by Ryan Wilson
Also check out the previous edition of Four Downs: AFC North.
Since the last edition of Four Downs, Jamal Lewis has graduated from prison to a halfway house, the Ravens made Todd Heap the highest paid tight end in the league, and Deion Sanders signed on for one more year.
Since Lewis only has one more year left on his contract, Baltimore would like to get a deal done sometime before the season starts. This move seems curious since (a) Lewis is coming off an injury-plagued 2004 season that also included a two-game suspension for drug charges, and (b) after a 2,000-yard season in 2003, Lewis had only three 100-yard rushing games (out of the 11 full games he played) last season. If Baltimore is unable to sign Lewis, they may consider franchising him.
The Ravens front office also considers Todd Heap an important part of this offense, as was evidenced by the new six-year deal he signed earlier this month. Like Lewis, Heap missed a lot of action last season because of a high ankle sprain. This off-season he had knee and shoulder surgeries and he won't be 100 percent until late into preseason.
Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel has stressed the importance yards after catch during minicamp and will continue to preach that message heading into the season. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are both well suited to for this role but this will all be contingent on Kyle Boller's ability to get them the ball. This spring Fassel mentioned that he wanted to have Boller's completion percentage around 65%, which is roughly 10% higher than his career average. This is equivalent to Ray Lewis asking for a $50 million signing bonus even though he's at least two years removed from his last dominating season.
Deion Sanders will be 38 in August but Baltimore hopes to pencil him in as the nickel back and 35-year old Dale Carter at dime back. Last season Sanders only played in nine games because of injuries, and Carter missed the entire season because of a blood clot. After Sanders and Carter, names like Raymond Walls and Chad Williams litter the depth chart, which means that if any starter goes down, one of the best secondaries in the AFC could quickly become a liability.
It's been well documented that the Ravens will switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and 46 formations. This means that cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister will be put in a lot of man coverage with safety Ed Reed playing centerfield. Reed, arguably the best defensive player in the league, has two years left on his contract, but he's also eager to sign a new deal. He'll make $550,000 in 2005, which is roughly 1/100 of the signing bonus Ray Lewis wants on his next contract.
One of the questions heading into training camp was the health of two former first rounders, WR Peter Warrick and RB Chris Perry. Warrick missed much of last season with a broken leg and there was some speculation that he would be released this off-season. That has yet to happen, but if Warrick does remain in Cincinnati he may see a reduced role because of the emergence of slot receiver Kelley Washington and the addition of third round pick, Chris Henry.
The other nominee for "biggest first-round bust still employed by the team that drafted him" is Perry. He is recovering from sports hernia surgery and might be finally healthy enough to actually participate in training camp. Ironically, now that Perry is healthy, the Bengals may end up going with Kenny Watson as Rudi Johnson's backup since he did such a good job in that role in 2004.
Defensively, Cincinnati hopes that their first and second round draft picks from this past April can immediately step into starting roles and contribute. OLB David Pollack and ILB Odell Thurman are both physical and fast and the more they become comfortable with the defense -- and in Pollack's case, a move from defensive end -- the more consistent this unit should be.
The Bengals also strengthened their practice squad this week when they signed former Ohio State QB Craig Krenzel. Of course, that's assuming he's able to beat out the Bengals current number three, Casey Bramlet (fresh off his NFL Europe season) and rookie free agent Josh Haldi.
Ruben Droughns was traded to Cleveland this spring and promptly held out for a new contract thanks in part to the advice of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Droughns, now the anti-T.O., has since ended his holdout -- even though he doesn't have a new deal -- proving that just because you demand more money doesn't mean (a) you're going to get it, and (b) you're worth it. The fact that head coach Romeo Crennel announced that the starting job was Lee Suggs's to lose probably also hastened Droughns's return.
Guard Ross Verba never got that far. He also demanded a new contract -- one that was promised to him by Butch Davis -- and Cleveland promptly signed L.J. Shelton and gave Verba his walking papers. According to Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository, many in the Cleveland locker room were glad to see Verba go because of his surly demeanor and perceived selfishness.
Still, there are some questions about the offensive line, especially if any of the starters are lost to injury. RT Ryan Tucker and C Jeff Faine are returning from knee injuries and Cleveland just signed T Marcus Spears primarily as a run-blocker. The success of this unit will be critical to establishing the running game and, perhaps more importantly, keeping Trent Dilfer off his bum, which is no small feat when you consider that he's a bigger, slower version of Jeff Garcia (with the same haircut, however).
Making matters more complicated is the fact that the Browns will be without Kellen Winslow for all of 2005. His replacements, Aaron Shea and Steve Heiden, are both underrated, and the tight end position may still play an important role in this offense, especially if opposing defenses look to double team Braylon Edwards, Antonio Bryant, or Dennis Northcutt on a regular basis.
Currently the depth chart lists rookie Charlie Frye and second-year practice squad regular Josh Harris as Dilfer's backups. Because of this inexperience, the Browns signed veteran Doug Johnson, the same guy who replaced Michael Vick in 2003 when he went down in the preseason with a broken leg. In that season, Johnson made eight starts, threw for 1,655 yards and sported a -10.6 DPAR. He is the only backup quarterback to have a FO fundamental law named after him.
Heading into training camp the biggest concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers is depth along the offensive line. Gone are RG Keydrick Vincent (Baltimore) and RT Oliver Ross (Arizona) and in their place are former first round pick Kendall Simmons and second year player Max Starks. Simmons is returning from a knee injury and Starks is unproven. He's listed at 6'7", 335 lbs and is the biggest lineman on the roster. There have been some questions about his footwork, but this could be trial by fire since perennial backup Barrett Brooks and 2005 third round pick Trai Essex are behind him on the depth chart. Although the Steelers' offensive line had three Pro Bowlers last season, the depth chart is comprised of journeymen and rookies.
First round pick TE Heath Miller should be fully healed from a sports hernia injury he suffered during his junior season at Virginia. His athleticism will give Roethlisberger an option in the middle of the field while also taking some of the pressure off a receiving corps that will be without Plaxico Burress for the first time in five seasons.
Heading into the off-season, the Steelers made it clear that re-signing Hines Ward to a long-term deal was a top priority. Ward has one year remaining on his contract and he's slated to make $1.7 million in 2005, which would've ranked 15th best last season. Interestingly, while there has been no progress in the negations, Ward doesn't consider holding out of training camp a real option.
DT Casey Hampton also has one year left on his contract and Pittsburgh might wait until after the season to try and re-sign him. Hampton is coming off a serious knee injury that kept him out most of last season, and because he's one of the best nose tackles in the league, his asking price could end up being too high. As insurance, the Steelers re-signed his replacement, Chris Hoke. Hoke was signed as an undrafted free agent out of BYU, and after spending his first few seasons not even dressing for games, his play was a pleasant surprise. The defense, at least statistically, improved with him as the starter.
CB Willie Williams will head into training camp as the starter even though he's almost 35 years old. Pittsburgh has stocked up at the defensive back position in recent years and last year's second round pick, Ricardo Colclough, could eventually replace Williams as the season progresses. The Steelers also took Florida State's Bryant McFadden with this year's second round pick. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac, McFadden could see more playing time because the organization is becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of third-year player Ike Taylor.
Next week: NFC South by Russell Levine.