Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
28 Feb 2007
by Aaron Schatz
Last year, the Texans had a tough choice to make: either give David Carr an $8 million roster bonus, or cut him, admit their first-ever draft pick was a mistake, and start over. The Texans decided to pay the roster bonus in the hope that new head coach Gary Kubiak could tutor Carr and help him realize his potential.
One year later, that experiment seems to be over. Ignore the fact that Carr led the league with a completion percentage of 68.3 percent; that's simply a function of an offense that consisted almost entirely of short curls, quick slants, and passes to the flat. Carr finished 28th in our DVOA stats -- not bottom of the barrel, but below-average and clearly a hole in the offense.
The Texans have been talking to other teams about trading Carr, but they aren't getting many bites. Early rumors had them seeking a third-round pick, but if some team was going to give up a third-round pick for Carr, they would have done it already. For weeks now, stories out of Houston have gone back and forth. The Texans are trading Carr. The Texans are keeping Carr. The Texans are trying to trade Carr again.
In just the last week, we've had two completely contradictory reports. Adam Schefter of NFL Network says that "after watching the college quarterbacks this weekend and further assessing the potential free-agent class, the Houston Texans came away even more convinced that David Carr will be their quarterback this season." The Dayton Daily News says that Cleveland and Houston are discussing a Carr deal. (Why on earth the Browns would want that contract on their hands is another question, of course.)
The general assumption -- by general, I mean by every human being on the planet who watches professional football -- is that Carr would be replaced by Kubiak's former student Jake Plummer, who is sitting on the trading block over in Denver. So why hasn't it happened yet? Apparently, Plummer is actually considering retirement, rather than a year of defensive linemen sitting on top of him while he enjoys nine different flavors of grass and turf (not counting the preseason).
It's time for the Texans to move on at the quarterback position, and the best way to do that is without Carr. Based on last year's offensive game plan, it seems pretty clear that Kubiak has given up him, and keeping him for another years means another year of spinning the wheels and throwing more than 10 yards once a week. And it would be awkward if the former quarterback of the future has to keep the seat warm for the next quarterback of the future, be that Kevin Kolb or Drew Stanton or John Beck or whoever else the Texans feel is worth a gamble in the third or fourth round.
Actually, as of this afternoon we know three players who are definitely leaving. Today, Houston released T Zach Wiegert, DT Seth Payne and WR Eric Moulds. If the Texans were just going to get one year of reasonable but unexciting veteran performance, and then suck up some salary cap ramifications, what was the point of that trade? From what I can tell on this page, Moulds is going to take up $1.25 million of dead space on the 2007 cap.
The Texans don't have any major players facing free agency. Then again, the Texans don't have that many major players to begin with. The free agents are generally a bunch of backups and replacement-level guys, who won't make big news whether they stay or go: DE N.D. Kalu, CB Dexter McCleon, LB Wali Rainer, OT Ephraim Salaam. RB Ron Dayne is the biggest name among the free agents, but he's nothing special either. TE Mark Bruener is useful for a team that needs a blocker and doesn't mind that he doesn't catch passes.
There is one interesting name among the Houston free agents: Antwan Peek. Peek showed potential as a pass-rushing linebacker when the Texans ran a 3-4, but was completely ineffective as a defensive end when they went to the 4-3. He could be a real sleeper if one of those genius defense-minded 3-4 head coaches -- Belichick, Mangini, Phillips -- can use him in a role that fits his strengths.
Finally, Chad Stanley: the Texans punt a lot and aren't very good at it, so they might as well try someone else in 2007.
Seriously, what don't the Texans need? They have a promising young tight end but could use a second one. There's plenty of room for receiver depth behind Andre Johnson as well as cornerback depth behind Dunta Robinson. Eric Winston is going to play right tackle, Mario Williams is set at right defensive end, and the Texans rock at middle linebacker. Otherwise, every position is up for discussion.
