Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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19 Feb 2008

Four Downs: AFC North

by Stuart Fraser

Baltimore Ravens

Stark Raven Mad

It's safe to say that the 2007 season didn't exactly go to plan in Baltimore. Age, injuries, and the regression of the defense created a 5-11 season which got offensive genius head coach Brian Billick fired. After Jason Garrett chose to stay in Dallas, the Ravens plumped for former Philly secondary coach John Harbaugh. It's easy to say that Harbaugh, who has never been a head coach or a non-special teams coordinator at any level, lacks experience. In a year when none of the "hot" head coaching candidates seemed to want a job, the men who finally did get hired inevitably looked somewhat lightweight.

If Harbaugh lacks experience, his staff certainly doesn't. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan returns and adds an assistant head coach's hat, and Cam Cameron, whilst a failure as head coach in Miami, has a solid pedigree when it comes to merely running the offense. The attack that Cameron ran in San Diego looks like a reasonable fit in Baltimore, provided tight end Todd Heap makes a full recovery from a torn hamstring. The (mostly) young offensive line will benefit from more time together and could well be one of the league's better units moving forward.

Whether or not the Ravens will find anybody worth putting behind it is another matter. Willis McGahee ran all over the Patriots but was less impressive the other 15 weeks of the year. Steve McNair appears to be over the hill, and Kyle Boller is still trying to figure out where the hill is located. There's insufficient evidence to pass judgment on former Ohio State star Troy Smith, but two "nos" and a "maybe" aren't really what you want on your roster at the most important position.

Defensively, Baltimore were mostly solid, but had a glaring weakness against No. 2 receivers –- mostly the fault of All-KCW cornerback Corey Ivy, who was forced into the starting lineup due to injuries to Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. Both will return next season, but both are also now the wrong side of 30 and must be considered at least minor question marks going forward. Otherwise, with a talented –- and mostly young -- front seven, plus a couple of good safeties, Baltimore doesn't have too many worries on defense.

Who Could Leave?

Terrell Suggs is the biggest name on the list of prospective Baltimore free agents, but Ravens' general manager Ozzie Newsome has indicated that he'll place the franchise tag on the linebacker if a longer deal can't be worked out. The cap hit for a franchised linebacker is a shade more than $8 million, which the Ravens are believed to just about have available after converting Todd Heap's 2008 salary into a signing bonus. Aging left tackle Jonathan Ogden has a cap value greater than $11 million, and the Ravens might well want to take a look at his contract, assuming he returns at all. If he doesn't return –- and he told the Baltimore Sun he was "leaning towards not coming back" –- then that would get the Ravens off the hook for his $7.4 million salary, greatly helping with their cap issues. Of course, it would also mean they'd have a Pro Bowl tackle-shaped hole to fill.

Steve McNair will probably be asked to take a pay cut, given that he is being paid like a starting quarterback and is no longer putting in that level of performance. The Ravens have Kyle Boller to fill their requirement for a replacement-level passer, and he costs substantially less. If Baltimore decides to draft a quarterback, McNair could be gone altogether.

Who Should They Sign?

(42 players under contract, $5 million under the cap prior to restructuring Todd Heap)

The Ravens have never been huge players in free agency and they're tight against the cap, so any signings are likely to be minor. They've been linked with a trade for Donovan McNabb, but Newsome has denied interest and the Eagles don't seem especially keen to send their quarterback on his way either. The Ravens would probably have to give up at least their first-round pick (No. 8 overall) to get McNabb, an unlikely move for an organization which has never given up more than a third-rounder in trade. Even then, McNabb's contract as structured probably wouldn't allow the Ravens to fit under the salary cap. All in all, it's pretty much a non-starter. As this column goes to press (or whatever you call Internet publication) it's being reported that another Eagle -- cornerback Lito Sheppard -- has been given permission to seek a trade. Given that the former Philly defensive backs coach is now head man in Baltimore, and that the Ravens could do with an upgrade at cornerback, this is a more likely proposition than McNabb, but it still isn't very probable.

Ed. note: The Eagles are denying these trade rumors, according to The Philadelphia Daily News.

The Ravens' other major area of need is offensive tackle (Ogden will retire soon, if not immediately) but they are more like to address this through the draft.

Cincinnati Bengals

Is There a Linebacker in the House?

The good news for the Bengals, I suppose, was that over the course of the season their fans stopped complaining about their team's off-field "performances" and started complaining about the on-field ones, which represents progress of a sort. The bad news ... well, where do we start?

The secondary was probably the worst unit. Young cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph showed serious growing pains, they still have plenty of promise. Veteran Deltha O'Neal is slowing down but remains a serviceable nickelback. This unit ought to be better in 2008 without any serious upgrade -- though cynics may point out that as it was ranked No. 31, it could hardly get worse. In defense of the secondary, they received very little help from a pass rush that ranked a distant 32nd in adjusted sack rate. Given the inexperience of Cincinnati's cornerbacks, it was asking far too much of them to compensate for the inadequacies of the pass rush.

It's somewhat harder to evaluate the Bengals' linebackers, because most of them spent as much time in the treatment room as on the field. Injuries this year reached the point that defensive end Robert Geathers was converted into an emergency linebacker. Dhani Jones, having been discarded by both the Eagles the Saints, was grabbed off waivers and ended up starting nine games and recording 89 tackles. The possible reinstatement of Odell Thurman and return from injury of Ahmad Brooks will certainly strengthen this unit. On the other hand, Thurman has been out of the game for two years, and Brooks still has a lot to learn, so it's questionable just how much of an upgrade they will provide.

