The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
27 Feb 2007
by Jeff Bathurst
Coming off a seven-win improvement to 13-3, the Ravens re-signed Brian Billick to a four-year contract extension that takes him through 2010. Billick is tied (with Andy Reid) for the third-longest tenure among NFL head coaches, but when the extension was first announced it was widely reported to be for just one year at $5.4 million. The fact that it's actually a four-year deal takes away one of the major templates for beat writers -- the coach with only one year left on his contract. I'm sure there will be plenty of other stories to write. Such as...
...the decision not to franchise Adalius Thomas, probably the highest-profile player NOT to get the franchise tag last week. He would have been guaranteed $7.2 million for 2007. With the Ravens' salary-cap woes (just $5.7 million available), it likely makes sense to trade off some of FO's No. 1-ranked defense to help out the No. 14-ranked offense, especially the No. 24 rushing offense. Except...
...that the Ravens "expect to rebound next season with virtually the same roster," according to an Associated Press article about the ascension of Rick Neuheisel to offensive coordinator. This raises the question of whether that could possibly literally be true, with Jamal Lewis' huge cap number on the books and a host of questions at running back: Backup Musa Smith is an unrestricted free agent and starting fullback Ovie Mughelli will also hit the market, and neither is expected back. Mike Anderson is the only experienced running back under contract, and he was given the ball only 39 times last season.
Lewis is due a $5 million bonus on Saturday, and the early off-season speculation was that the Ravens would simply cut him. But media reports last weekend indicated that Baltimore and Lewis were working on some kind of restructured deal. The question is, why? Lewis ranked 40th in DPAR among running backs last season, actually improving from -10.7 to 3.8 DPAR but not producing at all like the Lewis of old. If Brian Billick is still calling the plays (and he says he is), you have to think he'll look for someone else to give the ball to. Sure, Lewis has Super Bowl bona fides, but they'll be seven years old this season.
Baltimore has 10 unrestricted free agents, plus the possibility of cutting Jamal Lewis for some salary-cap room. Besides Thomas, the top Raven to hit the market will be RT Tony Pashos, who was above average this season and might be out of Baltimore's price range. Thomas is almost certainly gone, possibly to San Francisco to reunite with former Ravens defensive boss Mike Nolan. New England is also in the mix; nobody loves versatile linebackers like Bill Belichick, and the Patriots' frugal reputation doesn't necessarily match their past actions. Just ask Rosevelt Colvin.
The wild card could be Jonathan Ogden, who has said he is ready to walk away if the team is not making enough progress toward a Super Bowl. He will decide before draft time, so he likely won't "Roaf" the Ravens at the last minute. Ogden said he wants to see the Ravens bring back veteran linemen Mike Flynn (who is in decline and may be a backup) and Edwin Mulitalo (who the Baltimore Sun says might be released or asked to take a pay cut). Funny he didn't mention Pashos, who is expected to draw interest in a light market for tackles. The Ravens' O-line ranked 19th in Adjusted Line Yards, but led the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, yielding only 17 sacks on the season.
Another Raven who might go is Kyle Boller, who could draw interest from other teams as a starter, after throwing five TD passes in limited time. Baltimore is looking, and rightly so, to life after Steve McNair, but if Boller can bring them something in a trade the Ravens could settle on someone else as a backup to groom.
Since Adalius Thomas was the top non-franchise-tag story, he is of course the top who-replaces-him story in Baltimore. There has been early talk about pursuing the Colts' Cato June, but the more likely scenario is to re-sign UFA Jarret Johnson to replace Thomas and give some of Thomas' old responsibilities to Bart Scott et al.
As far as running backs go, the Ravens need to upgrade, and outside of bringing back Lewis for any important duty, they could join the Michael Turner sweepstakes, although he is a restricted free agent. Among unrestricted backs, you've got Ahman Green (16th in DVOA, 23rd in DPAR) -- probably looking for too much money -- and (perhaps) Corey Dillon (20th, 21st). Dominic Rhodes is another possibility; he would make more of a complementary back to returning Mike Anderson or Jamal Lewis.
One important move the Bengals have made is retaining quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who interviewed for the offensive coordinator's job in Carolina earlier in the off-season. San Francisco was reportedly interested in Zampese to replace Norv Turner, but Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis denied them permission to talk to Zampese, saying the Bengals were already too far into preparations for 2007 to let him go.
