The Seahawks' ability to cover New England's once-in-a-generation tight end will go a long way in determining who wins Super Bowl XLIX.
14 Apr 2006
by Bill Barnwell
For a team that didn't contend last year and doesn't appear likely to contend next year, the Bills have sure had a busy last few weeks. First, Eric Moulds was traded to the Texans for a fifth-round pick. As Aaron Schatz pointed out in the last AFC East Four Downs, the effect on the Bills' offense will not be anywhere near as drastic as some might expect; in addition, while Moulds' trade will leave $5.3 million of dead money on the Bills' cap for this year, the Bills will save $5.5 million this year by trading him. Scarily enough, Moulds' leftovers aren't even the worst mess on the Bills' cap this year; the credit for that goes to tackle Mike Williams and the $5.9 million he will be getting to not protect Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville. Williams will be replaced by former Lions tackle Aaron Gibson, who spent 2005 dealing with his weight issues by not playing football. This article includes wonderfully slighting compliments like "Currently listed at 370 pounds, Gibson looks relatively fit," as well as, "With new strength and conditioning coordinator John Allaire on the staff he's got as good a chance in Buffalo as anywhere to keep his weight under control," a statement which implies either that other teams don't have strength and conditioning coordinators, or that Buffalo's previous strength and conditioning coach would've taken him on day trips to Ying's Wings and Things. Once the article â€“ or any NFL article, really â€“ moves on to talking about how big Gibson's helmet is and how it's a problem for the equipment manager, you can feel free to move on.
How will the Bills be replacing Moulds? Their first move was to re-sign Josh Reed, who was the team's best receiver last year according to DPAR (Defensive-adjusted Points Above Replacement). Unfortunately, that still left him as the 48th best receiver in football. His DVOA (27th in the league at 9.9 percent) leaves hope that increased playing time might bring on more success, but Reed's low yards per catch don't offer significant hope for growth. Based on his career so far, Reed fits a specific slot-receiver role and his DVOA would take a dive if his role was expanded -- just like it did when he was thrown over 100 passes in 2003. His DVOA that year was -12.4 percent, then -36.8 percent when he struggled with injuries in 2004.
The receiver the Bills are really pinning their hopes on is Lee Evans. Evans has shown the ability to stretch the field and has 16 touchdowns in his short NFL career, but his DVOA last year was -3.0 percent, 56th in the NFL. While Evans is entering the mystical third year for wide receivers, it's hard to have a breakout season without a threat across the field; while Moulds' performance last year may not have matched that of his past, his reputation certainly surpasses him, which may have led to fewer safeties getting in the way of those long completions to Evans. The Bills also brought in Andre' Davis from the Patriots. That Patriots cachet provides a good enough excuse for signing him, plus he comes with an extra apostrophe and you never know when that kind of thing will come in handy.
But the Bills needed another receiver. Perhaps a little flush with their newfound cap space and a little late to the wide receiver table, they gave Peerless Price a four-year, $10 million contract. Everyone's familiar with the Price story: developed across from Moulds, had a breakout year when Drew Bledsoe arrived, and was then dealt to the Falcons for a first-round pick. Sean Salisbury wrote at the time, "This deal is a win for Atlanta because Price is a proven commodity â€¦ The Falcons are giving up a late-first-round draft choice, which doesn't guarantee anything. Only if the Bills draft a player who develops into a comparable star will they be able to approach Price's value â€¦ Price could catch 100 balls this season." Price, who was apparently not a proven commodity, caught 109 passes â€¦ in his two years with the Falcons.
The Bills used the pick to draft Willis McGahee, who, regardless of whether he was the right selection for the Bills at the time, has certainly outperformed Price in the last three years. Now, of course, we have the advantage of hindsight when looking at this -- but the Bills have the same advantage when looking at the last three years of Price's career, and they still gave him a $10 million contract. Price is a player who passed through waivers in December after he was cut by the Cowboys; he's a player who, if this were baseball, would deserve nothing more than a non-roster invitation to training camp. Without any real competition or need to give Price anything more than a one-year contract for the minimum with incentives, Price will earn $3 million this year (according to John Clayton). Now, Price received $2 million from the Cowboys in September after his release by the Falcons; last season, he had six catches in seven games. This, somehow, resulted in his receiving a $1 million raise. If there is any justification for this deal beyond the fact that Price was once an excellent receiver in Buffalo, I would ask that it be brought to my attention, and at the same time, I would like to remind Marv Levy that Andre Reed is still available on the free agent market. He was good once, too.
