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.
14 Apr 2005
by Al Bogdan
Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: NFC East? You'll find it here.
Dallas has done nothing since the last edition of Four Downs: NFC East. They haven't signed anyone. They haven't lost anyone. They haven't processed anything bought, sold, or processed. Pretty dull month. Newly signed guard Marco Rivera suffered a back injury while running on a treadmill, but is expected to be ready to go by the time training camp begins in July. There were rumors that the Cowboys would trade for Saints defensive end Darren Howard, but he's still in New Orleans as of press time. Things are so dull in Dallas that reporters are writing articles with headlines like "Bledsoe Shows Impressive Speed."
The Cowboys should start making some noise on draft day, however, since they have two picks in the top 20. As was mentioned last month in this very space, DE/LB tweener Shaun Merriman from Maryland would be a good fit for Dallas with the #11 pick, especially if they actually do move to the 3-4 as their base defense. At #20, the Cowboys could pick anything this side of quarterback or running back. I'd look to grab an offensive lineman to help protect Bledsoe. Despite his recent showing of impressive speed, Bledsoe needs all the time he can get in the pocket. Khalif Barnes from Washington should still be on the board at #20, or even a little later in the first round if Dallas decides to trade down a few spots. Barnes suffered a season-ending broken wrist in October, but has seen his stock rise in recent weeks. In a relatively weak draft for offensive linemen, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the Cowboys to grab Barnes in the latter half of the first round, especially since he is touted for his pass-blocking ability.
Clarence E. Hill Jr. had a nice summary of the Cowboys' recent draft woes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday. Instead of re-inventing the wheel or wholesale plagiarism, I recommend you read his detailed take on Dallas' draft history (Free registration is required).
When last we met, the Giants had just signed linebacker Antonio Pierce at the outset of the free agency period. They weren't done spending money, however, signing right tackle Kareem McKenzie to a "seven-year, $37.75 million" contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus and wide receiver Plaxico Burress to a "six-year, $25 million" contract with a $8 million bonus. Both signings addressed major weaknesses in the Giant offense from 2004. There's no need to yet again discuss how poor the Giant offensive line has been the past few seasons. Ideally, the Giants would have signed a left tackle, moving Luke Petitgout to the right side, but there weren't any quality players at the position left in the market when the Giants signed McKenzie. Burress should be a huge improvement over Ike Hilliard as Amani Toomer's downfield partner. The Giants also brought in kicker Jay Feely, defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, and quarterback Jim Miller, and re-signed running back Mike Cloud, fullback Jim Finn, and former Bachelor Jesse Palmer.
One could make a pretty good argument that the Giants overpaid for all of their big ticket free agent signings. Pierce is coming off only his first year as a starter in his fourth year in the league. He was great last year, but had never played at that level before. The Giants paid left tackle money for a solid if unspectacular player at the less-important right tackle position. Plaxico Burress was given a bonus only $2 million less than the one Terrell Owens was given in Philadelphia last year, despite gaining fewer than 1000 yards the past two seasons.
But one thing that the Giants can't be criticized for is using free agency to get younger. Here are the new Giants with their ages as of today listed next to the player they will be ostensibly replacing in the lineup:
|Pos||New Player||Age||Old Player||Age|
|LB||Antonio Pierce||26||Kevin Lewis||26|
|OL||Kareem McKenzie||25||Jason Whittle||30|
|WR||Plaxico Burress||27||Ike Hilliard||29|
|K||Jay Feely||28||Steve Christie||37|
|DT||Kendrick Clancy||26||Norman Hand||32|
|QB||Jim Miller||34||Kurt Warner||34|
|Average Age||27.7||Average Age||31.3|
After trading away too many draft picks for Eli Manning last year, the only way the Giants were going to get younger was through free agency. While the division rival Cowboys have made splashes with their own free agent signings this year, their signings were almost exclusively players on the wrong side of 30. For a team playing for this year, those types of moves are defensible. But as the Washington Redskins have shown, you have to win with older free agents signed to long term deals right away or you'll have nothing to show for the terrible salary cap situation you will face a few years later. The Giants may have paid a little too much for their new players today, but these signings shouldn't hurt their salary cap situation in the upcoming years.
