by Bill Barnwell
You could make several arguments about who the heart of the Bills defense was in 2006. One train of thought would say that middle linebacker and defensive playcaller London Fletcher-Baker set the tone for the team in the center of the field, recording 146 tackles and four picks. Another, perhaps, would venture to say that stud cornerback Nate Clements gave the Bills comfort that one side of the field would shut be down, as Clements and the Bills held #1 wide receivers to a -25.0% DVOA, third in the league. A third might even point to the player on Fletcher-Baker's right, Takeo Spikes, who set an inspirational tone while spending the whole year struggling through injuries.
Pick whoever you want, but it doesn't really matter now. They're all gone.
The big move was Clements, whose new eight year, $80 million contract with the 49ers has a whopping $22 million in guaranteed money coming to, arguably, the second-best cornerback in football. The move is a serious one for the Bills; while they were third against #1 wide receivers, they ranged from 17th to 27th against other receivers. While there's no one on the market who the Bills can replace Clements with, they haven't even made a single move as of yet to patch up the secondary. The player whom this move impacts the most, really, is free safety Ko Simpson. The fourth-rounder had the luxury of being covered for in 2006, but in 2007, he'll be expected to cover other people's mistakes.
His fellow second-year safety, on the other hand, will be covering for the players in front of him. Donte Whitner had a year well-regarded by Bills brass, but he'll be expected to do a lot more now that two starting linebackers are gone. Fletcher-Baker left for the questionably greener pastures of Washington, signing a five-year, $25 million deal. While he's not likely to see the end of that deal (when he would be turning 37), Fletcher-Baker has yet to miss a game in his career, a valuable asset for a Redskins team with no appreciative depth at linebacker. The Bills are yet to replace Fletcher-Baker with anyone, and their starter at middle linebacker for the moment is the unheralded John DiGiorgio. Get your delivery puns ready, Sunday Night highlight crews.
Spikes, on the other hand, was dealt to Philadelphia alongside backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, with defensive tackle Darwin Walker coming in return. Walker's a good pass-rusher from the interior and fits the Bills mold of quick, slightly undersized defensive linemen. Walker will rotate around the defensive line along with Larry Tripplett and 2006 first-rounder John McCargo, who missed most of his rookie campaign with a broken foot. Spikes is likely to be replaced by backup Angelo Crowell, who started in an injured Spikes' stead in '05. Either way, the Bills front seven is extremely likely to suffer.
Those moves are all more damaging than the one that received the most coverage this off-season: Willis McGahee, after a Penthouse interview burying Buffalo, was dealt to Baltimore for a pair of third-round picks. McGahee has the cachet of being a star running back, but he isn't. Astute observers would note that his two 100-yard games in 2006 came against the Jets, who had the worst rush defense in football last season. His DVOA, which has remained remarkably consistent for his three seasons (0.4% in 2004, -1.3% in 2005, and -1.6% in 2006), isn't the stuff of star players -- it's the home of guys like Vernard Morency, Greg Jones, and Artrose Pinner. While the price the Ravens paid wasn't that expensive, the contract they gave McGahee was. Durability concerns alone would make the contract ill-advised, but the running back the Ravens are getting is not the one they're paying for.
In lieu of replacing McGahee with an expensive running back, the Bills seem to be investing their leftover money in the offensive line. Three offensive linemen have made it over to Buffalo this off-season, with the most prominent being Redskins guard Derrick Dockery. Dockery received a seven year, $49 million contract, or in relative terms, about .92 Hutchison. Dockery will be entrusted with creating holes in the middle and keeping interior rushers off of J.P. Losman's sorta-blind side in 2007. The Redskins offensive line was rather good at running toward and behind Dockery in '06, ranking fifth in the league in adjusted line yards to left tackle and seventh to the middle of the field and at guard. They also ran a much higher percentage of plays to the left side than the right, which could speak some about their confidence in Dockery. On the other hand, Dockery won't have Chris Samuels to the left of him this year.
