by Aaron Schatz
(Note: Sorry for releasing this so late. I was waiting for the CBA decision to be decided so I didn't have to constantly write "if a new CBA, if not a new CBA." Then the CBA negotiations dragged on ... and on ... and on ... Anyway, we'll start the second round of Four Downs in a couple of weeks once we have free agent movement to write about.)
Adventures in Self-Delusion
There is a little-known NFL rule stating that teams must waive a veteran starter for each year a newly-hired general manager has been collecting Social Security. So please welcome 80-year-old Marv Levy back to Buffalo, and say goodbye to defensive tackle Sam Adams, tight end Mark Campbell, and safety Lawyer Milloy.
What about veteran wide receiver Eric Moulds? Moulds did not see eye-to-eye with the previous Bills regime, even getting suspended for a game during the 2005 season. His numbers have dropped in recent years and he has an absurdly high cap figure of $10.85 million. The team asked him to take a pay cut, and he refused. The team planned on releasing him and moving on. But the new CBA changes things, and the team could theoretically keep Moulds under the new, higher cap. But why would they want to?
Moulds' "personal advisor," Greg Johnson, told the Buffalo News that "We believe Eric is a top-10 talent at his position and he should be paid that way." Two question: what is a "personal advisor" anyway, and who is this guy trying to fool? Our advanced stats at Football Outsiders have ranked Moulds as a below-average receiver for three straight seasons; check out the 2005 numbers, and you'll find Moulds way down, ranked 56th in DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement) out of 89 receivers thrown at least 40 passes. Moulds is no longer the best receiver on his team, let alone one of the top 10 in the entire NFL or even the AFC. (For fun, here's a list of 10 AFC receivers who are clearly better than Moulds, in random order: Hines Ward, Marvin Harrison, Deion Branch, Chad Johnson, Rod Smith, Randy Moss, Chris Chambers, Reggie Wayne, Eddie Kennison, and teammate Lee Evans.)
This team needs to make decisions with the long-term goal of making a Super Bowl, not the short-term goal of patching over the holes and going 8-8. The return of Moulds would be a good sign that the Bills are headed in the wrong direction. The quarterback competition between J.P. Losman and Kelly Holcomb is emblematic of this problem. Losman struggled in his first season, so if the goal is to win now, Holcomb is the clear choice. But it seems ridiculous to spend a first-round pick on a quarterback only to give up on him after half a season, and Losman has to play in order to improve.
Another issue is the offensive line, where the Bills need to find some young linemen and teach them to play together rather than bringing in retreads like Mike Gandy and Bennie Anderson. (The pulling guard is supposed to hit the hole before the running back, Bennie.) The best signings that the Bills could make in free agency would be young offensive linemen with just three or four years of experience who still might have their best years ahead of them. Atlanta free agent left tackle Kevin Shaffer is proven and still just 25 years old. Tackle Tom Ashworth and guard Stephen Neal are slightly older, but both have Super Bowl experience with the rival Patriots. The Bills could also try to steal a restricted free agent like Jacksonville guard Vince Manuwai.
Saban of Miami, meet Pyrrhus of Epiris
When Nick Saban took over as head coach of the Dolphins a year ago, most people expected that it would take two or three years to make the Dolphins winners again. But Saban did not want to wait that long, so while he drafted a lot of young talent to build the team for the future, he also signed a number of veterans to strengthen the team in the short term. It took a while, but in the end Saban got the results he wanted. Six straight wins to end the season gave Miami a 9-7 record and set the Dolphins up as a sleeper Super Bowl contender for 2006.
But those six wins came with a three-million dollar price tag. The Dolphins felt that journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte gave them the best chance to win those games, and they kept him in the lineup. That didn't just keep the Dolphins from giving experience to younger quarterbacks like Cleo Lemon. It also meant that Frerotte earned $3 million in playing time incentives, giving him a $7 million salary cap number for 2006.
