Four Downs: AFC North
By Ryan Wilson
Matt Cavanaugh is out and Jim Fassel is in as the new offensive coordinator for a Ravens team that ranked 16th and 30th in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here) during the two years of the Kyle Boller era. Brian Billick hired Rick Neuheisel as the new quarterbacks coach, replacing Fassel, and he'll take over the Kyle Boller Maturation Project. Now, if Baltimore can get Boller some receivers, deal with free agents on the offensive line, and make sure that Jamal Lewis doesn't get shivved during his four-month prison term, they'll be primed for a playoff run.
Not surprisingly, Fassel wants the Ravens to be more balanced, which could very well mean that Lewis only gets 25 carries a game next season. All kidding aside, we'll probably see Fassel play to Boller's strength -- namely using the short and intermediate passing game to set up the run and the occasional play-action pass down the field. Jamal Lewis has been known to voice his displeasure when he feels he's not being utilized properly (read: getting a boatload of carries) but maybe he'll tone it down if a more balanced attack actually leads to more wins.
In seasons past, Baltimore struggled to consistently move the ball through the air: part of that was due to the scheme, and part of that was a result of personnel. Boller will be heading into his third season as the starter, and should have tight end Todd Heap at full strength, but questions still remain about the wide receivers and offensive line.
If one of the Ravens' young receivers can have something resembling a good year, it should take some of the pressure off of Boller and the running game. Randy Hymes, Devard Darling and Clarence Moore are the prime candidates for that role, but one is a converted college quarterback, one missed much of last season with an injury, and the last is still considered a project.
Free Agent Overview
All those question marks at wide receiver are like arrows pointing to the expansive space in Baltimore's player budget. The Ravens are well under the cap heading into free agency and again might try to land a proven wideout. Travis Taylor is as good as gone, and it looks like Kevin Johnson will test the free agent market instead of returning as the leading pass-catcher from a year ago (he had 34 receptions). There have been rumors that the Ravens are interested in Randy Moss or may try to get free agent Plaxico Burress if the Steelers can't re-sign him. If all else fails, Baltimore might look to get a big-play wide receiver early in the draft (they got Darling in the 3rd round a year ago and nabbed Moore in the 6th).
Guard Bennie Anderson and center Casey Rabach are also free agents and their departure would leave the Ravens with some questions along the offensive line. Tackle Orlando Brown had knee problems last season, but without an adequate replacement, he'll probably return in 2005. On defense, cornerback Gary Baxter has indicated that he wants to return to Baltimore. But he's not interested in moving to safety, a position he played early in his career (perhaps this is related to cornerbacks getting paid much better than safeties). And linebacker Ed Hartwell is an unrestricted free agent looking for a big payday, and instead of opening up their wallet, the Ravens might choose to go in another direction.
At various points during the season, it was mentioned that the Ravens might give Ray Lewis an extension, and there have also been reports that they will look to re-negotiate Ed Reed's contract now that he's emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league. Of course, a lot of what happens with Lewis and Reed will be determined by how free agency plays out.
Who Will Run?
Tackle Willie Anderson anchored an offensive line that helped Rudi Johnson rush for over 1,400 yards, but center Rich Braham is a free agent and Cincinnati will have to make a decision on his future with the club.
Tuesday, the Bengals franchised Johnson, which means that he's scheduled to make $6.3 million in 2005. This move seems curious since Johnson has stated that he wants a long-term deal, and has threatened to sit out 2005 if given the franchise tag. Cincinnati has until the summer to work out a deal, but the franchise tag seems reasonable since last year's first round pick, Chris Perry, may not be ready to assume a full-time role -- especially after missing virtually all of 2004 with injuries.
Who Will Stop the Run?
Speaking of Perry, the Bengals are routinely criticized for trading down in the 2004 draft to select him -- especially when names like Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones were still on the board. But Cincinnati used the extra draft picks to take Keiwan Ratliff and Madieu Williams -- two defensive backs who contributed immediately to Cincinnati's much improved pass defense.
Oddly, just like Baltimore's offense, Cincinnati's defense is changing coordinators even though DVOA says they improved from terrible to average last season (from 32nd to 17th, to be exact). Marvin Lewis fired defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier after two seasons and hired Chuck Bresnahan as his replacement. The run defense did not improve as much as the pass defense last season, so expect Lewis and Bresnahan to focus on bolstering the defensive line in the coming months, most likely through the draft. Defensive tackle Tony Williams is an unrestricted free agent and the Bengals may not want to spend much to keep him since he is returning from injury. (You also might remember that last off-season, the Bengals tried to land Warren Sapp to help shore up the run defense, but they refused to overpay for his services.)
With Rudi Johnson now franchised, and the Bengals slightly over the cap, the next decision is what to do about wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. As Al Bogdan wrote last week in Scramble for the Ball, Houshmandzadeh is looking for something in the neighborhood of an $8 million signing bonus. But given Peter Warrick's injury problems and general history of underperformance, do the Bengals really want to lose Houshamandzadeh as the main man lining up opposite Pro Bowler Chad Johnson?
At least we know Johnson will be back, and that coupled with Palmer's maturation and a solid running game should give Cincinnati a real shot at returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Palmer threw 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 2004, but 13 of those touchdowns and only eight of the interceptions came in his final six games. Things are so optimistic in Cincinnati that, for the first time in a long time, the Bengals' front office actually gave the head coach a vote of confidence by extending his contract.
Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo
Romeo Crennel was announced as the new Browns head coach about two minutes after the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and he got to work immediately. He was unsuccessful in getting New England defensive backs coach Eric Mangini as defensive coordinator (Mangini decided to take Crennel's old job) but he's already named Maurice Carthon (ex-Dallas running backs coach) as offensive coordinator, brought over Patriots assistant Jeff Davidson as offensive line coach, and released three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Crennel also made it clear that he wants to establish the run -- especially with the speedy duo of William Green and Lee Suggs -- and look to pass off play-action. And given that the Browns just released their starting quarterback, it's probably a good strategy. Unfortunately, backup Kelly Holcomb is a free agent, and even though he's interested in returning -- and could be the starter in 2005 -- he's not the long-term solution. Second-year quarterback Luke McCown will be back, but he struggled in limited playing time last season. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that the Browns may look to take a quarterback early in this April's draft.
What about the defense? Crennel is a proponent of the 3-4, and now has to restructure the entire Cleveland defensive roster which was set up to play the 4-3. Not that they played it very well -- this is a defensive unit that ranked 21st against the pass and 30th against the run last season, according to DVOA. The defensive line is a unit filled with underachievers, and this defense only recorded 32 sacks in 2004 (as a point of reference, when Crennel was the defensive coordinator in Cleveland in 2000 -- their second year in the league -- the unit recorded 42 sacks). It might be a few years before Cleveland actually shows any signs of turning things around.
Still, despite the questions about the defense and the quarterbacks, Cleveland will have Kellen Winslow back at full strength, plus Suggs, Green, and two underrated wideouts. Antonio Bryant has had trouble with authority both in college and in Dallas, but he has some big games and racked up plenty of yards in a game against Crennel's Patriot defense this season. Dennis Northcutt led the team with 55 receptions last season, in addition to being a solid punt returner.
Free Agent Overview
Perhaps one of the best off-season acquisitions of any team is new Cleveland general manager Phil Savage. He was director of player personnel for the Ravens the past two seasons and -- you won't believe this -- Savage also comes from the Belichick coaching tree. In 1991 then-Browns coach Belichick hired Savage as a defensive assistant to Nick Saban.
The Browns are in good salary cap shape, even though releasing Garcia will lead to a $3 million hit in 2005. If they can re-sign him, Holcomb could be a serviceable starter and should buy Crennel some time while he grooms a long-term replacement. After the quarterback position gets solidified, the offensive line is in need of attention. But given the pedigree of Crennel and Savage, don't expect the Browns to sign any high priced free agents. Instead, Cleveland will look to build success through the draft and by identifying talent overlooked or undervalued by other teams (sound familiar?). If the Browns can somehow patch together an offensive line and get some production from their running backs, it may take some of the pressure off whoever ends up under center.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, coming off a 6-10 season, managed to go 15-1 in 2004, winning the AFC North by a landslide that would make FDR blush while unearthing a rookie quarterback who reeled off 13 regular season victories in a row on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. So what can we expect for the encore in 2005? Well, Bill Cowher has no plans of replacing any of his coaching staff, but he has suggested that Roethlisberger will spend much of the off-season in Pittsburgh getting stronger and looking at film. Specifically, Roethlisberger wants to get a better handle on the intricacies of the zone defense -- something that gave him a lot of trouble during the last third of the season and into the playoffs.
There could be a lot of turnover on this team given the number of free agents and potential salary cap casualties. But, like their rivals in New England, the Steelers found out in 2004 that many of their backups can be solid starters. Linebacker Larry Foote's performance during the 2004 season might make it easier for Pittsburgh to part ways with the 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell. Nose tackle Casey Hampton will return in 2005, but his replacement, undrafted free agent Chris Hoke, was a pleasant surprise in his absence and provides excellent defensive line depth. Another undrafted player, James Harrison, was a top special-teamer and had several strong games at linebacker. His play may allow the Steelers to part ways with 2003 second round pick, linebacker Alonzo Jackson.
Who Stays, Who Goes
Pittsburgh has no plans to pursue any big-name free agents from outside the organization, but they will have some tough decisions to make this off-season regarding their own players. Cornerback Chad Scott is scheduled to make $3.9 million in base salary next season, and if he doesn't re-work his contract, he'll probably be cut.
Guard Keydrick Vincent had a very good season, but he's a free-agent and will be looking for a big payday. Since the Steelers will get guard Kendell Simmons back from injury, Vincent is probably going elsewhere. Pittsburgh would like to re-sign tackle Oliver Ross, but probably as a backup. He also played well in 2004, and with so many NFL teams looking for quality offensive linemen, someone will make Ross an offer that will be tough to turn down. And then there's Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, slated to make $4.2 million in 2005. He'll need to re-work his contract if he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also promised to renegotiate Hines Ward's contract, so that his pay better reflects the fact that he's one of the top receivers in the league. And the Steelers will also have to decide what to do with Plaxico Burress. Ward and Roethlisberger have both made it clear they want Burress back, but can the Steelers afford him? They can choose to franchise him -- they have until February 22 to do so -- or try to work out a long-term deal. But with guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh looking for $8 million signing bonuses, Burress won't come cheap. The Ravens have expressed interest in Burress, but I can't imagine the Steelers would let him go to a division rival.
Oh yeah, some guy named Jerome Bettis is also contemplating retirement. And if Bettis decides to return for one more season, he'll need to re-work his contract as well. Fortunately, the Steelers are relatively deep at the position, so even if Bettis hangs them up, Pittsburgh should be able to manage with Duce Staley, Verron Haynes, and Willie Parker.
Next week: NFC South by Russell Levine