The Bills also brought in Langston Walker from Oakland and Jason Whittle from Minnesota. The latter is a handy reserve, but not someone who should be relied upon to start for any lengthy period of time; Walker was part of the much-maligned offensive line in Oakland, but he may have been one of the better parts, as Oakland ranked ninth in running at right tackle in 2006. Of course, Oakland had the worst pass protection by a large margin in 2006, and Walker was a huge factor. He tied Robert Gallery in allowing eleven sacks, and committed eight penalties for 55 yards on the campaign. On the other hand, Walker has blocked five kicks in his career, so maybe the Bills plan to get their Frank Beamer on.
Overall, while the Bills are a team with several very good young players in the lineup, it's hard to make any sort of argument that the Bills did anything but dramatically regress in 2006. The goal of a team with any desire to win is to hold onto players like Clements, not let them go. While letting McGahee go was the right move, the lack of a ready-made replacement will hurt the Bills some simply by giving them another position to fill.
Free Agency Remainders and Draft Needs
This is a team with lots of gigantic holes to be filled. Replacing Fletcher-Baker and Spikes is probably the most pressing need, as the least amount of depth exists behind them at the moment. While the Bills have been linked to California running back Marshawn Lynch with the 12th overall pick, it would be repeating the same mistake they made when they drafted McGahee. It's simply not that difficult to find an effective running back. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is the best selection to fill the Bills' needs. While drafting a halfback wouldn't be a disaster, the Bills would be smart to wait till 2008 and save their money for Michael Turner (although rumors have him visiting Buffalo this week).
Bringing in another corner would seem to be on the Bills' list, but with second-year corner Ashton Youboty the expected starter in 2007 across from Terrence McGee, the Bills might want to bring in a veteran as opposed to another rookie. Former Bengals corner Tory James might make sense as a veteran mentor. Finally, a real wide receiver to play across from Lee Evans would be nice. No, Peerless Price, you don't count when you average eight yards per reception. While there are red flags on Antonio Bryant's record, he'd be a value pickup and, if Willis McGahee is right, there's not really many places to go and get in trouble at in Buffalo, anyway.
Free agency has seen the Dolphins lose several useful spare parts and replace them with different ones, but the moves they have made aren't likely to dramatically impact the team's performance in 2007.
New England, in some sort of parting grab at Nick Saban, signed Wes Welker and Sammy Morris away from the Dolphins, with Welker's RFA status netting the Dolphins second- and seventh-round picks. Welker's loss will hurt the Dolphins some, but his skill set is relatively easy to find: There are a lot of guys willing to go over the middle and catch eight yard in-patterns for the minimum salary, and very few of them cost second-round picks. The Dolphins will actually come out ahead on the move in the long run. Morris was a player whom the Dolphins always seemed to want to include in the running game, but the second that they actually gave him the ball, they immediately regretted it and took it away. The Dolphins signed former Lions fullback Cory Schlesinger, who's on the downside of his career but should be equal to the task of replacing Morris' production on special teams and as a blocker.
The offensive line saw underrated left tackle Damion McIntosh leave, with Kansas City signing him to a six-year contract. It's worth noting that when McIntosh played left tackle in 2005, the Dolphins were fifth in the league at running behind left end and first behind left tackle. In addition, when McIntosh returned to left tackle in 2006, the team's offensive line play improved markedly. While McIntosh is not a star, he'll be a useful part on an always-excellent line in Kansas City. The Dolphins signed Chris Liwienski and Seth McKinney in free agency, hoping the former can return to tackle without too much of a drop off. It's unlikely to work out.
Tight end Randy McMichael also left the side, re-joining former Dolphins coach Scott Linehan in St. Louis on a three-year, $11 million contract. After trying to trade McMichael, the Dolphins saved themselves from a $3 million roster bonus by cutting him. His move to St. Louis also allows him to join Leonard Little in some sort of NFL Repeat Offender Scumbag Crew. Replacing McMichael in Miami is former Packers tight end David Martin, who posted a better DVOA than McMichael in 2005 and has shown signs he could be an effective starter. For the Dolphins, the money budgeted for McMichael is probably better spent elsewhere, so this isn't a bad move.
