The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"
26 Feb 2008
by Ben Riley
Did the Arizona Cardinals finally turn the corner last year? Here are three reasons to think the answer is yes:
Nonetheless, here are three reasons to remain skeptical:
The Cardinals have already cut safety Terrence Holt, offensive tackle Oliver Ross, and defensive end Chris Cooper to clear up cap room. The $6.5 million saved helps a little, but remember that some of that money will have to be spent on replacement players for the guys who just got cut, so it doesn't solve the problem by any means. As a result, outside linebacker Calvin Pace -- who wants somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million in guaranteed money -- is unlikely to stick around, even though the Cardinals' coaching staff would love to keep him.
(A misleading $30 million in cap room, a mere 34 players under contract)
Alan Faneca would be a perfect fit for this team, having played for Grimm and Whisenhunt for most of his career, but it's hard to imagine the Cards will have the money to pay for him. By the same logic, they could also target Steelers left tackle Max Starks. For some unknown reason, Pittsburgh slapped the transition tag on Starks, which means the Cardinals will have to write some weird poison pill into any offer they make to him. ("This contract shall become fully guaranteed if you are forced to play for a team with mascot based on the lead singer of the Village People...")
It takes a particular level of incompetence (and, to be fair, a horrific slate of injuries) to finish 3-13 in a division as weak as the NFC "Don't Call Us Double-A" West, and yet Scott Linehan is still the head coach of the Rams -- for at least one more year, anyway. Linehan knows that this is a make-or-break season for him, so he has spent this off-season revamping his entire offensive coaching staff. In addition to hiring Al Saunders -- along with the 1,400-page playbook that comes chained to his leg -- as their new offensive coordinator, the Rams also have a new running backs coach (Art Valero), a new offensive line coach (Steve Loney), and a new quarterbacks coach (Terry Shea). Also, a bunch of other coaches have been shuffled around internally.
Many people are starting to wonder if Saunders' reputation as an "offensive genius" is largely due to Kansas City's awesome offensive line in the late 1990s. We'll find out this year, because the Rams' offensive line is a joke. The team does have talent at the skill positions, but they may regret signing Marc Bulger to a long-term deal -- and they may really, really regret Linehan's inexcusable decision to keep playing Bulger after he suffered a rash of injuries midseason.
The team's long-term success will hinge more upon the hiring of Billy Devaney as the new executive vice-president of football personnel. Rams general manager Jay Zygmunt has spent most of the 21st century burning first-round picks on busts like running back Trung Candidate (2001), defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy (2003), and offensive tackle Alex Barron (2005), making Zyggy somewhat of a leper messiah among Rams fans. Everyone agrees that Devaney is a savvy talent evaluator who will bring much needed expertise to the front office, even if he was responsible for shipping Matt Schaub to the Texans a few weeks before the world learned about Michael Vick's penchant for canine rape stands.
This is going to be tough year for the rebuilding Rams. The offensive line is in shambles, their quarterback is injury-prone, and the defense appears to be transitioning from a 4-3 to a new 3-and-some-random-guys-wandering-around sort of scheme. Add to this the fact that they are somewhat strapped for cash (ranking 26th in unofficial cap room), and it's clear that there will be some tension between those who will want to build methodically for the future (Devaney) and those who will need to win in 2008 if they want to keep their job (Linehan).
Veteran tackle Todd Steussie did his best plugging in for the approximately 4,268 injuries the Rams offensive line suffered last year, but he's too old to be much use anymore, and the same is true for 37-year-old center Andy McCollum, who should retire. McCollum's backup, Brett Romberg, is also an unrestricted free agent, though he's unlikely to attract much attention. Outside linebacker Brandon Chillar -- the first person of East Indian descent to ever play pro football -- is an unrestricted free agent who the Rams would be wise to resign (but probably won't).
The Rams also face looming problems at wide receiver. Isaac Bruce managed to put up decent numbers last year, but he'll turn 36 in November, and he's under contract for $5.3 million this season. It seems likely that Bruce, a locker room leader, will be willing to renegotiate his contract, but if not, the front office may be forced to cut him. Little-used Marques Hagan may also be let go to free up roster space for a wideout in the draft.
(Approximately $7 million under the cap, 45 players under contract)
Like about half the teams in the NFL, the Rams will think about participating in the Overpaying for Alan Faneca Sweepstakes during free agency. Apart from the opportunity to play alongside Orlando Pace (who should be recovered fully from the season-ending triceps tear he suffered in Week 1), it's unclear why Faneca would want to join the Rams, particularly given that their cap situation will preclude them from winning a bidding war for his services outright.
