Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
03 Apr 2008
by Ben Riley
Four years, $40 million dollars ($30 million guaranteed!), and the lost opportunity of signing former Rams linebacker Brandon Chillar: That's the true cost of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's new contract with the Cardinals. Due to a plethora of ungodly performance guarantees built into Fitzgerald's previous contract, Arizona was literally without any cap space for almost all of free agency. In fact, even after Fitzgerald signed his new deal over a round of Frappuccinos at an airport Starbucks just prior to leaving on a three-week South American vacation -- and presumably while listening to his agent laugh maniacally in the background -- the Cardinals still had to wait 10 days for the NFL to sign off on the legal "nitty gritties" of the deal. As a result, the up-and-coming Chillar signed with the Green Bay Packers instead of the Cards, even though he actually wanted to play for Arizona (seriously). "I think they just had some in-house issues that they're trying to get fixed," Chillar later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which pretty much sums up the entire history of the Cardinals franchise.
So what were the legal hang-ups that delayed league approval of Fitzgerald's new contract? According to Cardinals general manager Rod Graves, the problem stemmed from the potential for an uncapped year in 2010, which required the Cardinals to "figure out, because of those rules of capped years versus uncapped years, how we preserve the intent of what we had in the agreement." Your guess here is as good as ours, and why this couldn't have been figured out before Fitzgerald left to traipse around Belize flinging doubloons like a drunken pirate remains a complete mystery.
With the Fitzgerald mess finally behind them, the Cardinals can now focus on signing franchised linebacker to Karlos Dansby to a long-term deal. But now they have a new problem with wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who is scheduled to make a mere $2.5 million in base salary this year, $2.75 million in 2009, and $3 million in 2010. The Cardinals can't possibly offer Boldin "Larry Fitzgerald money," but there are rumblings that the Cardinals coaching staff (and the players) think Boldin is actually the better receiver. You can already feel the locker room tension, can't you?
Obviously, there's not much to recap. After losing out on Chillar, the Cardinals did ink former Steelers outside linebacker Clark Haggans to a one-year, $1.5 million deal, which is smart considering that Haggans turned 31 in January. They've also resigned inconsequential receivers Sean Morey and Ahmad Merritt, defensive end Bo Schobel, offensive lineman Elton Brown, and two former Seattle special team castoffs, defensive end Joe Tafoya and receiver Jerheme Urban. Snore.
Cornerback Roderick Hood quietly had an excellent season last year, and Eric Green is serviceable, but with Antrel Rolle moving to free safety the Cardinals definitely need some depth at this position. Draft pundits have fallen in love with the size and speed of Tennessee State's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but Troy's Leodis McKelvin is the better option if the Cardinals decide to go this route. At running back, Edge James seems destined to collapse this year (he turns 30 in August) and J.J. Arrington is looking like a bust, so someone like Felix Jones of Arkansas or Ray Rice from Rutgers could represent good value in the second round. Finally, the Cardinals perpetually need help on the offensive line, thus either of the guards from USC -- Chilo Rachal or Drew Radovich -- would make nice a second-day pick.
The Rams cut wide receiver Isaac Bruce in February after 14 years of productive-to-occasionally spectacular service. Although Bruce hasn't been a game-changing wide receiver for many years, even at age 35 he managed to provide the Rams with 12.2 points of DPAR last year, good for 46th in the league and ahead of guys like Derrick Mason and Bernard Berrian. The fact that the San Francisco 49ers signed Bruce to be their primary wide receiver is clearly insane, but the Rams will miss his sure hands and locker room leadership.
With Bruce gone, only three players remain on the roster from the Rams' 1999 Super Bowl championship team: left tackle Orlando Pace, wide receiver Torry Holt, and defensive end Leonard Little (four if you count the recently resigned Trent Green). There's nothing wrong with letting go of the past, but the problem with the Rams is that their younger players just aren't very good: Alex Barron and Richie Incognito are liabilities on the offensive line, and even after drafting two tight ends in 2006 (Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd), the Rams still felt the need to sign Randy McMichael last year. And as for Drew Bennett, their ostensible No. 2 receiver, he finished with -3.3 DPAR in 2007, 78th in the league and just behind Ted Ginn. It will be interesting to see what sort of production new offensive coordinator Al Saunders manages to squeeze out of this bunch.
