The FO crew previews three games in the final week of the season with critical playoff implications: Bengals-Steelers, Lions-Packers, and Panthers-Falcons.
10 Feb 2006
by Al Bogdan
Welcome to 2006's first edition of Four Downs, FootballOutsiders.com's off-season feature series. Four Downs will take a regular look at the goings on in each division through the eyes of the Football Outsiders staff. The first set of Four Downs articles will preview the upcoming free agent signing period, looking at holes that teams need to fill and making suggestions on how they should do so.
The Cowboys started the season 7-3, looking like a lock to make the playoffs in the NFC. An injury to tackle Flozell Adams ended up weakening both ends of the offensive line. The early season success of the passing game disappeared as Drew Bledsoe found himself on his back more often than he found himself throwing long touchdown passes to Terry Glenn.
According to the innovative DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings from FootballOutsiders.com (click here for a further explanation), all three units in Dallas finished the year near the league average. Dallas had the #14 offensive DVOA, #12 in the passing offense and a lowly #22 running the ball. Defensively, the team jumped from #25 in 2004 to #14 in 2005 despite having the #20 rushing defense thanks to a pass defense that was #9 in the league. Special teams hurt Dallas, as they finished #20 according to our rankings, with the second worst field goal unit in the league.
Dallas is slightly under the cap and will need to cut some salary or restructure some veteran contracts to make moves in free agency. La'Roi Glover and Larry Allen are the most likely players to have their contracts restructured, as the two veterans count for nearly $15 million against the cap. It is also doubtful that anyone whose foot came in contact with a football in Dallas in 2005 will be back with the team, except for punter Mat McBriar who will probably have to fight for his job in training camp.
The only potential free agent that Dallas may lose who was a significant part of its 2005 season is tackle Torrin Tucker, a restricted free agent. Tucker was significant to Dallas more for what he didn't do -- block oncoming pass rushers -- than for anything positive he did on the field. Bill Parcells has indicated some affinity towards Tucker, so the Cowboys will likely tender at least a minimum offer to the restricted free agent.
Dallas needs an upgrade at tackle, but there don't look to be too many quality options available on the free agent market. The best name out there will be the Atlanta Falcons' Kevin Shaffer, who is a nice tackle but will be vastly overpaid because of the lack of free agent options and the plethora of teams who could use an upgrade at the position. A lower cost option could be Detroit tackle Jeff Backus. The Lions offensive line was a disappointment overall in 2005, but Backus would be a huge upgrade over Tucker or Rob Petitti.
The Cowboys also could use an upgrade at safety over restricted free agent Keith Davis. Ideally it would be a safety that would excel in pass coverage, to complement Roy Williams' great run stopping abilities. As Football Outsiders writer Michael David Smith has noted, unrestricted free agent Corey Chavous of the Vikings isn't that great in run support, but can still cover a receiver one on one. Next to Williams, who struggled at times against the pass this season, Chavous would strengthen the middle of Dallas' pass defense, which was the second worst in the league in defending passes to tight ends in 2005.
Place kicker is another position of need for the Cowboys, who rotated through three below-average options in 2005. The biggest name on the market will be Mike â€œidiot kickerâ€? Vanderjagt from Indianapolis, but he doesn't seem like the type of player Bill Parcells will be running out to sign. More likely, the Cowboys will bring in another group of rookies and veterans who can be had for the league minimum to compete for the honor of raising Parcells' blood pressure during field goal attempts in 2006.
Even the most ardent Giants fan didn't expect them to win the NFC East this season. That didn't erase the disappointment of a blowout loss at home in the first round of the playoffs to the Carolina Panthers. At different times during the year, the Giants were carried by exceptional passing, rushing, pass defense, run defense, and special teams. None of those exceptional units showed up against the Panthers, as the Giants were shut out at home, ending their surprising season on a sour note.
The Giants finished with the #9 offense in the NFL according to DVOA in 2005 (up from #24 in 2004), finishing with the #13 passing offense and the #7 rush offense in the league. The Giants were #11 in defense, ranking #18 in stopping the pass and #3 in stopping the run. New York's special teams were exceptional, finishing third overall according to our statistics, with only the punt return team coming in as below average.
New York has a little room under the salary cap and quite a few options if they want to get further below the number to make a big splash in free agency. Cutting left tackle Luke Petitgout would save the Giants his $4.5 million in base salary in 2006. Petitgout has been among the league leaders in penalties the past two seasons, and has health questions related to his back. The Giants also have a potential replacement for him already on the other side of the line, standout right tackle Kareem McKenzie, should they not acquire a quality left tackle through free agency or the draft. Linebacker Carlos Emmons is another likely salary cap casualty, as he's scheduled to earn $2 million next season after missing half of 2005 on because of a chest injury. Backup Reggie Torbor could step in to fill Emmons' void if the Giants don't make a bigger acquisition in free agency.
