Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
26 Aug 2005
by Ryan Wilson
Welcome to year three of the Kyle Boller Project. After finishing 46th and 20th in DPAR in his first two years in the league -- and the Ravens' passing offense finishing 32nd and 20th according to DVOA -- this is his make-or-break season (again?). (DVOA and DPAR are our advanced stats, explained here.) Through two preseason games, the results are mixed. During the first game against the Falcons, Boller's first pass was intercepted by former Raven LB Edgerton Hartwell. Against the Eagles last week, Boller completed 67% of his throws, but had two poorly thrown interceptions and lost a fumble. And while turnovers are sometimes the result of receivers running poor routes, or offensive linemen missing blocking assignments, Boller's decision making can kindly be described as questionable. For example, midway through the first quarter of the Eagles game, the Ravens ran Chester Taylor up the middle with Derrick Mason faking an end around to freeze the linebackers. Unfortunately for Mason, Boller missed the handoff to Taylor and decided to give the ball to the unsuspecting receiver. The result: a seven-yard loss.
By now we all know that improving the passing game was Brian Billick's primary concern this off-season. Baltimore signed Mason, drafted Mark Clayton, promoted Jim Fassel to offensive coordinator and hired quarterbacks coach (and NCAA tournament pool expert) Rick Neuheisel to mentor the former Cal standout. To be fair, both of the other young quarterbacks in the AFC North have had uneven starts this preseason, but it will be interesting to see if Billick will turn to Anthony Wright if Boller doesn't show some signs of improvement.
The Injury Bug
Pro Bowl TE Todd Heap is almost set to return from off-season ankle and shoulder surgeries. He's been taken off the physically unable to perform list, but probably won't see action until the final preseason game against the Redskins. Although Daniel Wilcox has had a strong camp in his absence, Heap's presence in the middle of the field should hopefully open things up for Mason and Clayton, and make Boller's job a little easier.
RB Jamal Lewis and his balky ankle made their first training camp appearance August 9th and didn't miss a practice until earlier this week. He has been held out of the first two preseason games as a precaution, and probably won't play this week either. Not to worry however, because Will Carroll informs us that Lewis should be ready to go when the season starts. If there is a setback, Chester Taylor has proven to be more than a capable backup.
Angels in the (Defensive) Backfield
It's not a stretch to think that the Ravens could have at least three members of their secondary heading back to Hawaii in February. Both CB Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister are two of the best in single coverage, and Ed Reed is, well, Ed Reed. If anyone goes down with an injury however, this unit becomes much less intimidating. Currently 37-year-old Deion Sanders is the nickel back and 35-year-old Dale Carter will see the field in the dime defense. Both have struggled with injuries throughout their career, and behind them on the depth chart are seven guys who combined average just over a season's worth of experience.
Heading into the 2005 season, the Cincinnati Bengals were intent on shoring up a decidedly mediocre run defense that had finished 22nd and 32nd in DVOA the last two seasons under Marvin Lewis. They signed DT Bryan Robinson this off-season to help clog up the middle, and used their first two selections from the 2005 draft on linebackers who could both be starting when the season opens. Through two preseason games the Bengals have shown signs of improvement against the run. The front four have done an adequate job of controlling the line of scrimmage allowing the linebackers to make plays, but defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan would like to see a little more consistency from this unit.
Second round pick MLB Odell Thurman moved to the top of the depth chart during minicamp and he's done nothing to disappoint the Bengals during the first two weeks of the preseason. Thurman is always around the ball, surprisingly good in coverage, a sure tackler, but sometimes gets caught over-pursuing a play, or taking a bad angle on plays to the outside. Nonetheless, he gives this defense an infusion of speed and tenacity not seen since Takeo Spikes bolted for Buffalo.
