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?
15 Mar 2006
by Ryan Wilson
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: AFC North? You'll find it here.
In seasons past, the Baltimore Ravens were relatively quiet during the early stages of free agency, instead opting to re-sign players or build their roster through the draft. Last year was a little different; the Ravens addressed two areas of need very early in the process when they signed wide receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle. Even though the 2006 free agency period is not even a week old, this time around will be different for the Ravens too.
In the first 48 hours, the Ravens lost defensive linemen Maake Kemoeatu and Anthony Weaver, running back Chester Taylor, and punter Dave Zastudil -- all players Baltimore was interested in re-signing. At first glance, Kemoeatu's five-year, $23 million deal ($8 million signing bonus) with the Panthers seemed overreaching, until the Ravens signed Trevor Pryce to a five-year, $25 million contract that included $10 million in guaranteed money. Kemoeatu is 27 years old, 350 pounds, and entering the prime of his career. Pryce is 30, has battled back problems (he only played in two games in 2004), and even though he's been to the Pro Bowl, his last visit to Hawaii was in 2002.
Granted, Kemoeatu and Pryce play different positions, but part of what made Ray Lewis so successful during the early 2000's were players like Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams occupying blockers while Lewis flew to the ball. As it stands, the Ravens' depth chart reads like this at defensive tackle: Kelly Gregg, Dwan Edwards, Aubrayo Franklin and Justin Bannan. Gregg has the most experience -- 58 starts in four seasons -- and is a solid player. Edwards and Franklin have one start between them in two seasons, and Bannan, the former backup to Sam Adams in Buffalo, was just signed this week to provide depth. As things currently stand, the Ravens might draft a defensive lineman with their first round pick, ideally a player who could step in and start immediately.
A few weeks ago it seemed just as likely that the Ravens would draft a running back early on Day One. Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor were both unrestricted free agents, and Lewis and the organization were still not close on a contract. Last Saturday the Vikings signed Taylor and Lewis was scheduled to visit the Broncos. It was conceivable that Baltimore could lose its top two backs from a season ago and might give serious consideration to using an early round pick to draft a replacement. Instead, the Ravens nabbed Mike Anderson and re-signed Lewis, and as a result the running back position isn't an immediate priority. And here, "immediate" means "this season." Although Anderson sported a 37.0 DPAR (click here for further explanation of Football Outsiders' innovative statistics) last season (ranking eighth in the league), he's 32, and no one will soon confuse Baltimore's offensive line with Denver's. According to the Baltimore Sun, Lewis' deal pays him $6 million this season but contains a $5 million bonus due next March, which means in twelve months the Ravens will have to again decide if Lewis worth keeping.
With Mike Anderson and Jamal Lewis now under contract, the Ravens can focus on more pressing needs. It was mentioned above, but it bears repeating: after Kelly Gregg, there is a gaping hole at defensive tackle. And that probably doesn't make Ray Lewis very happy. After losing Kemoeatu to the Panthers and losing out on 38-year-old (and 365 pounds of) Ted Washington to the Browns, the Ravens' best chance to find an impact player will come on April 29. Oregon's Haloti Ngata is considered the best defensive tackle in the draft, but he probably won't make it to the Ravens who have the 13th pick. However, Florida State's Broderick Bunkley and Michigan's Gabe Watson should be available. Bunkley often draws double-teams and excels against both the rush and the pass. He also benched 225 pounds 44 times at the Combine last month. Watson had a great Senior Bowl but some scouts question his work ethic. LSU's Claude Wroten was highly rated coming into the season, but off-the-field issues have caused his stock to drop. If the Ravens want to address other needs in the first round, Wroten may be available later in Day One.
