess’ caliber and age.

8 – none

7 – Jaguars acquire QB Luke McCown from Buccaneers for 2010 fifth- or sixth-round pick – McCown thought earlier this offseason that he would be the starter in Tampa this year, but after the Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and drafted Josh Freeman, McCown became a spare part. Now he moves to Jacksonville, where he has a chance to beat out Todd Bouman and become David Garrard’s main backup. That kind of stability is worth a late-round pick to the Jags.

6 – Chiefs acquire OLs Ike Ndukwe and Andy Alleman from Dolphins for undisclosed draft pick(s) – The Chiefs, who are in the midst of rebuilding an offensive line that had gotten old, looked to Miami for reinforcements. Ndukwe, who was cut by the Redskins in ’06 and the Ravens in ’07, found a home with the Dolphins last year, starting 15 games at guard. The Dolphins were looking at him as a tackle this year, but he projects as a starting guard in K.C. Alleman started four games at guard for the Dolphins last year, so he’ll have a shot at competing for a job with the Chiefs, but he looks more like a backup interior lineman than a future starter.

5 – Chargers acquire DT Travis Johnson from Texans for conditional late-round 2010 pick – Johnson, a former first-round pick, never panned out as an impact player in Houston. He was a starter at defensive tackle the last two years, but he hasn’t been enough of a take-on player to mitigate his lack of impact (two career sacks, one career interception). The talent that made Johnson a first-round pick intrigued San Diego, which can try Johnson as a 3-4 end. That role might fit his talent better, because it will allow him to be a space-holder who makes it easier for the linebackers behind him to shake free and make plays. That potential made it worth a sixth-round pick (which can become a fifth-rounder based on Johnson’s playing time) for the Chargers.

5 (con’t) – Falcons acquire CB Tye Hill from Rams for 2010 seventh-round pick – Hill, a former first-round pick, will have a chance to compete for a cornerback role in Atlanta. He has great speed but never really seemed to get the coverage concept down in St. Louis. Still, he has talent, and so he’s worth a shot for the nominal price.

4 – Broncos acquire OG Russ Hochstein from Broncos for undisclosed late-round 2010 pick – Hochstein has been a long-time backup for the Patriots, starting just 20 games since 2002 but playing in at least 13 games every full season he’s been there. He’ll bring a veteran presence and some versatility to the Broncos. Denver head coach Josh McDaniels knows what he’s getting in Hochstein, and he’s likely matching what he knows about the player to what he knows about his team. Hochstein will make the Broncos and contribute somehow. But if he starts more than in spot duty, it’s a sign that the Broncos’ line depth is lacking

4 (con’t) – Lions acquire S Ko Simpson from Bills for undisclosed 2010 draft choice – Simpson, a former second-round pick, hasn’t lived up to his billing, though he started most of the ’08 season. He hasn’t proven he can be an impact player in the secondary, but he is a solid tackler. Still, he’s an upgrade for a Lions team that remains desperate for upgrades in talent from roster spots 2 through 53. (They’re set with Calvin Johnson.) Simpson, even if he is a backup and special-teamer, could help. And there must have been other interest in him, or else the Lions would have simply waited to grab Simpson off waivers.

3 – Ravens trade DB Derrick Martin to Packers for OT Tony Moll – Martin, a sixth-round pick in 2006, is a big hitter who didn’t really fit at corner for the Ravens and who didn’t make the transition to safety seamlessly. Still, he has potential, and the Packers wanted to give him a try. In exchange, they dealt Moll to the Ravens. He fits a need area because Baltimore needs some backup tackle stability.

3 (con’t) – Saints acquire TE David Thomas from Patriots for undisclosed 2011 draft pick – Thomas, a former third-round pick, is a strong pass-catcher, but not much of a blocker. The Patriots wanted more blocking, and so they let Thomas go to the Saints, which need a second tight end after losing Billy Miller for the season. Thomas could find a role and make some key catches for the Saints pretty quickly.

3 (con’t) – Panthers acquire DT Louis Leonard from Browns for undisclosed 2011 draft pick – After Maake Kemeoatu went down for the season with an Achilles injury, the Panthers had little depth at defensive tackle. That’s where Leonard comes in. After bouncing around the league in ’07, he found a home in Cleveland last year, playing every game and starting four. He might not start in Carolina, but if he can fit into the DT rotation, this trade is worth it for the Panthers.

