Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
29 Dec 2004
by Michael David Smith
As the season winds down I'll take a break this week from dissecting one aspect of one game and go over my notes for the season with an eye for players who will be available as free agents in the spring of 2005. You've heard about Edgerrin James and Drew Brees and some of the other stars, but in Every Play Counts I like to focus on the players who haven't received much attention, so that's what I'll do here. One note: NFL contracts are full of clauses that restrict some players from moving even if they're called free agents, while other contracts technically have years remaining but are designed to force a team into cutting a player. I don't want to get into the details of the contracts here, so I'm just going to focus on players who are likely to be available and what I've noticed watching them this year.
Here is my baker's dozen of free agents to keep an eye on, listed alphabetically:
The Redskins haven't used him much this year, but Football Outsiders readers know what he can do. Click here for an analysis of why Cartwright is better than the Panthers' DeShaun Foster, or at least why he was better in 2003, and for one of the best discussions we had at Football Outsiders last off-season. The Redskins can restrict Cartwright by making him a qualifying offer, but I can't imagine that they will, seeing as they haven't given him the ball a single time this year.
His hit on Robert Ferguson probably makes it impossible, but I actually think Green Bay would be a good fit for Darius. He's one of the best run-stopping strong safeties in the league, and the Packers could really use that. I've said before and I'll say again that Marcus Stroud and John Henderson get too much credit for the Jags' success stopping the run, and Darius doesn't get enough.
I love this guy. At 343 pounds he's awfully big for a guard, but he's still got some mobility. No matter who their running back is, the Vikings are always effective at running up the middle, and Dixon is a big reason for that. He turns 36 in January, which might scare some teams off.
Franks is an effective receiver and not a bad blocker, but I'm not sure the Packers should try too hard to keep him. He'll turn 27 in January, which isn't too old for a tight end, but I just haven't seen much improvement from Franks. I'm not sure that he's any better right now than he was when the Packers made him their first-round choice out of Miami in 2000. (I also don't think Jeremy Shockey has improved since his rookie year. Do University of Miami tight ends enter the league as good as they'll ever be?)
I once saw Hartwell play in college (at Western Illinois), and I've been enamored with him ever since. He's a hitter who seems to know where the play is going on almost every down. It's tough to say whether he'd be as impressive in a defense without all the talent he has around him in Baltimore, but we're probably going to find out next season.
Somewhat inconsistent and injury-prone, but when Howard has his A game, he's one of the best defensive ends in the league. Anyone who saw the way Howard feasted on the Redskins' Patrick Ramsey with three sacks a couple of years ago won't soon forget it. Yes, I know Steve Spurrier's blocking schemes made a lot of defensive ends look like stars, but Howard was in another world.
Any running back would look good running behind guys like center Kevin Mawae, guard Pete Kendall, and fullback Jerald Sowell, all of whom are having impressive years for the Jets. But it must be noted that Jordan is (according to DVOA) more effective when he gets the ball than Curtis Martin is. Will some team make Jordan, who just turned 26, its running back of the future? Or might the Jets say goodbye to Martin and keep Jordan in Jersey?
The arrival of Gregg Williams as the coach in charge of the defense has been a big part of the Redskins' success on that side of the ball, but perhaps an equally important part has been Pierce, who is in his first year as a starter after three seasons as a backup in Washington. After injuries to Mike Barrow and Lavar Arrington, Pierce is emerging as one of the league's best linebackers. The Redskins need to do whatever is necessary to keep him.
Re-signing Rogers should be the No. 1 priority for Matt Millen this off-season. Actually, resigning should be the No. 1 priority for Matt Millen this off-season, but since that's not going to happen, Lions fans will have to settle for keeping Rogers, who is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league. The only concern is that he does have a history of ankle problems, and when you're carrying 350 pounds around, your ankles go under a lot of stress.
Several teams probably celebrated last off-season when Smoot fired agent Carl Poston, who is known for holding his clients out of training camps. Smoot is likely to make his new agent, James Cook, a very rich man. After the loss of Champ Bailey, Smoot emerged as one of the best corners in the league. It's going to be difficult for the Redskins to keep both Smoot and Pierce, but if Dan Snyder is smart, he'll open the checkbook. The Raiders' Charles Woodson also becomes a free agent after this season and might get more money than Smoot, but I'll take Smoot over Woodson any day.
I'm sick of hearing about Orlando Pace of St. Louis and Walter Jones of Seattle making their annual training camp holdouts, only to sign for the franchise-player salary at the start of the regular season. This year let's make it a different left tackle. Thomas isn't a particularly impressive run-blocker, but I like him a lot in pass protection.
He's started every game for Seattle for the last four years, and they'd love to keep him around. But that seems unlikely, given that the Seahawks have bigger name free agents, including quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, running back Shaun Alexander, cornerback Ken Lucas, and the perpetual free agent Jones.
Wahle's contract doesn't expire after this season, but he has a $6 million bonus coming his way in the spring on top of a $5 million salary, making it very likely the Packers will release him if they can't figure out a way to renegotiate his deal. You can read what I wrote about Wahle earlier this season if you want more detail, but suffice to say I think he's one of the game's best guards. Marco Rivera, the other guard in Green Bay, becomes an unrestricted free agent in the off-season, and it's vital that the Packers keep at least one of these guys. Although Rivera made the Pro Bowl, I think Wahle is the better of the two, especially after I watched Minnesota's Kevin Williams feast on Rivera on Christmas Eve.
Who's missing from this list? Let the arguments begin.