Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
17 Apr 2008
by Mike McGibbon
Over the past month or so, much media attention has been focused upon the seemingly imminent arrival of Adam "Pacman" Jones, the currently-suspended, possibly-soon-to-be-reinstated Tennessee Titans cornerback. The Titans don't want him. The Cowboys do. And Pacman loves Dallas. So why hasn't the deal been done? Mostly because Tennessee feels that the compensation the Cowboys have offered (a late second-day draft pick) isn't enough.
The Tennessee front office may be fearing the Randy Moss/Oakland Raiders situation of last year. Once upon a time, they had sent the seventh overall pick in the draft and former first-round pick Napoleon Harris to Minnesota for Moss. Then Al Davis and the Raiders were forced to get rid of Moss at a bargain-basement price (a fourth-round pick), after which Moss proceeded to have one of the best seasons in the history of wide receivers. Like Oakland, Tennessee stands to lose a sizable investment, having spent the sixth overall pick on Jones and given him a multi-million dollar signing bonus. And, like Moss, Pacman Jones likely won't play another game with the team that gave up so much to get him, even though he could be great once he gets another shot with a different team.
However, in many ways the situations are quite different. Oakland's coaches claimed that Randy Moss was "becoming an old man fast," but Moss was not prohibited from playing. Worst-case, a team risked trading a fourth-round pick for a mediocre No. 2 receiver. The worst-case scenario with Pacman Jones is that he never plays another down in the NFL. He hasn't been reinstated yet, and once he is, it will only take one indiscretion to get him suspended for a very long time. Throw in the fact that no other teams appear to be interested in offering more than a seventh-rounder for Jones, and you have the Tennessee Titans in a very poor bargaining position. The Cowboys have built one of the best rosters in football, and they will be content to play chicken with the Titans, knowing that they can always draft a cornerback with one of their two first-round picks.
Dallas may not be willing to fork over a high draft choice for Pacman Jones, but they do need a cornerback. Starting corner Anthony Henry was injured for part of last year, and two backup cornerbacks (Jacques Reeves and Nathan Jones) left during free agency. Interestingly, the Cowboys did not make a serious effort to acquire DeAngelo Hall. Dallas was rumored to have been interested, but Oakland ended up getting Hall for a high second-rounder this year and next year's fifth-rounder. Dallas might have been able to give Atlanta their lower first round-pick (the 28th pick overall) and a sixth- or seventh-round pick, which seems like a bargain for a 24-year-old two-time Pro Bowler. However, Dallas was likely leery of paying Hall $70 million over the course of seven years (as Oakland did), knowing that current ace cornerback Terrence Newman's contract year is rapidly approaching and that they might soon have to pay for two No. 1 corners. Thus, the opportunity passed.
Special teams ace Keith Davis also left during free agency (going to the Dolphins). Special teams was the one phase of the game in which the Cowboys were below average, ranking 18th in DVOA. Not having Davis next year won't help.
Another popular Cowboys-related rumor is that Jerry Jones is itching to trade his two first-round picks for the right to draft running back Darren McFadden, a fellow Arkansas Razorbacks alum. The idea is that Jerry Jones can't resist a Razorback ... yet according to the NFL Draft History page on nfl.com, the Cowboys haven't drafted an Arkansas Razorback since 1970, when they took Jerry Dossey in the eighth round. In fairness to the rumormongers, the Cowboys could use another running back, now that Julius Jones is gone. Marion Barber is a great back, but his ferocious style leaves him open to injury. A smaller back who is more comfortable catching the ball, like Chris Johnson from East Carolina, would complement Barber nicely. Of course, McFadden would complement Barber too, but those two picks would be better spent elsewhere.