New York stands to lose as many as seven players as unrestricted free agents. The Giants are unlikely to re-sign cornerback Will Allen, who was abused by Santana Moss in Week 16 for 160 yards and three touchdowns. The Giants should attempt to re-sign defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, who was a big reason for the improvement on the interior of New York's defensive line. Clancy showed great ability at getting into the backfield to stop opposing runners, most notably in Week 13 against the Cowboys when he forced a fumble by getting to a handoff from Drew Bledsoe before the running back did. Linebacker Nick Greisen is another unrestricted free agent the Giants will look to bring back; he filled in nicely during the rash of linebacker injuries that befell New York last season.
Restricted free agent wide receiver David Tyree will likely be tendered an offer sheet, as New York brings back the best special teams gunner in football. Wide receiver/kick returner Willie Ponder is a tougher call. Ponder has been an exceptional return man, but fell out of favor with Tom Coughlin after fumbling the opening kick-off of the team's upset loss to Minnesota. The Giants should look to bring Ponder back as a return specialist, but it's more likely he'll be fielding high kicks elsewhere in 2006.
With the departure of Will Allen, and the continuing disappointment of Will Peterson, the Giants' top priority this free agent season will be cornerback. Luckily for them, there will be a plethora of quality options available to them. Charles Woodson, Sam Madison, Nate Clements, DeShea Townsend, and Ty Law are just five of the big names that will likely be on the market come March. The price to place the franchise tag on a cornerback has decreased by $3 million since last season, meaning unrestricted free agents like Woodson and Clements could be more likely to stay with their former teams. Madison and Law are most likely to be cut by the Dolphins and Jets respectively so those teams can get under the cap.
The Giants have also been rumored to be interested in San Francisco free agent linebacker Julian Peterson to play on the strong side next to Antonio Pierce. Peterson was a disappointment for the 49ers in 2005 after coming back from a torn Achilles' tendon which caused him to miss 11 games in 2004. Peterson is a step or two slower than he was before the injury but could be a fit with the Giants, who won't be relying on him to carry their linebacking corps. If he still has the speed to catch up with speedy running backs like Brian Westbrook racing towards the sidelines, Peterson would be a great addition to the second layer of New York's defense.
Philadelphia entered 2005 as the reigning NFC Champion and the prohibitive favorite to make it back to the Super Bowl. It ended with half the team on injured reserve and/or doing cell phone commercials while being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Needless to say, it was a disappointing season for Philadelphia.
DVOA says the Eagles struggled across the board. On defense, they ranked 12th overall, finishing a solid eighth in the league at stopping the run, but a paltry seventeeth defending the pass. On offense, the team dropped from #7 in 2004 to #22 in 2005, finishing at #16 in rushing offense and #24 passing the ball. By contrast, Philadelphia was in the top 10 in both categories during 2004. A similarly large drop could be found in Philadelphia's special teams ranking, which plummeted from #3 in the league according to our stats in 2004 to #17 in 2005.
The Eagles are an estimated $20 million under the salary cap including money that will be saved by the inevitable departure via trade or release of Terrell Owens. Philadelphia stands to lose three starters as unrestricted free agents, right tackle Jon Runyan, weakside linebacker Keith Adams, and defensive end N.D. Kalu. If the Eagles are to use their franchise tag on any of the three, it will most likely be Runyan. Because of Runyan's age -- 33 in November -- and the apparent lack of quality tackles on the market, Philadelphia could be interested in getting another year out of Runyan despite the approximately $7 million it will cost to franchise him. Rookie Trent Cole filled in admirably for Kalu after the veteran missed the second half of the year because of injury. Philadelphia could replace Adams with 2005 second round pick Matt McCoy. Punter Dirk Johnson is a restricted free agent and will likely be tendered an offer sheet by the Eagles.
Despite rookie wide receiver Reggie Brown's strong finish to the season (463 yards and four touchdowns over his last four games) the Eagles could use a wide receiver to somewhat make up for the departure of Owens. While they won't be able to find a wide receiver of his skills in the free agent market, there are a number of solid #2 receivers that will be available to give Donovan McNabb another dependable receiving option. Leading the candidates are two receivers that played in the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El and Seattle's Joe Jurevicius. Of the two, Randle El would be the best fit, as he would fill a need at both wide receiver and as a return man. The Eagles have had below average punt and kick return teams the past two seasons.
If Randle El is too rich for Philadelphia, a lower cost option could be Derick Armstrong from Houston. Among receivers with less than 50 receptions last season, Armstrong ranked second in DVOA. He's also caught 75 percent of the passes thrown in his direction over the past two seasons, despite having the vast majority of those passes thrown to him by David Carr.
