Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
02 Apr 2008
by Stuart Fraser
It has been a quiet few weeks up in Baltimore -- which is unsurprising, given that the Ravens had next-to-no cap space at the start of free agency, having used their little available cap room on franchising Terrell Suggs. Since Suggs was also the team's only notable free agent, both defections from and additions to the roster have been minimal.
Suggs refrained from throwing the traditional hissy fit upon being franchised, instead opting to get into a more nuanced argument with his employers. The Ravens tagged Suggs as an outside linebacker; that's how he is listed on their official depth chart, which has their hybrid defense lined up in a 3-4 formation. Not so fast, said the player and his agent, claiming that Suggs had played more than half his snaps last year at defensive end and should be franchised at that position instead. The tag is $8.879 million for an end and $8.065 million for a linebacker; the difference of $814,000 isn't chump change for a player who has only just come to the end of his rookie contract. Moreover, being considered an end will set a higher market price for his services next season, when Suggs finally reaches free agency (assuming the Ravens don't franchise him again or sign a longer deal). The Ravens haven't disputed Suggs' claim about where he most frequently lines up, but instead argued that given his versatility and ability to drop into pass coverage, he ought to be considered a linebacker, and that's how he's regarded in their defensive scheme. Suggs filed a grievance with the NFLPA and the two sides will go to arbitration, though no date appears to have been set as yet.
Observers believe the Chicago Bears will be watching the final ruling with interest, as based on his ability to move the ball a long way down the field and into the arms of a player on the other team, it's probable they could make a significant cap savings by re-tagging Rex Grossman as a punter.
Meanwhile, offensive linemen were dropping left and right, or more accurately left and center. Veteran tackle Jonathan Ogden slowly edged further into retirement. Ogden has instructed the franchise to assume he's not coming back, so the Ravens will be looking for a replacement. They may well decide that they don't have tremendously far to look; between sophomore Marshal Yanda and third-year player Adam Terry, the outside of the offensive line wasn't a liability in the games that Ogden missed last year. The Ravens also said goodbye to center Mike Flynn, who'd been with the team for 11 years only to become a cap casualty this spring. It's rather less clear who Flynn's replacement is â€“- current left guard Jason Brown was an all-conference center in college, while Chris Chester has been filling in at interior line positions with moderate success for the last two years.
It's difficult to make much of a splash in free agency when you're still trying to clear enough cap room to be able to afford your franchise tender and sign all the draft picks, and Baltimore didn't even try. The Ravens signed two bit-part free agents, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo from the Bears and cornerback Frank Walker from the Packers. Both were known at their previous clubs mostly for contributions on special teams and that isn't likely to change in Baltimore. The Ravens' punt coverage units were well below average in 2007, and both signings will likely help. New coach John Harbaugh has a background in special teams and probably has a greater appreciation of solid blockers and gunners than most.
The players going in free agency weren't much better known than those arriving. Wide receiver Devard Darling caught 18 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns in 2007; will he notice much of a difference between catching passes from Steve McNair and Kyle Boller in Baltimore and catching them from Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle in Kansas City?
(Baltimore has picks 8, 38, 102, 164 and 197. Their third-round pick was traded to Buffalo and their fifth-rounder was exercised in the supplemental draft)
Depending on whether or not John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome are willing to rest the future of the franchise on Troy Smith (hint: no) the Ravens are probably interested in drafting a quarterback. The other major area of need for Baltimore is cornerback, with both starters the wrong side of 30 and battling injuries. Unfortunately for the Ravens, it's not entirely clear that either of these positions will be sensible ones to address with Baltimore's first-round pick. Top quarterback prospect Matt Ryan could well go third to Atlanta or even first to Miami. If he drops to Baltimore, the Ravens probably will snap him up. The situation is similar at cornerback. Troy's Leodis McKelvin is probably the only corner worthy of a top-ten pick, and New England might well grab him with the pick just prior to Baltimore. It's plausible the Ravens might take a flyer on Dominique Rogers-Cromartie (or even Brian Brohm) in the worst-case scenario when both their likely targets are gone.