Zampese had previously turned down Eric Mangini and the Jets last off-season. He is credited with Jon Kitna's big year in 2003 and with helping Carson Palmer develop.
The Bengals have also made big moves so far, locking up DE Robert Geathers for as much as six years with a $14 million signing bonus after a season in which Geathers piled up 10.5 sacks, the first Cincinnati lineman to do so since Alfred Williams in 1992. Wow.
Last week, they slapped the franchise tag on the other defensive end, Justin Smith, meaning he will make $8.6 million for 2007 if he signs. "With being a franchise player comes a lot of responsibility," Marvin Lewis said. "That means you're the bell cow."
The Bengals entered the season with all five offensive linemen facing contract years, and re-signed Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, and Bobbie Williams from a group that ranked 10th in Adjusted Line Yards and 11th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Center Rich Braham retired, which leaves left guard Eric Steinbach as the likely candidate to depart.
Lewis on Steinbach: "The chances of Eric coming back are difficult. It's because he and his representation feel that they should be compensated at a certain level." With three guys on the line re-signed, and cap money needed to invest in defense, Steinbach is likely gone. He was a Pro Bowl alternate at guard, but his best spot could be tackle.
Cincinnati intends to re-sign several of a bevy of its own UFAs and RFAs. CB Tory James is probably not going to be back next season, and WR Kelley Washington will take his ball and go, well, somewhere else.
Other guys who might leave, but the Bengals would prefer they wouldn't, include TEs Reggie Kelly and Tony Stewart, S Kevin Kaesviharn, and RB Kenny Watson, who is insurance against Chris Perry's instability.
The Bengals are a little less flush with cash after re-upping with Geathers and tagging Justin Smith, and re-signing their own guys might eat up even more space.
The defensive backfield, which ranked 31st according to the NFL's stats but 28th against the pass in DVOA, needs some help, with Tory James likely gone and Johnathan Joseph probably stepping in opposite Deltha O'Neal. Nate Clements and Nick Harper are the top names available among cornerbacks, but there are also guys like David Macklin from Arizona who are out there.
Linebacker is also a question mark, with David Pollack's catastrophic injury and the unlikely return of suspended Odell Thurman. Randall Godfrey and Kawika Mitchell are among the veteran names they could look at.
And at tight end, where Kelly and Stewart are solid but unspectacular, the Bengals might consider someone like Eric Johnson, who will be bypassed by Vernon Davis in San Francisco.
The Browns won a huge victory last week by triumphing over Tampa Bay in the coin toss for the No. 3 overall draft pick. Two years ago, Cleveland selected Braylon Edwards with the third pick. He's had 93 catches in two seasons but ranked 65th in DPAR this season because he caught only 61 of 123 passes thrown his way.
"I think Braylon will respond very well this off-season. Once we have a chance to sit down, talk to him and lay out what our expectations are -- not what the media, fans or anyone else -- but what the Cleveland Browns' expectations are from him, I think we will be a step ahead of the game with him." -- Browns general manager Phil Savage on Edwards.
As for this No. 3 pick, the Browns are widely said to be considering Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, who has a long but not overly serious injury history.
The Browns are already reeling from the news that last year's free agent coup, C LeCharles Bentley, will probably miss the 2007 season, as well, as he recovers from a torn patella tendon. He will undergo surgery in May or June that may end his career, but Cleveland will keep him on the roster because of the cap hit they would take immediately.
And oft-injured Kellen Winslow underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee last month to remove scar tissue and repair cartilage. He may not be back on the field until June or July, after a season in which he caught 89 balls and was sixth among tight ends in DPAR (16th in DVOA).
With the pessimistic update on Bentley's injury, C Hank Fraley -- discarded by the Eagles before last season -- now becomes a priority to re-sign, since he is an unrestricted free agent. Interior lineman Lennie Friedman is also a valuable backup the team wants back.
RG Cosey Coleman and RDE Alvin McKinley are almost certainly gone as the 4-12 Browns look to upgrade. WR Dennis Northcutt's prowess as a punt returner can't mask his deficiencies as a pass-catcher, so he is likely to leave as well.
FS Brian Russell, the nominal leader of a secondary that performed about at league average, will be allowed to leave as well. The Browns have promising youngsters Brodney Pool and Sean Jones to cover the safety spots.
The Browns have never used a franchise or transition tag on one of their free agents, and this certainly isn't the year to be setting that precedent.