There's not too much to preview here. The Giants only have four picks this year thanks to the Eli Manning trade/debacle from a year ago. With their first two picks at #43 and #74, the Giants could look to address the two positions that they didn't address through free agency this season: defensive back and running back. Tiki Barber just turned 30 and carried the ball a career-high 322 times last season. There's no heir apparent waiting in the wings should Barber suffer the same sudden decline countless other running backs have suffered after turning the big three-oh. Mike Cloud could be a productive backup but nobody is going to compare him to LaMont Jordan or Najeh Davenport. The Giants will be looking at someone like J.J. Arrington from Cal in the second round, or Eric Shelton from Louisville in the third. Shelton would be the best pick if the Giants want their draft pick to share time with Barber this year; at 6' 1", 248 pounds, he could be the big back the Giants have wanted to pair with Barber since the failure of the Ron Dayne experiment.
On the other side of the ball, with Gibril Wilson returning from injury and Shaun Williams coming back after restructuring his contract, the Giants are relatively strong at safety. However, the Giants could use some depth at cornerback. According to DVOA, New York was in the top 10 in the league defending against opposing number one wide receivers, but second worst in the league against number twos and in the bottom third of the league against third/fourth wideouts. The cornerbacks may be slim pickings by the time New York is on the clock in the second round, since everyone in the league is looking to add depth at the position. As many as seven corners could be gone in the first 42 picks. At #43, the best corner available will likely be Bryant McFadden out of Florida State. Before college, McFadden was regarded as the best prep school corner in the country. Injuries limited his playing time for most of his time at Florida State. Finally playing a full season at starter last year, McFadden was named an All American. If the Giants can grab him in the second round, they could have a nice steal on their hands.
Last year, the Giants traded too many draft picks to move up into the #1 slot and draft Eli Manning. The Giants could have gotten an extra draft pick out of the Browns, who were looking to move up from seven to four. New York could have still grabbed Phillip Rivers with that pick and gained an extra second rounder out of the deal. But despite poor trading, the Giants first draft of the Tom Coughlin era looks to have been a pretty good one. Drafting Chris Snee, criticized by some (OK, me) as based more on nepotism than ability, turned out to be a great move, as Snee was an effective starter at right guard for most of the year before being felled with a gland infection. In the fourth round, the Giants picked up Gibril Wilson, who was the most exciting defensive player on the team last season, until he too went down with a neck injury in the middle of November.
Before last year, however, the Giants drafts have been just awful. In 2003, the Giants had 11 picks, with second round pick Osi Umenyiora having, to date, the most successful career. First round pick William Joseph, the last player chosen in the ridiculous defensive tackle run of 2003, has been a big disappointment. Visanthe Shiancoe has been unproductive as Jeremy Shockey's backup, and David Diehl and Wayne Lucier have been key members of the terrible Giant offensive line. Sixth round pick David Tyree has been a solid special teams performer, but has yet to break through as a productive wide receiver.
2002 saw inconsistent Jeremy Shockey picked in the first round, and no one expected to make a contribution to the Giants in 2005 after that, with the possible exception of linebacker Nick Greisen. The jury is still out on the Giant corners drafted with their first two picks of 2001, Allen and Peterson. The best thing that could be said about the Giants' first round draft pick of 2000 is that he isn't on the team anymore.
The Eagles have been surprisingly quiet in the free agent market. The biggest name to come to Philadelphia so far is quarterback Mike McMahon. Not exactly headline grabbing news. Defensive end Derrick Burgess and linebacker Ike Reese have departed for greener pastures, but neither should be that significant of a loss for Philadelphia. Despite having one of the league's highest payrolls last season, Philadelphia is still $8 million under the cap. It looks like once again the Eagles will go into the season with unused cap space.
What has been the talk of the Eagle off-season, however, is the talk of Philadelphia's two gregarious wide receivers -- Terrell Owens and Freddie Mitchell. Mitchell has been practically begging to be released all off-season. In a recent interview, Mitchell said his teammates were too "scared" to back him up in his war of words with Rodney Harrison, and blames his poor performance on Donovan McNabb, the arrival of Terrell Owens, and having to learn too many plays. According to the article, the best offer the Eagles have received for the outspoken receiver is a sixth-round pick from the Vikings.
Owens recently hired superagent Drew Rosenhaus, and is looking to redo the $46 million contract he signed last offseason. Rosenhaus has hinted that Owens might sit out training camp if a deal does not get done, and Owens himself didn't rule out missing an upcoming minicamp in a recent interview. The chances of Owens not playing for the Eagles come Week 1 are astronomically low. But with Mitchell on his way out and Owens already showing signs of discontent in Philadelphia, it's a bit surprising that the Eagles haven't at least put their toes into the free agent wide receiver waters.
