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.
04 May 2009
by Bill Barnwell
The next set of Four Downs recaps the offseason work done by each team, and what stands out with regards to successful work or holes remaining. Portions appeared originally on ESPN Insider. This round's FO-exclusive content, as customary with the post-draft Four Downs, is analysis of each team's crop of undrafted free agents.
Despite fanciful talk of Ray Lewis and Julius Peppers making their way to the Lone Star state, Dallas mostly held serve this offseason. They replaced the departing Zach Thomas and Chris Canty with Keith Brooking and Igor Olshansky, respectively, two players who bring roughly the same set of strengths and weaknesses to the table.
After arguably missing the playoffs because of their lack of a NFL-caliber backup quarterback, the Cowboys traded for Jon Kitna, shoring up the weakest spot on their roster. Kitna's ranked between 21st and 37th in quarterback DVOA in each of the last five seasons; he should rate among the league's better backups.
The biggest change, though, will come on offense; the departure of Terrell Owens means that Roy Williams becomes the Cowboys' lead target in the passing game. That means more passes to both him and Jason Witten, who will fill the 1A role. Starting across from him will likely be Miles Austin; Austin was fourth in the league in DVOA last year, and while he was only thrown 23 passes, his success with those throws indicates that he has, at the very least, the potential to be a useful player.
The Cowboys brought eight rookie free agents in for their rookie minicamp, including two players who declared for the draft as underclassmen and weren't selected. West Virginia guard Greg Isdaner is a tweener; after playing as a guard in WVU's spread offense, he's quick and has good technique, but he doesn't have the upper-body strength guards need to handle NFL-sized tackles, nor does he have enough quickness to move outside to tackle. 6'1" Virginia wide receiver Kevin Ogletree missed all of 2007 with a torn ACL, and after putting up 723 yards and five scores as a redshirt junior, he elected to head to the pros. Ogletree's a good athlete with poor technique who will need to be coached up to have an impact.
Much like Dallas, the Giants' offseason rumor mill churned through Day Two of the draft without yielding a big name. Plaxico Burress was released as expected, but instead of pursuing Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards, Big Blue elected to draft Hakeem Nicks in the first round and hope that he, third-round pick Ramses Barden, and incumbent Domenik Hixon can combine to replace Burress' reps.
While the front seven was already a strong point for New York, the organization chose to take that grouping to the next level. By adding linebackers Michael Boley and Clint Sintim to go along with defensive tackles Chris Canty (moving over from end) and Rocky Bernard, the Giants will be capable of doing virtually anything with their front seven on passing downs. After the defense wore down in the second half, the Giants will rotate in and out far more frequently to keep studs like Justin Tuck and the returning Osi Umenyiora fresh, both later in games and later in the season.
New York also added depth to the offensive line by taking UConn tackle William Beatty with their other second-round pick. The Giants have had the healthiest offensive line in football over the past two years; they're the only team in football whose five starters have answered the bell for every single regular season game over that timeframe. (Center Shaun O'Hara missed a playoff game in 2007.) That's a testament to their toughness, but it's also a bit of luck; expect New York to need Beatty at one point or another this year.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the undrafted free agents the Giants brought in was defensive lineman Alex Field, formerly of Virginia. The 6'6", 267-pound Field is very raw, and only started as a senior, but he has the size and the athleticism the Giants look for. Of course, he's only behind 17 or 18 great athletes in New York, so he's probably a practice squad guy at best.
Four cornerstones of Philadelphia football won't be appearing in green and white this upcoming season. The most prominent departure is safety Brian Dawkins, whose leadership far outweighs his remaining ability on the field. He will likely be replaced by Quintin Demps, last seen getting burnt by Larry Fitzgerald and decking Kurt Warner for a late hit in the NFC Championship Game. Corner Lito Sheppard left for the Jets, but like Dawkins, his name recognition far outweighed his performance over the past couple of seasons. His spot as the dime corner is now Ellis Hobbs'; the former Patriots corner will seek to regain his reputation as a promising defensive back in part-time play.
On offense, tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan leave after starting for nine consecutive seasons together on the Philly offensive line. They replaced them with able lieutenants in Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters (left) and up-and-comer Stacy Andrews (right), brother of embattled guard Shawn, who missed the majority of the season with emotional issues and a back injury. They should help make up one of the best lines in football, but it will likely take a few games for them to meld into a cohesive unit.
They also added Missouri wideout Jeremy Maclin with their first pick; Maclin should contribute immediately as a downfield threat across from DeSean Jackson, and gives the Eagles, at the very least, someone who can keep up with Jackson in the case that the former Cal star fumbles the ball before crossing the plane of the goal line again.
There's all kinds of potential fits here. Wake Forest K/P Sam Swank had a groin injury in 2008, but was 9-of-12 from 50+ yards from 2005 through 2007, and registered 47 touchbacks over the same timeframe. 225-pound Walter Mendenhall -- brother of Rashard -- transferred from Illinois to Illinois State for his final year and has a good track record as a short-yardage back. Indiana back Marcus Thigpen was a first-team All America as a sophomore returning kicks. Finally, Vanderbilt safety Reshard Langford is an intimidating run blitzer and stout special teams gunner who could make the roster if Sean Jones washes out.
After a year off, Daniel Snyder's back to flirting with the biggest names he can find. He was successful in acquiring Albert Haynesworth, who should help strengthen a pass rush that had only 24 sacks a year ago, as well as a rush defense that was 28th in the league against runs up the middle (according to our Adjusted Line Yards statistic). Expect to see Haynesworth combine with defensive ends Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo, their first-round pick, on the same style of stunts and twists Haynesworth employed with Kyle Vanden Bosch in Tenneseee.
Unfortunately, his arrival meant the end of Jason Taylor's short stint in Washington, depriving the Redskins of their most fancied pass rusher. The Redskins also cut injury-riddled linebacker Marcus Washington and don't have an obvious replacement; that should be their biggest hole in 2009, and one teams will exploit with passes to their tight ends.
Snyder and GM Vinny Cerrato then went after both Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez unsuccessfully, despite the fact that Jason Campbell's improved his completion percentage, thrown for more touchdowns, and decreased his interception percentage in each of his three seasons as the Redskins' quarterback. The only offensive change they made was swapping out veteran guard Pete Kendall for former Redskin Derrick Dockery, a cap casualty in Buffalo. Dockery's a better pass blocker than Kendall, which should help curb Campbell's one noticeable flaw -- his rising sack rate.
Washington's most prominent UFA was former Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel, who will compete for a roster spot with Colt Brennan, his fellow 2007 Heisman Trophy nominee. With Washington still light at defensive end, someone to watch might be Illinois defensive end Derek Walker, whose mix of strength at the point of attack and solid technique could get him onto the active roster as opposed to the practice squad.
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