The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"
07 Apr 2005
By Mike Tanier
Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: AFC West? You'll find it here.
When a team wins three consecutive Super Bowls and shatters records on defense, the way the Browns have, it only makes sense for teams like the Broncos to try to sign as many defensive lineman as possible from the Cleveland juggernaut.
Oh wait, that never happened. So why have the Broncos uprooted the entire Cleveland defensive line and re-planted it in the mountains? It can't just be because new line coach Andre Patterson coached the Browns for two seasons, can it?
Patterson certainly knows his players, and while he probably doesn't know that the Browns defense finished 29th in Line Yards last year, he's not delusional. He knows that Courtney Brown, Gerald Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers all come with question marks. But Patterson and Mike Shanahan aren't trying to recreate the 1985 Bears. Instead, they are rummaging through the bargain bin, hoping to turn trash to treasure.
Remember that while Brown and Warren both cost the Browns high #1 picks, all they cost the Broncos are a one-year, incentive-heavy contract (for Brown) and a fourth-round pick (for Warren). They were essentially on scholarship in Cleveland, where their high salaries guaranteed them a spot in the lineup. In Denver, they'll be competing for jobs. Brown, who missed 14 games last year, brings the same risk that Trevor Pryce does after the Broncos re-signed him, but Brown is younger and cheaper. Warren, meanwhile, played well late in the season, after the Butch Davis soap opera played out.
Brown and Warren are the big names, but Myers and Ekuban are price-is-right players who fit the new 3-4 defense. Myers and Warren will battle for the starting nose tackle job, meaning that Dorsett Davis' days as a starter are probably numbered (Luther Elliss and Monsato Pope were re-signed to compete for jobs). Ekuban will be a rush end. Brown was a perpetual disappointment as a 4-3 end, but he has the right combination of skills to be a two-gap, run stopping end in a 3-4. And if none of these players pan out, the Broncos only gave up Reuben Droughns and a draft pick.
Of course, this may be more of the same for a Broncos team that's addicted to old, cheap, overrated defensive linemen. Elliss, Raylee Johnson, Marco Coleman, Daryl Gardener, Leon Lett, and Chet McGlockton all headed for the mountains when they ran out of options elsewhere in the league. The main difference this year: the former Browns are all younger players than those listed above, and Patterson knows their strengths and weaknesses.
With the signings of Brown and the other Browns (how confusing is that?), the Broncos won't pursue a defensive lineman in the first round. Look for them to get deeper and more versatile at cornerback; 6-foot-4 Lenny Walls may be the starter opposite Champ Bailey, but Shanahan will want a more conventional model in the secondary to line up against smaller wideouts. The Broncos could also dip into a deep pool of left tackles in search of a player who fits their system; a fast blocker like Khalif Barnes or Chris Terry would quickly adapt to the team's offensive line philosophy.
In later rounds, look for the Broncos to select at least one 3-4 outside linebacker, a safety to replace John Lynch down the road, and another running back to develop. And don't expect any surprises from a team that always seems to draft by the book: no major trades, no super reaches, no challenge-the-incumbent QB selections.
The stability of the Pat Bowlen-Mike Shanahan regime allows the Broncos to take a developmental approach to the draft. The team has a proven record for developing offensive linemen, running backs, and linebackers, so even though the Broncos may draft a D.J. Williams or George Foster early, there's rarely an urgency to their selections. Bowlen, GM Ted Sundquist, and Shanahan know they can select and develop competent players.
The team's Midas touch with running backs does not apply to other positions. In the secondary, Denver got little out of high picks Deltha O'Neal and Willie Middlebrooks. Players like Dorsett Davis and Paul Toviessi never developed the way the team hoped (though Reggie Hayward, taken right after Toviessi in 2001, turned into a player). And while Ashley Lelie took a big step forward last year, a lot of receivers like Chris Cole, Marcus Nash, and Travis McGriff passed through Mile High on their way to nowhere.
Recent Denver drafts have produced few bona fide stars; Clinton Portis, who was parlayed into Champ Bailey, is the one true superstar the Broncos have selected in the last six years. But a measured approach to the selection-development process has kept the Broncos at or over .500 for five years. Many teams would envy that kind of success.
The Chiefs have been making goo-goo eyes across the floor at Patrick Surtain and Ty Law for over a month, but they haven't worked up the nerve to ask either player to dance.
That's about to change. The Chiefs have been in talks with the Dolphins and Surtain's agent. They have also had preliminary talks with Law. If the price is right, they could land both players.
Surtain will cost the Chiefs a second- or third-round pick and a new contract worth about $14 million in guaranteed money. With a third-round compensatory selection to work with, the Chiefs can part with a draft pick. As for the money, Surtain would likely receive about $7 million up front -- a bargain in a market that offers Fred Smoot over $10 million.