Philadelphia has five picks in the first three rounds -- #31, #35, #63, #77, and #94. There seems to be no consensus about what Philadelphia will look to do with their pick late in the first round. Defensive tackle Luis Castillo has been mentioned in a few places as a possible target, with some even suggesting that the Eagles might trade a couple of their picks to move up in the first round to snag him. Not to be confused with the #2 hitter for the Florida Marlins, this Castillo is a defensive tackle/nose guard out of Northwestern who would give Philadelphia some flexibility if they are unable to work out a long-term deal with disgruntled, franchise-tagged defensive tackle Corey Simon.
With either of their first two picks, the Eagles are also rumored to be interested in picking QB/WR/TE/K/LHP/RW/SG Matt Jones from Arkansas. I can't remember a prospect rising from "who is this guy" to "one of the most gifted athletes to ever come out of the college ranks" this quickly in recent years. The Eagles could also use a linebacker to add some depth to a group that lost Reese and Nate Wayne. There should be quite a few available at the end of the first round and beginning of the second. If teams are scared off by his history of knee problems, Channing Crowder from Florida might be a good fit for Philadelphia.
The Eagles' recent draft picks have been plagued by injuries. Last year's first round pick, Shawn Andrews, missed the entire season after breaking his leg during the first game of the season against the Giants. Third round pick J.R. Reed was electric at times as a kick returner, but recently damaged a nerve in his leg after cutting his knee while jumping over a fence and may never play again. Fifth round pick Thomas Tapeh injured himself against St. Louis late in the year, suffering what has been described as a "Bo Jackson-like" hip injury. 2003's first round pick, Jerome McDougle missed the first half of his rookie year and five games in 2004 with various leg injuries.
2002 was easily the best of the Eagles' recent drafts, as they picked up four players who would start for them in Super Bowl XXXIX. Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook were the Eagles first four picks that year. The bottom half of that year's draft didn't work out that well, but when you grab four starters with your first four picks, your draft has to be considered a success.
When you have $16 million in dead money on your cap, you're not going to make too much noise in free agency. But your players will make some noise as they leave for more money elsewhere or talk to the media about their unhappiness in Washington. Coming in are center Casey Rabach and wide receivers Santana Moss and David Patten. Gone are LB Antonio Pierce, CB Fred Smoot and the traded WR Laveraneus Coles. Making noise about their frustrations with their current contracts and/or the way they have been treated by the Redskins are Lavar Arrington, Sean Taylor, and Moss.
Since the Redskins had the fifth-worst offensive DVOA last season, you would think they might want to do more than adding a center and an aging wide receiver. But Washington destroyed any chance they had at making additions during free agency when they swapped Coles for the inferior Moss, taking a $9 million cap hit in the exchange. If the Redskins are going to make big improvements to their offensive personnel, it will have to be done through the draft.
Although Washington could use players pretty much everywhere on offense, it's highly unlikely the Redskins will pick anyone other than a cornerback with the #9 pick in the draft. The strength of the Washington defense in 2004 was their ability to shut down opponent's top receivers. After losing Smoot to free agency, Washington needs to draft someone who can step in and start opposite Shawn Springs. Either Pac Man Jones or Antrel Rolle will find themselves wearing maroon and gold in 2005.
In the off chance that neither is available at #9, the Redskins could try to trade down to pick up additional picks. Joe Gibbs has hinted that the Redskins could be interested in picking up a linebacker to fill in for the departed Pierce and still recovering Arrington. There should be plenty of decent linebackers in the middle to the end of the first round for Washington to choose from if they can find a trading partner.
Washington doesn't have a second round pick, so unless they make a trade, they'll have 67 picks worth of time to decide who to take at #76. The Redskins almost have to go with offense here, with offensive line being the teams' biggest need. With Jon Jansen attempting to come back from a ruptured Achilles tendon and 83-year old Ray Brown re-signed for another season, Washington could use some young depth at the tackle position. I'd look for Washington to grab Florida State's Ray Willis here.
Despite having only seven picks over the past two seasons, the Redskins managed to draft three players who should be starting for them in 2005. Last year's first round pick Sean Taylor was impressive at safety, but is currently sitting out trying to negotiate a new deal to replace the one he signed less than a year ago. Tight end Chris Cooley was a nice pickup in round three and should be a bigger part of the Redskins' offense in 2005. 2003 third-round pick Derrick Dockery has started at left guard since Week 7 of his rookie year.
Maybe these past two drafts have been so successful because Washington had so few picks to concentrate on each year. They certainly fared much better with only seven picks over two years than they did with ten picks in 2002. Only first round pick Patrick Ramsey is expected to start for Washington this season. The Redskins did manage to grab two decent backup running backs in Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright, although they won't really reap the reward from the underrated Cartwright if they won't put him on the field. The less said about their other seven selections the better.
Next week: AFC South by Ned Macey