2 – Patriots acquire TE Michael Matthews from Giants for conditional draft pick – As they were trading Thomas, the Patriots needed a blocking tight end, which is why they spent a draft pick on Matthews. Matthews had played every game for the Giants over the past two years, so he’s a dependable blocker who fits a role for the Pats.

2 (con’t) – Jets acquire QB Kevin O’Connell from Lions for undisclosed draft pick – O’Connell, the Patriots third-rounder, was released late in training camp and claimed on waivers by the Lions even though they didn’t have a roster spot for them. Now we know that the Lions were trying to flip O’Connell, taking advantage of the waiver priority they got by going 0-16 by claiming O’Connell just to get a draft pick in exchange for him. For the Jets, O’Connell becomes a third quarterback and an insider on the Patriots offense who can help in game-planning a couple of times a year. And the Lions get a pick to help to replace the one they dealt for Simpson. The only loser in the deal is the Patriots, who might have been able to get that pick themselves if they had been a little more patient in negotiations.

1 – Broncos acquire DE LeKevin Smith and a 2010 7th-round pick from the Patriots for a 2010 5th-round pick – Smith had played 28 games over the past two years in New England, but he was a bottom-of-the-rotation guy whose roster spot became questionable when the Patriots added Derrick Burgess. So they dealt him to Denver, which now runs a similar defensive system and needs all the DL help and depth it can find. Smith will make the Broncos, which makes the draft pick worth it to Denver. Meanwhile, the Patriots offset part of the price they paid the Raiders for Burgess, and only lose a guy whom they probably would have cut anyway. That’s a win for the Pats as well.

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FR: Quarterback battles

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

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

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

9 – none

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Leftwich right for Tampa?

It’s unusual to have a potential starting quarterback land a new gig at this point in the offseason, but that’s exactly what happened over Easter weekend as Byron Leftwich inked a two-year deal with Tampa Bay. Here are some thoughts on the move; you can see how it compares to other pre-draft free agency moves in the fifth NFL free agency relativity comparison coming soon.

Leftwich, once a top-10 overall pick, saw his career die on the vine when he was cut by the Jaguars just before the ’07 season and then failed as a starter in Atlanta later that season. It seemed like Leftwich’s flaws – most notably his slow release and even slower feet – had overcome his career. But then Leftwich went to Pittsburgh as a backup last year, and in addition to pocketing a Super Bowl ring, he played very well in a couple of relief appearances. That raised his perception, at least in the public’s eyes.
Still, Leftwich struggled to get many shots at competing for a starting job. He visited Washington and got an offer to return to Pittsburgh, but he held out until he finally got the chance he wanted in Tampa on a two-year deal potentially worth $7.5 million and almost certainly worth a minimum of $4 million. He immediately becomes the favorite to leap career journeyman Brian Griese, journeyman-in-training Luke McCown, and developmental project Josh Johnson on the depth chart and thus start for the Bucs. Leftwich has an infectious personality, and he still has enough talent to be a top-20 quarterback. He’s not a world-beater, but he’s still markedly better than anyone else Tampa had to choose from. That makes this addition a move that matters for 2009.

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FR: Key re-signings

We began our NFL free agency preview with a massive post comparing the 14 franchise players to each other.  We did a couple other takes on the market before the shopping began in earnest on Feb. 27. Later this week, we’ll talk about some of the releases that have happened and put them through the relativity ringer.

First, in this post, we’re going to talk about some of the key re-signings that happened before the new league year began on Feb. 27.  Future re-signings will be noted in the free-agent moves posts to come. But for now, here are the key moves relative to each other. Again, 10 is a vital move, and 1 is a move that we barely notice.

(Note: Franchise players who resigned, including Brandon Jacobs, are omitted here because they were covered in this post.)

10- CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders – Simply put, Asomugha is the best cornerback in the league, and the Raiders had to keep him. They’re paying a premium to do so – 2 years at a little more than $28 million, plus a third-year option at $16 million more. But that price is cheaper (at least marginally) than franchising Asomugha for the next three years, and it allows the Raiders to build their defense around him. Personally, I’d love to see Asomugha on a great team, but Oakland couldn’t afford to let him go – no matter the cost.

9 – C Jeff Saturday, Colts – It looked as thought Saturday was out of Indy, but a last-minute bump in the salary cap gave the Colts room to keep him. It was stunning last season the difference in the Colts’ offense when Saturday was in the lineup and when he was absent. That was the first prolonged injury of Saturday’s career. He’s dependable, he’s a line leader, and he can keep the line calls up with Peyton Manning’s extensive audibiling. The Colts needed to keep him, and the last second Hail Mary that kept him a Colt will end up being the team’s key move of the offseason.