Luckily, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith was nice enough to drop a solution right in Saban's lap. San Diego's misguided decision to let Drew Brees leave as a free agent means that Miami could end up signing one of the league's best young quarterbacks and dropping him right into the team's biggest hole. Brees' shoulder injury requires much less rehabilitation than the knee injuries suffered by Daunte Culpepper and Carson Palmer, and Dr. James Andrews says Brees should be back to full strength by training camp. Minnesota, headed for an acrimonious divorce from Culpepper, will be the strongest competition for Brees. If the Dolphins can convince him to come to Miami, they will dramatically upgrade their offense and be free to divest themselves of Frerotte's killer $7 million cap number. If Brees goes elsewhere, the Dolphins could sign Culpepper or Patrick Ramsey, or grab a quarterback in the second or third round of the draft, but they would probably have to keep Frerotte around as insurance.
Never Trust Anyone over 30
Conventional wisdom says Miami is a young and hungry team on the way up, but there's one problem with that assessment: this team is not young. This was a team with a veteran defense and a 34-year-old journeyman veteran at quarterback. And talented veterans become declining veterans, and then salary cap casualties. The Dolphins had to get rid of cornerbacks Sam Madison and Reggie Howard, safety Tebucky Jones, and linebacker Junior Seau in order to get under the salary cap.
The good news for the Dolphins is that Madison was the only defensive starter cut, and the team already has a replacement for him in Will Poole, who was supposed to start opposite Madison last year until he lost his sophomore campaign to an ACL injury. The bad news? Athletes usually do not return to full strength until two years after an ACL injury, and the Dolphins have no cornerback depth behind Poole and Travis Daniels. And while the cornerbacks are young, the front seven is old. Yes, players like Jason Taylor and Kevin Carter are still playing well, but talented older players are eventually going to decline. Every member of the projected starting front seven will be over 30 years old when the 2006 season begins except one, second-year linebacker Channing Crowder.
The Dolphins also need to find a new left tackle, since last year's starter Damion McIntosh was also part of the recent cap purge. The Dolphins could stay local by taking Eric Winston out of "The U" with the 16th overall selection in this year's draft, and they are also said to be interested in Cleveland free agent L.J. Shelton.
Or, maybe Saban will just keep adding old guys. Early reports say the Dolphins are talking to 33-year-old ex-Bills defensive tackle Sam Adams and 35-year-old ex-Jets center Kevin Mawae.
New England Patriots
The biggest move made by the Patriots since the season ended was the decision not to place the franchise tag on kicker Adam Vinatieri for a second straight season. The Patriots have offered Vinatieri a contract worth over $2 million annually that would keep him the highest-paid kicker in the NFL, but they were unwilling to pay Vinatieri the one-year, $3 million contract that would have come with the franchise tag.
How much will the Patriots lose if they let Vinatieri go? Vinatieri is one of the better kickers in the league, but he's subject to the same year-to-year inconsistency as other kickers. In fact, Vinatieri has only hit 80 percent of his field goals in two of the past five years. He was worth just 1.7 points more than an average field goal kicker this season, which ranked him below such luminaries as Mike Nugent and Phil Dawson. Our estimates say field position from Vinatieri's kickoffs were worth an additional 5.3 points to the Patriots this year, which ranked seventh in the NFL. But this was the best season of Vinatieri's career for kickoffs, and he's not likely to improve in this area.
Of course, Adam Vinatieri isn't considered the most valuable kicker in the league because of kickoffs or run-of-the-mill field goals. He is considered the most valuable kicker in the league because of his legendary clutch field goals in the 2001 and 2003 postseasons. We can debate whether "clutch field goal kicking ability" exists, but for now, let's assume it does, and Vinatieri is the best clutch field goal kicker in NFL history. How often does this actually matter to the Patriots?
A good definition for a clutch field goal would be a kick to tie the game or give a team the lead near the end of the game, or in overtime. During the 2005 regular season, there were 73 such field goal attempts, either in the final ten minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime. Did Vinatieri face an abnormal number of clutch field goal opportunities? Actually, no, he had just two such opportunities, both in the final 20 seconds of a tied game: a 43-yard field goal to beat Pittsburgh in Week 3, and a 29-yard field goal to beat Atlanta in Week 5.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Vinatieri's clutch kicking ability makes it impossible for him to miss these kicks. An average kicker will hit a 29-yarder 90 percent of the time and a 43-yarder 70 percent of the time. But a missed kick doesn't lead to a loss in these cases; it leads to overtime, where the Patriots still have a 50-50 shot at a win. So with an average kicker, the Patriots beat Atlanta 95 percent of the time, and beat Pittsburgh 85 percent of the time. They still win both games 81 percent of the time. Is one-fifth of a win worth paying Vinatieri $3 million instead of paying a league-average kicker $1 million and spending the rest of the money on a veteran wide receiver or a veteran backup for defensive tackle Vince Wilfork?
