In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
14 Feb 2006
by Ryan Wilson
Heading into the 2005 season, the Baltimore Ravens had replaced much-maligned offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh with Jim Fassel, bolstered their decidedly weak receiving corps by signing Derrick Mason, and added cornerback Samari Rolle, giving new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan the flexibility to run the 46 defense like he was Buddy Ryan and it was 1985. Many analysts pegged the Ravens as division champs, and some even gave this team a legitimate shot to win the whole thing.
12 months and six wins later, Baltimore wrapped up its worst season since 1998, when Ted Marchibroda was the head coach and Jim Harbaugh led the team in passing. Injuries to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, along with uneven play from the offensive line, Jamal Lewis, and the quarterback position, all conspired to sink the 2005 season. When you include Brian Billick's stint on the hot seat starting around Week 8, it's really no surprise the Ravens struggled.
Jim Fassel's first order of business was to shore up the passing game, and in particular, Kyle Boller's progress. Boller missed seven games due to a toe injury, and other than two outstanding efforts late in the season against Green Bay and Minnesota, he struggled with many of the things that plagued him during his young career: poor decision making and untimely turnovers. But unlike seasons past, the running game was unable to make up for his mistakes. According to the innovative DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings from FootballOutsiders.com (click here for a further explanation), Baltimore finished last in the league in rushing, after ranking 20th in both 2003 and 2004). In 2003, Jamal Lewis rushed 387 times for 2,066 yards. The following season, because of a suspension and an injured ankle, he totaled 235 carries for 1,006 yards. Last season was his worst as a professional; Lewis finished 52nd in DPAR, behind the likes of Travis Henry and Kevan Barlow, and he was so ineffective that the Ravens might let him test the free agency waters instead of franchising him. At this point, a long-term deal seems out of the question.
If there was a bright spot, it was the addition of Derrick Mason. He finished ranked 19th in DPAR, which is about where he ranked in 2004 with Steve McNair throwing him the ball in Tennessee. By way of comparison, the highest-ranking Ravens wideout in 2004 was Kevin Johnson, who finished 69th. After an injury-plagued 2004, tight end Todd Heap also returned to form, racking up 855 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
As much progress as the offense made with Mason and Heap, it regressed just as much along offensive line. This unit gave up 42 sacks, good for just 19th in the league. Heading into free agency and the draft, finding serviceable replacements at center, right guard, and right tackle will be a priority.
The Ravens have 15 unrestricted free agents. The good news is that some of them are either well past their prime (Dale Carter and Deion Sanders) or underperformed in 2005 and aren't worth re-signing (Chad Williams, Anthony Wright, Patrick Johnson).
Baltimore may choose to let starting free safety Will Demps walk, even though he was an integral part of the secondary -- especially after Ed Reed went down with an ankle injury and missed a large part of the season recovering. It's also worth noting that Reed, one of the best safeties in the NFL, is looking for a big salary bump, even though he's under contract for one more year. The Ravens are currently in pretty good salary cap shape, but Reed's demands coupled with Ray Lewis's desire for a new deal (or, as the Baltimore Sun reported last week, a trade) could make it more difficult to re-sign players that were quite competent in Reed's and Lewis's absence: linebackers Tommy Polley and Bart Scott, as well as defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu.
There are also murmurs that Chris McAlister has worn out his welcome and Baltimore may try to trade him. This could be difficult given his prohibitive contract (just ask Charles Woodson and the Raiders about that) and the little issue that he often took plays off. Still, McAlister is one of the most physical cornerbacks in the game, and if there's a market for Terrell Owens, there is also probably a market for a player like McAlister.
After being the Ravens' quarterback of the future for the last three seasons, Kyle Boller, for the first time in his career, will face competition for the starting nod. Brian Billick has been a Boller supporter since Baltimore drafted him in 2003, but Boller will not be handed the job this off-season. Names like Daunte Culpepper, Steve McNair and Kerry Collins have been mentioned as potential targets, but the Vikings have denied they will trade Culpepper, McNair is 33 with a history of injuries, and Collins is 34 with a history of poor decision making, something Baltimore already has in abundance. A more realistic short-term option might be a player like Jon Kitna or Charlie Batch.