The smartest move the Rams made in free agency was to sign former Titans guard Jacob Bell to a six-year, $36 million contract ($20 million guaranteed) to help bolster the offensive line. Although the Rams tried to sign Alan Faneca, Bell may end up being the better long-term option, and if Orlando Pace manages to stay healthy, Steven Jackson should have fun running to the left side this year. The Rams also re-signed center Brett Romberg, who is adequate at best and will probably compete for starting time with Incognito. Journeyman wide receiver and Visine-spokesman Reche Caldwell was added to the roster, presumably to keep Dante Hall company on the bench after the offense goes three-and-out.
With his new five-year, $14.2 million contract (including a $4 million signing bonus), the Rams made former Seahawks kicker Josh Brown the highest paid kicker in NFL history. Note to Rams front office: In order to win games with clutch field-goal kicking, you need to be trailing by three points or less in the fourth quarter.
There's no need to overthink things here: the Rams should take Michigan left tackle Jake Long with the second overall pick in the draft. He's an outstanding talent who could play right tackle immediately while preparing to ultimately take over for Pace in 2010. If the Dolphins take Long instead, the Rams seem interested in LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, but Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston would actually be a better fit for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme. The team desperately needs help at wide receiver and someone like LSU's Early Doucet would give Bulger a big, reliable target over the middle. This is not a great year for centers, but Notre Dame's John Sullivan is an intriguing prospect who is strong and smart, and he should be available on day two of the draft.
Here's all you really need to know about the bizarre 49ers/Bears Lance Briggs-contract tampering scandal that led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to strip the 49ers of their fifth-round pick and forced them to swap third-rounders with Chicago:
Standing alone, the loss of a fifth-round pick might not seem devastating, but it's somewhat emblematic of the 49ers' troubled off-season as a whole. For example, after bringing Mike Martz on board to revamp the offense -- a questionable move in its own right -- new General Manager Scot McCloughan failed to land any of the premium free agent wide receivers (i.e., Bernard Berrian or D.J. Hackett) and instead signed the aging Isaac Bruce from the Rams and chronic underachiever Bryant Johnson from the Cardinals. After the fiasco that was Darrell Jackson (who was unceremoniously dumped in March), you would think the 49ers would have lost their penchant for NFC West wide receiver cast-offs, but apparently McCloughan is serious about going into battle with these guys.
As expected, the 49ers signed former Bengals defensive end Justin Smith to a six-year, $35 million deal ($20 million guaranteed). Smith will replace the now-retired Bryant Young, and even though Smith's production slipped a bit last year, he should be a good fit for head coach Mike Nolan's 3-4 defense. The 49ers also lost defensive end Marques Douglas to the Buccaneers, making the Smith signing all the more critical to the 49ers' success this year.
Alex Smith's midseason injury proved that Trent Dilfer enjoys coaching the quarterback position far more than he enjoys actually playing football, so the 49ers were wise to cut him. To replace Dilfer, Mike Martz brought quarterback John Thomas "That's J.T. to You" O'Sullivan with him from Detroit, presumably so that Sullivan can hold the clipboard while fantasizing about his one touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson last year.
The loss of guard Justin Smiley to the Miami Dolphins leaves a big hole in the offensive line. Luckily, the 49ers have the seventh pick in the draft, so they should be able to take Boise State's Ryan Clady or Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah ... What's that, you say? The 49ers traded their pick to the New England Patriots last year so they could move up and take Joe Staley? Bummer. Luckily, the 49ers do have a first-round pick, courtesy of their draft-day trade last year with the Colts, but they still will have to wait until pick No. 29 to make their first selection. The team has needs virtually everywhere so it's really a "best available" scenario, although gigantic guard Branden Albert from Virginia would be a nice fit. The 49ers are frustrated with linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, so don't be surprised if they reach a little for someone in the second round (keep an eye on Purdue's Cliff Avril).