What about the years prior to 2005? Believe it or not, Vinatieri didn't face a single clutch field goal opportunity in 2004. In 2003, he faced only two during the regular season, both against Houston and both in overtime. Yes, that means he missed one of them, so actually Vinatieri isn't perfect in clutch field goal situations. In the Super Bowl, of course, Vinatieri got one more clutch opportunity and hit a field goal at the end of the game to win the Patriots their second championship.
Who will the Patriots sign to replace Vinatieri if he does go elsewhere? It's impossible to imagine Mike Vanderjagt signing with New England, but Ryan Longwell would make a lot of sense as Vinatieri's replacement. He certainly has experience kicking in a winter environment, and while he is coming off his worst season since 2001, there's no reason to believe that this represents an actual change in his ability rather than just the usual random inconsistency of a kicker's career. By the way, based on the definition above, Longwell has faced nine "clutch" field goal opportunities over the past three seasons, and every single one of those nine kicks sailed through the uprights. Todd Peterson of Atlanta might also be a reasonable replacement.
Actually, a divorce between Vinatieri and the Patriots is worse for Vinatieri than it is for the team. There are not a lot of NFL kickers who enjoy endorsement contracts, and certainly there are none with as many local endorsements as Vinatieri. If he retires as a New England Patriot, he can earn money from endorsements and appearance fees not just for the rest of his career but for the rest of his life. He is unlikely to have endorsement deals in Dallas or Minnesota, and while he could still return to New England after retirement, his popularity will be diminished.
Does This Mean Snoop Dogg Won't Hang Around with Us Anymore?
Vinatieri was one of four players left on the Patriots from the Bill Parcells era and Super Bowl XXXI, but he's not the only one who might be finally leaving town. Although the new CBA came with a larger salary cap, the Patriots still chose to waive 12-year veteran linebacker Willie McGinest. The move saved the team $6.8 million for next year's cap, but also cost the Patriots a team leader who is still playing at a high level. McGinest is the all-time NFL leader in postseason sacks and set a new postseason record with 4.5 sacks against the Jaguars in January. He also has a history of making his biggest plays against one of New England's archrivals, the Indianapolis Colts; he stuffed Edgerrin James at the goal line to preserve a New England victory in the 2003 regular season and sacked Peyton Manning in the final seconds of the 2004 season opener, turning an easy game-tying field goal into a longer, failed field goal. The Patriots will try to re-sign McGinest but Cleveland, Dallas, and San Diego are all interested in his services.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi could be the last remaining link to the 1996 Patriots should Vinatieri, McGinest, and wide receiver Troy Brown all decide to sign elsewhere. However, it's very difficult to see why Brown would leave. He was a free agent last year as well, and made the decision to return to the Patriots rather than go to New Orleans for a larger contract. It's a lesson for Vinatieri: Brown's local endorsement revenue made up the difference between the two salaries, and his family wanted to stay in New England.
The Patriots will want to re-sign Brown not only because he knows the offense and can still play, but also because they need wide receivers badly. Starting wideout David Givens is a free agent and if he wants a big payday, he won't get it from the Patriots. New England has not paid big money to wide receivers during the Belichick era, and the player who may break that trend is not Givens but the other starting receiver, Deion Branch, who is a year away from his own free agency. Branch is the only Patriots wide receiver with at least five 2005 receptions who will still be on the roster when free agency starts, with Givens, Brown, Tim Dwight, and Andre' Davis all becoming free agents. You can expect the Patriots to pick up at least one veteran wideout in free agency. While the name Joe Jurevicius has been linked to the Patriots by many, a similar but cheaper free agent alternative might be Brian Finneran, who has been by far the best receiver in Atlanta for the past three seasons.