The Dolphins' big move, though, was signing Joey Porter from the Steelers. The always controversial and sometimes half-shirted Porter has had a quiet off-season outside of beating up Levi Jones at the Palms in Las Vegas. See, he's already better than McMichael! While Porter is yet to be charged with anything beyond misdemeanor battery, there's nothing in the Basic Strategy books I've read that say punching NFL left tackles helps you win. As for Porter's football abilities and how they will affect the Dolphins defense in 2007, there was talk around the league that Porter's ability to beat blockers in one-on-one situations was on the wane.
(Editor's Note: Except in night clubs.)
Moving from the Steelers 3-4 to the mixed Dolphins scheme, Porter is likely to be employed in a fashion that's out of his comfort zone. The differences between the two schemes are too big for people to accurately say how Porter will adjust, but expect him to struggle some at the beginning of the season.
A smaller move also saw the Dolphins ditch long-time kicker Olindo Mare, whose accuracy has been on the wane, for Giants kicker Jay Feely. Finally, quarterback Joey Harrington was released, leaving Cleo Lemon and the ghost of Daunte Culpepper on the roster.
Free Agency Remainders and Draft Needs
There's been significant talk of Miami trading for Trent Green, which shows the lack of confidence that the Dolphins have in Daunte Culpepper ever becoming a useful quarterback again. Whatever assets would need to go to Kansas City in exchange for Green should be used to restock the rest of the roster. Signing David Carr would have been a better move, but he's gone to Carolina.
There are very few positions on this roster that don't require some sort of upgrade. Even the Dolphins' position of strength, their defensive line, is aging and needs fresh blood. A good place to start, though, would be wide receiver, where Chris Chambers celebrated a festival of incompletes and Marty Booker is aging. At the ninth pick, however, Ted Ginn or Robert Meachem would be a reach. That's all right -- the Dolphins can trade down and use the extra picks to restock their defensive line and grab someone like David Harris to eventually replace Zach Thomas in the middle of the Dolphins' defense.
New England Patriots
March saw the Patriots, for the first time under Bill Belichick, really open up the purse strings. While the Morris and Welker moves were discussed above, the happy surprise for Patriots fans was the five-year, $35 million contract given to Adalius Thomas to breathe some life into a decaying Patriots linebacker corps. While there's every reason to believe that Thomas will succeed in New England, he might be perceived as a failure in his debut season. What the Patriots need more than anything else is a linebacker who can cover running backs (whom the Patriots ranked 22nd in the league defending against, a hole in their pass defense for years) and stop receivers coming over the middle (the Patriots gave up big games to guys like Welker and Mike Furrey, neither of whom are known for their ... deceptive quickness). As someone who's played cornerback and safety before, Thomas can do that, but the number Patriots fans are going to expect him to match is his 11 sacks for 2006. Don't expect Thomas to match that or be employed in a way that would allow him to do so. Thomas will take Tully Banta-Cain's spot in the lineup, with the overachieving seventh-round pick moving on to San Francisco.
The next big signing saw Donte' Stallworth arrive from Philadelphia on a six-year, $30 million contract with one year and $3.6 million guaranteed. Stallworth brings a downfield option that the Patriots simply didn't have last year; while Reche Caldwell averaged 12.5 yards per reception, Stallworth was up at 19.1. With Stallworth down the field and Welker and Ben Watson staking out territory over the middle, the rest of the Patriots wide receivers will be fighting for scraps; that's why fellow newcomer Kelley Washington might see more time on special teams than he will in the offense. Playoff hero Jabar Gaffney's roster spot might come down to the health of Chad Jackson, who tore his ACL in the AFC Championship Game; Gaffney's aversion to special teams isn't likely to play well when Belichick is finalizing his roster in September.
One loss in the receiving corps was tight end Daniel Graham, who'd developed into a useful player by the end of his tenure in New England, if not one worthy of a first-round pick. Signed by Denver, he was replaced by Belichick's white whale from 1995, Kyle Brady, who signed a two-year deal. Brady will be expected to fulfill Graham's blocking role, while David Thomas' role in the passing offense will increase.