The Ravens' offensive line ranked 28th in adjusted line yards and allowed 42 sacks in 2005. Jonathan Ogden was drafted ten years ago, but he's still a top-5 left tackle. Last year, the Ravens traded up to grab right tackle Adam Terry with the last pick of the second round, so there is depth at that position too. However, the interior line struggled last season and could use an upgrade. The Ravens drafted center Jason Brown a year ago and he may get a chance to earn the job over incumbent Mike Flynn. Left guard Edwin Mulitalo has battled injuries and could be destined for the bench. Oklahoma's Davin Joseph, USC's Taitusi Lutui, and Pittsburgh's Chris Spencer are all players who could step into starting roles as rookies and could be around when Baltimore selects in round two.
Because the Ravens chose not to re-sign safety Will Demps, shoring up the defensive backfield will also be a priority. This year's safety class is pretty deep, relatively young, and very athletic. Texas' Michael Huff is widely considered the best safety available, a probable top-10 pick, and some scouts even suggest he could be a very good cornerback in the NFL. He may well be off the board when the Ravens select, but if he fell to 13th they would jump at the chance to have a secondary that included Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Samari Rolle and Michael Huff. South Carolina's Ko Simpson, USC's Darnell Bing and Nebraska's Daniel Bullocks are all physical, athletic safeties who could be first-day picks.
A year ago the Bengals used free agency to re-sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson, as well as add depth along the defensive line. So far this free agency the Bengals have signed safety Dexter Jackson. That's it. Thanks to Rich Gannon impersonating Neil O'Donnell, Jackson was the Super Bowl MVP with Tampa Bay and parlayed that into a Larry Brown-esque big off-season contract. After a stint with the Cardinals and a second go-round with the Bucs, Jackson will fill an obvious need for the Bengals: improving their run defense. Last season, Cincinnati was without safeties Madieu Williams (out for 12 games) and Kim Herring (out for the year), and Ifeanyi Ohalete and Kevin Kaesviharn struggled in their absence. Herring and Kaesviharn could provide depth, but Ohalete, who's perhaps best remembered for suing Clinton Portis over the rights to #26 while with the Redskins, probably won't be back.
Another interesting storyline involves Kevin Walter (that's right, Kevin Walter the fourth string wideout and special teamer). According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Houston has offered Walter a four-year $6.4 million contract. As a restricted free agent, Cincinnati tendered Walter at the lowest level -- $712,000 -- which means the team would earn a 7th round pick if the Bengals chose not to match the offer. What makes this intriguing is that Cincinnati's number three receiver when the season ended, Chris Henry, is currently facing legal troubles and it's not clear if he'll be back with the team. Second-year player Tab Perry had a very productive rookie season, but he was mostly used as a return specialist.
The Bengals are also in the market for a backup quarterback. Jon Kitna is now in Detroit, and barring a Matt Millenism, he will not be back. There are rumors that Cincinnati has expressed interest in Tommy Maddox, but the team hasn't invited him to town, while former St. Louis backup Jamie Martin met with officials this week. Gus Frerotte and Brian Griese are also seeking work and would provide Cincinnati a veteran backup with starting experience. If the Bengals are unable to sign anyone, here's a scary thought: Doug Johnson and Craig Krenzel will battle for the number two job when training camp rolls around. And because Carson Palmer's return is still uncertain, it could be a battle for the number one job for at least a handful of regular season games.
Last year in this space it was suggested that the Bengals should address their defensive line woes in the first round. And that's what happened when they selected defensive end David Pollack with the 17th overall pick. Pollack ended up moving to outside linebacker where he had a solid rookie season, but the defensive line still proved to be a liability. In 2005, the defense ranked 28th in stuffs and 29th in adjusted line yards. With Justin Smith and Robert Geathers at defensive end, the Bengals will look to the draft to bolster the defensive tackle position. Depending on how things play out in front of them, Cincinnati could wait until the second or third round to take a player, especially since there is depth at the position and they are also in the market for a tight end. Miami's Orien Harris, Texas's Rodrique Wright, and N.C. State's John McCargo are all players who can contribute immediately and are expected to be available after the first round.