If the Cowboys don't pick up Pacman Jones, they will have to draft a highly-rated cornerback, such as Kansas' Aqib Talib or Virginia Tech's Brandon Flowers, someone who can compete for the third cornerback spot right away. The Cowboys also need to pick up another wide receiver. Terrell Owens is 33, which isn't terribly old for a wide receiver, but his presumptive fellow starter, Terry Glenn, was injured for most of last season, and may never come back if he has microfracture surgery on his knee. Former seventh-round pick Patrick Crayton has exceeded expectations, but his play has been inconsistent (recall his devastating third-down drop at the end of the third quarter in the divisional playoff). DeSean Jackson (Cal) and Devin Thomas (Michigan State) would be nice additions if they're still available at the 28th spot in the draft.
As the Cowboys have eight draft choices this year, they will also have the luxury of pursuing depth along the offensive line and at the safety and defensive end positions; Tom Zbikowski, a safety from Notre Dame, would be an interesting choice later in the draft.
The post-Super Bowl celebration in New York has included a warm appreciation of Jerry Reese's work in his first year as general manager of the club. All eight of his 2007 draft selections made the team, and every player but one (right tackle Adam Koets) made a significant contribution down the stretch. It's a good thing for Jerry Reese that there was a "stretch," though, because as of the end of 2007, his draft didn't look like such a home run. Wide receiver Steve Smith had been injured for most of the year, and had only eight receptions for 63 yards. Jay Alford, the defensive tackle who sacked Tom Brady to seal the Super Bowl victory, had exactly one tackle at the end of the season. And Ahmad Bradshaw, who inspired Tiki Barber comparisons during the playoffs, only had 23 regular-season carries.
In fact, when Rick Gosselin, draft expert/sportswriter for the Dallas Morning News and a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, graded each team's crop of rookies on January 24, 2008, he gave the New York Giants a D, mentioning that cornerback Aaron Ross and safety Michael Johnson were to be commended for breaking into the starting lineup, and that tight end Kevin Boss was reasonable "insurance" for Jeremy Shockey.
The truth is, the Giants have drafted very well for the past three years. Out of their last 19 picks, 16 are still on the team, and ten have contributed quality time as starters. Nonetheless, very few have established themselves as elite players. Justin Tuck was excellent last year, and Brandon Jacobs was an essential component of the Giants' seventh-ranked rushing attack, but Aaron Ross is still developing, Mathias Kiwanuka has struggled with injuries and position changes, and some fear that former second-rounder Corey Webster may never develop into an elite cornerback. If the Giants are to contend for the Super Bowl again in 2008, a few of these now-average starters will have to step up.
The Giants courted a number of reliable, if unspectacular, veteran free agents during the off-season. Journeyman linebacker Danny Clark was brought in to offset the loss of Reggie Torbor and Kawika Mitchell, safety Sammy Knight was acquired to fill the void left by new Raider Gibril Wilson, and former first overall pick David Carr signed on to be Eli Manning's backup. The surprisingly effective starting guard from last year, Rich Seubert, was also re-signed, to a three year contract.
The combination of average veterans and unproven youngsters promises to present Tom Coughlin with some interesting dilemmas when it comes time to choose starters in the fall. Take the linebacker corps, for example. Gerris Wilkinson and Zak DeOssie showed promise last year, but neither is anywhere near the skill level of Antonio Pierce. Danny Clark is a solid option, and could start next to Pierce and Mathius Kiwanuka (assuming Kiwanuka doesn't move back to the defensive line), but he isn't likely to improve as much as Wilkinson or DeOssie might over the next few years. They have a similar problem at wide receiver -- Amani Toomer's career is winding down, but are Sinorice Moss and Steve Smith any better, at this point? Now that he's won a Super Bowl and has some measure of security with his new four-year contract, head coach Tom Coughlin may decide that this is a good year to give his younger players a shot.
Although Seubert has just signed a new contract, the Giants may not be satisfied with the combination of Dave Diehl (a former guard turned left tackle) and Seubert on the left side of the offensive line. If so, left tackle Chris Williams (Vanderbilt) is a solid option. The Giants could also use a playmaker at safety, where the likely starters are currently Sammy Knight and either James Butler or Michael Johnson. This looks to be a weak safety class, but the Giants might be tempted to draft Kenny Phillips if he's still on the board at the end of the first round. Later in the draft, Chris Ellis, a defensive end from Virginia Tech, would be a good choice to replace Michael Strahan, should he finally decide to retire.