The other controversy surrounding Buffalo involves owner Ralph Wilson making some noise about a new owner potentially moving the team due to the NFL's new revenue sharing plan potentially preventing new ownership from partaking in said plan, a deal which works out very well if you just happen to be one of those people who already own an NFL team and get to decide on what the qualifiers for receiving money are. Although I suspect that "Owner must not be fond of Members' Only jackets" and "Owner's name must have a Scrabble score below 65" may result in some consternation, Wilson's concerns about his succession plan and the viability of the franchise have led him to enlist Senator Charles Schumer to assist in putting political pressure on the NFL to prevent the seniority of an owner to be a revenue-sharing qualifier (and, apparently, to assist in deciding which wide receiver the Bills should sign). Expect Wilson's well-placed pressure and high-pitched complaints to lead to his getting his way, selling the team to someone who will promise to keep them in Buffalo upon the building of a new stadium, and for the NFL's G-3 fund to assist in the building of a new stadium in Buffalo sometime after that.
The Bills, while adding Aaron Gibson's apparently Air Morris-sized head to their offensive line, would probably like an offensive lineman who actually got on the field in 2005 to provide some cover. You know, just in case Gibson gets tired. With D'Brickashaw Ferguson almost undoubtedly off the board by the Bills' eighth overall selection, they will likely have the option to take mammoth USC OT Winston Justice. USC has not shown a particular affinity for developing offensive linemen under Pete Carroll; the only OL who has been drafted during the Carroll era is Jacob Rogers, whom the Cowboys chose in the second round in 2004 and waived several weeks ago without his ever appearing in a regular season game. The Bills may also choose to take a defensive tackle, with many mock drafts linking them to Oregon's Haloti Ngata; however, the Bills are changing their scheme from the "Two Massive DTs and a Cloud After Lunch" Ravens-esque defense they ran with Sam Adams to a one-gap defense based upon defensive lineman penetration, and Ngata is a much better fit for the old scheme. After the addition of Larry Tripplett from the Colts in the offseason, it seems that the Bills would be better served with Justice than any of the defensive line prospects available not named Mario Williams.
The great quarterback carousel of 2006 ended up dropping off Daunte Culpepper in Miami where, you have to hope, there was a wheelchair ramp for him to get to the exit.
Culpepper was acquired from the Vikings for a second-round pick, an obviously steep fall for the second-best quarterback in football in 2004. As for the cause of said fall, and how it affects his status for Opening Day? Culpepper spoke to the media for the first time on Monday, and didn't really answer the question: "Well, me personally, that's my goal, but there really is no timeline on when I am going to be 100 percent or ready to play." He went on to say, "Right now, I am still pretty much on the ground just strengthening my legs. We have mini-camp in May. Hopefully, I'll be moving up a little more. The training staff has a plan of where we're going." Culpepper will be meeting with surgeon James Andrews later this week and should be given a timetable for returning at that point. With only Cleo Lemon currently behind Culpepper on the Dolphins' depth chart, signing a veteran free agent to back up Culpepper must be a priority for the Dolphins. One such option? Former Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler.
Once Culpepper returns, he will have a new receiving corps to throw to. Having made a fantasy stud out of Jermaine Wiggins in Minnesota, Culpepper will certainly enjoy throwing to his new tight end, Randy McMichael, who should be rejuvenated after surprisingly not exerting any effort this offseason on beating his wife. However, we don't have a significant enough sample of Culpepper's career without Randy Moss to really see how Culpepper does without Moss in the lineup. He does, however, have Chris Chambers.
Chris Chambers, for some reason, has developed a reputation that he is a elite wide receiver waiting to break out, a player held back solely by poor quarterbacks and lack of support across from him. Brandon Funston, when talking about the Culpepper trade, wrote, "First and foremost, [Culpepper] inherits one of the most talented receivers in the league in Chris Chambers, a player that can make tough, acrobatic catches in traffic and has a knack for the goal line. His skills work well in a vertical passing game and he's never played with a QB that can throw the deep ball like Culpepper. Chambers had his best fantasy season in '05, but a healthy Culpepper would make him even better. Their connection could very well be reminiscent of the hay days of Culpepper and Randy Moss in Minnesota." Let's just save ourselves the time with that last statement and talk about Chambers the player, in and of himself. There are some clear trends that we see with Chambers when we look at his DPAR and DVOA:
|Chris Chambers' FO Stats, 2001-2005|
There is no doubt that, particularly after 2003, there was a good amount of evidence pointing towards Chris Chambers' becoming a star WR; since then, though, he has basically fallen off of a cliff.
What's really interesting is the catch percentage on the right â€“ despite the dramatic variance in Chambers' play according to DPAR and DVOA, he is essentially catching the same percentage of balls regardless.
