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?
28 Apr 2005
by Mike Tanier
Also check out the pre-draft edition of Four Downs: NFC West.
Draft grades are a little like the "Electric Slide" at a wedding: stupid and pointless, but also obligatory and a little fun. To avoid redundancy, I'll link to the grades I gave on Sports Forecaster; there will be a deeper rundown on individual picks there. The Cardinals earned an A for this weekend's work.
That high grade hinges on Antrel Rolle or Eric Green maturing quickly into a player who can match up with Torry Holt, Darrell Jackson, and their ilk. Rolle, despite his overstated lack of speed, can be that player. With Rolle, David Macklin, and Eric Green battling receivers to a draw, the front seven (bolstered by third round steal Daryl Blackstock) will get plenty of sacks. This is probably the best defense in the division, although that's roughly equivalent to being the hardest rock band at the Lilith Fair.
Just when it looked like the Cardinals wouldn't bring in another developmental quarterback, along comes Timmy Chang, who was signed as a rookie free agent.
Back in 2002, Chang looked like a future first round pick. There was an assumption that his arm and mechanics would improve, but Chang regressed. He became more of a run-'n'-shoot passer, relying on underneath routes and often throwing into coverage. He never got much bigger and stronger, and he appeared to get lazy about reading defenses, taking too many easy dump passes. Still, he's much better than just a "camp arm", he'll push John Navarre for that coveted clipboard, and he'll expand the Arizona Cardinals Radio Network into new, more tropical markets.
The Cardinals were very aggressive in signing rookie free agents, with 14 under contract one day after the draft. Michigan safety Ernest Shazor was the other big name. I had Shazor rated as a second or third round value; he doesn't have the range of a top strong safety but could be effective in a 46-defense. The Cardinals may try to make Robert Griffith their starter this season, and Griffith was through two years ago. Shazor could push for a roster spot.
Here at FO, we pride ourselves on knowing our football inside and out. But one look at the cartoons on the Meet the Outsiders page will convince you that we're clueless when it comes to fashion. So when it came to evaluate the new Cardinals uniforms, we decided to turn the job over to some experts: teenage girls.
"The all-red is hideous," said Ashleigh Dickson as she and the girls in my first period math class cycled through the photos on the Cardinals web site. The white jersey/white pants combo sported by Adrian Wilson also earned negative reviews. "No white on white. White on white is bad," said Ashley Carr (Carr and Dickson are two of the four Ashleys in the class).
Monochrome is clearly out; the uniforms that got the best reviews were the white jerseys with red shoulders and trim and red pants, though more than one critic pointed out that the look isn't exactly original. "They look like the Falcons," said Beverly Giese. "They should put more red in the white jerseys," said Anthony Hardymon, who is not a girl but had strong opinions about the uniforms.
While the uniforms were the primary subjects of criticism, the girls also weighed in on the players themselves. "Who is that? He is sooo sexy," said Dickson of Kurt Warner. If looks are any barometer, Warner clearly has the edge over Josh McCown for the starting QB job. Amanda Fignar said that McCown was "cute", but Warner's grizzled charms swayed most of the other voters. "He has a huge chin," Giese said, dismissing McCown.
Tune in next month, when the toddlers in my son's daycare test 32 different bobble-head dolls to determine which one tastes best.
The Niners' B- grade represents a) the team's need to trade down in the draft to acquire more first day picks, a need they couldn't fill, and b) my feeling that Frank Gore is damaged goods who wouldn't have a major impact on the team.
In fairness, the Niners had no real opportunity to trade down and still get fair value: no one was that high on Alex Smith or Braylon Edwards. Smith will start and produce; he doesn't grade out as a franchise quarterback, but the Niners had few options.
Second-rounder David Baas was an excellent selection. He will start immediately on the interior line and will definitely be the starting center in a year or two. A good center can stabilize an entire offensive line by handling defensive tackles one-on-one and making proper pre-snap adjustments. Baas should be an anchor for the next decade.
As of Wednesday, the Niners had signed just three rookie free agents. That's a low number for a team that presumably wants open competition at most positions.
The lucky trio: DE Tony Ficklin of San Jose State, DT Scott Scharff of Stanford, and punter/kickoff specialist Cole Farden of Oklahoma State.
None of the players looks like a potential sleeper. Ficklin is short and a little slow for a rush end, Scharff is an undersized tackle with a history of injuries, and while Farden nailed 55 touchbacks on 75 kickoffs as a senior, he's regarded as an inconsistent punter.
Mike Nolan spent the Niners' early-April minicamp attending to the structure of workouts and practices. In the wake of Dennis Erickson's anything goes administration, Nolan found himself stressing basics, like keeping reporters off the field during drills. He also made one major off-field adjustment: he moved Kevan Barlow's locker back to the running backs' section of the locker room.
Barlow was moved by Steve Mariucci back in 2002, at the height of the Barlow-Fred Beasley feud. Barlow has dressed with the offensive linemen for over two years. Now, he's back with the RBs, although Beasley, excused from the minicamp, hasn't been around to re-initiate the towel fights. â€œI don't think there's no problem with Fred,â€? the grammatically challenged Barlow told the San Francisco Chronicle. â€œI don't feel I need to discuss with Fred that I'm over here. We might not get along off the field, but as long as we get along on the field, that's all that matters.''
The move may be an indication that Barlow remains in the Niners' plans, despite a DPAR (Defense-Adjusted Points Above Replacement) of â€“2.6 and a 2004 season filled with idiotic comments about how he could be Shaun Alexander if he just got the ball more often. Gore will certainly give Barlow a push, but the oft-injured rookie probably won't be ready to take over the starting job early in the season.
