Resident offensive line expert Ben Muth previews the three teams on which he'll be focusing this season: Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland.
25 Mar 2008
by Vince Verhei
It's been a quiet couple of weeks at Reliant Stadium. The Texans have lost some linebackers here, gained a center there, but there's been nothing earth-shattering. In fact, it has been so peaceful that the biggest subject of discussion among Texans fans has been the acquisition of a new third-string quarterback.
The reason? The quarterback in question is Quinn Gray, formerly of the Jaguars. On the surface, this looks like a great pickup. Gray threw 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions in relief of David Garrard last year, and ranked 12th in the league in DVOA last season. Look a little deeper though, and he loses some of his luster. He finished the season with 20.4 DPAR, but most of that came in garbage time, or in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Texans when he threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns. And that was playing for Jacksonville. Now he's in Houston, where he'll likely have a stronger receiving corps, but he'll have worse protection in front of him, worse running backs that will leave him in third-and-long, and a worse defense that will usually have him playing from behind.
Regardless, the Texans had enough faith in him to sign him to a one-year deal to back up Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels. That's three quarterbacks with starting experience, which seems like a lot of value to have sitting on the bench collecting dust, particularly on a flawed team like Houston, and that's what has people talking. People like the folks at Battle Red Blog, who speculate that the Texans might be able to get a second-rounder from the Vikings in exchange for Rosenfels. That would be a huge boost to the Texans, earning them back the second-rounder they lost in the Schaub trade.
Either way, it's clear the team is not putting all their eggs in the Schaub basket. They're prepared in case he struggles or is injured in any way. That's an important lesson in the NFL -- just ask Schaub's former team.
The Texans lost only one regular starter: cornerback Von Hutchins, who left one terrible secondary in Houston to join another in Atlanta. His departure may be addition by subtraction for the Texans.
The biggest addition to the team may be center Chris Myers, acquired from the Broncos for a sixth-round draft pick. Myers will turn 27 in September, and he started all 16 games for the Broncos last year. They also signed former Titan running back Chris Brown. Brown's 14.6 DPAR in 2007 would have led all Houston runners. He upgrades the position, but he's missed 15 games in the past two seasons, so it's still likely the team will draft a running back.
Finally, the Texans signed cornerback Jacques "The Human Target" Reeves, formerly the whipping boy of the Dallas secondary. Similar to Brown, Reeves is a more or less average talent who represents an enormous upgrade for Houston.
Cornerback, cornerback, cornerback; running back, running back, running back. Cornerback takes priority because as long as Andre Johnson is healthy, the Texans can score plenty of points with passing offense alone. Their pass coverage, though, needs immediate help; they ranked 27th in DVOA last year, which is actually an improvement from 2005 (30th) and 2006 (31st).
With the 18th pick, the Texans will likely miss out on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin. They're more likely to take Arizona's Antoine Cason or Mike Jenkins out of South Florida.
The Hoosier Dome opened in 1984. In the ensuing 24 years, the building changed its name to the RCA Dome, and hosted every home game in Indianapolis Colts history, plus high school basketball championships and four Final Fours. Hall of Famers like Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison have played there. Larry played basketball there. (Not in high school, obviously, but in a 1984 game pitting the U.S. Olympic team against an all-star NBA squad.) Peyton played football there. Lil Ronnie rapped there. After all that, on March 2, the stadium hosted its final sporting event: A dirtbike race. After the Indianapolis RV Super Show (March 28-30) and the Fire Department Instructors Conference (April 7-12), they'll start to tear down the dome.
Are you going to miss the dome? Well, why not visit buythedome.com and pick up a piece of Indiana sports history? Who wouldn't want to sit around the house in a pair of uncomfortable plastic stadium seats for the low, low price of $450 (Cupholders included!)? Every house should have six square feet of sideline turf ($100). And home just isn't a home without a plastic sign reading "AISLE 346" ($195).
Those items can be purchased right now by anyone with a credit card and a blue horseshoe tattooed somewhere on their body. The real good stuff, however, is being put up for auction and will go to the highest bidder. You can bid right now on the lockers of Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalez and Antoine Bethea. Pictures show that these lockers all look exactly the same: tall wooden boxes with smaller partitions and a blue comfy chair that is not included in the transaction.