Simply put, regardless of how ugly a quarterback or how decrepit a team a WR is surrounded by, elite WRs simply catch a higher percentage of the balls thrown to them. Take a look at last year's WR numbers. Steve Smith was a one-man offensive machine for Carolina with limited, at best, help from the rest of his team, in addition to being a much more dynamic deep threat than Chambers. He caught 69 percent of the passes thrown to him. Santana Moss, in much the same vein as Smith, caught 63 percent of the passes thrown to him. Some of those were screens, of course, but that's not an issue with Hines Ward, who had almost nonexistent help from Cedrick Wilson in the regular season and was at 61 percent. And this wasn't a single-season thing; going back to 2004 and beyond, those WRs that are consistently defined as the elite of the game, or even those who are a step below them â€“ the Joe Horns of the world â€“ catch right around 60 percent or higher of the balls thrown to them. Chris Chambers has yet to have a single year like that.
The other argument is one that comes up as a criticism of DVOA â€“ that a WR's performance is inextricably linked to that of his quarterback. It is true that the players I named all had better quarterbacks last year than Gus Frerotte, who ranked 29th in the NFL in DPAR. I thought it would be useful to take a look at those WRs who are, in fact, stuck with QBs as crummy as the ones Chambers has been stuck with. I was able to get Aaron out of his book-writing bunker long enough to provide me with similarity scores for those QBs the Dolphins have used since 2002. Using this information, I'm going to take the QB whose numbers were most comparable to the Dolphins' QB that year, and then find out how his top WR fared that year, comparing him to Chambers' numbers for the same year in the process. (Since we only have catch data on the website from 2000 on, I will be dealing strictly with comparable quarterbacks from that time period.) You may notice that there's one quarterback who shares, well, a certain kinship with another.
2002 Jay Fiedler MIA: 2000 Jeff Blake NO
2003 Jay Fiedler MIA: 2002 Jeff Blake BAL
2004 Jay Fiedler MIA: 2003 Rick Mirer OAK
2004 AJ Feeley MIA: 2005 Joey Harrington DET
2005 Gus Frerotte MIA: 2004 Drew Bledsoe BUF
Here, then, we have been provided with at least some mitigating evidence that Chambers' poor catch percentage may, in fact, have something to do with his quarterbacks. But it is worth noting that Chambers' numbers have much more in common with Travis Taylor and Roy Williams than they do with Eric Moulds and Joe Horn.
Nick Saban's reputation has been built on defense, so most mock drafts anticipate the Dolphins' taking a player on that side of the ball, with safeties Donte Whitner and Jason Allen being potential replacements for Lance Schulters and the released Tebucky Jones. The Dolphins also will want to add a wide receiver at some point in the draft, with Marty Booker aging and the free agent pool running dry.
Tom Ashworth. Christian Fauria. David Givens. Willie McGinest. ADAM VINATIERI. The Patriots, clearly upset with the commercials showed ad nauseum in the New England area featuring Ashworth and Vinatieri, have simply allowed the heroes (if not necessarily the cornerstones) of Super Bowl victories past to move on to greener pastures, with little in the way of justification. And replacing them? Reche Caldwell? Tebucky Jones? M â€¦ M ... Martin Gramatica? Beat writers are putting a thousand words in on Foot Automatica? Is this what it's come to? Surely, there's got to be more.
It turns out there was more, as the Patriots announced this week that they have locked up Richard Seymour, the best defensive lineman in football, with a four-year, $30 million contract extention.
Miguel's excellent unofficial Patriots salary cap page lists the Patriots as being, currently, $83,066,354 with 68 players signed/tendered. With an adjusted cap number of $99,973,940, that leaves the Patriots right around $16.9 million under the cap. It cost the Patriots about $3 million to sign their rookies last season; with a similar group of picks right now, it seems that the Patriots would receive about the same amount to sign their rookies this year. An estimate would leave the Patriots with about $13.5 million left on the table this year, and not much left in the free agent pool to spend it on.
If we look at the cap situation for future years, though, the reasoning becomes clearer. The Patriots already have $71 million (with a projected cap of $109 million) committed to 32 players for 2007, including $11 million for Tom Brady and nearly $7 million for Roosevelt Colvin to go with $6 million for Seymour. While the Seymour contract was the one most talked about (and is now taken care of), he was just the first of several: Dan Koppen, Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, Russ Hochstein, and Dan Klecko all have contracts that expire after the upcoming season. While some of those players (particularly Graham) can be expected to leave after the season, it would behoove the Patriots to hold onto Koppen, Branch, and Samuel, all of whom will require a bump in salary along with a nice signing bonus. By keeping this money available to begin accounting for these players' signing bonuses in 2006 as opposed to 2007, the Patriots can be a player in the 2007 market when they might be hamstrung otherwise.
The only problem with that theory? Seymour's renegotiated contract, strangely enough, does not appear to be particularly front-loaded in order to try and take advantage of some of this cap room. His cap numbers appear to be, according to Miguel's page, $4,420,160 in 2006, $8,261,720 in 2007, $8,391,720 in 2008, and $11,346,720 in 2009.