Offensively, Rudi Johnson's heavy workload finally caught up with him, rendering him inactive for six games and ineffective for the rest. Backup Kenny Watson performed more than respectably in his absence; ranking fifth in success rate, 10th in DPAR, and 15th in DVOA is nothing to sniff at. It's unknown whether or not Watson can carry a feature back's load for an entire season, but the Bengals still have Johnson and DeDe Dorsey around for a change of pace.

Unsurprisingly Cincinnati's best feature remains its passing game. Though some observers thought quarterback Carson Palmer struggled on occasions, the Bengals' pair of superstar receivers remained as dependable as ever, and showed every sign of remaining the team's best weapons hereafter. Wait, why are you all looking at me that way?

Who Could Leave?

Rumor has it that Chad Johnson might be unhappy and possibly seeking a trade. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, assured the Cincinnati Enquirer that any negotiations would be conducted "professionally and privately," so presumably Ocho Cinco only gets to work out in his back yard for the time being. There would be an $8 million cap hit associated with trading the disgruntled wideout, and that, plus the fact that he's the best receiver on their team and that Marvin Lewis has indicated he expects No. 85 to return, might be reason enough to think that no trade is going to happen. The Bengals do have the cap room to absorb the hit any trade would cause, but I'm sure they could think of better things to do with it (Hint: Defense). The team currently linked with Johnson is the Washington Redskins (no, I don't know how his contract fits under their cap either). Star players, though, frequently defy all logic.

In terms of slightly lesser names, defensive end Justin Smith will be a free agent after being franchise-tagged last year. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is reportedly a fan (LeBeau drafted Smith when the former was head coach of the Bengals), and Pittsburgh is probably looking to strengthen their defensive line, but Smith, a 4-3 end, would have to make the transition to different responsibilities in Pittsburgh's 3-4. Also entering free agency are linebackers Dhani Jones, LeMar Marshall, Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller, of whom the Bengals would probably like to keep at least Johnson and one (maybe both) of Jones and Marshall. Safety Madieu Williams is another starter who could well be gone, as he's potentially the best free agent at his position.

Guard/tackle Stacy Andrews, who started 14 games and performed admirably filling in for the injured Willie Anderson at right tackle, would also have been a free agent had the Bengals not used the franchise tag on him. Andrews has a total of 17 career starts, which may make him the least experienced franchise player in league history. (Andrews had so little experience before 2007 that we put him tenth on the PFP 2007 "Top 25 Prospects" list of promising young lower-round players.) He will be 27 in June, so it's likely the Bengals will attempt to negotiate a longer deal with a player just entering his prime. The franchise number for offensive linemen ($7.45 million) is an awful lot for a backup, so Andrews' tagging may indicate that Cincinnati is less than confident about the return of either Anderson or Levi Jones, who struggled all season with a knee injury. It's a curious decision from a team that already has a lot of money tied up in its offensive line (Anderson's is one of the five salaries that are averaged together to make the tag number), but if the Bengals think of Andrews as the successor to Willie Anderson, he comes cheap at any price.

Who Should They Sign?

(48 players under contract, $31.45 million under the cap)

The Bengals have lots of cap space, but they also have several potential free agents of their own they might want to re-sign. After inking maybe a couple of linebackers and Andrews, Cincinnati will probably only have enough room remaining for one (possibly two) major free-agent or a couple of lesser ones. If we assume the Bengals succeed in locking up all of the free agents they want to keep, and if we give a pass to last year's linebackers (for being injured) and cornerbacks (for being young), then the team should look to upgrade at defensive line, safety (especially if Williams leaves), and potentially tight end; Reggie Kelly isn't awful, but you'd forgive Carson Palmer casting envious eyes at his division rivals who have Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow and Heath Miller.

The Bengals seriously need to upgrade the pass rush and might well make a run at Jared Allen if he were to hit free agency, but that seems unlikely. Titans Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy would be alternatives if the Bengals intend to pursue a free-agent defensive end. Cincy might also consider an offer for former Falcon Alge Crumpler or Indianapolis's Ben Utecht, though assuming their three main receivers return for 2008 an upgrade at tight end would be something of a luxury. Smoke signals coming from the Bengals indicate the team is more likely to address that position in the draft.

Cleveland Browns

Won in the Trenches

Browns general manager Phil Savage has been trying to remake the Cleveland offensive line for some time (witness the money dumped into acquiring LeCharles Bentley and Kevin Shaffer), but with the signing of Eric Steinbach and the drafting of Joe Thomas, he finally seems to have managed it. The line's improvement from 31st in Adjusted Line Yards and 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2006 to third and fifth respectively in 2007 was the catalyst for the Browns' surprising re-emergence as a contender in the AFC North -- and it saved the jobs of both Savage and coach Romeo Crennel.

After Crennel gave up on Charlie Frye (following 14 dropbacks, four completed passes, five sacks, and an interception), Derek Anderson took up residence under center to keep things ticking until Brady Quinn was ready -- or so we assumed at the time. Ten wins and 65.3 DPAR from Anderson later, the Browns have a real quarterback controversy on their hands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anderson's breakout season was mirrored by his top wideout, Braylon Edwards, previously thought to be heading directly to bust territory. Jamal Lewis surprised many -- myself included -- by proving himself an effective running back once again, and tight end Kellen Winslow proved he's one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in the NFL when healthy.

