Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 May 2009
by Sean McCormick
The two goals of the offseason were to add pass rush to a defense that sacked the quarterback on only 4.7 percent of opposing pass plays, and to strengthen an offensive line that failed to convert too many times in short-yardage situations. The Bills dedicated the first day of their draft to that end, using first-round picks on Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin and Louisville center/guard Eric Wood, and then trading into the second round to select Oregon State's Andy Levitre. Problems solved? Not necessarily. There were mixed reviews on Maybin, who played at 240 pounds in college and who struggled to move with the extra weight when he bulked up for the combine. Detractors pointed to his lack of technique, to his light frame and to his inability to hold up against the run. Supporters pointed to the fact that Maybin has the best first step in the draft and argued that you can teach technique, but you can't teach speed. This was the same draft slot where Indianapolis took Dwight Freeney, and Maybin is a similar type of prospect, if a less productive one. He won't be a starter this year, but he has a chance to make an immediate impact as an edge rusher on third downs.
Wood is a big, tough player with good technique, and he should immediately boost Buffalo's yardage on inside runs, where the team only averaged 3.89 yards per carry in 2008. Wood played center for Louisville, but the Bills addressed center in free agency when they signed Geoff Hartgardner away from Carolina, so Wood will start his career in Buffalo at right guard. The biggest problem with the pick is not with the player but with the diminution of value, because Wood was taken with the pick Buffalo received from Philadelphia for left tackle Jason Peters. Even if Peters was a somewhat overrated player who had no business going anywhere near the Pro Bowl this season, you could count on one hand the number of teams that would trade a talented left tackle for a center and still have four fingers left over. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Bills don't have any clear replacement for Peters on the roster, and they did not address the tackle position in the draft. For now the plan is to swing Langston Walker to the left side and to muddle through an open competition for the right tackle spot. Head coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Turk Schonert insist that they like what they have on the roster, but in truth they have no other option but to talk up the in-house options while they wait for a few veterans to become available after the June 1st cuts. While Terrell Owens will get most of the attention this coming season, Trent Edwards won't be finding T.O. very often if he's constantly hitting the deck.
USC defensive end Gerald Washington is a project player, a reserve player at USC who began his college career as a tight end before converting to defensive end for his junior season. At 6-foot-6, Washington has attractive size and wingspan, and there is certainly a chance that a backup at USC has more talent than a starter somewhere else. The Bills are looking for linebacker depth, so Joe Mortensen of Kansas and Solomon Elimimian of Hawaii, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year, will get a long look. Clemson's Cullen Harper was considered a decent prospect after his junior season, but his play was so spotty this season that he spent some time on the bench. There is definitely room on the roster for a talented developmental quarterback, so Harper has a chance to stick.
Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland formed their draft plan sometime during Miami's 48-28 loss to New England, when Matt Cassel played catch with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and company to the tune of 415 yards and three touchdowns while Dolphins defenders watched helplessly. The front office knew that they needed to upgrade the secondary if Miami was to compete with New England for a second straight AFC East title. Parcells has always been a speed/size drafter, and he stayed true to form, selecting 6-foot cornerback Vontae Davis out of Illinois in the first round and Utah's 6-foot-3 corner Sean Smith in the second round. Both players are significant risks. Davis was one of the most controversial prospects in the draft, with some teams falling in love with his elite speed and athleticism while other teams downgraded him for his inconsistent play and questionable work ethic. Davis' older brother Vernon was another tremendous physical specimen, but his career to date with the 49ers has been a disappointment. Smith doesn't have character concerns, but he may not have the kind of quickness to stay with receivers when they come out of their breaks, and many teams feel that his future at the NFL level is at safety, not cornerback. Still, Parcells has had good success with big press corners like Otis Smith and Anthony Henry, and there is no doubt that Smith has the size to cause problems for the big receivers in the division. The rookies will pair with free agent signings Eric Green and Gibril Wilson to solidify the secondary.
Chad Pennington is still very much the quarterback of the present and Chad Henne is the quarterback of the future, so Pat White will have to break into the lineup as the triggerman in the Wildcat. White ran for more than 4,400 yards while at West Virginia, and he showed more than enough arm strength during the draft process to force teams to respect his passing. The Dolphins may also try some spread-option plays with White, although it's not clear that they have enough receivers to keep the defense honest.
After not addressing the need for a pass rushing outside linebacker to pair with Joey Porter, the Dolphins signed Virginia Tech defensive end Orion Martin, who projects to an edge rusher in Miami's 3-4 defense. Martin, who walked on at Virginia Tech, registered 7.5 sacks last season. Purdue's Ryan Baker has the build to play the five technique and could stick as quality depth. Tight end Jared Bronson played Division II ball at Central Washington, and he might hang around as a developmental prospect considering the lack of depth Miami has at the position.
