Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
19 Feb 2008
by Stuart Fraser
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 â€“- 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 â€“- and mostly young -- front seven, plus a couple of good safeties, Baltimore doesn't have too many worries on defense.
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 â€“- and he told the Baltimore Sun he was "leaning towards not coming back" â€“- 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.
(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.
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?
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.
(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.
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 -â€“ 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.
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.
(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.
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|
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.
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.
(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.
64 comments, Last at 23 Feb 2008, 10:19pm by Scott