The defense, unfortunately, was much the same -– 22nd last year, 21st in 2006. Cornerback Leigh Bodden, an FO favorite, regressed somewhat, leaving the coverage worse overall; Kamerion Wimbley racked up fewer sacks but Robaire Smith picked up much of the slack, leaving the pass rush at about its prior level -- which is bad, because they finished 29th in Adjusted Sack Rate. So the pass defense was worse; conversely, the run defense was slightly better. All of that might have been expected, as the team made few defensive adjustments heading into 2007. It was broadly the same unit, with no huge changes in scheme or personnel. Having fixed the offense, Savage and Crennel should turn to extracting more performance on the other side of the ball.

Who Could Leave?

Cleveland's ongoing quarterback controversy makes it possible that the team will listen to trade offers for either Anderson or Quinn, though public statements from the Browns have been that they're intending to keep both quarterbacks for at least next year and are working on a new deal for the former. Anderson is a restricted free agent, and the Browns are likely to tender him at the highest level ($2.562 million), meaning any team which wanted him would have to part with first- and third-round picks, assuming the Browns declined to match their offer sheet. It's unclear as to whether any team is this desperate for a quarterback, but it seems unlikely at the moment. Contract discussions with Anderson are unlikely to make much progress because Cleveland seem to be unwilling to commit to him over Quinn as their quarterback of the future by giving him a five- or six-year contract.

After receiving a one-year "prove it" contract last year and subsequently proving it, Jamal Lewis will probably be looking for something more substantial this time. He's reported to be seeking at least a three-year contract, which the Browns aren't interested in giving him. As well they shouldn't; Lewis was basically an average running back (1.9% DVOA) who got a lot of yards because he had a lot of carries. Average running backs are not a tremendously scarce or valuable commodity in the NFL, so it wouldn't be surprising if Lewis played elsewhere next year. The Browns also have the usual mixture of career backups who will hit free agency, including nickelback Daven Holly. Some of these they will doubtless re-sign, others they will replace.

Who Should They Sign?

(42 players under contract, $30.31 million under the cap)

The Browns are one of ten teams with more than $30 million of cap space, and absent a new contract for Anderson (or possibly Winslow, who is making noises about a new deal but is unlikely to get one), are relatively unlikely to use very much of it on their own players. Given his approach to rebuilding the offensive personnel, it's likely that Savage would like to strengthen the defensive line in free agency. Unfortunately, there aren't terribly many players available who'd be a good fit in Cleveland's 3-4. A 280-pound 4-3 end such as the Titans' Antwan Odom or the Bengals' Justin Smith might be able to make the transition to 3-4 end, but there's no obvious pickups along the line for a 3-4 team. Linebackers are in slightly more plentiful supply, though Arizona have taken one of the best off the market by franchising Karlos Dansby. Cleveland might make an offer to Pittsburgh's Clark Haggans, whom the Steelers aren't likely to bring back. Of course, New England also has history in rejuvenating discarded Pittsburgh 'backers. I don't think that Cleveland will show any interest in Zach Thomas given that the Browns are a predominantly young team and Thomas doesn't seem worth changing that for. (Haggans is three years younger than Thomas, which might make him more attractive.) It's possible that the Browns could enter the Asante Samuel sweepstakes, but going after high-priced corners doesn't seem like this front office's style. The Browns are certainly interested, but I'd be surprised if they were the highest bidder. Cleveland don't have a first-round pick in this year's draft (it was traded to Dallas as part of the deal for the pick that landed Brady Quinn, which I'm sure seemed necessary at the time), so free agent acquisitions are likely to be more important than usual here.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Decline and Fall

The second-half disintegration of the Pittsburgh Steelers was quietly lost in the shuffle while the media covered New England's quest for 19-0 and Tony Romo's quest for nookie. In Weeks 1-9 the Steelers had a DVOA of 40.3%; in Weeks 10-17 they were at -1.1%. That drop is the greatest between two halves of a season in DVOA history. Confusing the issue is the fact that they weren't entirely alone; five of the seven largest such declines happened last year.

Top 10 DVOA Declines in Second Half, 1996-2007
Year Team W-L DVOA 1-9 DVOA 10-17 Change
2007 PIT 10-6 40.3% -1.1% -41.3%
2007 IND 13-3 56.3% 21.1% -35.1%
2001 PHI 11-5 35.9% 1.0% -34.9%
2007 NE 16-0 64.0% 30.0% -33.9%
2007 DAL 13-3 40.8% 8.6% -32.2%
1996 DAL 10-6 32.9% 2.2% -30.7%
2007 TEN 10-6 25.5% -4.5% -30.0%
2002 SF 10-6 31.4% 4.3% -27.1%
1996 DEN 13-3 42.6% 16.6% -25.9%
2002 GB 12-4 23.6% -0.4% -24.0%

What happened? The Steelers were relatively fortunate with injuries in the first half of the season, and that caught up with them later. The loss of safety Ryan Clark and defensive end Aaron Smith showed the Steelers' lack of defensive depth at positions not named "linebacker," and a series of injuries along an already weak offensive line disrupted pass protection to the point where one is almost surprised to find them as high as 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate. Willie Parker was already suffering from overuse before breaking his leg against the Rams, with the long runs that made up for his inconsistency almost absent (his longest gain in 2007 was 32; Parker has had at least one carry of more than 50 yards in each of his other three seasons).

