The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
19 May 2005
By Mike Tanier
Also check out the pre-draft edition of Four Downs: AFC West.
Notice a trend in the AFC West? Of the thirteen first-day draft selections by the four teams in the division, ten were used to select defensive players (that includes punter Dustin Colquitt -- picked by the Chiefs -- as punters are essentially defenders). No team drafted an offensive player until it had selected at least two defenders, and five of the defenders were cornerbacks or safeties, not including Patrick Surtain, who was acquired by the Chiefs in exchange for a second-round pick.
NFC West teams are drafting scared: scared of Randy Moss, scared of the Chargers' resurgent offense, scared of the Chiefs' ability to score 38 points without breaking a sweat. In other words, scared of each other. And with every team a potential playoff contender, they're drafting with one eye on the Colts and another on the Patriots, teams that can beat you with their third or fourth wideout.
No less an authority than the Sporting News' Dan Pompei (note: this is sarcasm) denounced the Broncos' CB-laden draft, declaring that all three of the team's top selections were "reaches." But with Champ Bailey and Lenny Walls starting, the Broncos could afford to speculate. The winner among Darrent Williams, Kevin Paymah, and Domonique Foxworth will be an effective nickel defender right away. The losers will still contribute: Williams has potential as a return man and can cover smaller receivers, Paymah is well-built and should be effective on the jam, and Foxworth (the most ready-to-play of the three) lacks top size and track speed but started 40 college games and comes to the NFL smooth and seasoned.
Former Cardinals tackle Anthony Clement was signed immediately after the draft. Clement, a former second-round pick who started for years in Arizona, was released by Denny Green as part of his offensive line housecleaning. Clement is expected to compete for a backup spot behind Matt Lepsis and George Foster. Meanwhile, tight end Dwayne Carsewell was wearing #77 at the team's quarterback school, an indication that he is also looking for work on the offensive line.
The Denver Post reports that Mike Anderson hopes to get a chance to be the team's featured running back. Anderson rushed for 1,487 yards in 2000 but has since earned a living as a halfback/fullback tweener. There's a crowd at running back in Denver, where Anderson, Tatum Bell, Maurice Clarett, Quentin Griffin and Ron Dayne are all vying for work. Commentators like to say that the Broncos can "plug in anybody" at running back; in fact, the player they plug in often must win the job from two or three other "anybodies" in camp or the opening weeks of the season.
As of this writing, the Broncos were also in pursuit of two big names: WR Jerry Rice and P Todd Sauerbrun. The Sauerbrun-to-Denver deal has reportedly been tied up over bonus money; assuming he is not suspended by the NFL because of his part in the Panthers steroid scandal, Sauerbrun would be a major addition for the Broncos. Rice, meanwhile, proved that he was a hollow shell of his former self last season, and we would hate to see him Steve Carlton his way through his late career.
Is it ever a good idea to draft a punter or kicker on Day One? Under one set of circumstances, it might be a wise gambit: a team with few other needs and a legitimate crack at the Super Bowl could argue that a few extra yards of field position are worth the high-risk, minimal-yield investment in a high-round specialist.
The Chiefs believe they are a team with few needs and one last crack at the title. Free-agent spending and pre-draft trading improved their defense. Their offense, though standing on the precipice of old age, was one of the best in the league in 2004. That offense was excellent at sustaining drives; when the Chiefs did have to punt, it was often from between the 40-yard lines (of the team's 55 punts last year, 23 were from the Chiefs 40-yard line or closer to the opponent's end zone). Enter Colquitt, a directional punter who should be able to pin opponents and further help the defense.
The Chiefs clearly needed a punter, but were there more pressing needs elsewhere? Certainly. The Chiefs could have drafted a receiver, offensive linemen, or nickel cornerback instead of Colquitt. But Colquitt was selected to make a positive contribution right away, something few other rookies could do on this veteran team.
First-round pick Derrick Johnson has been penciled in as a starter at weak side linebacker. Johnson's strengths are his ability to make plays in space, cover receivers, and strip the ball. His weakness is filling the hole, a job that will fall to free agent Kendrell Bell. WR Crophonso Thorpe is dangerous in the open field but isn't polished; if Johnnie Morton is released, Samie Parker is likely to replace him in the lineup, while Thorpe battles for a role as a slot receiver.
The Chiefs signed WR Nate Curry, DT Arrion Hixon, RB Sam Gado, LB Kris Griffin of Family Guy fame, and CB Gabriel Holmes as rookie free agents. The signings were overshadowed by the team's brief flirtation with Oklahoma QB Jason White, who later signed with the Titans. None of the free agents qualify as "on the radar" players, unless your radar screen includes colleges like Indiana-Pennsylvania.
With five new starters on the defense, the Chiefs appear to be done making major moves, except for one: Gunther Cunningham will move from the sky box to the field during games. Cunningham hopes the move will allow him to address his players needs, motivate the troops, and generally allow him to be more hands-on. With high-strung Cunningham joining the equally intense Vermiel on the sidelines, there will be no malingering around the Gatorade cooler. Cunningham's adjustment will have little impact (Greg Robinson coached from the sidelines, and look where it got the team), but give him credit: would you want to have a closer look at the Chiefs defense?