The Rams are going to need linebackers and lots of 'em if they transition to a 3-4 scheme, particularly if Chillar departs for greener pastures. The Rams have nowhere near enough money to go after soon-to-be-ex Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, but former Broncos linebacker Al Wilson might be in their price range.
If the past twelve months of presidential campaigning has taught us anything, it's that 1) Dennis Kucinich has a surprisingly hot wife, and 2) success is a relative measure that depends as much upon expectations as it does actual performance. No one understands this principle more than 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. After finishing 7-9 in 2006, the Niners became everyone's "sleeper" pick to win the NFC West last year, and "everyone" includes us. (Whoops.)
Instead, the team stumbled through an ugly 5-11 season that reached its nadir in mid-November, when Nolan publicly questioned the confidence and ability of injured "franchise" quarterback Alex Smith. "You can look at it two ways and say 'Yea!' or 'My God!'" said Nolan regarding Smith's season to that point. Between the Nolan-Smith infighting and Denise York's apparently sincere desire to move the team stadium to Santa Clara (Spanish for "San Jose"), suffice to say most Niners fans are firmly in the "My God!" camp regarding their team and its future.
Much like the Rams, however, the Yorks inexplicably refused to fire their head coach and instead hope that shaking up the coaching staff and front office will solve their problems. The big news was the hiring of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. At this point, there's not much that anyone can say about Martz that hasn't been said a thousand times before: The man really loves to pass the ball. Given that the Niners leading receiver last year was Darrell Jackson (-9.5 DPAR, -28.4% DVOA), however, Martz will need to get as-yet underwhelming tight end Vernon Davis more involved in the offense, and don't be surprised to see Frank Gore spread out wide as well. Of course, none of this changes the fact that it will be Alex Smith or Shaun Hill throwing the football.
The other major change is the promotion of Scot McCloughan from vice president of personnel to GM. It's not entirely clear whether McCloughan or Nolan bears responsibility for the Alex Smith fiasco, but McCloughan is now firmly in control of shaping the 49ers roster. Even after overpaying for Nate Clements last year, the 49ers still have a ton of room under the cap, and McCloughan has vowed that the Niners will be "involved" in free agency.
The 49ers have already lost three outstanding veterans. Eleven-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen retired in January, as did 14-year veteran defensive end Bryant Young, and the emergence of outstanding rookie linebacker Patrick Willis led to the release of 12-year veteran 'backer Derek Smith (who signed with San Diego). Quarterback Trent Dilfer looked shocked last year that he actually had to play football, so don't expect him back in red and gold.
The 49ers would like to resign defensive end Marques Douglas but are not prepared to overpay for him, which means he's likely gone. McLoughlan is also said to loathe paying big money for guards, so Justin Smiley will undoubtedly hit the market.
(Approximately $30 million under the cap, 48 players under contract)
The 49ers aren't happy with former Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and they have a ton of money to spend in free agency, so under normal circumstances one might assume the Niners would be targeting Northern California native and soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Lance Briggs. According to Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports, however, the NFL is investigating charges by the Bears that the 49ers tampered with Briggs by holding contract talks with his agent during the season. The 49ers deny that they did anything improper, but the NFL investigation may open the door for other teams to make a run at Briggs, although the 49ers are still considered the front runner for his services. The 49ers are also high on Bengals defensive end Justin Smith and are targeting him in free agency (and have been accused of tampering with his contract too).
With Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and the flotsam and jetsam that currently serves at the 49ers wide receiving corps, Bernard Berrian is another player the Niners might poach from Chicago. And no Four Downs is complete without the obligatory mention of Seattle wide receiver D.J. Hackett, although after the disastrous Darrell Jackson acquisition the Niners may be leery of adding yet another oft-injured Seahawks receiver to their roster.
Late-breaking note: ESPN's John Clayton reports that the 49ers are going to sign running back DeShaun "DePAR Hate Me" Foster, for unknown reasons.
For the past several seasons, the public perception of the Seattle Seahawks has largely been defined by head coach Mike Holmgren and his high-octane (you may substitute "latte-fueled" if you still find Seattle-based coffee references amusing) West Coast offense, but all that is about to change. In January, after leading the Seahawks to their fourth straight division title, Holmgren announced that 2008 will be his last year with the organization, and Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell wasted little time in publicly announcing what everyone suspected already -- namely, that Seahawks secondary coach Jim "Not Junior" Mora will take over in 2009.