If they land Surtain, the Chiefs might pass on Law, but the idea of signing both CBs is intriguing. Eric Warfield faces a possible four-game suspension from the NFL, William Bartee is no good, and Dexter McCleon would be most effective as a nickel defender. If the Chiefs are in win now mode, a secondary of Surtain, Law, Sammy Knight and Jerome Woods would get people's attention.
Speaking of Woods, he and Greg Wesley are both grumbling about having to compete for the starting free safety spot now that Knight is on board. The Chiefs have one of the worst defenses in the league for two straight years and guys complain about losing starting jobs? If Carl Peterson is as ruthless as we all know he is, either Woods or Wesley will be released. Sorry to take you boys off scholarship.
If the Chiefs land Surtain or Law, they won't have to select a cornerback in the first round. They can then focus on the defensive line, the receiving corps, or the offensive line, where Will Shields is pondering retirement. Even if Shields returns (he probably will), the Chiefs need fresh troops to replace their aging offensive linemen.
The Chiefs haven't groomed a quarterback of the future since Todd Blackledge, and they haven't groomed one successfully since, um, Bill Kenney or Len Dawson or somebody. Trent Green has always been backed up by Todd Collins or Jonathan Quinn types, who thankfully have never been needed. Players like Dan Olshavsky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kyle Orton will be available in the third round or later. All fit the Al Saunders system: they have great touch, read the field well, and are good at distributing the ball.
Peterson has been the Chiefs president and general manager since 1989 and probably will be until we're all old and gray. His record in the first round of the draft leaves a lot to be desired: Tony Gonzalez, Will Shields, and (long ago) Derrick Thomas turned out to be pretty good, but his record is tarnished by lots of names like Greg Hill, Trezelle Jenkins, Sylvester Morris, Eric Downing, Victor Riley and Ryan Sims. Larry Johnson appeared to be another first-round bust until the final weeks of last season.
In fairness to Peterson, selecting first-round picks is just part of a GM's job, and Peterson has supervised the team through two playoff-caliber success cycles. He has been effective at identifying young, available players like Priest Holmes, Casey Weigmann, Brian Waters and Green, effectively building an excellent offense from spare parts or players who didn't fit with other teams.
If Peterson had as much success at acquiring budget talent on offense as on defense, then the Chiefs would have won a Super Bowl. But the team has invested in too many players like Sims, Downing, and Eddie Freeman. The home-picked secondary of Warfield (7th round, 1998), Woods (1st, 1996), Bartee (2nd, 2000) and Wesley (3rd, 2000) (with Dexter McCleon as the fifth Beatle) has spent several seasons proving that it's the worst in the league.
Derrick Burgess is an active, effective pass rusher with a history of injuries. Rob Konrad is a capable lead-blocking fullback with some receiving ability and a history of injuries. Danny Smith is a versatile defensive tackle with a history of injuries. They are the type of players that good teams develop and bad teams spend money for on the free-agent market.
Burgess and Konrad will play major roles in 2005. Konrad knows and fits Norv Turner's system. A Syracuse alum, he came out of college with a reputation as a poor man's Moose Johnston. When healthy, he's almost as effective a blocker as Moose was, and when he leads LaMont Jordan on a sweep, opposing cornerbacks and outside linebackers will be in trouble. Burgess will play a hybrid OLB/DE role in Rob Ryan's defense and will generate a few sacks. Smith, meanwhile, will compete for a role in the defensive line rotation.
These signing probably mean the end of a productive free-agency period for the Raiders, who cannot be accused of standing pat. The next big story out of Oakland will be Rich Gannon's retirement, a foregone conclusion that will provide the team some cap relief in time to sign their draft picks.
The Raiders do not have a first-round pick as a result of the Randy Moss trade. They'll be looking for linebackers and defensive backs on Day One of the draft. With Napoleon Harris gone, Danny Clark is all alone at inside linebacker in a 3-4 system. The Raiders are very thin behind Charles Woodson and Philip Buchanon in the secondary; Ray Buchanan, David Terrell and Denard Walker may not be back, and Nnamdi Asomugha hasn't developed as a nickel back or a safety.
Marques Tuiasosopo is still on the roster and ostensibly in the team's plans, but he doesn't fit the mold of a Norv Turner pocket passer. Look for the Raiders to invest a late pick in a developmental quaterback.
The Jon Gruden agreement, in which the Bucs gave the Raiders two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million, could have been Al Davis' Herschel Walker trade. Instead, it backfired. Gruden promptly beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl, the picks became late-in-the-round selections, and the Raiders didn't do much with them. Philip Buchanon, Langston Walker, and Tyler Brayton all play major roles with the current team, and '04 second-rounder Jake Grove is the backup center, but they aren't exactly a playoff nucleus, especially when surrounded by the other high draft picks of 2002-2003 (Asomugha, Teyo Johnson, Doug Jolley, the departed Harris).