8 – OT Jordan Gross, Panthers – The Panthers made the playoffs last year by establishing an identity as a run-first team, and Gross (along with ORT Jeff Otah) are the key offensive linemen in that strategy. It’s hard to find a run-first tackle who’s also nimble enough to protect the QB’s blind side, but Gross has both skill sets. The fact that the Panthers got this 6-year, $60 million deal done in time to franchise Julius Peppers is also a plus. Carolina paid full market value (and maybe then some) for Gross, but he’s a cornerstone at a key position, so it’s worth it.

7 – S Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins – No team was as aggressive about resigning its own players before they hit the open market than the Dolphins. (You’ll see entries on Channing Crowder and Vernon Carey below.) Bell is probably the best of the litter. He got a 4-year, $20 million deal, which is strong for a safety – especially after the Dolphins signed Raiders castoff Gibril Wilson. Bell and Wilson should give Miami veteran leadership, versatility, and vigor in the back end of the defense.

6 –  CB Kelvin Hayden, Colts – The Colts identified Hayden as their No. 1 priority entering free agendy, and they would have used a franchise tag on him had he not agreed to a 5-year, $43 million contract just before the deadline. Hayden has been a productive player for the Colts thus far, but the big question is whether he can maintain his level of performance as the Colts begin to inch (if not sprint) away from the Tampa 2 defensive system that former coach Tony Dungy used. If the defense changes drastically, Hayden will have to prove that he has better 1-on-1 cover skills than he has shown thus far. Can he do it? It’s impossible to tell at this point. But the fact that the Colts were willing to pay Hayden, a defensive player, means that they think he can. For now, we’ll give Bill Polian and the front office the benefit of the doubt thus far, and we’ll hope (for their sake) that Hayden’s big contract doesn’t look in 2 years like ex-Colt Jason David’s big deal with New Orleans now looks.

6 (con’t) – LB Channing Crowder, Dolphins – Crowder re-signed with Miami on the cusp of free agency. While he’s not an impact guy, he’s an effective tackler who cleans up his area well. The Dolphins didn’t use their franchise tag, but they ended up keeping the guys they most wanted to keep in Crowder and Vernon Carey.

5- OT Vernon Carey, Dolphins – The Dolphins didn’t use their franchise tag on Carey, but the day after the franchise-tag deadline passed, they inked Carey to a 6-year, $42 million deal. That seems like big money, especially since Carey projects as either a right tackle or a guard for Miami. (Remember that Jake Long is now ensconced as the Dolphins’ left tackle of the present, future, and beyond.) Because some teams might think that Carey could play left tackle, his price tag was going to be artificially inflated -whether in Miami or elsewhere. So good for Carey for cashing in, and Miami keeps some continuity on the offensive line. The fact that head coach Tony Sparano (a former OL coach) wanted Carey to stay is endorsement enough to wait and see whether this deal ends up being worth it.

5 (con’t) – CB DeAngelo Hall, Redskins – For the second straight offseason, Hall got a huge contract. In ’08, he got $24 million in guaranteed money from Oakland, but the Raiders cut him after eight games because he was such a bad fit for their system. Hall landed in Washington and ended up being a huge upgrade over aging and injured corners Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot. Hall has worlds of talent, and in the right system he is a good fit, but he’s not a No. 1 corner – no matter what his new 6-year, $54 million contract tries to tell you. But it’s not a bad gig to lock down a total of $46.5 million in guaranteed money in less than 12 months.

4 – P Shane Lechler, Raiders – The Raiders paid Shane Lechler an eye-popping 4-year deal worth $16 million. The previous high-water mark for punters when it comes to salary was $2.35 million, so Lechler – who is the top punter in the league, to be fair – got nearly double the going rate. That’s a huge contract, but let’s think through it. First of all, we can assume that Lechler wasn’t going to re-sign in Oakland for market value because of the Raiders’ paperthin playoff chances. In other words, the Raiders had to pay a premium. And Lechler, a 4-time Pro Bowl choice, averages a league-record 46.8 yards per punt for his career, and his net average of 41.2 yards last year  is a sterling figure. If any punter deserves to be the highest paid in the league, it’s Lechler. And if any team needs a punter, given its offensive struggles, it’s Oakland. So this deal, while it’s overkill financially, will make an impact.