Running back is also a big area of need for Philadelphia going into free agency. The Eagles struggled mightily moving the ball on the ground in 2005, even when Brian Westbrook was healthy. The biggest weakness of the Philadelphia running game was going up the middle. Philadelphia had the second lowest percentage of runs between the guards last year, ranking 28th in that direction according to our adjusted line yards statistic. Having just signed Westbrook to a new long-term contract last season, it is unlikely Philadelphia will look to spend a lot of money to fill their need for a power back.
One name they should consider is Washington running back Rock Cartwright. In 2003, Cartwright was one of the most productive backs in football sharing carries with Trung Canidate and Ladell Betts. Cartwright finished 11th in DVOA and 20th in DPAR, a statistic that rewards players for having more carries (further explained here), despite having Â½ to 1/3 of the carries of the runners ranked below him. With the addition of Clinton Portis and Joe Gibbs in 2004, Cartwright's playing time was drastically reduced, although he remained productive when he did play. The Rock is exactly the type of north and south runner Philadelphia needs to complement Westbrook in 2006.
Washington made an improbable run into the divisional round of the NFC playoffs after starting the season 5-6. Improbable to most, but not to loyal readers of the FoxSports.com power rankings, which had them ranked 10th in the NFL before they began their run to the playoffs.
On offense, Washington was #12 in DVOA (up from #28 in 2004), #10 in passing offense and #9 in the league when running the ball. The Redskins defense was stellar once again, ranking only behind Chicago in our overall defensive rankings, finishing seventh in the league against the pass and fourth against the run. Washington's special teams were 14th in the league, despite an exceptional year from punter Derrick Frost and his coverage team, the second best unit in the NFL according to our rankings.
When it comes to salary cap management, the Redskins are the polar opposite of their division rivals in Philadelphia. While the Eagles enter each off-season with more salary cap space than they know what to do with, Washington stumbles in millions over the cap, having to cut veterans or restructure their contracts to make up for the millions of dead money that inevitably finds its way into Washington's cap figure. Washington is reportedly $20 million over the cap, with two players â€“ linebacker Lavar Arrington and tackle Chris Samuels â€“ with cap values of over $10 million each.
Although the team does not have many potential unrestricted free agents (safety Ryan Clark being the only starter), the team could lose some familiar faces as it tries to cut at least $20 million off of its cap. The Washington Post has a nice article on Washington's salary cap situation, detailing the myriad of ways the Redskins can get under the salary cap. Some players will need to be cut (center Cory Raymer, safety Matt Bowen, kicker John Hall), others will need to restructure bonuses due them in 2006 (quarterback Mark Brunell, running back Clinton Portis, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin), and Patrick Ramsey will likely be traded, just to give Washington enough room under the cap to make some minor free agent moves.
If Washington wants to make a major free agent acquisition, it's likely that Arrington will need to restructure his contract. Cutting or trading Arrington is not a realistic option for Washington, as either will cost the Redskins $12 million in dead money. The team did spend over $9 million in cap space last year so that Laveranues Coles could play for the Jets, so that option shouldn't be ruled out.
Washington's biggest need on offense is a wide receiver to take some attention away from Santana Moss. While Moss gained 1483 yards in 2005, the rest of the wide receivers on Washington's roster combined for only 529 yards. Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne is the biggest potential free agent on the market, but Washington will need to get extra creative with its restructuring to get far enough under the cap to afford him. The aforementioned Jurevicius and Randle El are more likely targets.
Another receiver name to keep in mind is New England Patriots receiver David Givens. Last year, the Redskins tried to bring some New England magic to Virginia by signing David Patten to serve as their second receiver. Patten was a huge disappointment, gaining only 217 yards in the air on a paltry 9.9 yards per catch. Givens, however, is a better bet than Patten was last year. Givens is six years younger than Patten and has much better hands. Since 1998, Patten has caught only 48 percent of the balls thrown in his direction; Givens who has managed to haul in 58 percent of passes thrown to him in his four-year career.
The Redskins will also need to acquire some depth on their offensive line through free agency. With Raymer a likely cap casualty, and guard Ray Brown's retirement after a 20-year career, Washington will be left with no backup with any NFL experience for guards Randy Thomas and Derrick Dockery and center Casey Rabach. Veteran lineman Bob Hallen, who has started 47 games in his eight-year career with the Falcons and Chargers at both center and guard, could be a good fit in Washington. The former second round pick was unable to hold onto a starting job in either Atlanta or San Diego, but his versatility -- and likely cheap price tag -- is exactly what Washington needs to beef up its offensive line.
Tuesday: AFC North by Ryan Wilson
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