Al Davis never does things by the book, unless we're talking about his book, a tome vaguely resembling a cross between "The Satanic Verses" and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." So when he traded out of the first round to acquire Randy Moss, it was inevitable that he would trade back in to select CB Fabian Washington.
Washington was the fastest player in the draft according to 40-yard dashes performed in shorts on a track in a controlled environment, easily the most accurate method of measuring football playing speed ever designed (note: this is sarcasm). Washington and second-round pick Stanford Routt fill a pressing need in the secondary, and they'll compete with Renaldo Hill and Nnamdi Asomugha for the second, third and fourth CB positions behind Charles Woodson. Davis himself understands the importance of getting the young defenders up to speed: the Raiders' owner watched the rooks from the sidelines and brought them over for skull sessions during the team's minicamp workouts.
Of course, Moss was the team's real first-round pick and the reigning celebrity of minicamp. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Moss was chauffeured to and from practices in a Cadillac. The newspaper doesn't specify the model; we're guessing Escalade. Limo service didn't help George Foster's "team player" cred for the 1980s Mets, but we all feel a lot safer knowing that Moss himself is not driving.
An interesting camp battle to watch this summer will be at inside linebacker. Danny Clark has one starting job wrapped up. But rookie Kirk Morrison will take on newly-acquired free agent Jay Foreman for the other job.
Morrison is a poor man's Junior Seau: he's tough, he's aggressive, and he loves to freelance. That's a recipe for big plays and big mistakes. Foreman, meanwhile, is a consummate 3-4 inside 'backer coming off an injury-plagued season. Foreman doesn't make many plays in the backfield, but he strafes, reads his keys, stays away from blockers and keeps running backs from getting to the secondary.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan may envision Morrison as a player to eventually replace Clark or move to the outside. In Foreman and Clark, Ryan has a good mix of experience, intelligence, and playmaking ability in the middle.
A soap opera surrounds each of the team's #1 picks (Ed. note: Isn't that the case every year in San Diego?). Luis Castillo's status as a steroid penitent made him a favorite topic for "Around the Horn" and other television yak-fests, but he participated in minicamps, playing the role of solid citizen eager to make amends for his pre-draft indiscretions. Shawne Merriman, meanwhile, elected to stay in Maryland during the team's workouts, citing a policy that doesn't provide financial guarantees to a player injured before he is under contract.
Depending on your perspective, Merriman is either a young man with a legitimate beef, a whiner holding out for mucho dinero, or a pawn in the manipulative hands of uber-agents Carl and Kevin Poston. If you answered "C," you are now qualified to appear on "Pardon the Interruption." In fairness to the team, the San Diego Union Tribune cites an NFLPA representative who says that the Chargers always negotiate in good faith with injured players. In fairness to Merriman, none of those other players had millions of bonus dollars at stake: the Chargers' team policy states that Merriman would be entitled to his full expected pay if he were injured before a contract was signed, but the language of the contract does not cover a signing bonus.
Merriman's holdout has escalated into a minor bladder release contest, in part because there is little else to talk about in San Diego. Expect this situation to resolve itself, if not by the start of training camp, then long before the Chargers opener. The Castillo/Merriman combination should add a dozen sacks to a defense that ranked 31st in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate last year.
Two of the more interesting players acquired by the Chargers are WR Vincent Jackson and RB/KR Darren Sproles. Sproles will replace Tim Dwight as the team's punt- and kick-returner, and he'll be exciting to watch (he'll also make the third quarters of preseason games more fun when he's at running back). Jackson arrived at minicamp eager not just to lose the "small school project" label but to challenge Antonio Gates to a game of hoops: Jackson, like Gates, started for his college basketball team. "I heard about it, but he doesn't want to see me. He knows that," Gates told the Union Tribune. Gates participated in minicamp despite the fact that he is not under contract and is slated to make under $400,000 from a one-year tender offer this season.
Merriman also would like a crack at Gates on the hardcourt, but basketball is not a long-distance sport.
The Chargers signed 18 rookie free agents after the draft. Yep: 18 of them. Not bad for a team coming off a 12-4 season that added two #1 draft picks. There will be plenty of fresh legs to run drills at camp, and bottom-of-the-roster guys cannot get comfortable.
Just after the draft, the team re-upped with Kassim Osgood. Osgood is a big, physical wide receiver who shares many attributes with the rookie Jackson. It's assumed that Jackson will replace Osgood as the team's slot receiver, but Osgood also excels on coverage units and was effective in limited use last season. Reche Caldwell, on the mend from an ACL tear, is also in the mix behind Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker.
Coming next week: AFC East by Aaron Schatz and NFC East by Al Bogdan
1 comment, Last at 04 Jul 2005, 8:00pm by andrew