After reeling in Asante Samuel and Chris Clemons, the Philadelphia Eagles' off-season became more about what they weren't doing than what they had done. After Samuel signed his new contract, many began to speculate that former No. 1 cornerback Lito Sheppard was on his way out, just as soon as the Eagles could get adequate compensation. The rumors were implicitly supported by the team's Web site, which listed Sheppard as a backup behind Samuel and Sheldon Brown.
However, weeks have now passed since the Samuel signing, and Sheppard remains on the team. If money and egos weren't important, there would be no reason to jettison Sheppard. The Eagles may not want to pay Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel top dollar, but Sheppard is a bona fide No. 1 cornerback, and the formidable combination of Sheppard and Samuel would allow defensive coordinator Jim Johnson great flexibility in designing his famous blitz packages. Sheppard hasn't demanded a trade, and Philadelphia hasn't publicly stated a desire to trade him, so it is still possible that the 2008 Eagles will end up with one of the strongest cornerback tandems in the league.
More eagerly anticipated than Sheppard's departure has been the arrival of a big-time wide receiver. McNabb has publicly declared a need for more playmakers on his offense, and the Eagles' front office seemed to agree, chasing after Randy Moss to no avail in the opening days of free agency. (Moss is reported to have turned down an offer from Philadelphia that was larger than the one he eventually signed in New England.) Since then, nothing much has happened. Javon Walker was snapped up by the Raiders. Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson has been begging Cincinnati to trade him, but they won't budge. The Lions are rumored to be interested in shopping Roy Williams, but they haven't made a move. In short, there are no big-time wide receivers to be had.
These developments leave the Eagles in an unenviable position: Do they draft a wide receiver in the first round of what is widely regarded as a weak class (and pray that they don't repeat the disastrous Freddie Mitchell experiment), develop a wide receiver from a later round (like Earl Bennett from Vanderbilt, whom they invited to a private workout), or stick with what they've got? Kevin Curtis, Greg Lewis and Reggie Brown aren't top-flight wide receivers, but they may still be the best options Donovan McNabb has come September.
The Eagles continued to address their biggest weakness when they signed linebacker and special teams player Rocky Boiman. The Eagles ranked 31st in the league in Special Teams DVOA last year, and were repeatedly punished with poor field position, ranking 25th in average starting field position. Boiman won't fix all of their problems, but his signing shows a commitment on their part to upgrade this unit, as do the signings of now-fullback Dan Klecko and tight end Kris Wilson, who are expected to contribute on special teams. Boiman also provides much-needed depth at the linebacker position. Having released Takeo Spikes, whose injuries and salary became too much to bear, the Eagles are left with a very young group of starting linebackers; Chris Gocong, Omar Gaither, and Stewart Bradley were all drafted within the last two years.
Philadelphia must draft a safety. Free safety Brian Dawkins is still playing at a high level, but he was out for six games last year, and his age (34) is a concern. Furthermore, starting strong safety Sean Considine was also hurt last year, and didn't excel when he did play. Unfortunately, the two areas where Philadelphia most needs an immediate starter are two of the weakest at the top of the draft. There are no Calvin Johnsons at wide receiver this year. Kenny Phillips (Miami) is the top-rated safety, but is considered a reach at pick 19, given his lackluster junior season. If the Eagles don't like Phillips, Cal safety Thomas DeCoud might be a better value later in the draft.
Safety and wide receiver aren't the Eagles' only needs, of course. Both of their offensive tackles (William Thomas and Jon Runyan) are closer to 35 than 30, and Philadelphia loves to have depth on the offensive line. If any of the top three tackles -- Jake Long, Ryan Clady, or Jeff Otah -- is still around, Philadelphia will likely snap him up.