After writing the last two paragraphs, I feel I should point out that Pittsburgh did in fact win their division and came within a fourth-down conversion of winning a playoff game as well. The team has an excellent young quarterback, good starters at almost every position on defense, a leading receiver who is either coming off or on the verge of a breakout season depending on how you define "breakout," and a tight end who excels at both catching and blocking. The passing offense has blossomed in spite of breakdowns in protection, though a disturbingly large proportion of its biggest plays came off near-sacks kept alive by Ben Roethlisberger's sheer athleticism. (You could spot the Steelers fans at your Super Bowl party because they were the ones saying "Hey, he's turned into Ben Roethsliberger!" after Manning-to-Tyree.) Though this play-making ability is spectacular, it isn't exactly conducive to a long career, especially given that Roethlisberger has already missed several games through injury. It's true that he frequently makes the Pittsburgh offensive line look worse than it really is by holding on to the ball too long; conversely, most of those broken plays-turned-big plays would never have happened if he had thrown the ball away like a sensible quarterback. Saying O-line has to be Pittsburgh's off-season priority may be the least controversial statement I will ever make on Football Outsiders.

Who Could Leave?

Unfortunately for a team that desperately needs to upgrade its offensive line, the biggest loss is likely to be guard Alan Faneca. Faneca might have declined slightly from his dominant best, but he's still Pittsburgh's best lineman and he's been jealously eyeing the humongous contracts given out to what he doubtless sees as lesser guards for some time. The Steelers are unwilling to give a long-term contract to a player who will be 32 by the time the next season starts. Strangely, the franchise tag hasn't been mentioned at all in connection with Faneca, though it would seem a logical option for a team that wants to keep him around for a year or two without getting stuck with a big contract for a fading player. The Pittsburgh front office has said they'll make one final shot at resigning Faneca before free agency starts, but nobody is holding out much hope that Faneca will be back in black and gold next year.

Much the same can be said for backup offensive tackle Max Starks. Starks had some good games towards the end of the year (mostly on the Heinz Field mud, which somewhat negated his usual difficulties in dealing with speed rushers) in relief of the injured Marvel Smith. Those games will probably convince some team to give him a shot at starting in a year when free agent pickings for linemen are very slim. Another departure along the offensive line might be All-KCW center Sean Mahan, though in this case we may be talking about addition by subtraction. Outside linebacker Clark Haggans is also a free agent, and after the Steelers spent first- and second-round draft picks on linebackers last year, it's unlikely they'll make much of an attempt to keep him. Third receiver Nate Washington is a restricted free agent; it'll be interesting to see at what level the Steelers tender him. Washington has had a DVOA around 20 percent for the last two years and is clearly effective, but he has frustratingly poor hands and has made little of several starting opportunities caused by injuries to Ward or Holmes.

Who Should They Sign?

(43 players under contract, $18.61 million under the cap)

Most reports have the Steelers' first off-season priority as extending Ben Roethlisberger, and given how highly their offense depends on him, that's not a bad place to start. Roethlisberger is unlikely to come cheap, with market value probably exceeding Tony Romo's six-year, $67 million deal. An extension for Roethlisberger could eat up more than half of Pittsburgh's available cap space ,so the Steelers, as ever, are unlikely to be major players in free agency. In previous years, the Steelers have usually signed one free agent of note (Cedrick Wilson, Ryan Clark, Sean Mahan) and a few minimum-salary guys, a pattern that could well continue. Who will that one guy be this year? Pittsburgh have been linked with Bengals defensive end Justin Smith, but Smith isn't a two-gap end and doesn't have an immediate place in Dick LeBeau's defense. A Bengal they might be more interested in is safety Madieu Williams -- and if Pittsburgh go hard after him, that's a sign that we shouldn't expect much from Ryan Clark next season. It's unlikely Pittsburgh would go after either Jake Scott or Ryan Lilja, who are both somewhat lighter than the typical Steeler guard; then again, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, with his preference for spread formations, might prefer this. I could continue listing all the offensive line free agents in the NFL, and those of you with well-developed senses of irony might enjoy the thought of Sean Locklear in black and gold, but I think the idea is communicated. Pittsburgh should look to sign a lineman.

*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.

Posted by: Stuart Fraser on 19 Feb 2008

64 comments, Last at 23 Feb 2008, 10:19pm by Scott

Comments

1
by OldEurope Joe (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 2:48pm

first and Faneca to NE

2
by JasonK (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 2:57pm

Nice work Stuart.

What's the schedule on these articles, by the way? It looks like the AFC (with the South, West, and North in the books) has now lapped the NFC (South only). Is it just a matter of when the respective authors finish them?

3
by Richie (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:05pm

Plumped?

4
by Formersd (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:25pm

Re #1, NE's interior line is a strength. Given that fact, I'd be surprised to see Faneca move to NE...

5
by justanothersteve (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:29pm

1 - Why would Faneca go to NE? He's got a SB ring and there's at least a half-dozen teams willing to pay him significantly more $$$ than NE would pay. This might come as a surprise to those living east of the Housatonic River, but not every player is willing to play for less just to be a Patriot. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't see it happening.