17th overall pick David Pollack finally ended his holdout with about 15 minutes left in training camp. After missing 20 days, and even more practices, he signed his contract just in time for the annual end-of-summer ice cream social the Bengals throw to signify the conclusion of two-a-days. Cookie dough or no cookie dough, Pollack has a lot of catching up to do if he hopes to play on anything other than obvious passing situations, at least to start the season. He's a converted defensive end who terrorized opposing quarterbacks in college by relying primarily on his quickness, and this may be his role early in the season as he learns the nuances of the outside linebacker position.
Redshirt Sophomore Jinx?
Marvin Lewis isn't overly concerned about Carson Palmer's sluggish start in two preseason games, but he does acknowledge that the third-year quarterback needs to make better decisions with the ball. Even if drives don't end in points, the Bengals need to win the field position battle. Part of Palmer's problems can be traced to spotty play by the wide receivers, who have sometimes struggled to catch passes.
After taking RB Chris Perry with the 26th overall pick in 2004, Marvin Lewis was criticized for passing on Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones. Perry missed virtually all of his rookie season with nagging injuries, but he's finally healthy and has been very impressive as both a runner and a receiver. He serves as a nice change-of-pace to the bruising style of Rudi Johnson and also gives Carson Palmer another weapon in the passing game.
Who's on Third?
Peter Warrick has finally recovered from a knee injury that ended his season last November, only to be sidelined for most of the past week with a tender hamstring. The fact that he has only played in one preseason game and has yet to haul in a pass is not lost on his coaches. There is virtually no way he will start the season as the third receiver, and is in real danger of not making the team. With the emergence of Kelley Washington and rookie wideouts Chris Henry and Tab Perry, Warrick might be out of a job when the regular season starts.
First year head Coach Romeo Crennel and the Browns defense are experiencing some growing pains as they transition to the 3-4. In two preseason games the defense has allowed 271 rushing yards (154 coming against the Giants in Week 1) and Cleveland's undersized linebacking corps has struggled to make plays near the line of scrimmage. The Browns brought in DT Jason Fisk this offseason to help eat up space in the trenches, but so far this unit has underperformed. Lack of depth is also an issue on the defensive line, and this is a problem that doesn't look to get better any time soon.
Another concern facing the defense is that the secondary is suffering injuries with alarming regularity. CB Daylon McCutcheon has had to deal with severe headaches for most of training camp while his replacement, Michael Lehan, is on the shelf with a hamstring injury.
Their biggest off-season pickup, Gary Baxter suffered a concussion last week when he tried to tackle Kevin Jones with his head. Even though he's not starting, second round pick Brodney Pool offered some much needed depth until he too suffered a concussion earlier in camp.
Movin' on Up
The Browns traded Andre Davis to the Patriots for a fifth round pick in next year's draft, which makes rookie Braylon Edwards third on the depth chart. Barring injury, he'll probably be the number three option all season because Crennel is high on both Antonio Bryant and Dennis Northcutt. Bryant, a year removed from throwing a jersey in Bill Parcells's face, seems to have found his niche in Cleveland. Northcutt has always been a dangerous return man who is an underrated pass-catcher. As the third receiver, Edwards will have a chance to learn the offense without the pressures that go along with being a high-round draft pick thrust into a starting role.
Would you Like Frye with That?
QB Charlie Frye could start the season as Trent Dilfer's backup after playing well in two preseason games. He's also battling Doug Johnson for the job, so that probably makes things somewhat easier. In the few weeks that Frye has been throwing to Braylon Edwards, the two have developed some chemistry, as was evidenced in the last second touchdown thrown during the week two preseason game against the Lions.
Cribbs Pimps Browns Ride
One of the reasons Cleveland felt comfortable trading Andre Davis was because of the emergence of undrafted free agent rookie Joshua Cribbs, a former college quarterback, who will start the season as the number one kickoff returner and a backup wide receiver.