Whichever of quarterback and cornerback they don't go for in Round One, the Ravens are likely to address in Round Two. Since Mike Flynn's release, the Ravens have a question mark at center, and might opt to bring in a rookie to compete for the job. It isn't considered a good draft for snappers, with the best available -- Arizona State's Mike Pollack or Bowling Green's Kory Lichtensteiger -- probably likely to go in the third or fourth rounds. The Ravens don't have a third-round pick, so they'll be hoping at least one drops into the fourth. (If the Ravens draft Rodgers-Cromartie and Lichtensteiger, look for the man who fits the names onto the back of the jersey to hold out for a new contract). Other possible second-day picks would be at linebacker, where a team like the Ravens can never have enough depth, and wide receiver, assuming they've got the other end of the passing equation sorted previously.
It's difficult to talk about Cincinnati's off-season without starting with the wide receivers. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh played together at Oregon State, were drafted together by the Bengals, played together in Cincinnati as the cornerstones of the passing offense, went to the Pro Bowl together, and are now squabbling about their contracts together. Neither player is attending "voluntary" workouts, which in Ocho Cinco's case means he's forfeiting a $250,000 workout bonus. Quarterback Carson Palmer says he's concentrating on working with his lesser receivers, a phrase which roughly translates as "Hell no, you're not getting me to take sides on this one".
If we take this alongside events in Arizona, a pattern emerges: it is increasingly difficult for a team to keep two star wideouts happy. Johnson is signed through 2011, but Houshmandzadeh is entering the final year of his contract. If Johnson is given a new contract, Houshmandzadeh's agents will use that as the basis for his extension â€“- and that will probably be the case even if the team that gives out the new contract isn't the Bengals. It's unlikely that the Bengals can afford to tie up as large a fraction of their cap at wide receiver as would be involved in keeping both Pro Bowl receivers happy. Theoretically Johnson has very little leverage and unless some team sweeps the Bengals off their feet with a trade offer it's hard to see how he could do anything other than return. On the other hand, it's difficult to overstate how much of a distraction such a darling of the national media could cause if he put his mind to it.
If Johnson does leave, the Bengals would be left with Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry as starting receivers. Assuming the latter can stay out of trouble, that's not a worse pairing than much of the rest of the league has. Of course, both have played their entire career as a No. 2 and a No. 3 receiver respectively, and it's hard to be sure how they'd do in expanded roles -â€“ particularly in Henry's case, as he would have to move out of the slot and go up against starting cornerbacks.
Moving now to players who have actually been changing clubs as opposed to merely whining about it, there's been a fair bit of activity in Cincinnati. After 2007 franchise player Justin Smith left for San Francisco, the Bengals made a variety of attempts to upgrade the defensive line, arranging trades for Shaun Rogers and Dewayne Robertson, both of which fell apart, the former for cap reasons and the latter after Cincy were unable to reach terms for a contract extension. To add insult to injury, divisional rivals Cleveland swooped in and signed Rogers; Robertson is still on the trading block. Eventually the Bengals did manage to land a defensive lineman, in former Tennessee end Antwan Odom. Odom had eight sacks last year (compared to the departing Smith's two), but clearly benefited from playing on a line including Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Still, he represented the best free agent available at a position of need and will likely be an upgrade, inability to correctly identify the team's star players notwithstanding.
(Ed. Note: If you can't get enough Odom talk, he will also be the subject of the next FO column on ESPN.com)
At linebacker, the Bengals lost Landon Johnson to the Panthers, resigned Dhani Jones, and displayed a strange fascination with Cardinals backups, signing Darryl Blackstock and Brandon Johnson. The former is likely to be useful on special teams and might have a chance to compete for a starting position in training camp, though he is more likely to be a backup and situational rusher; the latter appears to have been signed primarily to maintain the Bengals' league-leading Johnson quotient. Safety Madieu Williams signed with the Vikings and will be missed, but since he was probably the best player at his position in free agency, he would have been difficult to retain.
