Auburn is the most unlikely contender ever to reach the BCS title game, but the Tigers are also hitting top speed at the right time to defend the SEC banner in Pasadena. Plus a new top 25, the Lowsman Trophy watch and the rest from the final regular-season weekend on campus.
08 Feb 2007
by Michael David Smith
All 31 teams that didn't win the Super Bowl are disappointed, to an extent, in the way their 2006 seasons turned out. But that's particularly true in the AFC West, where each of the four teams' seasons ended badly. The Broncos lost a Week 17 game that would have sent them to the playoffs. The Chiefs lost a playoff game when the running attack everyone thought would dominate ran into a brick wall. The Chargers were the league's best team in the regular season but lost their first playoff game. The Raiders were, well, the Raiders.
Let's turn our attention to how each team will cope going forward.
Mike Shanahan took a gamble on Jay Cutler, and it fell just short. Cutler, the Broncos' rookie quarterback, became the starter late in the year after Shanahan benched Jake Plummer, and he played approximately as well as Plummer did, which is to say, badly. Still, the Broncos nearly made the playoffs, and they'll be better off in the long run with Cutler having gained some experience. Benching Plummer was the right move, and if anything, Shanahan should have made his move sooner.
Shanahan has made a number of changes on his coaching staff, adding the well-regarded Jim Bates to run the defense and the equally well-regarded Scott O'Brien to run the special teams. He also hired a new linebackers coach, Joe Baker, and a new defensive line coach, Bill Johnson.
For starters, Plummer will almost certainly be gone. Although he's still under contract to the Broncos, it makes no sense for either side to have Plummer stay. The most likely destination for Plummer would be the Houston Texans. Plummer worked with Houston coach Gary Kubiak in Denver, and the Texans are in the market for a quarterback after David Carr's struggles continued through 2006. A trade should happen before the draft.
Shanahan has said he is not going to break the bank to re-sign the team's top two free agents, defensive tackle Michael Myers and guard Cooper Carlisle. Although the offensive line would take a hit if it lost Carlisle, who has started every game the last two years, the Broncos are in good shape and will return almost all of their top players from 2006.
The death of Darrent Williams means cornerback is the team's biggest need, but the Broncos don't have the money available to sign a big-name corner. The draft might be the best way for the Broncos to improve their secondary.
There's been some speculation that the Broncos could sign Jeff Garcia as veteran insurance if Cutler struggles next year. Garcia has a wealth of experience in the offense Shanahan runs, but don't get too excited about Garcia. He had a few good games with the Eagles this season, but that followed many, many bad games with the 49ers, Browns, and Lions. It seems likely that the team that signs Garcia will end up regretting it.
The more likely scenario, though, is that as a team with very little cap space but a good deal of talent, the Broncos will focus mostly on developing the players they have and trying to make a playoff run with Cutler.
It's still hard to believe how wrong we all were about what Larry Johnson would do against the Colts' defense. The Chiefs' season ended with a first-round playoff loss, which is a fine result for Herm Edwards' first year at the helm, but the way the loss went down is hard for Chiefs fans to stomach.
By signing Tony Gonzalez to a long-term contract extension, the Chiefs kept the player they least wanted to lose. I think they paid too much for him, though. A contract with $18 million guaranteed is a lot for a tight end who turns 31 this month.
The Chiefs will probably keep either Trent Green or Damon Huard, but not both. All indications are that the Chiefs think Green is the better of the two. In my opinion, Huard is a better quarterback than Green and should have kept the starting job even after Green was healthy. I hope Huard starts somewhere in 2007; it's a shame that a talented player has had so few chances.
Defensive tackle Ryan Sims, whom the Chiefs traded up to acquire in the 2002 draft, will almost certainly be released. Sims has made about $25 million in his five seasons and was a major draft disappointment. Another disappointment, linebacker Kendrell Bell, has played badly since the Chiefs signed him as a free agent, but he might stay in Kansas City because it would cost the Chiefs more against their 2007 cap to cut him than to keep him.
Speaking of overpaid draft busts, the Chiefs brought in former Lions receiver Charles Rogers for a workout. What could possibly go wrong?
The Chiefs aren't in particularly good cap shape, and it's interesting to note that their best player, Larry Johnson, is also one of their lowest-paid. Johnson is scheduled to make just $850,000 in 2007. Somewhat surprisingly, Johnson has said publicly that he has no intention of making a stink about his contract. His predecessor, Priest Holmes, did exactly that and got a nice raise out of it, but Johnson, the son of a football coach, has always been a team-oriented guy and apparently doesn't want to make waves.