Davis puts his unique stamp on every draft, even if a coach like Gruden is allegedly in control of roster decisions. If there's a hard-drinking kicker, 6-foot-7 receiver, former track sprinter with limited football experience, fight-prone lineman, or son of a 1970's television character actor on the board, Davis will find him -- often a round or two before anyone else would think of taking him. This dice-rolling sometimes produces a Ron Curry who can switch positions and make an impact, but more often it produces players like Asomugha and Johnson who never find a real role on the roster.
Last year at this time, the Chargers were caught up in the Eli Manning-Philip Rivers flapdoodle, everyone from Dan Pompei to Deion Sanders was lining up to take potshots at Marty Schottenheimer, and the team seemed more likely to move to Los Angeles than to have a winning season.
What a difference a year makes. The organization is working on development plans for a new stadium. Marty's critics have scurried for cover. And the Chargers have two franchise quarterbacks and two #1 picks to play with, all on the heels of a 12-4 season.
So everything is spooky quiet in Southern California. Unless Bhawoh Jue is your idea of an impact signing, the Chargers have been content to take care of their own in free agency. Young contributors like Jesse Chatham, Justin Peelle, and Jacque Cesaire have signed contract extensions. Veteran linebacker Steve Foley signed a three-year deal. Carlos Polk and Bob Hallen also re-upped ... try not to get overstimulated with all of this excitement.
The smooth offseason sailing has Chargers fans are talking about a season-opener against the Cowboys and the possibility of two Monday Night games. Instead of fretting over what to do with the top pick in the draft, the team is window shopping for luxury items.
The only ripple on these otherwise placid waters is Antonio Gates' contract status. Gates has threatened to sit if he doesn't get a new deal in the Alge Crumpler-Kellen Winslow range (about $5 million per year). Gates is an exclusive rights free agent slated to make $380,000 this season. The Chargers and Gates should easily come to an agreement.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the whereabouts of some former Chargers QBs. Doug Flutie is being seriously pursued by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. And Craig Whelihan, who was originally supposed to play in the Arena Football League 2 this year for the San Diego Riptide, is instead playing for the Las Vegas Gladiators of the real Arena League. If Moses Moreno makes an appearance, readers will be promptly informed.
The Chargers are unlikely to trade up in a draft that has few top-end superstars but adequate depth. Instead, they'll use their two #1 picks to acquire a playmaker on each side of the ball. Look for them to select a wide receiver like Troy Williamson who can stretch the field and a 3-4 pass rusher like Demarcus Ware. A second-round pick may be spent on a developmental offensive lineman or depth on the defensive line.
Don't hold your breath in anticipation of a Drew Brees or Philip Rivers trade. The market isn't strong for these players, as GMs around the league are starting to warm to potential late-round picks like Adrian McPherson. Smith is in no hurry to make a deal, so he won't.
Bobby Beathard was one of the most brilliant GMs in NFL history during his tenures with the Redskins and Dolphins. He was also one of the all-time great draftniks. Beathard scouted and appraised talent his own way, and his teams often traded down in early rounds, selected small-school players, and planned two or three years ahead when appraising prospects. Even in his first seasons with the Chargers, Beathard had the touch to find players like Natrone Means and Rodney Harrison, names who would help the Chargers reach the Super Bowl.
But modern scouting, the salary cap, and free agency caught up to Beathard, who through the late 1990s tried to outsmart the world by drafting players like Brian Still and Mikhael Ricks. The Chargers spent the late-90s trading out of the first round, then taking someone from Stephen F. Austin or North Carolina A&T when they did pick. It was Beathard's system reduced to self-parody, and the boarding school reaches (heck, some of these guys were drafted out of boarding school) left the Chargers with little front-line talent. When Beathard was forced to draft conventionally, he took Ryan Leaf. Farewell, Beathard.
John Butler took over briefly but succumbed to cancer; in 2003 former Butler assistant A.J. Smith assumed the reins. Smith generally got lousy reviews right up until the Manning-Rivers trade last year, and he still has critics after the team's surprising playoff run last season. But his/Butler's drafts were productive: LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Quentin Jammer, Ben Leber, Terrence Kiel, Hanik Milligan, and Toniu Fonoti are all starters now. Draft-day deals cost the team Eli Manning and Michael Vick but allowed them to stockpile draft picks and acquire players like Brees and Tomlinson.
Smith's 2004 draft was excellent. Even if Rivers never plays a down, Igor Olshansky, Nick Hardwick, Shane Olivea and Nate Kaeding are a fine group of players. Throw in the Giants' top pick this year, and Smith did a very good job of stocking the Chargers' shelves.
Next week: AFC East by Aaron Schatz and NFC East by Al Bogdan.
2 comments, Last at 01 Nov 2005, 1:21am by David Beathard