(Ed. Note: In the 49ers' defense, if they had not made that trade with the Patriots, they would currently have two big holes on the offensive line. Instead, they have Joe Staley ready to move to left tackle in 2008.)
On March 21, the Seahawks signed linebacker Lofa Tatupu to a six-year, $42 million contract extension through 2015 (including $18 million in guaranteed money). The most remarkable aspect of Tatupu's contract is not that he will still make $1 million per year less than fellow linebacker Julian Peterson, or that he left money on the table so that Seattle could resign cornerback Marcus Trufant to an even more lucrative deal (more on that momentarily). Instead, what's truly impressive is that no less than four Seahawks -- Patrick Kerney, Deon Grant, Jordan Babineaux, and Craig Terrill -- agreed to restructure their own deals to provide the cap space to rework Tatupu's contract. That's a testament both to Tatupu's defensive leadership and the benefits of general manager Tim Ruskell's character-driven approach to personnel decisions.
As for Trufant, he agreed to a six-year, $50.2 million extension that will pay him approximately $8.3 million annually. That's about $1 million per year less than the deals that cornerbacks Asante Samuels and DeAngelo Hall received from the Eagles and Raiders, respectively. Of course, unlike Pennsylvania and California, Washington does not have a state income tax, which may explain in part why Trufant was willing to accept a "hometown discount."
Meanwhile, the Shaun Alexander death watch continues. Somewhat surprisingly, the Seahawks signed running backs "Orange" Julius Jones and T.J. "The Human Bowling Ball" Duckett in free agency, so it's only a matter of time before Alexander is either cut or traded, although it's hard to see how the Seahawks could get anything more than a seventh-round pick for him (and even that may be generous). Oh, how far a fantasy football god doth fall.
And the winner of the D.J. Hackett sweepstakes is ... the Carolina Panthers. Steve Smith has to be excited about the possibility of facing single coverage for the first time in three years, though his excitement will wane when Hackett goes down with a non-contact injury in Week 3 or so. With Hackett gone, Deion Branch recovering from a torn ACL, and Bobby "Sure Hands but Unsure Thyroid" Engram on the wrong side of 35, the Seahawks suddenly have a lot of questions at wide receiver (and Nate Burleson isn't the answer to any of them).
Unlike Tatupu or Trufant, kicker Josh Brown wasn't willing to take less money to play in the Pacific Northwest, so now he'll kick for the Rams on Sundays in between visits to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Purina Farms and whatever else it is people do in St. Louis. In response, the Seahawks signed former Saints kicker Olindo Mare, who went 10-for-17 last year. Going from Josh Brown to Olindo Mare is sort of like trading in your Toyota Camry for a Kia Spectra, reliability-wise, so Seahawks fans will be hoping that Ruskell finds a late-round gem in the draft.
The Seahawks pursued but failed to land Alge Crumpler (who signed with the Titans), so unless they are serious about the Jeb Putzier Experience, Seattle will be drafting a tight end on April 26. Fellow FO writer/Seahawks supporter Doug Farrar thinks Texas A&M's Marcellus Bennett is the guy to watch, but if he's not available in the second round, Notre Dame's John Carlson has the sort of work ethic and "intangibles" that make Tim Ruskell salivate, and he just may be the most complete tight end available this year.
With Jones and Duckett on the roster, the Seahawks no longer have a pressing need at running back, but Oregon's Jonathan Stewart is a potential superstar who apparently wants to play in Seattle. The Seahawks would be wise to snag him if he falls to them in the first round. If not, either defensive end Phillip Merling of Clemson or Derrick Harvey of Florida would satiate Ruskell's fetish for defensive players from the SEC.
Finally, we've said it before and we'll say it again: Seneca Wallace should be moved to wide receiver. For that to happen, the Seahawks will need someone other than "Chaz" Frye on the roster to serve as the backup quarterback. Despite his equally silly name, USC quarterback John David Booty could easily manage Seattle's West Coast offense, and he should be available in the fourth round.
61 comments, Last at 30 Apr 2008, 1:14pm by George