It's also no secret that Baltimore needs to upgrade the offensive line. Center Mike Flynn was often overmatched, right guard Keydrick Vincent was injured for parts of the season, and right tackle Orlando Brown's prime is no longer visible in his rear view mirror. (All he can see now are images of defensive ends dismantling his quarterback)
The Ravens traded up to take right tackle Adam Terry in the 2005 draft, and it's not clear if he'll be ready in time for the 2006 season. LeCharles Bentley, of the Saints, is an unrestricted free agent and is dominating at the center and guard positions. Unfortunately for Baltimore, he can't play both at the same time, and because he is one of the top offensive linemen available, he won't come cheap.
Depending on what happens with Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor, Baltimore could also be looking to replace two running backs. And with Dale Carter and Deion Sanders calling it a career, the secondary suddenly becomes very thin. Big names like Shaun Alexander, DeShaun Foster and Ahman Green are all unrestricted free agents, but re-signing Taylor and/or franchising Lewis is more economical. The Ravens may also look to restock the backfield through the draft instead of trying to shore up the running game through free agency.
This might also be the same strategy for adding depth to the defensive backfield. One intriguing name is free safety Chris Hope, whose contract is up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's coming off his rookie deal, so he's looking for a big payday, but his presence could free up Ed Reed and make him even more dangerous than he already is. Ryan Clark was adequate during his stint with the Redskins, and could provide a relatively cheap upgrade to Demps, who often struggled in coverage.
The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time ever, and had their first winning season since 1990. After starting 11-3, they were outplayed at home by a fading Bills team and then lost on the road to the Chiefs in a meaningless Week 17 contest. In the Wild Card playoff game, Cincinnati lost Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, along with its Super Bowl hopes, on its second offensive play.
Going into the 2005 season, head coach Marvin Lewis wanted to shore up the Bengals' run defense, which ranked 22nd in DVOA in 2004. The Bengals signed defensive tackle Bryan Robinson and drafted linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman with their first two picks. The good news was that the pass defense improved from 15th in 2004 to 10th in 2005, although by the end of the season, with an injury to safety Madieu Williams, teams were having more success throwing the ball than early on. The bad news was that despite upgrading three members of the front seven, the run defense slipped two spots to 24th last season.
Heading into the 2006 off-season, Lewis's plan remains the same: upgrade the run defense, bolster the pass defense, and make sure Carson Palmer has all the weapons he needs to remain one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL.
Although he's under contract, and had a solid rookie season, second-year wideout Chris Henry may not be with the team come training camp. Henry had two run-ins with the law in as many months, and depending on how the trial unfolds, his best chance to get back on the field might come with the Ron LeFlore All-Stars.
Other than Henry, the Bengals are in pretty good shape free agency-wise. Running back Rudi Johnson signed his new deal last off-season and Carson Palmer will be in Cincinnati until the end of the decade. His backup, Jon Kitna, is an unrestricted free agent, and his days in Cincinnati might be numbered. The fact that the Bengals signed perennial backup Doug Johnson, the only player to have Football Outsiders name a phenomenon after him, only reinforces the point that Kitna could be playing elsewhere in 2006.
Tight end Matt Schobel may also get a chance to test free agency. The Bengals haven't had an impact player at the position in some time, and they may look to the draft to give Palmer yet another weapon in an offense that finished sixth in the league in DVOA in 2005.
With Henry's future uncertain, the Bengals signed former Patriots wideout P.K. Sam. There is no guarantee he'll make the team, but with Kelley Washington, Tab Perry and Kevin Walters battling for the third spot, Sam will at least provide depth.
Backup defensive end Carl Powell is the only member of the defensive line whose contract is up, but don't look for the Bengals to replace him through free agency. As has been the case during Marvin Lewis's tenure, Cincinnati will use the draft to stockpile the roster, opting for long-term solutions over quick-fixes that also have the added disadvantage of potentially wrecking the salary cap.