If you're looking for something larger, how about some end zone field art? Bids will be taken on the AFC logo, the NFL logo, and the "C" in "COLTS."
The Colt-de-grace, however, is a shiny, glimmering package of white and chrome. That's right, up for auction will be -- this is true -- an actual urinal from the Colts locker room. Could there be a better decoration for a Man Cave than an apparatus designed to function specifically for the male anatomy? Just think: You'd have the same device that offered relief to Peyton Manning at some of his most urgent moments.
On second thought, don't think about that. It's gross.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing happened to the Colts in free agency. That's only half-right; there were goings, but no comings. Really. The Colts signed a few of their own free agents -- guard Ryan Lilja, defensive end Josh Thomas -- but they did not acquire any new players.
So let's move on to the losses -- which won't take much longer. Defensive lineman Dan Klecko signed with the Eagles (who, in a unique experiment, are going to try the 275-pounder at fullback). The Eagles also raided the Colts for linebacker Rocky Boiman. That's much more significant; Boiman set a career high last year with 54 tackles.
On offense, the team lost tight end Ben Utecht to the Bengals. While that is not good news, Utecht was usually the fourth or fifth option after Wayne, Gonzalez, Clark, Addai, etc. The most disconcerting loss was guard Jake Scott, who joined the division rival Titans. Scott had started every game for the Colts since 2005, and that continuity will be missed.
The Colts don't have a first-round draft pick; they traded it to the 49ers last year for the chance to draft Tony Ugoh (which turned out to be a season-saving move when Tarik Glenn retired). The Falcons have four of the first 48 selections; the Colts have none of the first 58 and only one of the first 92. In short, do not expect a big return on the 2008 draft from the Colts. They'll likely look for depth along the offensive line and front seven, but if they pick even one player who makes an impact this season, they'll have done a tremendous job.
About two months ago in Four Downs, I noted that the Jaguars' top goal in free agency was the acquisition of an elite wide receiver. The team apparently agreed, trading for one receiver and signing another, although they and I clearly differ on the meaning of the term "elite."
First, they sent a sixth-round draft choice to the Vikings in exchange for Troy Williamson. Those of you familiar with the Vikings will note that their receiving corps is actually worse than the the Jaguars', and won't be sad to see Williamson in black and teal. Still, Williamson undoubtedly has talent, and the chance that a change of scenery will encourage him to develop that talent may be worth risking a late draft choice.
The same day, the Jaguars signed Jerry Porter away from the Raiders. Porter was a pretty good player at his peak, nearing 1,000 yards receiving in both 2004 and 2005 on terrible Raiders teams, but that peak was two years ago. He barely played in 2006, feuding with Art Shell and catching just one pass. He bounced back somewhat last season. At his best, he was mediocre (below average in DVOA but above replacement in 2004, 2005, and 2007). Now he is 29 and very likely to decline, yet the Jaguars signed him to a six-year, $30 million contract.
In other news, Chad Johnson stillwants out of Cincinnati.
While the Jags were signing draft busts and malcontents to save their receiving corps, their defensive line snuck out the back door. Actually, you can't even say that. Tackle Marcus Stroud was kicked out the back door, traded to Buffalo for third- and fifth-round draft picks. Meanwhile, defensive end Bobby McCray signed with the Saints, and the pass defense was further weakened when journeyman safety Sammy Knight signed with the Giants.
With the acquisitions of Williamson and Porter came the loss of Earnest Wilford, their leading receiver last year, now with the Dolphins. Speaking of the Dolphins, the Jaguars were quick to squeeze Cleo Lemon, signing him at backup quarterback to replace Gray. They also lost running back LaBrandon Toefield to the Panthers, but with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, they're clearly not hurting at the position.
For better or worse, the team has cast their lot at wide receiver and now desperately needs defensive linemen, particularly pass rushers. The team was knocked out of the playoffs by New England when former defensive coordinator Mike Smith, current Falcons head coach, ran a very conservative game-plan, and his front four failed to get any pressure on Tom Brady. Their best realistic scenario would be to pick up Quentin Groves out of Auburn, an all-SEC player with 20 career sacks in college. Hurting the Jaguars' chances, however, are their division rivals in Tennessee, who pick two spots earlier and could also use a defensive end. If they take Groves, the Jaguars may look to trade down and pick an end in the second round.