At offensive tackle, Ryan Tucker had his problems last year, so signing a lineman such as the Ravens' Tony Pashos or the Bengals' Eric Steinbach would bolster the line. Being able to move Kevin Shaffer to right tackle if need be is a plus.
Quarterback: Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson are expected to contend for the top job in training camp, but after a season in which they teamed up for 15 TDs and 25 INTs, plus each ranked 40th or lower in DPAR, bringing in some sort of competent presence would seem to be in order. Pie in the sky: Damon Huard, who could step right in (although at 33, he wouldn't be around for too long). High in the sky: Jeff Garcia. Been there. If all else fails? A guy like Tim Rattay, perhaps (third in DVOA in limited time in Tampa Bay).
At defensive end, Orpheus Roye was troubled by injury, Alvin McKinley won't be re-signed, and more help would free up hot rookie Kamerion Wimbley (11 sacks) even more. Jared Allen is looking for his freedom in Kansas City and is requesting a trade, but his character issues (and the Chiefs' lack of interest in letting him go) might keep him there.
After struggling through his third NFL season, Ben Roethlisberger is probably the key to any turnaround for the Mike Tomlin-led Steelers. Former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (now the Arizona Cardinals head coach) told the reporters gathered in Indianapolis this weekend (including two of FO's own) that the after-effects of the QB's horrific motorcycle accident, together with his emergency appendectomy on the eve of the season, consipired to make the quarterback apprehensive last season.
"When we started the season, even in training camp, it didn't seem like it would have an effect," Whisenhunt said. "But, at the end, and when you look at it again, I am convinced it did. Not because of his health, he is a tough kid and he did a good job coming back and being prepared. But from the standpoint of being in the pocket and facing the rush, certainly there was some trauma with him that maybe we all underestimated, and I think it took him longer to get over that than we all thought."
According to the newspaper, it is the first time someone from the Steelers' staff last season acknowledged that Roethlisberger was affected on the field from his injuries off of it. Various reports indicate that Tomlin will have to "light a fire" under Roethlisberger or "crack the whip" to make him work harder, which seems to be a recurring theme. If true, that could be worrisome.
A closer look at last season shows that maybe it wasn't that bad. Roethlisberger threw for 18 TDs and 23 INTs, for a passer rating of 75.4. But he also had to throw 174 more passes than he did in his rookie year and 201 more than in 2005. According to FO's stats, Big Ben ranked 14th in DPAR and 15th in DVOA -- not great, since he was third in DVOA the last two seasons, but not a season-killer, either.
Joey Porter, perhaps? The Steelers have a bunch of unrestricted free agents, none of whom were starters, and right tackle Max Starks is a restricted free agent. But Porter is drawing more scrutiny than the rest of them. He is due a $1 million bonus on March 6, and with Mike Tomlin likely transitioning into a 4-3 defense as the 2007 season progresses, Porter may be the odd man out. The outside linebacker, who turns 30 in March, is due $4 million for the upcoming season. Tomlin's cryptic comments? "I have no thoughts on that regard," Tomlin said. "I talked to Joey just like I talk to every other player. He's under contract. He's a Pittsburgh Steeler."
Center Jeff Hartings has already retired, giving the Steelers a little salary-cap space. The Steelers will give Starks some kind of free-agent tender, meaning they will get a first- or second-round pick in return if he signs elsewhere.
Running back Najeh Davenport, who became the backup to Willie Parker, might draw some interest around the league.
And in general, no one should feel safe: "We were an 8-8 team," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "For us to think we can stand pat and be any better than that, I think would be naive on our part."
With not much to work with, but no starters to replace, the Steelers can work to improve their depth at outside linebacker or on the defensive line in advance of the eventual shift a 4-3 defense. Among veterans, the top linebackers available -- Adalius Thomas, Cato June -- are likely out of range, which leaves guys like Na'il Diggs.
Another place of weakness is at wide receiver, where by traditional stats there seems to be a big dropoff after Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. But third WR Nate Washington nearly matched Ward in DPAR last season and had a much higher DVOA. Still, adding a guy like Dallas' Patrick Crayton would allow the Steelers to take advantage of new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' plans for more four-wideout sets.
As far as the "Jerome Bettis" role to complement Willie Parker, T.J. Duckett has been mentioned as a possibility, should Najeh Davenport go elsewhere.
Next: AFC South by Aaron Schatz.
FO thanks Jeff Bathurst, a former copy editor at the sports desk of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for helping us out with Four Downs this off-season.
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