It seems like almost every team is looking for a safety, and Cincinnati is no different. They may lose Anthony Mitchell to free agency, but they expect to have Madieu Williams, the 2005 opening day starter, ready to go by training camp. There is still the issue of who will man the other safety spot. During the playoffs, Kevin Kaesviharn and Ifeanyi Ohalete were the starters. Kaesviharn is often mistaken for Keanu Reeves, and Ohalete is best remembered as the guy who sued Clinton Portis for non-payment after he sold him his #26 jersey while with the Redskins. Both players are adequate backups but are liabilities as full-time players. Part of the reason opponents had late season success in the passing game was that Kaesviharn and Ohalete were on the field.
The Bengals could choose to go after a big name like Adam Archuleta or Corey Chavous (as Football Outsiders writer Al Bogdan wrote last week, Chavous isn't great against the run, but solid in coverage, and a very heady player), or choose a second tier player like Idrees Bashir, Ryan Clark, or Will Demps. Or, as the organization has been wont to do under Marvin Lewis, they may use the draft to fill the position.
On the surface, the 2005 version of the Cleveland Browns looked like the same hapless bunch that limped to a 4-12 record in 2004. The team DVOA for 2005 was nearly identical to that of a season ago, as the Browns finished with the 22nd passing offense and the 26th rushing offense. Only special teams improved (up from 12th in 2004 to fifth last season), thanks in part to the success of kicker Phil Dawson and the emergence of return man Joshua Cribbs.
But unlike 2004, the Browns have a plan going forward. Head coach Romeo Crennel is going into his second season, and he'll build his offense around quarterback Charlie Frye, wideout Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., and running back Reuben Droughns, who have combined to start a whopping 52 professional games in 10 seasons (and Droughns has started 38 all by himself). Cleveland will also head into 2006 with a year's experience running the 3-4, and Crennel can use free agency and the draft to stockpile players who best fit the schemes he likes to run.
Undrafted free agent Leigh Bodden was a pleasant surprise in 2005. He's a big, physical cornerback who was overlooked coming out of college because he played at tiny Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He was a restricted free agent heading into the season, but the Browns signed him to a four-year deal in October. With Gary Baxter returning from injury, Cleveland could have two of the top corners in the AFC for the foreseeable future.
Safety Chris Crocker won the starting job last season, but Sean Jones (2nd round 2004 draft) and Brodney Pool (2nd round 2005 draft) will be looking for more playing time in 2006. Both are more athletic than Crocker, but need to become more comfortable in the defense instead of relying on their athleticism.
With 2005 first round pick Braylon Edwards missing parts of the season because of injury, Antonio Bryant registered his first 1,000-yard season. Unfortunately, Bryant is an unrestricted free agent and it's not clear he'll be back in Cleveland for the 2006 season. If he leaves, the Browns will be looking at a receiving corps that includes Edwards, Dennis Northcutt and potentially Frisman Jackson as the third option. Northcutt is more effective in the slot, and occasionally suffers from the dropsies, so if the Browns can not convince Bryant to re-sign, they might have to look to free agency or the draft for his replacement.
Defensive tackle Orpheus Roye had a solid season, and the Browns will try to re-sign him. Linebacker Kenard Lang is still under contract, but his productivity has dropped off in recent seasons. His switch from defensive end to outside linebacker was a rocky one, and he saw his sack totals drop from eight in 2003 and seven in 2004 to two last season. His pass coverage ability was also questionable and Cleveland would like to get younger and more athletic at the position.
The 2002 first round pick, running back William Green, was all but invisible last season. He played in eight games, and rushed for 78 yards on 20 carries. Depending on whether Lee Suggs can stay healthy, Green might be on his way out of town, even though he's still under contract.
The Browns are in a great cap situation, but the organization may look to the draft to build their team. The defensive front seven and the offensive line could stand immediate upgrades at certain positions, but Cleveland is not likely to overpay for a stopgap if those needs can be addressed through the draft, even if that means a few steps back in the short-term in anticipation of long-term success.
Still, names like linebacker Julian Peterson and guard Stephen Neal would offer immediate upgrades to currently mediocre units. Peterson is as athletic as they come at outside linebacker, is a good edge rusher, has the ability to drop into coverage, and has experience in the 3-4. He'll also single-handedly break the bank with his next contract.