Offensively, franchise player Stacy Andrews somewhat unsurprisingly signed his tender; No. 4a wide receiver Tab Perry left for Miami (where he ought to be substantially higher on the depth chart), whilst No. 4b and KR Glenn Holt will be back. The Bengals addressed the tight end position by signing Ben Utecht to a three-year, $9 million offer sheet, which Indianapolis declined to match. Utecht is clearly an upgrade over Reggie Kelly as a receiver and will presumably fill a similar role to the one he played in Indianapolis: "guy who is open for good yardage because the defense is busy double covering the more storied pass-catchers." (Of course, this assumes those more storied pass-catchers are still wearing Bengal stripes in September.)
(Cincinnati has one pick in each round, those being 9, 46, 77, 108, 137, 168, and 199)
As the attempted trades for Rogers and Robertson show, the Bengals have a major need at defensive tackle. Antwan Odom will help the line but he won't be a solution on his own. Cincinnati would love it if Sedrick Ellis or Glenn Dorsey fell to the ninth spot, but they can't count on that happening. Unfortunately, that leaves the Bengals in a bit of a bind. Most of the players who are projected around the ninth pick are either cornerbacks or offensive linemen. The Bengals already have two promising young corners in Leon Hall and Jonathon Joseph, and since franchising Stacy Andrews, Cincinnati have a lot of money invested in the offensive line (all the more so if they give the young tackle a long-term deal) and probably don't want to take a tackle that high. Given this, the Bengals might try to trade out of the ninth spot, if they can find a buyer. If they can't, expect a slight reach; linebacker Keith Rivers or a defensive end like Florida's Derrick Harvey might be the pick.
Elsewhere in the draft, Cincinnati will be looking for a safety to replace Madieu Williams, a defensive tackle if they didn't manage to snag one of the big two in round one, a linebacker or two for depth at what is still a pretty thin rotation, and possibly a wide receiver project should it prove impossible to hang on to both of the current starters.
Much has been written about Cleveland's off-season activity, with an almost Snyder-esque disregard for draft picks fueling the acquisition of several veteran performers. Already lacking a first-round pick as a result of last year's trade for Brady Quinn, the Browns traded their second for the Packers' Corey Williams and their third plus highly-rated (by us, anyway) cornerback Leigh Bodden for Detroit's Shaun Rogers.
This isn't entirely unprecedented behavior; several teams have, at some time in the past, taken a dislike to a draft class and divested themselves of that year's picks, commonly to acquire picks in subsequent years but occasionally for established veterans. The problem with such a strategy is that veteran players available by trade are, pretty much by definition, unwanted, which generally means they have something wrong with them. In the case of Rogers, questions persist about his motor and work ethic, though few doubt his ability to be disruptive when on song. Parallels could be drawn to New England's trade for Randy Moss (Detroit, like Oakland, probably qualifies as a soul-sucking pit of despair), and that's probably what Cleveland was thinking when it made the deal. The difference between the two situations, however, is that Moss had previously shown that he could perform at an All-Pro level for an entire season, and New England only gave up a fourth-round pick as opposed to a third plus an above-average starter. Cleveland needed help along the defensive line, and Rogers can provide that help, but it is a substantial risk for a player who is widely regarded as an underperformer. This risk was further amplified when the Browns gave Rogers a six-year, $42 million contract -â€“ which is a good contract for a star defensive tackle in the current climate, but an awful lot of money to give to player who is far from proven.
Corey Williams is a more proven performer and the Packers thought enough of the 27-year old tackle to franchise-tag him â€“- though, given the offer they accepted from Cleveland, it's probable that Green Bay envisaged a tag-and-trade scenario. Both tackles are clearly starter-quality, though neither have experience of playing in the 3-4 formation that Cleveland operates. Rogers is listed at 340 pounds; Williams, 313. Rogers is large enough to play on the nose and probably will; Williams is a little large for a 3-4 DE so may be asked to lose a little weight and play end at nearer to 300.