Every good, mobile quarterback needs a security blanket, a big target with good hands within easy range of the line of scrimmage. In short, he needs a good tight end.
Michael Vick had Alge Crumpler. Donovan McNabb had Chad Lewis. Steve McNair had Frank Wycheck. Randall Cunningham had Keith Jackson. Common perception is that Daunte Culpepper made his name just lobbing passes to Randy Moss, but in his best season, 2004, tight end Jermaine Wiggins topped the Vikings with 71 catches. Even dating back to 1972, when Chicago Bears quarterback Bobby Douglass ran for 968 yards, his leading receiver (with a whopping 20 receptions) was tight end Earl Thomas.
The connection between scrambling passers and good tight ends is obvious. As quarterbacks escape pass rushers, linebackers must leave their coverage assignments and move up to contain them. This leaves tight ends wide-open and easy to spot. And like most things in football, the relationship is synergistic. Elite tight ends tend to draw extra coverage, which opens more running room for quarterbacks.
Which brings us to the afore-mentioned Algernon Darius Crumpler. The 6-feet-2, 262-pounder from North Carolina lead the Falcons in receiving for most of the Michael Vick era, playing in four Pro Bowls. He is 30 years old and dropped more passes than usual in 2007, but he becomes by default the most attractive receiving option the Titans have.
How will Crumpler's arrival help out Vince Young? The days of Young tearing through opposing defenses ended with the Longhorns' Rose Bowl victory over USC. Although he led all quarterbacks with 401 yards on the ground last season, he was actually below replacement level as a runner and ranked just behind Eli Manning (Yes! Eli Manning!) in rushing DPAR. It's clear that teams are going out of their way to stop Young from beating them with his legs, and the tactic is working. If Young can connect with Crumpler early and often in 2008, defenses will be forced to adjust, and Young's running ability could become a dangerous weapon again.
The Titans' most important move in free agency was actually the retention of their best player: Albert Haynesworth, the defensive tackle who was the keystone to 2007's best defense. The team slapped him with the franchise tag, ensuring that Haynesworth will be taken care of, the team will build around him and they'll all live happily ever after.
Or not. Although the franchise tag bars Haynesworth from leaving, it does not guarantee that he'll sign a contract, either. On Monday, ESPN.com reported that Haynesworth had yet to sign his one-year, $7.8 million tender offer, and was not taking part in the Titans' voluntary off-season program. His agent, Chad Speck, offered a terse explanation: "Albert has not signed his tender and therefore will not be participating in the Titans off-season program at this time." Can't you feel the love?
Haynesworth's options are limited at this point, and will be familiar to Seahawks fans. He can pull a Joey Galloway and refuse to sign for most of the season, then sign for the last six games and qualify for free agency again in 2009. He can pull a Walter Jones and hold out until right before the season starts, then ink his name and get on the field -- and then qualify for free agency again in 2009. Finally, he can pull a Walter Jones, version II; after three years of franchise tags and one-year contracts, Jones finally signed a long-term deal in 2005.
That's the good news for the Titans' line. The bad news is that Travis LaBoy took his six sacks of 2007 and signed with the Cardinals, and Antwan Odom (eight sacks last year) signed with the Bengals. To bolster their pass rush, the team re-acquired Jevon Kearse after he was released by the Philadelphia Eagles, but they know he's neither an every-down player, nor a long-term solution: "Our expectation for him is to rush the passer in a limited number of snaps," wrote Mike Reinfeldt, the team's general manager, when Kearse was signed.
Speaking of coming home again, the team also signed wide receiver Justin McCareins, who shined for Tennessee in 2003 with 28.1 DPAR, seventh in the league. He had one good season in 2004 with the Jets, then struggled to make an impact over the next three seasons. Don't expect his second stint with the Titans to match his first.
Tennessee overacheived somewhat in 2007, and the punishment for that is a lower draft pick in 2008. Most of the draft's best players will be gone by the time they make the 24th selection. They're still looking for a top wide receiver, and Limas Sweed, Vince Young's former teammate at the University of Texas, will likely be available. At 6-feet-5, Sweed would offer Young a large target and present matchup problems with most teams. They may also go for James Hardy out of Indiana, who would present even bigger matchup problems at 6-7.
They could also look at defensive linemen, such as North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer, Notre Dame's Trevor Laws or Auburn's Quentin Groves.
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