Finding a better backup for Brian Westbrook would also be a good idea. Use in the passing game keeps Westbrook away from the Curse of 370, but it doesn't take a lot of fancy math to figure out that Westbrook is the heart of Philadelphia's offense, and that the Eagles would be totally screwed if he were injured (the contributions of Tony Hunt and Correll Buckhalter notwithstanding). The Eagles also need a quality return man, now that they've given up on former Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom and have let Reno Mahe roam around as a free agent. Jamaal Charles from Texas might be the answer for the Eagles in the second round, filling their need for a more productive backup running back and an exciting return man.
For once, the Washington Redskins actually gained draft picks during the off-season. The league awarded the Redskins three compensatory picks in the 2008 draft, including the 96th overall selection and two seventh-rounders, leaving them with a total of nine draft choices in April. You get those extra picks when you lose more free agents than you sign, something which owner Daniel Snyder has been loathe to endure.
In fact, this is only the second time during Daniel Snyder's reign that the Redskins have had at least nine picks heading into the draft. The first time may have left a bad taste in his mouth. In 2002, the Redskins' ten selections produced Patrick Ramsey, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright, and little else. Since that draft, free agency has been the focus of the Redskins' off-season efforts, and the draft has been an afterthought, producing just 24 new players for the Redskins during that time period, while division rivals like the Philadelphia Eagles were drafting 43 new players.
Of course, the Redskins couldn't let the whole off-season go by without picking up a shifty speedster. Former Pro Bowl kick returner Jerome Mathis was just sitting there for the taking, and Daniel Snyder couldn't resist the temptation, despite having already re-signed Rock Cartwright (who is also a kick returner). Mathis was electrifying in his rookie season of 2005, returning two kicks for touchdowns, but he has been injured off and on for the past two years and was recently charged with assaulting his girlfriend (a charge that was later dropped). He never did much as a wide receiver for the Texans, and may not make the team as a kick returner if he has more legal troubles, but the Redskins are not risking much by signing him on for the league-minimum salary.
Now that they have nine picks, the Redskins can finally use the draft to add depth to their roster, which is full of talented starters who are either old or injured (or both). Every projected starter on the offensive line is more than 30 years old, and two of them, Jansen and Thomas, were injured last year. London Fletcher played well at middle linebacker last year, but he is 32 years old and is flanked by Rocky McIntosh and Marcus Washington, both of whom were hurt last season. Cornerback Shawn Springs was healthy all year, but he is 33, and his fellow cornerback, Carlos Rogers, only played in seven games. And while Andre Carter had a great year at defensive end, registering 10.5 sacks, the aged Phillip Daniels (35) was less effective in rushing the quarterback from the other side of the line, producing only 2.5 sacks. The Redskins defense as a whole posted an Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.7 percent, which ranked 26th in the league.
While the Redskins could very well spend their first-round draft choice on a pass-rusher like Derrick Harvey, an offensive lineman for the right side would be the more prudent choice. The aforementioned injured linemen (Jansen and Thomas) happened to both play on the right side of the line, and their absence crippled the Redskins' running attack, forcing them to run in the general direction of Chris Samuels (towards the left end or left tackle) 46 percent of the time, a higher percentage of left-side runs than any other team. Gosder Cherilus, a mammoth raw talent who is best suited for the right tackle position, would be a good pick for them.
However, given that new head coach Jim Zorn has publicly declared a desire to find a big wide receiver for his West-Coast offensive scheme, Devin Thomas (Michigan) and Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma) might be hard to pass up if they are still available after the first 20 picks. The good news is that the Redskins' draft won't be made or broken by a few picks; they'll have plenty of draft choices to spend on their needs at linebacker, cornerback, defensive end, wide receiver and the offensive line.
Mike McGibbon is a musician and private tutor in New York City; his mind turns to football when students make homework excuses and when horn players start their twentieth chorus of "Blue Bossa." FO thanks Mike for helping out with this edition of Four Downs.
44 comments, Last at 23 Apr 2008, 6:19pm by justme