Belichick and Pioli are famed for their flexibility on draft day, amassing picks and not being afraid to move up to grab the player they want. They have acquired two more picks for this year's draft, picking up a third-round pick in a deal with the Ravens last year as well as a fourth-rounder from the Lions. It should be noted that, according to the draft pick value chart, the Patriots made two trades where, even if the Ravens or Lions had won the Super Bowl the following season, the Patriots would be getting draft picks of a higher value. Funny how that works.
This year? The Patriots have some needs to fill. The aging linebacker corps desperately needs fresh blood. Looking at the Patriots' official depth chart, Mike Vrabel is currently starting at both OLB and ILB, which he may find difficult. (If this strategy works, look for the Patriots to sign unrestricted free agent Jamie Madrox.) Florida State LB Ernie Sims is a little undersized at 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, but, well, it's not as if Bruschi is going to tower over him. Everyone agrees Sims has excellent cover skills, which could come into play for a team that was ranked 26th in DVOA against passes to tight ends and 25th in DVOA against passes to running backs last year.
The Patriots also need a wide receiver, which has caused them to be linked to Ohio State WR Santonio Holmes in the first round, but the Patriots' success in finding wide receivers later in the draft seems to point toward their waiting until at least the second or third round before selecting one. One player they may seek out would be, like David Givens, a Notre Dame product: Maurice Stovall. Stovall, at 6-foot-4, would provide the tall receiver the Patriots have sought (I'm looking at you, Donald Hayes) for the last several years, and he spent his last season under the tutelage of Charlie Weis, who undoubtedly would recommend his star receiver to Belichick. Albert Breer of the MetroWest Daily News also reports that the Patriots are very high on Michigan's Jason Avant as a possible mid-round pick.
If the Jets were able to procure a time machine, they might want to use it to go back and offer their tips on evacuation procedures to the crew of the Titanic. Of course, there are other things they'd probably do on the way there. Maybe they wouldn't have given Chad Pennington all that money. Maybe they would have cut Joe Namath off after a few drinks on that infamous Sunday night game. Maybe they would have practiced defending the fake spike play. I know one thing they'd still do, though. They'd still draft Mike Nugent. I'll try and avoid beating that dead horse for the rest of this piece.
The thing is that, well, the Jets aren't really that terrible of a team. In the last Four Downs: AFC East, Aaron compared them to the 49ers and Titans, who had to release player after player to get under the salary cap. But the Jets have lost just five players this offseason: Ty Law, Kevin Mawae, John Abraham, Jason Fabini, and Chris Baker. To replace them, the Jets have added some pretty decent players: Kimo von Oelhoffen (or, alternately, Who Dey Gonna Feign Innocence), Andre Dyson, and â€¦ ok, maybe two decent players. There are some replacements on board, as well: Cornerback Justin Miller, chosen in the second round last year, improved as the year went along (as you might correctly say rookies are expected to do), while defensive end and one-time first-round pick Bryan Thomas could (theoretically) break out with playing time, much in the same way that James Farrior broke out in a system suited for his skills in Pittsburgh after languishing as a Jet.
The Jets got a solid backup quarterback when they added Patrick Ramsay from the Redskins for a draft pick. Ramsey, when not being yanked at halftime of the first game of the season, has been ranked in the lower third of NFL starting quarterbacks by DPAR and DVOA; he's an acceptable replacement QB while the Jets wait for a theoretical return to full health by Chad Pennington.
The most interesting part of the Jets' off-season will be draft day. There are sexy picks out there for the Jets to take; one would have to think, though, that trading for Ramsey and being committed to Pennington would preclude the Jets from taking a quarterback, regardless of the signals they're sending out. What it comes down to, then, is whether the Saints take Mario Williams or D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Either way, the Jets win: Williams gives them a ready-made replacement for Abraham, while Ferguson allows them to replenish an offensive line that was a dismal 30th in adjusted sack rate last year. If both Williams and Ferguson are gone, then the Jets would be in a position to trade down and allow a team the option of choosing any of the three quarterbacks they want, which may be the tastiest solution of all.
As for their second first-round pick, the Jets have been linked with Ohio State center Nick Mangold, which would be a perfect pick for a Mawae-less team. The last Ohio State center to go high in the draft was LeCharles Bentley in 2002; Mangold is even more highly-regarded than Bentley was at the time. If the Jets could add Mangold and Ferguson in the first round, the assembled throng may not offer many cheers, but they might appreciate it when Chad Pennington actually has a second or two to throw in the next couple of years.
FO intern Bill Barnwell is a senior at Northeastern University, and you can read more of his writing about sports at veteranpresence.com. The third round of Four Downs will begin after the NFL Draft.
94 comments, Last at 14 May 2006, 3:45pm by al