Tight end Matt Schobel signed with the Eagles, and the Bengals would like to add another offensive weapon with his replacement. Vernon Davis is the best tight end in the draft, but Cincinnati has a better chance of hosting a Super Bowl than finding Davis available when they pick. There are other interesting options, however. UCLA's Marcedes Lewis is 6'7" and even though he doesn't time well, he creates obvious match up problems. Georgia's Leonard Pope is an inch taller than Lewis, and also faster. Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein was a virtual unknown before Senior Bowl Week, but he impressed scouts with his speed, size, and ability to catch the ball in traffic.
Even though Dexter Jackson solves the short-term issues at the strong safety position, he is an eight-year veteran who is on the downside of his career. That could require Cincinnati to use a mid-round pick to groom his replacement.
Twelve months ago head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage made a splash in free agency when they signed guards Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman, cornerback Gary Baxter, and defensive tackle Jason Fisk and traded for quarterback Trent Dilfer, in an effort to make the Browns more competitive in the AFC North. Cleveland finished 2005 with six wins -- two better than the year before -- but still had much room to improve on both sides of the ball.
In an effort to do just that, the Browns signed arguably the best available center/guard (LeCharles Bentley), an offensive tackle (Kevin Shaffer) a solid number two receiver (Joe Jurevicius), a 365-pound nose tackle (Ted Washington), a three-time Super Bowl champion pass-rusher (Willie McGinest), and a good punter (Dave Zastudil). If last year's free agent class was Craig Ehlo, the 2006 version is Larry Nance.
After signing his six-year, $36 million deal, Bentley proclaimed, "I can die happy now ... This has been my dream." It's still not clear if the Ohio native was referring to playing in his home state or if he was just glad to be out of New Orleans. Either way, he will be a difference-maker for the Browns. Bentley may play guard for the foreseeable future, since 2003 first round pick Jeff Faine is effective when fully healthy.
Joe Jurevicius isn't the first name most people think of when talking about quality wideouts, but he sported a 20.7 DPAR in 2005, caught 65% of the passes thrown his way, and had 55 receptions for 694 yards and 10 touchdowns. Antonio Bryant, whom the Browns chose not to re-sign (and who has since inked a deal with the 49ers) ranked lower than Jurevicius in DPAR (18.9), catch percentage (56%) and touchdowns (4). Jurevicius is also more of a prototypical possession receiver than Bryant, who was interested in being the number one guy.
Casual observers (or Butch Davis) often overlook special teams, which explains how Derrick Frost won the punting job in 2004. In one memorable moment, he single-handedly willed his team to defeat in a Sunday night match up against the Ravens when he launched a seven-yard punt deep in Browns territory. Kyle Richardson was certainly an upgrade a season ago, but he wasn't good enough for Cleveland to bring back. As has become habit, the Browns raided the Ravens roster and snapped up Dave Zastudil as his replacement.
During the Combine, Phil Savage admitted in an interview with the NFL Network that the Browns would take defensive tackle Haloti Ngata with the 12th pick if he was available. Savage also added that there was no way Ngata would last that long, so he felt quite comfortable acknowledging as much. So barring a minor miracle, Cleveland will look to improve their defense without Ngata. The Browns signed 10-year veteran nose tackle Jason Fisk last off-season, but he was often overmatched and has since been released. Ted Washington is the short-term solution, but like the Ravens, Cleveland could use a first round pick to add a player to provide quality depth this year and be a full-time starter in 2007.
With the addition of Washington, another option would be to draft a linebacker. This draft is full of fast, athletic, hard-hitting linebackers, and even though Ohio State's A.J. Hawk should be gone by the 12th pick, Iowa's Chad Greenway, should be available. N.C. State's Mario Williams is the top defensive end in the draft -- and will certainly be off the board when Cleveland picks -- but his college teammate Manny Lawson impressed scouts during off-season workouts. He's projected to be an outside linebacker in the NFL, and he would fit nicely into Crennel's 3-4 scheme.