You might need a scorecard to keep pace with all of the Patriots' offseason wheeling and dealing, but the most important development is that Tom Brady is on schedule to be fully recovered from his knee injury and ready to participate in all team activities. To make sure that Brady is well stocked with weapons, the team went heavily after veteran acquisitions, trading for Philadelphia's Greg Lewis and Tampa Bay's Alex Smith and signing Joey Galloway, Chris Baker, and Fred Taylor. None of those moves are likely to produce a starting player, but they will help the team weather any injuries they might suffer. Baker and Smith will both see the field, because according to our numbers, Ben Watson was one of the least effective tight ends in football last year. Baker is a solid in-line blocker and has reliable hands, while Alex Smith is better when he's moved around to generate mismatches.
Ellis Hobbs followed Asante Samuel to Philadelphia, but he won't be missed provided Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden still have something left in the tank and second-round steal Darius Butler develops on schedule. Depth was addressed in the second round of the draft where, in addition to Butler, the Patriots added Boston College run-stuffer Ron Brace and Oregon safety Patrick Chung. Chung is there to replace Rodney Harrison as an in-the-box safety option, while Brace provides quality depth and insurance should the team be unwilling or unable to meet Vince Wilfork's contract demands. With the secondary addressed, the only serious question mark on the defense is the pass rush. Mike Vrabel went to Kansas City as part of the Matt Cassel package, and while he is a shell of his former self, he will be missed. Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, and Shawn Crable will be counted on to apply pressure, along with the returning Tully Banta-Cain, who busted after signing a free agent deal with the 49ers.
Roster spots are hard to come by in New England, but a few players have a chance to stick. Brian Hoyer possesses an NFL skill set, but he mostly played in the shotgun at Michigan State, and he was inconsistent in his delivery and his decision making. With Matt Cassel calling Arrowhead Stadium home these days, it makes sense that the team would want to add another developmental prospect behind Kevin O'Connell. Al Groh coached up Virginia linebacker Antonio Appleby, and Virginia linebackers have performed well in the pros. Appleby is strictly an inside guy in a 3-4 scheme who needs to be protected because he doesn't move well laterally, but he is a good fit for what the Patriots do. Appleby's chances of making the roster went up tremendously when Tyron Mackenzie hurt his knee in mini-camp.
Rex Ryan was one of Joe Flacco's biggest advocates when he was in Baltimore, and he's clearly comfortable with the prospect of playing Mark Sanchez right away. Sanchez has a good play-action fake and is accurate while on the move, so he is probably the quarterback best equipped to take advantage of the Jets' fifth-ranked rushing game. The NFL generally isn't kind to rookies with 16 college starts under their belt, but those rookies don't generally start behind quality offensive lines or have a backfield of Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and now Shonn Greene, either. The Jets may break a league record for carries in a season if they can't find someone beyond Jerricho Cotchery to step up. Laveranues Coles is gone, and for now there is a motley group of slot receivers and practice squad types to replace him. Look for the Jets to be prominently associated with Plaxico Burress, Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards and any other big-name wide receiver to be dangled as trade bait this summer.
No Baltimore coordinator has successfully created an elite defense in his new digs (Marvin Lewis had a good year in Washington but as a coordinator, not as head coach), but Ryan inherited a lot of quality players, and he went out and added some more by signing Bart Scott, Marques Douglas and Jim Leonard, as well as trading for disgruntled cornerback Lito Sheppard. He could use some pass rush, but that's where second-year man Vernon Gholston is supposed to step in. Depth could be an issue, particularly after the team had to trade away safety Abram Elam and defensive end Kenyon Coleman to get Sanchez, and the team will probably look long and hard at some undrafted free agents to augment the bottom of the roster.
As usual, Mike Tannenbaum signed a passel of free agents, and with the team only having three draft choices this year, there's a good chance for some of these guys to make the final roster. Local product Jamaal Westerman has turned heads in mini-camp, looking more fluid in a hybrid linebacker/end role than last year's first-round pick Vernon Gholston. There is only one tight end on the roster at the moment, so even unconventional prospects like Arkansas' Andrew Davie, who is a converted defensive lineman, and J'Nathan Bullock, who was a basketball player at Cleveland State, have a chance to stick. The team has liked looking at Nebraska prospects since ex-Husker coach Bill Callahan joined the staff, so defensive end Zach Potter will get a look.
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