The other position the Patriots must address in free agency is linebacker. This is the oldest unit on the team, and needs depth. That is hard to address in the draft, because so few college linebackers have the skills to come into the NFL and play in a 3-4 defensive system. Over the past five years, the Patriots have only drafted one linebacker before the seventh round: Ryan Claridge from UNLV, one of the few colleges to primarily play a 3-4 scheme. The good news for New England is that there are plenty of quality linebackers available in free agency this year, and plenty of veteran depth. Two names to watch for: ILB Jamie Sharper and OLB Ben Leber. Both are veterans with 3-4 experience who will likely come at a lower price because of recent injuries.
The other major free agents for New England are two of the offensive line "metaphors," guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Tom Ashworth. The return of left tackle Matt Light from injury means that second-year lineman Nick Kaczur can shift over to replace either Neal or Ashworth, but the Patriots would prefer to keep at least one of the linemen.
Don't expect the Patriots to make a huge signing this spring, because the team is concerned with its 2007 budget as much as its 2006 budget. Many of the team's cornerstone young players have just one year remaining on their original rookie contracts and will need extensions soon, including Branch, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, center Dan Koppen, and cornerback Asante Samuel.
New York Jets
Remember the (2004) Titans
A year ago, the Jets infamously entered the off-season with the belief that they were a kicker away from the Super Bowl. Instead, they ran into a familiar pattern for the NFL, where a successful veteran team is hit by the effects of aging and the salary cap all at once. A few players get injured and lose effectiveness, and suddenly the team's budget can't swallow the contracts of those players and fit in replacements at the same time.
Last year's debacle was not a one-year aberration, and the Jets are about to enter the same dismal situation that San Francisco and Tennessee have endured over the past two seasons. The Jets began the off-season $26 million over the projected 2006 salary cap, second only to Oakland. They've already had to jettison cornerback Ty Law, backup quarterback Jay Fiedler, and steady fullback Jerald Sowell.
Nowhere will the Jets suffer more than the offensive line, where tackle Jason Fabini and center Kevin Mawae have both been cut. This is an even bigger problem than you might think because the Jets have this year's fourth overall NFL draft selection, and most observers believe they will use it on a quarterback like Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler. Stripping the offensive line of veterans will leave blockers with less talent and less experience. As David Carr and the Houston Texans have learned, this is not really the best situation for the development of a young passer.
The Jets would be better off solidifying their line for years to come with left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, particularly since they are already committed to giving Chad Pennington one more shot at saving a once-promising career derailed by injuries. Pennington and the Jets came to a mutual agreement this week where Pennington forfeited a $3 million roster bonus and dropped his salary from $6 million to $3 million. In return, the Jets guaranteed that lower salary instead of waiving him, and built incentives into his contract that could replace the $6 million he gave up -- if Pennington can come all the way back.
Those incentives mean that the Jets benefit more than most teams from the last-minute CBA and prevention of the uncapped year. Rules of the uncapped year meant that incentives earned in 2006 would count against the 2006 cap, not the 2007 cap, so if Pennington did come back, the Jets would have been forced to continually waive players during the season to keep under the salary cap as Pennington earned each incentive clause.
The other question of the off-season is what will happen to defensive end John Abraham. The Jets placed the franchise tag on Abraham, and recent salary cuts mean they could keep him for another year, even at the franchise tender of $8.33 million. But this seems to be a marriage ready for divorce, and reports say both Washington and Denver have talked with the Jets about their pass-rushing specialist.
Parade of Needs
What don't the Jets need? The team needs a quarterback to compete with Pennington for the starting job, and will likely deal a lower-round draft pick to Washington for Patrick Ramsey. The offensive line only has three starters left. Sowell's departure leaves B.J. Askew, a fullback with one career start. Jason Ferguson left a big hole at defensive tackle when he signed with Dallas a year ago, and that still needs to be filled. There's no depth at wide receiver, linebacker, or defensive end. The current starting cornerbacks are sophomore Justin Miller and glorified nickel back David Barrett.
The Jets could get by with their current running back committee for another year. The Jets locked Derrick Blaylock in the basement last year and when they finally let him outside for some air, he was quickly injured and lost for the year. He'll combine with the broken-down Curtis Martin and unproven Cedric Houston.
At least the Jets know they're solid at kicker.