In addition to Williams and Rogers, the Browns signed Miami guard/center Rex Hadnot and New England receiver Donte' Stallworth. Hadnot probably isn't crucial to Cleveland's offensive line plans. He wasn't awful in Miami, starting all 16 games and not being any worse than the rest of the team, but he'll have to battle with Ryan Tucker for a starting guard spot in training camp, and it's not as if offensive line was a noted weakness of the Browns. Hadnot can play center as well as guard, which will give Cleveland more depth, and might suggest that the Browns aren't really figuring LeCharles Bentley in their plans any more.
Stallworth has a more clear-cut place in the team. Playing as the third or possibly fourth receiver in New England, he had 46 catches, only four fewer than Cleveland's erstwhile No. 2, Joe Jurevicius. Stallworth will presumably take Jurevicius's starting place whilst the latter moves into the slot â€“- which, says Cleveland General Manager Phil Savage, is an attempt to extend the 33-year-old's career by limiting the number of snaps he has to play. That sounds suspiciously like the sort of reasoning normally found in company of the phrase "let's just be friends," but it's probable that it will indeed be a side-effect of the demotion.
On the other side of the equation, Cleveland made no attempt to re-sign cornerback Ricardo Colclough, who left for the Panthers. Colclough has never lived up to his potential and won't be missed by Cleveland, as he wasn't missed by Pittsburgh previously. A more worrying defection might be linebacker Chaun Thompson, who is now a member of the Houston Texans. Thompson wasn't a starter but he did see the field as a substitute, and his departure leaves the Browns thin at linebacker. The biggest loss is obviously Leigh Bodden, even if he didn't have the best of seasons last year.
(Cleveland has picks 118, 147, 181 and 213. Their first-rounder went to Dallas, the second-round pick to Green Bay and the third to Detroit)
With no picks until the fourth round, it's unlikely the Browns will be looking for anybody to come in and start straight away. If they're looking to draft for depth, then tight end (where the Browns have practically nobody behind Kellen Winslow) and linebacker (with the Browns being a 3-4 team, a defensive end-to-outside linebacker conversion project would be a possibility) could do with some attention; as could safety or even running back. Whomever they do pick, though, it's clear that the Browns won't be counting on them to save the 2008 season.
It's been an unusually active free agency period in the Steel City, which is to say a quiet one by the rest of the league's standards, but the lights are clearly still on in the Steelers' South Side facility this year. The biggest splash Pittsburgh made was in re-signing one of their own -â€“ Ben Roethlisberger's 8-year, $102 million deal will keep the Steelers' first franchise-quality quarterback since Terry Bradshaw around until he turns 34. I've gone into detail elsewhere about Roethlisberger's ability to succeed despite his pass protection and what it means for Pittsburgh, but this deal was quite simple. When you have a top-tier quarterback, you re-sign him.
Putting money into re-signing your own players is a good idea when they're exciting young quarterbacks who've just broken the franchise record for passing touchdowns, but less so when they're barely-serviceable backups whose inadequacies were readily apparent in an injury-hit second half of the season. So the team's decision to re-sign end Nick Eason, primarily notable for not being anywhere near as good as Aaron Smith after the latter was injured, was rather more puzzling. Similar opinions might be expressed about linebacker Andre Frazier and tackle Trai Essex, both of whom are bit-part players on horrible units (kick coverage and pass protection). Pittsburgh's traditions as a franchise emphasize gradual change and continuity, but sometimes, especially in the case of the Steelers' perennially awful special teams, it's time to clean house.
One decision the Steelers clearly got right was the puzzling-at-the-time call to slap the transition tag on tackle Max Starks. Despite being a free agent in all but name, Starks has apparently received no offers of substance from other teams during the initial free agency period, which significantly strengthens Pittsburgh's negotiating position when it comes to talking about a longer-term contract. The lack of demand for Starks is probably caused by either a mixture of an unusually deep draft at offensive tackle or a realization on behalf of the league's general managers that a player who doesn't manage to get a starting place on the Steelers' offensive line might not be worth pursuing.