Mr. Green Jeans
After the Browns acquired Reuben Droughns from the Broncos this off-season, it was politely suggested that the former first round pick -- and perennial bust -- William Green seek a trade. Halfway through the preseason however, Green is still with the team and perhaps more surprisingly, he's playing well. Lee Suggs' high ankle sprain and Droughns' tender hamstring gave Green the chance to start last week's exhibition game (7 carries for 29 yards). Green, who was married this off-season, has recommitted himself to football and if the backs in front of him continue to fight injuries, he could be a much bigger part of the offense than anyone imagined just a few months ago.
The whole committee thing didn't work out too well for the 2003 Red Sox bullpen, but Pittsburgh's situation is a little different. They actually have some talented backs up and down the depth chart. Starter Duce Staley had knee surgery at the beginning of camp and may not be ready until the second or third week of the regular season. This means that card-carrying AARP member Jerome Bettis will shoulder most of the load until Staley returns. But don't expect to see the Bus rack up 30-plus carries per game like he did a season ago. Third down back Verron Haynes and second-year player Willie Parker will both see a lot of playing time. Haynes and Parker rely more on elusiveness and speed than the less elegant battering ram approach favored by Staley and Bettis. Both players are effective receivers, but Haynes is currently the better blocker.
There is also some speculation that the Steelers might keep seventh-round pick RB Noah Herron on the active roster when the season starts because of his bruising style through two preseason games.
It doesn't matter who's running the ball if the offensive line can't create running lanes (just ask the 2003 Steelers). Pittsburgh replaced the right side of the line from a season ago with RG Kendall Simmons and RT Max Starks. Simmons has battled injuries during his four-year career and Starks will be a starter after only seeing the field as a rookie in goal line situations. In two preseason games Starks has sustained blocks well, shown surprising athleticism for a guy who's 6'7", 340 lbs., and hasn't given up a sack. Another concern for the offensive line was depth. Pittsburgh currently has two journeymen and two rookies serving as backups at the guard and tackle positions. Sixth round pick G Chris Kemoeatu is one of the strongest players on the team and routinely has no trouble handling Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton during training camp blocking drills. Third-round pick T Trai Essex has been a pleasant surprise after many teams passed on him in the draft because of his que stionable work ethic. Both players should start the season second on the depth chart.
No #3 QB?
During a press conference earlier this week, Bill Cowher intimated that the Steelers, like they did for most of 2004, could go with only two quarterbacks to start the season. Ben Roethlisberger is penciled in as the starter, but depending on which rumor you believe, the rest of the depth chart is up in the air. Some reports have Tommy Maddox as the clear backup, while others speculate that Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre will battle for the number two job while the Steelers entertain trade offers from teams in dire need of an experienced signal-caller (hello, Chicago Bears). Given that the Steelers currently have roughly 30 former quarterbacks playing other positions, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them start the season with only two, and use the remaining roster spot to bolster the wide receiver, running back, or linebacker positions.
The Six Horsemen
Early in camp Pro Bowl LB Joey Porter injured his knee while dancing after a drill (apparently, it was the Peg-Leg Cowboy with a little something extra at the end). He's been out ever since, but should be ready for the season opener. One of the advantages of temporarily losing Porter is that other linebackers get more reps in practice and snaps during games. Two players who have taken advantage of the opportunity are James Harrison and fifth round pick Rian Wallace. Harrison was a special teams kamikaze last season who also started four games. He returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown last week against the Dolphins and has an uncanny ability to shed blocks and make plays in the backfield. Wallace caused two fumbles on wicked hits in the Miami game, plays special teams like a mini-Harrison, and given the lack of depth at linebacker, could make the team out of camp.
The Next Eric Green
Not yet. First-round pick Heath Miller isn't even the next Mark Bruener. Miller came to the Steelers with a reputation as an athletic pass-catching tight end. To date he's caught one pass for five yards. He's still behind Jerame Tuman on the depth chart, but Pittsburgh plans to use him in two tight end sets early and hopefully ease him into a starting role as a legitimate option for Ben Roethlisberger as the season progresses.
This is the last edition of Four Downs: AFC North for 2005.
Monday: The final Four Downs for the AFC West.
15 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2005, 4:52pm by JMM