Corey Dillon also requested and received his release, a move not likely to dramatically affect the Patriots unless Laurence Maroney struggles in returning from off-season shoulder surgery. Perceptions of Dillon's performance last year were inflated by games where he'd score lots of cheap fantasy points (the nine carries for 25 yards and three touchdowns game against Detroit comes to mind) but not really deliver much on his carries. He ranked 21st in the league in DVOA, a far cry from his championship-caliber 2004. Dillon's hidden strength was his excellent pass blocking, but those responsibilities are likely to be picked up by Morris. As for Maroney, remember that "the Boston Herald didn't report until yesterday that Maroney had shoulder surgery" does not mean the same thing as "the Patriots didn't know until yesterday until Maroney had shoulder surgery."
Finally, Asante Samuel was tagged as the team's Franchise Player. The failure to sign him to a long-term contract in 2006 was almost unquestionably the wrong move relative to the market when Nate Clements' contract and Samuel's playoff performance are considered. Assuming Samuel signs his franchise tender, Patriots fans have an excellent contract year and a bitter goodbye to look forward to.
Free Agency Remainders and Draft Needs
The Patriots own the 24th and 28th picks in the draft (draft value: 1400, equivalent to the #8 overall pick). Although they don't like drafting linebackers, their team desperately needs to alleviate the pressure being placed on the rapidly aging Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi. Moving Vrabel inside will help some, but both players have lost a step. Most mock drafts have linked the Patriots to Penn State outside linebacker Paul Posluszny, which pretty much ensures that the Patriots will not draft Paul Posluszny when the day comes. Go check and see how many mock drafts forecast Laurence Maroney and Logan Mankins the last two years. Besides, the Patriots really need an inside linebacker, not an outside one. The aforementioned Patrick Willis would fit, but he's unlikely to make it to #24, and the Patriots don't have a second-rounder to package in order to move up. An alternate move would be to draft a safety like Reggie Nelson or Michael Griffin to eventually replace Rodney Harrison in the secondary, with "eventually" likely meaning "sometime around Week 5." While some mocks have prescribed a running back, the Patriots already have four who can expect to see playing time in 2007 and are unlikely to draft one in the first round two years in a row.
New York Jets
The off-season after the pleasant surprise that was the Jets' 2006 has been quieter than anyone else's in the AFC East. The big move was the acquisition of Thomas Jones in a trade that swapped the 37th overall pick for the 63rd. Jones replaces the released Kevan Barlow, and represents a solid addition to the Jets offense; while he'll turn 29 before the season, he hasn't been worked particularly hard throughout his career, and his DVOA has been relatively consistent over the last few seasons. In fact, Jones is a similar-quality back to McGahee, but while Jones got a four-year, $20 million contract, McGahee got a seven-year, $40 million deal. Advantage, Jets.
Fullback B.J. Askew left the club as well. While he made some noise at the beginning of the free agency about wanting to play halfback, Askew moved to Tampa Bay, where he will be expected to play approximately no halfback. Darian Barnes has come over from Miami, and he'll compete with James Hodgins for the starting job if no one else makes their way over. The Jets also got a new backup quarterback, with Marques Tuiasosopo taking over for Patrick Ramsey.
The Jets also made several moves to shore up a porous defensive line. First was the acquisition of former Cowboys DE Kenyon Coleman, who signed a five-year contract. Coleman has experience playing in the 3-4 with Dallas, but his performance record doesn't seem to indicate much in the way of future difference-making. Next was the signing of Dolphins defensive end David Bowens, primarily a pass rusher with Miami and likely to fill the same role in New York. Former Bears first round pick Michael Haynes has also signed; while Haynes isn't likely to live up to his first-round selection, his signing represents a low-cost move with a lot of potential upside. Finally, former third overall pick Andre Wadsworth signed a contract for the minimum; Wadsworth hasn't played since 2000, when he underwent microfracture surgery. Hey, it's worth a shot.
Free Agency Remainders and Draft Needs
The Jets are in a comfortable position and can choose to go a number of different ways in the draft. The defensive line acquisitions seem to indicate that the Jets will try and shore up the line with free agents and hope that the incumbents improve. They could choose to draft a cornerback like Texas' Aaron Ross if faith in Justin Miller has waned too severely, or even go for local running back Brian Leonard, out of Rutgers, to provide a blocker for Jones.
Later this week: AFC North.