6
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:38pm

Can't the Bengals require that Johnson repay the portion of his signing bonus that is still on their books as a condition of any trade? Obviously, that lowers his trade value to any other team (they'll have to negotiate a new contract with Johnson), but I think Johnson is going to want a new deal anyway. The Browns did something similar with Ross Verba (he repaid some bonus money as a condition of his release) and the Bears did something similar in trading for Archuletta.

If they can't do this, it's hard for me to imagine the Bengals trading Johnson anytime soon.

The Bengals seem to employ the franchise tag in unusual ways. Smith last year was a little surprising given that he's not really an elite player but tagging Andrews this year is a real head scratcher. That guy should break speed records signing that contract. Not a bad player, but 'franchise'?

7
by JoshuaPerry (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:47pm

Who EVER signed for less to stay with New England?[Seau unretired, Bruschi wasn't a FA, Brady got 14M/yr] Not to mention that they're coming off the worst loss in the history of the NFL.

8
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:50pm

The Steelers declining performance a the end of last year (and their tough schedule in 2008) make them an interesting team to watch next year. Their injuries last year aren't the sort that would really account for the decline. I wouldn't be surprised to see them take a step back next year.

9
by Charger Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:53pm

To the FO Staff:

LOVE these articles. Question- why didn't the AFC West Four Downs include Number of Players Under Contract like this one? Very cool feature.

10
by Richie (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 3:59pm

#7, didn't Randy Moss take a paycut?

11
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:02pm

Supposedly Rosie Colvin had a better contract to sign with the Lions before going to New England...

12
by Drunkmonkey (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:04pm

I would think that the Steelers would look to replace Anthony Smith over Ryan Clark. Smith is an over-achieving safety with a big mouth. Clark at least pulls his weight on special teams.

13
by Sergio (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:11pm

re:1

Thank you. We don't have enough threads about NE as it is.

I think the biggest dropoff in this division should belong to Pittsburgh, since apparently their entire OL sucks and will continue sucking. Still, I can't see anyone else winning the division next season... perhaps Baltimore?

14
by dryheat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:18pm

Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi Ty Warren and Troy Brown(well below-market extensions)

15
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:34pm

Re: 13

Unless the Ravens do something at QB, I can't see them escaping the bottom of the division. I wouldn't be surprised if they took another shot at spending a high draft pick on a QB, but this is a team getting old at a few key positions and not much cap room to get well quickly.

16
by Dr. Mooch (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:36pm

This article reads like it was written by a Brit.

17
by Charger Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:56pm

RE 13 and 15:

I agree that Baltimore will struggle - with that anemic offense and aging defense they look like a .500 team next year. PIT has a brutal schedule and issues on OLine and in the secondary. Cleveland needs defense but is fairly stout offensively, and if CIN can put 4 healthy LBs and a healthy RB on the field the offense could carry them. This is a rough year for the AFCN tho - they play the AFCW and NFCE. 10-6 should win this division.

18
by Luz (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 4:59pm

#8

I don't think I'd be so quick to write off injuries as the reason for the Steelers decline. Once Aaron Smith went down the run defense completely and utterly collapsed. Casey Hampton and Smith are great run stoppers, the other end Kiesel not so much. Once they threw their old and light backup DE Kirschke (who they just re-signed?!), it was all over. A 3 man line with two weak ends is not going to overpower a decent offensive line.

Ryan Clark for Anthony Smith resulted in a lot more broken deep coverages.

Parker gets bashed a lot but he is certainly better than Davenport in the starting role. Parker's "inconsistency" in my opinion, is often code for "has a crappy interior line."

And finally, an injury that wasn't mentioned in the article: Santonio Holmes. He missed several games in the second half of the season with the dreaded high ankle sprain and looked like he was playing injured after he came back. I think the Steelers really missed his speed as a deep threat and it allowed teams to really bunch up the mid range part of the field where Ward roams and also allowed them to play the run more tightly (no deep threat WR, no home run hitting RB).

The Steelers are just an average O-line away from serious Superbowl contention.

19
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 5:00pm

#16,

It was. You say that like it's a bad thing.

This is a hard division to read. Every team has real issues, and the best-looking team (Pittsburgh) has a brutal schedule. As for the Free-agent class, I'd like Miami to make a run at Madieu Williams; they could use a competent safety, (and many other things besides).

20
by Formersd (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 5:10pm

Actually the AFCN plays the AFCS this year, which is even worse for the AFCN. Every team in this division play 8 teams from their cross-division games against teams that were .500 or better. That's just crazy, look for the AFCN champ to be the #4 seed again...

21
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 5:20pm

14: That list is a load of rubbish, most of those players left chump change (at most) on the table. NE were bright enough to spot that HGHarrison and Moss were undervalued by the rest of the league but neither took pay cuts, no-one was going to pay them more. The only Patriot that genuinely took less cash was Bruschi.

Can we please put a stop to any more talk about the Pats (again!) on a thread that's clearly concerned with the AFC North, it's crap like this that keeps the 'Pats-bias' stuff alive and gives fuel to anti-Pats feelings.

22
by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 6:24pm

As a Steelers fan I really liked your part on the Steelers.
And yes, I did say "wow he's pulling of a Roethlisberger" on the Manning-Tyree pass.

23
by daddymag (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 6:26pm

That really, really was a hell of a long way to go to say "Pittsburgh needs O Line". At least two, maybe three. And with the schedule, Ben might end up dead this time.