The Texans don't need a position, they need an idea: the future. It isn't going to happen right away for this team, so they need to sign players who will still be useful if Kubiak can make a playoff run in 2008 or 2009.
It's funny how the media turns on a dime. On February 3, the Colts were a flawed team with a quarterback who couldn't win the big one. Two days later, everybody was writing "are the Colts the NFL's next dynasty" articles. Flipping channels one day, I came across ESPN's "Around the Horn" and actually heard some reporter answer the question "What are the Colts' chances of repeating" with "Not that large. I'd say 60 percent."
Did New England just drop out of the league or something? Has Baltimore decided not to play next season? Is there no chance that Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Denver will rebound? Is San Diego suddenly worse than they were a few weeks ago? (Um, don't answer that.) On top of all this, we know that a couple of teams that we don't expect will come out of nowhere, and there is always that chance that one of the teams in the minor leagues (a.k.a. the NFC) will be able to win it all.
The Colts are definitely one of the top teams in the NFL, and they certainly have a chance to repeat. But that's what we thought about the Steelers a year ago, isn't it?
Life in the NFL is fragile. Imagine if that motorcycle crash involved Dwight Freeney, not Ben Roethlisberger. Or, imagine if Tommie Harris had missed most of the season but returned for Chicago in the playoffs, while Bob Sanders had been lost for the season and the postseason in Week 13. Would Indianapolis be the World Champions right now? (Heck, imagine if Reche Caldwell could find his contact lenses.)
But while a repeat is unlikely, it is more likely now than it was a couple of weeks ago. Once upon a time, before all this dynasty talk started, conventional wisdom said that the Colts had to win it all this year, because it was time to pay the salary cap piper. The Colts have managed to push the piper back a bit by renegotiating Peyton Manning's contract and creating another $8 million in cap room for 2007. There will be ramifications eventually, but the move extends the window on winning another championship with this core group of players. It also means that nobody should be writing those "Peyton Manning is selfish because his big contract makes it impossible to pay for defensive players" articles any more.
Before we move on, a note of appreciation for John Gambadoro of the Arizona Republic, who wrote one of the few realistic postmortems on Super Bowl XLI.
Well, not Dwight Freeney. The Colts quickly stuck the franchise tag on their best free agent to make sure he stayed in Indianapolis. If he continues his postseason habit of occasionally switching up his outside spin with a rush to the inside, he'll be even more valuable in 2007.
What the rival Patriots are to wide receivers, the Colts are to linebackers: if you hit free agency, don't let the door hit you on the way out. Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington and David Thornton are past examples, and Cato June is probably next. June may be a year removed from the Pro Bowl, but it isn't that hard to find someone to blow tackles so Bob Sanders can clean up the mess and be generally awesome.
Two other linebackers are free agents, Rob Morris and Rocky Boiman. Morris was a big part of the postseason improvement against the run, but it was only a year ago that nobody wanted him, so it's hard to see him going elsewhere. Boiman is mostly a special teams guy.
Nick Harper was born to play cornerback in the "Tampa-2" system, and all those teams coached by Dungy acolytes are waiting to take him away from the real Dungy. The Colts do have depth in case Harper leaves; Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden did not play as well as Harper during the season but they sure looked fine in the Super Bowl.
The general assumption was that Dominic Rhodes was the Colts free agent most likely to return, as he fits perfectly with Joseph Addai and isn't going to be offered a number one role anywhere. Rhodes' recent legal troubles complicate things, both in terms of the Colts re-signing him and in terms of another team wanting to offer him a generous contract.
Safety Mike Doss has been rendered superfluous by Antoine Bethea, but if no other team wants him as a starter, it's reasonable to believe he might come back in a reserve role.
Also unrestricted: WR Aaron Moorehead, DT/FB Dan Klecko, KR Terrence Wilkins. There are a bunch of restricted guys but they aren't going anywhere.
That cap projection has been adjusted based on an estimate of the space Manning's reworked deal will free up, and the space that will be lost due to Freeney's franchise-tag pay raise.