Offensively, the Browns ranked last in the league in power success (power success is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), and were 26th in the league in adjusted sack rate. Veteran Joe Andruzzi has chronic knee problems, and hasn't been as effective in recent seasons as he was early in his career. Center Jeff Faine will only be 25 years old when the season starts, but he's battled injuries during his three-year career and has missed 11 games as a result. Neal would be a welcome addition to this unit, and Crennel knows Neal very well from his days as New England's defensive coordinator.
If the Browns are unable to re-sign Bryant, they'll also need to find his replacement â€“ either within the organization or through the draft or free agency. The draft is pretty weak at the wideout position, and Crennel would love to lure Patriots' free agent David Givens to Cleveland. Givens will command more than Bryant on the free agent market, but he is also a more accomplished player.
Last fall Ben Roethlisberger said that this team might not have another 15-win campaign, but could be better than the 2004 version. The Steelers suffered a three-game losing streak during the middle of the season, finished second in the AFC North, and had to reel off four straight regular season victories just to make the playoffs. They won four more in the postseason and are now the Super Bowl champs.
The thing is, Roethlisberger was still wrong. According to DVOA, the Steelers were a more complete team in 2004 (they ranked fifth in total DVOA in 2005 and second in 2004). Of course, mitigating factors played a big role in Pittsburgh's slide -- factors such as games started by Tommy Maddox, and injuries not only to Roethlisberger but also to players like Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley, James Farrior, and Joey Porter.
Whatever the numbers might say, there is no denying that Roethlisberger was much more accomplished during his sophomore season. As a rookie, he sputtered into the playoffs and played like he was both anxious and exhausted against the Jets and Patriots. During the 2005 postseason, he was just the opposite, at least until he got his team to the Super Bowl. Interestingly, in Pro Football Prospectus 2005 we predicted Roethlisberger would be slightly less productive in 2005, and then take a big leap forward in 2006. He must not have gotten the memo.
Defensively, the emergence of strong safety Troy Polamalu allowed defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to get even more creative in his zone blitz schemes. Often overlooked among all the controlled chaos was free safety Chris Hope. Hope served as Polamalu's safety blanket, made many of the secondary calls, and allowed Polamalu more freedom to make plays near the line of scrimmage.
Because of their postseason success, several Pittsburgh free agents could land big contracts in 2006. Unfortunately for the Steelers, these contracts could be with other teams. WR/PR/QB/RB Antwaan Randle El will be at the top of a lot of team's list. Chicago is his hometown, Washington needs a #2 receiver opposite Santana Moss, and even the Patriots have been mentioned as potential suitors. Randle El is one of the best punt returners in football, but he's not a number two receiver. He ranked 75th in WR DPAR in 2005, and that was down from his 42nd place finish when he was the slot receiver the year before. Obviously, these rankings don't account for the fact that Randle El had a perfect passer rating and threw a regular season touchdown, but then again, most #2 receivers weren't prolific big-time college quarterbacks, either.
Free safety Chris Hope is one of the most underrated players at his position and is also a free agent. Defensive end Brett Keisel isn't well known outside of Pittsburgh, but he's emerged as a special player who not only excels on special teams, but on defense his size, strength, and speed create matchup problems for offensive linemen. With 35-year-old Kimo Von Oelhoffen also entering free agency, Keisel is a priority for the Steelers. Cornerback Deshea Townsend is the graybeard of the secondary, but he's still the best cover corner on the team, and it was his sack of Matt Hasselbeck that sealed the Super Bowl victory a few weeks ago.
If the Steelers lose Randle El, they will have to decide whether to re-sign Quincy Morgan or look to either free agency or the draft for his replacement. Similarly, with Jerome Bettis puttering off into the sunset, Duce Staley could serve as the minibus for 2006, but Pittsburgh will have to decide if third down back, Verron Haynes, should be re-signed for a similar role next season.
The free agent market might be too expensive for the Steelers. Without much wiggle room under the cap, Pittsburgh might look to promote from within. In 2004, Duce Staley was the big free agent signing. He missed most of last season with an injury, but at 31 years old could take over Jerome Bettis's role as the short yardage back. Last off-season, receiver Cedrick Wilson was signed to replace Plaxico Burress. With Staley and Wilson around, expect the Steelers to fill their offensive holes with in-house solutions.
Thursday: NFC North by Michael David Smith
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