24
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:09pm

Newsome has apparently followed through and officially franchised Suggs. Underreported benefit of being a 3-4 team: cheaper to franchise your key pass rushers because the OLB tag amount is cheaper than the DE tag amount? I know it's only like $900k, per the wire reports on Suggs and Allen, but it is cap savings!

25
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:11pm

I'm not sure what to expect from the Ravens next year. As 2006 showed, when they get above average QB play they are an elite team. When their best CBs and pass rusher are injured they can get lit up.

The more certain aspects: they can stuff run and with their young developing O-line they should be able to run the ball (last year it was decimated by injuries). But unfortunately the less important aspects of defense/offense are what the Ravens excel at. Also, their special teams should be good given Harbaugh's background.

If Chris McCalister can play somewhere between his 06 and 07 levels, he'll still be better than most. CB2 is still a huge need, I don't think Rolle is going to make the roster.

Another pass rusher is badly needed: once Pryce went down nobody demanded a double team to take away protection from Suggs. Its possible Antawn Barnes can develop into a legit threat, but more pass rushing depth is crucial.

I wouldn't write off their offense as "anemic" with Cam Cameron coming in, this guy is one of the best OCs out there. I'll still contend that the Ravens have a fair bit of talent on the offensive side of the ball (aside from QB, of course), I'm excited to see what Cam can do with it.

Which brings us to the QB question. If Ryan is available at 8 they'll nab him, but he probably won't be. I'd like what I saw from Troy Smith, but I'm not ready to hand the offense over to him. We all know Boller is a good backup QB and not a good starting QB. McNair might be able to play again but certainly can't make it through another season. But unless a QB falls to their lap in one of the later rounds I can't see the Ravens making any drastic moves.

The more I think about it, their season probably hinges on Troy Smith. If he's legit, so will be the Ravens.

I don't see any team in the North running away this year, I agree 10 wins might do it.

26
by doktarr (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:30pm

The parallels between Anderson/Quinn and Brees/Rivers are extremely strong, right down to the draft-day trade to acquire a David Lewin forecast darling. Will this situation end up the same way? Time will tell, but my money is on yes. Except I don't expect Anderson to be quite as effective as Brees has been in his next stop, and I don't expect Quinn to suddenly become a huge jerk like Rivers.

27
by Sergio (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:35pm

re:23

Perhaps he feels the less internal organs, the more aerodynamic he'll be. An apendix here, a spleen there... it's not like it's unheard of. Anyway, just wait 'till he rids himself of that pesky large intestine. *Then* watch out.

28
by Charger Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:41pm

RE: Cam Cameron - not sure he's "one of the best OCs out there" - we Bolts fans were happy to be rid of him after his playcalling in the 06 loss to the Pats in the playoffs - 6 touches for the entire 2nd half??

29
by Charger Jeff (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 7:42pm

whoa, excuse me ...

6 touches for LT I mean ... and it was 07 ... otherwise it was another brilliant post!

30
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 8:07pm

re: 28

SD offensive DVOA:

2004 - 19.0%
2005 - 18.1%
2006 - 24.4%
2007 - 4.8%

Maybe Cam left you with a bad taste in your mouth, but SDs offense was vastly superior under Cam compared to Norv with pretty much the same roster. If you want to judge him by his play calling in one half of a football game opposed to 5 years of coordinating that is up to you.

31
by Black'n'gold Boner (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 8:31pm

As a fellow Steelers die-hard, I still don't get this reputation that Nate Washington has concerning "bad hands". I haven't seen him drop much, and watching the past couple pre-seasons/regular seasons, I've seen him make some ridiculous diving/contorted catches that even Hines wouldn't have been able to make. Plus, Ike Taylor thinks he's the fastest and quickest receiver on the team without a doubt.

If anyone can provide and back up any insight on this, I'd love to hear it.

32
by RickD (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 9:12pm

re: 21

I've never understood a comment along the lines of "I'm going to talk about X but could people please stop talking about X!"

33
by Jimmy (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 9:32pm

#32

Never been annoyed in your life then?

Why you must be a picture of serenity.

34
by ToastPatterson (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 9:35pm

re: # 26 "I don’t expect Quinn to suddenly become a huge jerk."

Sounds like Quinn already is a huge jerk:

Cleveland Browns' Brady Quinn Accused of Shouting Homophobic Insults

http://sports.aol.com/fanhouse/2008/02/13/cleveland-browns-brady-quinn-a...

35
by Dwight Stone (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 10:37pm

Re: 31

As someone who watches the Steelers regularly, I feel that you are both exactly right and exactly wrong about Washington. He does tend to make some amazing catches, but (and this is a big but) he also has a maddening tendency to drop "easy" catches. By easy I mean "wide-open-no-one-around-for 5-yards-I'm-gonna-walk-in-to-the-endzone"
type. Of course I made a career out of being a blazing fast receiver that dropped a ton of passes. So it is a bit of a Steeler tradition.

36
by Scott (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 10:42pm

In 2006 Nate Washington dropped easy TD catches against Baltimore (game they were shut out 27-0) and Cincinnati (game they lost by 8 and needed that score in). Pretty sure there were some other ones too. He can make some nice plays but he's not reliable.