As you might expect from a Super Bowl champion, the Colts don't have a lot of holes. Well, they don't have holes when Bob Sanders is healthy. The biggest need is depth on the front seven, particularly if June and/or Morris are gone.
If Rhodes leaves, they need the second half of their running back committee, and a larger-sized veteran would be a good fit. (Paging Mr. Sammy Morrisâ€¦ Mr. Morris, please pick up the white-and-blue courtesy horseshoe-shaped phoneâ€¦)
Finally, the Colts just can't trust Brandon Stokley's knees anymore. Even if the Colts decide that Dallas Clark is now permanently their slot-receiver-in-tight-end's-clothing, they still could use another wide receiver in case of injury or, god forbid, four-wide sets.
One of the advantages of a press pass at the NFL Combine is that you can ask a head coach directly why his team was so absurdly inconsistent in 2006. The answer I received from Jack Del Rio as he was signing autographs in the RCA Dome hallways? "Leadership. We need more leadership."
The first response to this answer: "Isn't the head coach supposed to be the leader?" That's what a lot of people told me when discussing Del Rio's response, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. As a stat analyst, I don't do a lot of talking about unquantifiable things like leadership, but I'm willing to venture that there is a difference between leadership from your coaches and leadership from your fellow players in the locker room.
That leads to this question: Who are the leaders of the Jacksonville Jaguars? And what were they doing in 2006 instead of leading people?
Was the leadership missing because it came from the injured players? That doesn't make much sense. The Jaguars dominated good teams and lost to bad teams with Byron Leftwich at quarterback, and they dominated good teams and lost to bad teams with David Garrard at quarterback. The Jaguars dominated good teams and lost to bad teams with Mike Peterson, and they dominated good teams and lost to bad teams without Mike Peterson. The Jaguars dominated good teams and lost to bad teams with Marcus Stroud, and they dominated good teams and lost to bad teams without Marcus Stroud.
It isn't like the leaders just went away at some point during the year and fortunes changed. If leadership is really the reason for the inconsistency, then the Jaguars will be maddeningly inconsistent again in 2007, because the team will be led by the same veterans. More likely, it has nothing to do with leadership and Del Rio is as confused as the rest of us.
Well, to start with, Byron Leftwich. Del Rio has officially designated Leftwich as the starter for 2007. That could be a move to help build Leftwich's confidence, or it might just be a move to raise his trade value. There's still a good chance of Leftwich going elsewhere in the next two months. Otherwise, the Jaguars are heading into training camp with one extremely distracting quarterback controversy. The worst-case scenario is a split locker room, like the one in Buffalo during the Johnson-Flutie years.
There's no natural replacement on the roster for free safety Deon Grant, who wants more money than the Jaguars want to pay. Otherwise, the handful of free agents are at positions with plenty of depth. With Greg Jones back to join Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, there's no need for LaBrandon Toefield. With George Wrighster and Mercedes Lewis, there's no need for Kyle Brady at this point. I was surprised to read that wide receiver Cortez Hankton still exists.
There's no official announcement yet, but the word at the Combine was that defensive end Marcellus Wiley will sign with the 33rd NFL team: The NFL Network.
Well, they definitely need help at safety, whether Grant returns or not. After two serious injuries in two years, the Jaguars need to go into the season prepared to live without Donovin Darius -- even if they probably won't have to.
Reggie Hayward has injury issues, Paul Spicer is aging, and Bobby McCray is inconsistent, so there's certainly room if the Jaguars can find a quality defensive end. Depth at linebacker would be useful, as well as a new nickel back -- Terry Cousin had an injury-plagued down season, and Jags fans are afraid of the name "Ahmad Carroll."
The offense seems set, which is actually a bit of a problem. When a team has a clear hole, that's easy to fill. But the Jacksonville offense is a mix of three kinds of players:
The one exception might be right tackle, where Maurice Williams is pretty much a stop-gap. But given the absurd contracts that will be given out to top-tier offensive linemen this off-season, does it make economic sense to replace him?