4 (con’t) – CB Joselio Hanson, Philadelphia – The Eagles are as proactive as any team in re-signing young players who haven’t played much but might in the future. Sometimes these moves work; sometimes they don’t. But Hanson, who has played quite a bit for a fourth cornerback, projects as a third corner type, and having him locked up could make it easier for the Eagles to trade unhappy Lito Sheppard. For that reason alone, this move is worth noting.

4 (con’t) FB Tony Richardson, Jets – Richardson has long been one of the best lead fullbacks in the league, and his appearance in New York last year helped Thomas Jones bounce back from a bad ’07 season to have a very productive rushing campaign in ’08. So it’s worth it for the Jets to keep Richardson on a modest 1-year deal.

3- QB Luke McCown, Buccaneers – It’s hard to believe, but the new Buccaneers regime gave McCown a 2-year, $7.5 million deal under the belief that he can compete for the starting quarterback job there. McCown would have to beat out Brian Griese and Josh Johnson to win the job, but the fact that he’s actually getting this opportunity is a little mind-boggling. McCown, a former Browns draft pick, showed a little promise in his appearances at the end of the ’07 season, but I still don’t see an answer here. As I’ve written before (check the comments on this post), McCown’s upside is probably somewhere around what J.T. O’Sullivan showed last year for the 49ers. In other words, McCown may start, but he’s not going to be a good starter.

3 (con’t) – DT Ryan Sims, Buccaneers – Another Buc re-signing is rotation defensive tackle Sims. The former No. 6 overall pick hasn’t lived up to that billing, but he’s proven to be at least a decent role player in Tampa. At 4 years, $8 million, if Sims can be the Bucs’ No. 3 DT, it’s worth it.

3 (con’t) – PK Rob Bironas, Titans – Bironas is a good kicker, but the difference between so-so kickers and the top level at this point in the NFL just isn’t that big. That said, Bironas is clutch, he can hit the 50-yard field goal, and for a defensive-first playoff team like Tennessee, that’s important. Tennessee franchised Bironas last offseason and probably would have again if they hadn’t agreed on the 4-year deal (which is worth $12M or $16M, depending on who you read). It’s a solid signing, even if it is a little pricy.

3 (con’t) – TE Justin Peelle, LB Coy Wire, DT Jason Jefferson, Falcons – We’ll do these signings as a trifecta, because they’re key to the Falcons depth. Wire could end up starting next year if Michael Boley leaves via free agency. Peelle is a solid blocking tight end who fits the Falcons’ offensive scheme well. Jefferson is a solid contributor as a rotation defensive tackle.

2 – OG Stephen Peterman and PK Jason Hanson, Lions – The Lions have two signings on this level. Peterman is a two-year starter at guard, and his modest contract (5 years, $15 million) will be worth it if he can be a decent starter. If he ends up being above average, this deal could end up being a steal. Hanson is 39 years old, and yet the Lions gave him a 4-year contract. That basically will ensure that Hanson, who has been in Detroit since 1992,  will play his whole career as a Lion. Hanson won PFW’s Golden Toe award as best kicker last year after making 8 50-yard field goals and missing just once overall. This is a decent football move that means more in Detroit because Hanson has been there forever. (Speaking as someone who watches how Panthers fans love John Kasay, who has three fewer years of tenure in town, I have to imagine that Hanson is a fan fave.)

2 (con’t) – OG Kynan Forney, Chargers – The Chargers didn’t play Forney at all last season, his first in San Diego. But with starter Mike Goff facing free agency, San Diego locked up Forney for 2 years, $4.8 million as a fallback. Forney can be at least an average NFL guard (he started 89 games in 7 seasons in Atlanta), so having this option at a reasonable price is decent foresight for San Diego. He’s not the best-case scenario, but he’s not a worst-case scenario either.

2 (con’t) – FB Corey McIntyre and OT Kirk Chambers, Bills – The Bills picked McIntyre up off the street midseason last year, and he became a solid blocking fullback for him. That’s an asset for a run-first team like Buffalo, and so it’s worth keeping him on a two-year deal. Chambers is a swing lineman who can fill in at several spots along the line.

1- QB David Carr, Giants – Carr bombed out as a backup QB in Carolina two years ago, but with the Giants last year he played well in basically one extended appearance. If the Giants are comfortable with him behind Eli Manning, he’s worth the one-year, $2.1 million deal.

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