37
by rk (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 10:58pm

#19: It doesn't make a lot of sense to cite Pittsburgh's schedule as a reason from keeping them from winning the division. Every team plays the same non-division schedule except 2 games, and the Steelers should have the easiest in-division schedule.

38
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 11:07pm

Every team plays the same non-division schedule except 2 games

This is the difference between facing the Patriots and Chargers and facing the Dolphins and Raiders (for the Ravens).

If the Ravens were to somehow (I dunno, Troy Smith becomes an above-average quarterback in the offseason) become an average team, those two games might push them up into the 10-win territory.

Yeah, it is only two games, but 4 divisions last year were won by 2 games or less.

39
by Black\'n\'gold Boner (not verified) :: Tue, 02/19/2008 - 11:37pm

Re 35/36:

To me, you could replace those descriptions with Hines Ward in recent seasons (take off the homer glasses and I know you'll agree...also, anyone still remember Hines goofing a ball off his chest and kicking it 50 feet in the air for an easy Baltimore INT? yeah..), except for the part about being blazingly fast. I dunno, I just don't think the typical pessimistic Stiller fan gives Nate the Great much of a chance.

While we're on it, am I the only one who thinks letting go of Hines Ward would help Big Ben and the passing game mature. I wish they didn't NEED to, but the only time Ben seems to actually progress through his receivers is when #86 is on the sidelines. He has a nasty habit of staring down and throwing to Ward in double coverage while Holmes/Washington is wide open deep; watching a game live at Heinz Field only confirmed this long-held hypothesis.

40
by Rex (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:00am

Since we all agree that DVOA is merely reflective of past performance, why do we continue to insinuate it has any predictive value? Who cares if Pittsburgs DVOA dropped? As I recall, the Giants had a horrible second half of '06. They beat the pants off the greatest team ever the following year. As Mr Belichik says "Thats in the past now. We're focusing on next year"

41
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:45am

re: 38

What makes you think Troy Smith isn't already an above average QB? :)

42
by Dwight Stone (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:58am

I think it isn't so much that Roethlisberger locks on to Ward, simply that he doesn't trust anyone else to get that crucial third down. A ton of passes go to other receivers on 1st and 2nd down, but on 3rd down...it is eyes for Hines only time. Hopefully Holmes development this year can help alleviate this problem somewhat. Because it does get painful to watch sometimes. Also can anyone give a good answer to the following question:

"Why does Heath Miller not get targeted 8-12 times a game?"

43
by Black\\\'n\\\'gold Boner (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 1:05am

Re 42:

I think it's because Bill Cowher is secretly running the offense still.

I went to UVa while Heath played and that boy catches EVERYTHING thrown at him. And he rooms with Ben supposedly, so your question is even more perplexing. You'd think they'd have their own language or something by now and he'd be getting 30 balls a game

44
by Dwight Stone (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 1:09am

Re 43

I look at Witten in Dallas and then I look at Miller and I don't see a vastly different skill set. Oh well, I am getting ready for another season of screaming at the TV for them to force-feed Miller the ball over the middle. Glad to see I am not the only one who gets confused by this.

45
by TomC (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 1:16am

Going forward, I never again want to hear the phrase "going forward."

46
by Ryan Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 4:06am

I think Witten is considerably faster than Miller. I dont mean this as a knock at all towards Miller, but to compare the two I would definitely have to say that Witten is far more of a vertical threat.

47
by Scott (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 4:41am

Hines Ward has been dropping the ball more lately. Or at least the magnitude of his drops are large enough to be really noticeable.

Holmes is the best WR on this roster and that may have even been true in 2006.

48
by Mystyc (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 5:48am

#42: Because he has to stay in and block. He's the only tight end they've got who does it well, and God knows they needed the help.

49
by TTP (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 9:38am

42: Unlike most Steeler fans, I don't think that Miller is an under "utilized superstar" that Whiz/Arians and Roethlisberger choose to ignore. He's just not fast or athletic enough to get open at will like the other star TEs in the league. He's a solid, effecient player but a notch below those guys, IMO.

50
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 10:56am

Ten wins won the AFC north in 2007. Prospects look more difficult next year.

Re: 18

If the Smith brothers (Aaron and Anthony) are really that valuable to the Steelers, they are grossly underpaid. These guys are solid starters, but they're not the sort of difference makers that should cause a team to decline that much (unless the team has done a horrible job with their back-ups). Parker's injury happened so late in the season that I don't think it had much effect on the overall second half of the season decline. Holmes numbers when he came back after injury weren't that much different that his numbers from earlier in the year.

What I'm really saying is that injuries happen to every team. Unless those injuries are either overwhelming in number (not really the case here) or hit 'star' players (like Ben in 2006) I don't think teams should be expected to improve much by avoiding them. There will be injuries next year too.

Re: 40

That's certainly a fair point, and I don't think anyone is saying the Steelers are certain to do more poorly in 2008, just that it seems possible/likely.

Also, interestingly, the 2006 Giants don't show up on the list for worst declines.

51
by charles (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:04pm

RE 44:

Aaron, you should email Dwight Stone and ask him if he's willing to write for the site - he may have a lot of insights that aren't typically shared by your average big-name former NFLer.

52
by R. Magill (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:48pm

No one has mentioned how Polamalu was injured for a big chunk of the season. He is a difference maker on their defense given all that he can do. Their defense loses quite a bit when he's replaced by Tyrone Carter.