Cleveland has depth at safety but could look to add a cornerback. Gary Baxter is returning from injury, and nickel back Daylon McCutcheon is entering his eight season. Despite having Braylon Edwards, Dennis Northcutt and Joe Jurevicius, the Browns might draft a wide receiver on Day Two because Edwards is coming back from knee surgery, Northcutt has been inconsistent during his career, and Jurevicius will be 31 when the season starts.
Here's what I wrote a year ago:
"You get the impression that the Pittsburgh Steelers run their organization like it was a Mom & Pop ice cream stand located on the boardwalk. It's open during the busy season, but boarded up once all the tourists head for home. Now that the 2004 season is in the books, you're all but certain that Cowher turned out the lights at their South Side facility on his way to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl..."
Just replace "2004" with "2005" and "Hawaii for the Pro Bowl" with "watch his daughters play high school basketball," and everything else holds. In recent years the Steelers have been notorious for their inertness during free agency. In 2004, Duce Staley was their big catch; in 2005, they outdid themselves by signing Cedrick Wilson. In 2006? To date it's safety Ryan Clark, who was also known as, "the guy who plays back there with Sean Taylor," during his time with the Washington Redskins.
Like most off-seasons, Pittsburgh is content to watch teams spend like drunken sailors during the first few days of free agency -- even if that includes letting their own players walk -- and then sifting through the leftovers once the dust settles. For the second time in as many years, the Steelers have lost their number two receiver. Instead of franchising Plaxico Burress after the 2004 season, the Steelers let him eventually sign with the New York Giants, and now Antwaan Randle El is the newest member of the Redskins. (Check that. They just signed Adam Archuleta. And Andre Carter. And Todd Collins. Well, he was the newest member for a couple of hours, anyway.)
The Steelers will look to sign many of their free agents -- at least those with reasonable contract demands -- before looking elsewhere for depth. Charlie Batch has a new deal that will keep him in Pittsburgh for four years. The organization has also re-signed special teams captain Clint Kriewaldt, backup tight end Jerame Tuman, and Brett Keisel, who will replace Kimo Von Oelhoffen -- who just signed with the New York Jets -- at defensive end.
Pittsburgh also had discussions with safety Chris Hope's agent about a new contract, but Hope turned down their offer and is now with the Tennessee Titans. Heading into free agency, Hope was expecting a big payday, but he didn't even have any visits scheduled while Corey Chavous, Marquand Manuel, Archuleta, Marlon McCree, and Dexter Jackson all signed lucrative deals with their new teams.
Pittsburgh could go any number of ways in the draft. Ryan Clark will replace Chris Hope at free safety, which means the Steelers could use their first round pick on a linebacker like Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter. Even with Clark under contract, Pittsburgh may still draft a safety for the future. Ohio State's Donte Whitner and USC's Darnell Bing are two players that interest the Steelers, and Whitner has the best chance of being a first round selection because he's athletic enough to play cornerback. Syracuse's Anthony Smith and Georgia's Greg Blue are two players who may be available on Day Two.
Depending on how things unfold ahead of them, Pittsburgh might also take a wide receiver with the 32nd pick. It is unlikely that either Ohio State's Santonio Holmes or Florida's Chad Jackson will be available, but University of Miami's Sinorice Moss intrigues some scouts. Given that the Steelers haven't drafted a player from "The U" since they took Leon Searcy in 1992, this move seems doubtful. Other names to watch for on Day 1: Martin Nance is 6'4" and played with Ben Roethlisberger at Miami University; Pittsburgh's Greg Lee is also tall, has good hands, but is not a deep threat; Michigan's Jason Avant might be the most polished receiver in the draft and could be a very good number two receiver in the NFL. And with the departure of Randle El, the Steelers' playbook loses an entire section titled, "Trickeration." There are several players -- probably Day Two picks -- who could fill that role, however: Penn State's Michael Robinson, Missouri's Brad Smith and Texas A&M's Reggie McNeal. All three were college quarterbacks, and all three are hesitant to move to other positions in the NFL.
Next week: NFC East by Al Bogdan
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