Leaving aside whether it's ever a good idea to have a lame duck head coach, and ignoring the very open question of whether Mora really deserves another head coaching gig, the reality is that Holmgren is no longer a good fit for the evolving Seahawks. Last year, Seattle continued its steady improvement on defense (-5.4% DVOA, 11th overall in 2007; 2.6%, 20th overall in 2006) and the front seven appears poised to become one of the NFL's elite units. Obviously, the comparisons of Patrick Kerney (60 tackles, 14.5 sacks) to now-retired Grant Wistrom were a little misplaced.
The offense, in contrast, managed to bounce back to a DVOA ranking of 14th after tallying an abysmal 27th-ranked performance in 2006, but don't be fooled; unlike the injury-ravaged 2006 season, the Seahawks were relatively healthy last year, so the "improvement" in DVOA simply reflects that, when healthy, the Seahawks offense is capable of mediocre football. And part of that mediocrity resulted from Holmgren's inexplicable refusal to bench Shaun Alexander last year.
Alexander is the poster child for the Curse of 370, but it is one thing for your skills to decline with age (understandable and inevitable) and quite another to become the laughingstock of the NFL because of your all-too-apparent fear of taking a hit (unacceptable and embarrassing). This is not the first time Holmgren has shown stubborn loyalty to an over-the-hill veteran â€“- Alexander himself had to wait until Holmgren finished running Ricky Watters into the ground before he got his chance to start â€“- but it may be the first time he's done so for a player with so little influence in the locker room. In any event, Alexander claims that he won't restructure his contract, which if true all but guarantees that he won't play for the Seahawks this year (although he'll still count for $2.3 million against this year's cap and $4.6 million in 2009.)
The Seahawks have already partially answered this question by re-signing right tackle Sean Locklear ($12 million in guaranteed money) and franchising cornerback Marcus Trufant, who had a career year. Locklear is an underrated lineman and both sides seem happy with his deal, but "Tru" poses a bit of problem for the front office. Trufant would like a long-term contract, but he wants Nate Clements-like money. This is a problem, because Trufant doesn't deserve Nate Clements-like money (neither does Nate Clements, for that matter). Perhaps for this reason, rumors are swirling that Trufant may be traded to the New York Giants.
Believe it or not, the Seahawks also rushed to resign backup offensive lineman Floyd "Ham Hock" Womack (we've stripped him of his cool "Pork Chop" nickname due to his frequent injuries). This move freed up significant cap space, for reasons that defy easy explanation. Think of it as the football equivalent of Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract.
That leaves wide receiver D.J. Hackett and kicker Josh Brown as the two players most likely to leave Seattle via free agency. Football Outsiders have been vocal supporters of Hackett throughout his career, but it's hard to stay too excited about a receiver made out of balsa wood. Hackett's agent stated earlier this week that he intends to "test the market," so don't expect him back in blue and teal. As for Brown, well, Seattle ranked 19th in field goal/extra point DVOA last year, yet Brown wants to be among the highest paid kickers in the league. Is he worth $2.5 million? Probably not, and kickers come cheap in the late rounds of the draft (think "Gostkowski") -- or, even better, in free agency (think "Bironas").
(Somewhere between $9.5 and $17 million in cap room, 44 players under contract)
Seahawks fans still haven't fully forgiven Ruskell for losing Steve Hutchinson to free agency two years ago, so the Seattle GM wasted little time in signing former Panthers guard Mike Wahle to a long-term contract in January. Wahle is a two-time Pro Bowler, and while he won't make anyone forget Hutchinson, he should significantly upgrade the line by allowing Rob Sims to slide over to right guard and gently nudging Chris "Old Man" Gray into retirement.
The Seahawks are definitely interested in Alge Crumpler, who would give Holmgren something that he's always wanted: a big tight end with good hands who isn't an alleged rapist. Yes, Crumpler is aging and banged up, but remember that the Seahawks just went an entire season with 35-year old Marcus Pollard at their starter, so they aren't afraid of aging tight ends per se. Crumpler played under Mora and Ruskell in Atlanta, so they know his skill-set, although the character-obsessed Ruskell might have some questions regarding the "MV-7" eye black patches Crumpler sported in apparent support of Michael Vick at the end of last season. If Crumpler lands in Tennessee or Tampa Bay instead, the Hawks might take a look at Eric Johnson, Ben Troupe or Michael Gaines -- yawn -- but drafting a tight end in the second or third round is a better option.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change and the whims of Larry Fitzgerald. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.
46 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2008, 3:17pm by Quentin