53
by mrh (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 12:50pm

Re 42 - “Why does Heath Miller not get targeted 8-12 times a game?”

Taking the middle of that range would be 160 targets in a season.

Since 2002, the TE leader in targets has had 127, 112, 147, 141, 119, and 153. (unoffical stat source)

Throwing Heath Miller the ball that many times implies he's at the Tony Gonzalez/Kellen Winslow/Antonio Gates level. I'd agree that he seems under-utilized. But I think about 6 targets per game (~100/yr) would be a better use-rate.

That would be an improvement on his 52, 55, 60 career target numbers.

I suspect the answer is that Miller might be suited for 3rd down passes to move the chains and Ward already fills that role.

54
by dryheat (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 1:48pm

#21 Karl,

You're just flat-out wrong (unless you take pay-cut in the strictest literal sense), but you're right, this isn't the place to discuss. IF you'd like we can revisit in the AFC East thread.

55
by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 1:58pm

54, Dryheat: Well I think I'm flat out right but it's better discussed elsewhere.

56
by GlennW (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 4:18pm

> What I’m really saying is that injuries happen to every team.

I agree that injuries weren't the biggest problem with the Steelers in the second half of the season. They simply didn't continue to play well after feasting early on the weakest part of their schedule (I know that in theory DVOA should account for the strength of opponent, but in this case I think the matchups made a difference-- and the Steelers didn't stand up well against their toughest opponents, NE and JAC). Throw in a couple bad weather games (MIA and CIN at home), and this made the difference. No good explanation for the loss to the Jets, though.

57
by Tom D (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 7:24pm

Re 53:

Here's the top five TEs in targets this past year (according to FO, which is baseed of the NFL play-by-play): 154, 148, 141, 117, 110. Then you have Miller at 60. That's basically equal to Greg Olsen, who was probably only on the field for 1/3 of the Bear's offensive plays. Surely Miller could be targeting 80-100 times a season which is 5-6 targets a games instead of the 3-4 he is getting now.

58
by ZasZ (not verified) :: Wed, 02/20/2008 - 9:32pm

#54, #55:

Although I must applaud your great civility, all I could think of when I read your comments was:

Did they just ask each other to step outside?

And then I couldn't help but think of this (see link):

"I am not a looney! Why should I be tied with the epithet looney merely because I have a pet halibut? I've heard tell that Sir Gerald Nabardo has a pet prawn called Simon and you wouldn't call him a looney; furthermore, Dawn Pailthorpe, the lady show-jumper, had a clam, called Stafford, after the late Chancellor, Allan Bullock has two pikes, both called Chris, and Marcel Proust had an haddock! So, if you're calling the author of 'A la recherche du temps perdu' a looney, I shall have to ask you to step outside!"

59
by bengt (not verified) :: Thu, 02/21/2008 - 5:06am

#50: #18 got it the wrong way around: Anthony Smith for Ryan Clark resulted in a lot more broken deep coverages. And Anthony Smith is now at a point were he is mentioned in the same sentence with 'addition by subtraction'. There have been theories that the second Steelers safety has to play with a lot of intelligence in order to be able to pitch in when Polamalu starts roaming around. That job description fit Chris Hope and Ryan Clark, but obviously not Anthony Smith.
Aaron Smith signed a big new contract last year, he certainly is not underpaid.
#52: Neither has anybody mentioned that Jerame Tuman and Dan Kreider went to IR before the second half decline. Sure, they didn't carry the team anymore, but AFAIR they were both starters in SB XL.

60
by Bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 02/21/2008 - 5:09am

#58 ZasZ, that was excellent and pythonesque.

No, we HAVE HAD people suggest they meet in a bar to slug out their differences in the past, but I believe the outside Karl and Dryheat will go to will be the AFC E 4 Downs discussion thread.

It really is great when two people can engage in civil disagreements, and then decide where to have them so as to not ruin the current thread for everyone else. (FTR, my money's on Karl)

61
by steelberger1 (not verified) :: Thu, 02/21/2008 - 12:51pm

Well, if history is any indicator...then Cincinatti will win the AFC North title in 2008.

Since the creation of the AFC North, any team who comes in 3rd place one year comes in 1st the next. Strange, but true.

2007 - Pittsburgh (3rd in 2006)
2006 - Baltimore (3rd in 2005)
2005 - Cincinnati (3rd in 2004)
2004 - Pittsburgh (3rd in 2003)
2003 - Baltimore (3rd in 2002)
2002 - Pittsburgh (1st year of AFC North)

2001 and before it was the AFC Central.

62
by mm (not verified) :: Fri, 02/22/2008 - 12:13am

61- Well, the NFC South beats that. The last place team has always won the division the next year. It'd be a bit of surprise if the Falcons do it next year, though.

63
by Sam B (not verified) :: Sat, 02/23/2008 - 9:04pm

I'll throw this out to see if it gets any interesting discussion:

if you were the Browns, what would be the minimum you would want to receive to be willing to trade Anderson?

64
by Scott (not verified) :: Sat, 02/23/2008 - 10:19pm

63, I'd say a high 2nd round pick to be reasonable. QB's are high priority, but for a guy with basically one year of starting experience, questionable play (see number of INTs and low comp. %) you can't expect to rob a team in a trade. A guy like McNabb didn't even seem to be fetching a 1st round pick in a trade, so Anderson shouldn't be that wanted.