Overall, the Chiefs don't seem likely to be big players in the free-agent market.
New head coach Lane Kiffin is both the youngest and the most inexperienced head coach in the NFL. Al Davis has a knack for picking good young coaches, but Kiffin has a tougher job on his hands than the previous young coaches Davis selected, John Madden, Mike Shanahan, and Jon Gruden. Kiffin has hired Greg Knapp as his offensive coordinator, and Knapp's offense in Atlanta didn't exactly set the world on fire the last three years. The best news for Kiffin is that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be back. Ryan has done great work in Oakland, and it's strange that he hasn't been offered a head-coaching job anywhere, but it's fair to say defense will continue to be the team's strength as long as Ryan is around.
Receivers Randy Moss and Jerry Porter both seem to want out. Neither player has played anywhere near up to the level of his talent recently, and underachieving malcontents aren't exactly the types of players a new coach should want. The Raiders would be wise to grant Moss and Porter their wish.
The Raiders don't have any notable players whose contracts expire. Of course, they don't have many notable players, period.
The top priority has to be the offensive line, which was a nightmare in 2006. Bears guard Ruben Brown would be an intriguing choice. Although Brown is getting on in years, some veteran leadership is exactly what the Raiders' line needs. Then again, a lot of people thought a coach like Art Shell was exactly what the Raiders' line needed, and that didn't turn out so well.
Speedy free agent receiver Donte' Stallworth is the kind of player Al Davis likes to spend money on, and he'll be a strong possibility if Moss and Porter are gone. I think some team will overpay for Dominic Rhodes, and I could see Davis going in that direction, too.
But that's just the problem. The Raiders don't need to make a splash with a big-name skill position player, they need to beef up the offensive line, especially considering they'll want to protect the rookie quarterback they're likely to select with the first pick in the draft. Asking Kiffin to develop a quarterback behind last year's version of the Oakland line is asking him to work a miracle.
Vegas has spoken, and the Chargers are the early favorites to win Super Bowl XLII. Marty Schottenheimer and most of the team will be back, so it's easy to see why the Chargers are thinking Super Bowl. But with both coordinators becoming head coaches elsewhere, Schottenheimer may need to become more of a hands-on head coach in 2007.
Everyone is talking about restricted free agent running back Michael Turner, but I think the biggest off-season priority has to be re-signing guard Kris Dielman. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Dielman's agent and Chargers general manager A.J. Smith are "far apart in their figures," which isn't a good sign. On top of that, the Chargers seem to be floating the idea that Dielman should take less than market value for the opportunity to play on a team that has a good chance of getting to the Super Bowl. That's a sentiment that teams generally like a lot more than players and their agents do. It seems quite likely that the Chargers will be without Dielman's services next year, and that will be a loss for their offensive line.
As for Turner, he's a restricted free agent, meaning the Chargers will get draft picks as compensation if he leaves. Although the Chargers would miss him on kickoff returns, that's probably the best-case scenario for all involved. Turner is too talented a player to be stuck on the bench behind LaDainian Tomlinson, and Smith has a long track record of using his draft picks wisely.
One other player who's likely to leave is defensive back Terrence Kiel. Smith has said he considers it shameful that the Chargers have been compared to the Bengals because of a variety of off-field incidents, and Kiel's legal problems make him the type of player the Chargers don't want around.
It's amazing that such a good team has so much cap space, and it says a lot about Smith. The Chargers should use most of that money to upgrade their run defense. It's unclear whether the departure of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also means the departure of the 3-4 defense, but an intriguing possibility would be free agent defensive tackle Ian Scott of the Chicago Bears. Scott's experience is in the 4-3, but even if the Chargers keep running the 3-4, it would be interesting to see whether the Chargers could turn Scott into a 3-4 defensive end.
San Diego could use help at wide receiver, and the Rams' Kevin Curtis would be a wise investment. Generally, though, this is a team that already has the pieces it needs in place. With that kind of cap space, the Chargers ought to focus on extending the deals of their own players and looking to repeat their 2006 regular season and improve on their 2006 postseason.
Next week: NFC East by Ryan Wilson.
*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.
79 comments, Last at 28 Mar 2007, 11:59am by T