Chris Spencer is a very good prospect at center. Lofi Tatupu and LeRoy Hill are potential starters at a position of need. So why did the Seahawks earn a C+? The team seems to be building for 10-6 with this draft. They were content to take players who project as starters, never taking a reach for a player that could be a star. The Seahawks could have been bold, packaging Shaun Alexander to move up or gambling on a high-risk player like Antaaj Hawthorne on Day Two. Instead, they filled out their roster.
The big news in Seattle after the draft was the signing of Andre Dyson to a four-year contract. Dyson, a starter for several years in Tennessee, is best suited to nickel duty. Last year, the Seahawks thought they were making a splash with the signing of Bobby Taylor: instead, they got an over-the-hill nickel corner who couldn't cut it in man coverage anymore. Dyson is younger than Taylor, but he would be a weak link if asked to start.
Safety Jamaal Brimmer of UNLV is the biggest name in a cast of eight rookie free agents. Brimmer is a two-time Mountain West Player of the Year who recorded hundreds of tackles and has a rep as a big hitter. He may challenge for a roster spot, but he lacks top speed and may be one of those guys who dominates against mid-majors but gets turned around or caught up in the wash too often in the NFL.
Other interesting rookie free agents: RB Jesse Lumsden of McMaster College in Canada, and 190-pound QB Brian Wrobel of Winona State, who will do a fine job as the dummy QB during defensive back drills.
Team president Tim Ruskell is on record as saying that he wants to change the attitude of the team. There were too many paycheck guys in the locker room last year, a fact that was exposed nationally when Alexander griped about the rushing title and Koren Robinson started flaking out.
Ruskell certainly found a more aggressive breed of player in this year's draft. In the team's post-draft press conference, Snyder summed up his playing style succinctly: "If I was a defensive player, I wouldn't stand near the pile." Tackle Ray Willis, one of whose nicknames is "Big Die Slow", admitted to purposely stepping on a defender's hand. Tatupu is a big-time hitter. None of these guys back down from a scuffle.
"When you need to win games late in the fourth quarter, when your team is hurting and everybody is hurting, those are the people that pull you through," Ruskell said in the press conference. For a Seahawks team that folded late in some key games (think: Rams), intense players like these can have a positive impact. (For more on the Seahawks' effort to get tougher, check out Clare Farsworth's article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Much of this information is taken from the article.)
The often inscrutable Rams earned a B by drafting by the book early on. Alex Barron was a steal at #19. Ronald Bartell is just what the team needed: a bigger cornerback to match up with big receivers. Richie Incognito is Kyle Turley squared: nuttier and more talented. He was a good value in the third round, as he could be a fixture at center or tackle if he gets his head on straight.
Mike Martz and Jay Zygmunt saved the loopiness for Day Two. Hey, the Rams needed a punter badly, but Reggie Hodges had four punts blocked in his senior season. The Pro Football Weekly draft preview (I admit it: I don't do my own scouting on MAC conference punters) sites a slow approach and a tendency to shank kicks. Sounds like a rookie free agent, not a sixth round pick.
With Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fold, Jeff Smoker's brief career as developmental quarterback is probably at an end. Or maybe not: maybe genius Mike Martz was looking for an Ivy Leaguer to play chess with (Aaron won't return his calls).
(Ed. note: Actually, your humble editor doesn't play chess. But if I did, I'd have a kickass chess room just like LaVar Arrington's.)
The Rams signed 10 rookie free agents immediately after the draft: Zach Bray, G (Texas Christian); Jeremy Calahan, DT (Rice); Colby Clark, DT (Northwestern); Cliff Dukes, LB (Michigan State); Vontrell Jamison, DE (Clemson); Matt McChesney, DT (Colorado); Keon Newson, (Bowling Green); Dominic Robinson, WR (Florida State); Dominique Thompson, WR (William & Mary ); Duvol Thompson, CB (Pennsylvania).
McChesney is the best prospect of the group. He had drinking problems as an underclassman, incurring several suspension, but appears to have turned the corner. He's a rotation lineman with good size and a hard-nosed style. Dominique Thompson was an I-AA All American who scored four TDs against a tough Delaware team in 2004. He has experience as a kick gunner, which will help him earn a roster spot.
The Rams drafted two safeties, Oshiomogho Atogwe and Jerome Carter. While those of us who have to type these names frequently are rooting hard for Carter to win the starting job opposite Adam Archuleta, the Rams' safety situation is a jumbled mess at this point.
Aeneas Williams is retiring; that much we know. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Monday that Archuleta is on schedule rehabbing a herniated disk. He's the likely starter at strong safety.
But what about free safety? Atogwe played free safety at Stanford in 2003 and 2004 but is more of a run defender. Carter is a natural strong safety. Bartell, a big cornerback, might find himself sliding over. Michael Stone, a free agent from Arizona, is listed at safety but is really a special teams gunner.
Then things get strange. Pisa Tinoisamoa is moving from Will linebacker to safety. He's fast for a linebacker, but he isn't free safety fast. He'll probably play in dime packages as a LB/DB hybrid. Meanwhile, WR Mike Furrey, caught in a numbers crunch, may move to safety. He has bulked up to 200 pounds and has been a solid tackler on special teams units in the past.
Maybe Furrey is Troy Brown Jr. But if Matt Hasselbeck reads the defense and sees Furrey covering a deep third, guess where he's gonna throw?
Next week: NFC North by Michael David Smith