The Titans don't know what they are going to do with Pac-Man Jones, and neither do I. We all know the stories in the press about what happened in Las Vegas, and even his family is now telling the press that he's completely out of control. He's a bad guy who hangs out with bad people, and he can't learn the lesson that when you hang out with bad people, you're going to be in bad situations.
But our own Michael David Smith makes a good point here: If Pac-Man Jones has broken the law, shouldn't the Nevada legal system put him in jail?
Did Pac-Man Jones really grab a stripper by the hair and punch her in the head? If so, that's assault and battery. The proper response to assault and battery is not an NFL suspension or the unemployment line. It's prison time. If Jones is really friends with the shooter, and he told the guy to go back to the club and shoot somebody, that's conspiracy to commit murder. It isn't the job of the Tennessee Titans front office to investigate a crime, charge a defendant, and hold a trial.
Ron Higgins of the Knoxville News writes, "When are the Tennessee Titans going to wake up about cornerback 'Pacman'' Jones and smell the arrest warrant?" The answer to that question is, "When the Las Vegas police finish investigating cornerback 'Pacman' Jones and actually deliver the arrest warrant."
Many people believe the Titans need to take a stand on this pattern of behavior, even Jones has never been convicted of a crime. But why should the Titans take a stand, just so another team can pick up one of the best cornerbacks in football and claim to be "rehabilitating" him? Who decides how many "hangs out with bad people" tokens you have to collect before you lose your job?
If we're going to suspend players for a pattern of antisocial behavior, it isn't fair to force some organizations to hold to a different standard than others. If the league office wants guys like this out of the NFL, they need to step in and create a league-wide policy. Otherwise, you can't blame the Titans for staying in a holding pattern until the Las Vegas police department finishes its investigation.
Travis Henry is due an $8 million roster bonus. While the Titans are happy with Henry's performance in 2006, they aren't paying that money. If the Titans can't work out a new deal with Henry by March 5, they'll cut him and put him back on the market. Chris Brown is also a free agent and gone, meaning LenDale White could be atop the off-season depth chart.
Wide receivers Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade could both be gone. Bennett is starting to look like a one-year wonder, and after overpaying for David Givens, the Titans may not want to lay out another big contract for a guy who isn't a true standout number one receiver. Bobby Wade was the least valuable receiver in football for two years according to Football Outsiders stats, then turned into Vince Young's best buddy and finished 19th out of 82 receivers in DVOA. If he doesn't cost much, the Titans might as well bring back a guy who has a Vulcan mind-meld with their young quarterback during option routes.
Defensive tackle Robaire Smith didn't fare too well during his temporary exile in Houston, and the Titans want him back, so re-signing would work best for everyone.
Say goodbye to aging, slowing middle linebacker Peter Sirmon, who will make way for second-year linebacker Stephen Tulloch in the 2007 lineup.
To start with, a really good lawyer for Pac, and possibly a nanny.
The Titans have half of an excellent secondary. Even without Jones going to jail, the Titans could use an improvement at the other cornerback spot. The possibility of life without Jones just makes this more important. Lots of rumors have them in on Nate Clements and it would be a perfect fit, especially since the Titans have plenty of cap space. Lamont Thompson isn't that great either, so there's room for a better free safety to partner with Chris Hope.
The defensive line has basically one star, Kyle Vanden Bosch. Albert Haynesworth is useful at tackle, now that he's served his penance, but this line could easily be upgraded -- whether it is a right end to play opposite Vanden Bosch or defensive tackles to cycle in and out and stay fresh.
A lot of articles on the Titans will mention wide receiver as a need, but what kind of wide receiver is that need for? Again, the Titans have a ton of guys who could be second and third receivers, and they don't have a colossal need for another. They need a receiver who can be a star, the number one who turns into Vince Young's best target, and that guy simply is not on the market.
Four Downs will return at the end of March with a division-by-division review of free agency.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.
63 comments, Last at 07 Apr 2007, 10:15pm by Joe