The departure of Alan Faneca (to the Jets) was the first and probably most inevitable act involving the Steelers' offensive line in free agency, but it wasn't the last. Looking to bolster the interior line, Pittsburgh looked at Miami's Rex Hadnot only to see him sign with division rival Cleveland (the fact that Hadnot would have had a much better chance of starting in Pittsburgh implies that the Steelers "Hadnot" made much of an offer anyway). Eventually they signed former Carolina and Tennessee center Justin Hartwig. Hartwig will join the training competition for the guard and center slots, which is set to include Chris Kemoeatu, Kendall Simmons, Sean Mahan, Darnell Stapleton and any interior line draft picks. Hartwig, Simmons and Kemoeatu probably have the edge for the starting jobs at the moment, but it's a long time until opening day.
The Steelers other signings were mostly aimed at fixing their subpar special teams. Mewelde Moore's primary use will be as a kick and punt returner. The Steelers fans will be happy if Moore can simply gain yardage without fumbling, a goal that has eluded Willie Reid, Allen Rossum, Santonio Holmes, Najeh Davenport and anybody else Pittsburgh has put on the return team over the last two seasons. (As an aside, the Steelers cut Rossum and he signed in San Francisco.) Moore also has a chance to compete with Davenport for third-down duties and the chance to spell Willie Parker â€“- hopefully a role which will involve more action this year, if Tomlin and his staff have learned anything from last year's overuse of their feature back. Linebacker Keyaron Fox was signed for his special teams play, but with Clark Haggans signing with the Cardinals he'll also have a chance to back up LaMar Woodley at outside linebacker. Also heading for Arizona is tight end Jerame Tuman, but given that Tuman had lost the No. 2 tight end role to Matt Spaeth, odds are that Pittsburgh will survive the loss. Tuman will compete with Jerheme Urban for the role of "Arizona's most improperly-spelled Jeremy."
(Pittsburgh has picks 23, 53, 88, 119, 148, and 179. The seventh-round pick went to Atlanta for Allen Rossum)
The offensive line is obviously Pittsburgh's major weakness and the area they're most likely to target with early picks. Most mock drafts have linked the Steelers with Virginia guard Branden Albert, but Albert's stock is rising and he may well be gone by the 23rd pick. The Steelers under Kevin Colbert have shown they're happy to trade up in the first to get their guy (sending third- and fourth-round picks to the Giants to move from 32nd to 25th for Santonio Holmes, and third- and seventh-rounders to the Chiefs to move from 27th to 16th for Troy Polamalu), but with only six picks and several holes to fill, they may not be so willing this time. It's a deep draft for offensive linemen, but there's also a lot of teams that need line help.
If the Steelers don't go with an offensive lineman, it's possible they might select a cornerback to replace the aging DeShea Townsend (it's been speculated that Townsend might move inside to free safety, possibly depending on the recovery of Ryan Clark, but either way the 32-year-old can't have many good seasons left). Aqib Talib out of Kansas is probably their most likely target at corner. Auburn's Quentin Groves is slated to go in the late first round and might make an excellent rush linebacker, but given that the Steelers picked 'backers with first- and second-round picks last year, they probably wouldn't go back to the position again.
Deeper into the draft Pittsburgh might look for a long-term solution at center, which Hartwig, who will be 30 during the 2008 season and who missed almost the entire 2006 campaign due to injury, probably isn't. Bowling Green's Kory Lichtensteiger would give Pittsburgh a center/quarterback combination with a combined surname length of 28 letters, which surely would be a league record. Other needs include defensive end (where the team might consider a project who could be used in rotation with starters Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith before being given an expanded role in later years) and wide receiver (where the 32-year old Hines Ward is aging well, but aging nonetheless).
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