by Doug Farrar
It's Not Easy Being Green...
According to a study by the Scripps Howard News Service, the Arizona Cardinals are the NFL's heaviest team, with an average per-player weight of 256 pounds. Fans of the team might be encouraged to know that their Cards lead the league in something, though they would be equally distressed to learn that the two lightest teams, the Colts and Bears, just met in the Super Bowl. What does it mean? It could indicate yet another area in which the Arizona franchise has found itself on the wrong side of the trendline.
"Many teams are moving toward more agile, athletic linemen," former Bears GM Jerry Vainisi was quoted as saying in the report. "Fashions come and go. But we are seeing teams that are rolling out more, moving the pocket. And that trend will continue, I think, at least for a few years."
Metaphor or harbinger? With the Cardinals, it's never easy to tell. In any case, head coach Dennis Green was asked to turn over his key to the team refrigerator after a three-year stint which will be noted primarily for a 16-32 record, the worst offensive line in recent memory (2005 version), and one very hilarious press conference. He has been replaced by former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who now has a great deal of talent at his disposal if he can point it in the right direction.
The Cardinals have a potentially great young quarterback, a big-name 1,000-yard rusher, and two marquee receivers ... but they finished 21st in Offensive DVOA due to a horrible offensive line that kept Edgerrin James from posting a single 100-yard game during his first three months with the team. That line improved a bit toward the end of the season, but it's still a major concern. It would be nice if Matt Leinart had more time to throw to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald; that's a possible Pro Bowl battery. Leinart, a product of USC when it was basically the NFL's 33rd team, is that rare quarterback who probably found his line to be a downgrade at the next level.
The defense can be described as decent parts in fits and starts. You'll get little argument if you assert that the Oakland Raiders are the worst team in football, but those very Raiders led the NFL in pass defense by yards, because pass defense by yards is a misleading statistic. Bad teams obviously often play from behind, and opposing offenses use the ground game to run down the clock. Therefore, the fact that the Cards finished 29th in passing yards allowed tells you quite a bit about their secondary. DVOA rates their pass defense 26th. Safety Adrian Wilson, a longtime FO favorite, joins Chike Okeafor and Karlos Dansby as what could be key ingredients in a more integrated unit. And really, that's the lasting image of this 5-11 team: The stuff's on the table, but someone's gotta know what to do with it. Whisenhunt's abilities as a master chef -- preferably with some fat-free options at hand -- will be on display right away.
Who Could Leave?
Arizona has 14 unrestricted free agents. The most notable is left tackle Leonard Davis, who hasn't come close to validating his status as the second pick in the 2001 draft. He may get looks from teams that are desperate at tackle, but few teams have more pressing line needs than Arizona. Most likely, it's down to whether the Cardinals want to continue trying to collect on that investment. Center Alex Stepanovich was replaced by Nick Leckey in October after getting mauled at the point of attack one too many times. He's most likely gone, with Leckey's restricted free agent status the more important issue. Backup running back Marcel Shipp is a decent player worth keeping, but one might imagine that Shipp would be eager to try his luck with a better line.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $36.7 million)
Two free agent signings have already been made on the coaching staff that should provide quick dividends. Whisenhunt will no doubt be an upgrade over Green, and former Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm is also on board to give that "legendary" offensive line a dose of the toughness he picked up as a near-Hall-of-Fame guard with the Washington Redskins' "Hogs." Grimm's addition puts much-needed credibility on display to potential free agents that may have never considered a move to the Valley of the Sun. This is where help is most desperately needed. The Cardinals are decently set at guard with Deuce Lutui and Milford Brown, but every other position could be easily improved and Lutui is probably the only member of the current front five that could survive a clinical housecleaning. Arizona also needs help at every defensive back position not manned by Adrian Wilson or Antrel Rolle, and Rolle needs to cut down on the penalties; his 14 penalties for 117 yards (third-highest in the league, behind only Chris McAlister and Alex Barron) did a lot to counterbalance his productivity.
St. Louis Rams
The King is Half-Undressed
From the beginning of the 2005 season to the end of the 2006 season, the Rams changed coaches (twice, from Mike Martz to Joe Vitt to Scott Linehan), endeavored to put a more balanced offense on the field, saw Steven Jackson become one of the NFL's elite running backs with 1,528 rushing yards and 90 receptions in his third year, and watched Marc Bulger recover from shoulder injuries in 2005 and a slow start in 2006 to finish behind only Peyton Manning in DPAR for quarterbacks. But two things didn't change for the Rams in 2006: First, their defense ranked 29th in the NFL in DVOA for the second straight season ... and second, the Rams missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Coincidence? Hardly. St. Louis' DVOA rankings split between offense and defense -- their offense ranked sixth overall -- was the third-biggest discrepancy at 23 behind Oakland's 26 (32nd offense, sixth defense) and Minnesota's 25 (29th offense, fourth defense). If you combined St. Louis' offense and Oakland's defense, you'd have a Super Bowl contender (and possibly a Super Bowl champion). Would that it worked that way! Since it doesn't, the Rams will have to deal with the reasons for their defensive debacle: the line, the linebackers, and the secondary.
Okay -- it's not quite that bad, but it's pretty close. Defensive end Leonard Little, the defense's one true standout player, had 13 sacks, his most since 2001. But the rest of the line struggled, and the Rams finished 31st in the league in defensive Adjusted Line Yards up the middle, ahead of only the Colts (regular-season edition). Linebacker Will Witherspoon, acquired as a free agent, moved to the middle and led his new team in tackles after a very effective time on the outside in Carolina. Pisa Tinoisamoa, the most well-known of the St. Louis linebackers, struggled with injuries. Four defenders -- Fakhir Brown, Ronald Bartell, O.J. Atogwe and rookie Tye Hill -- tied for the team lead with three interceptions each as the Rams picked off a total of 17, and the young secondary does have some promise. For the most part, however, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has a tough road ahead.
Who Could Leave?
Among the 14 unrestricted free agents the Rams must consider are two receivers. Kevin Curtis finished sixth in DVOA among wide receivers with at least 50 passes. 479 yards and four Veteran running back Stephen Davis was a valuable mentor to Jackson, advising him to change the pad level at which he ran, which minimized Jackson's negative plays. Davis will be 33 when the season starts. Cornerback Travis Fisher missed the second half of the season and will most likely test the market. Left tackle Todd Steussie started for Orlando Pace when Pace was hurt, and the UFA would bolt if a starting job was offered elsewhere. Punter Matt Turk was a rare bright spot in St. Louis' special teams, with 26 punts dropped inside the 20 and only five touchbacks. That could have new position coach Al Roberts pushing for the front office to re-sign him.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $31.98 million)
Possibly another receiver, depending on what happens with Curtis, but Bruce and Torry Holt are still there and the desperate needs are almost all defensive. The interior line is a real problem, as La'Roi Glover's reps need to be monitored and Jimmy Kennedy has never lived up to his potential. The Rams need a better rotation, and they'll be fighting the Seahawks for run-stopping free agent prospects. However, Seattle's Craig Terrill is an underrated pass-rushing DT who excels on special teams. He'd be a great fit. Isaiah Kacyvenski would be a good re-sign, as he's a decent backup linebacker with special teams ability. The Rams may also be looking for upgrades at defensive end opposite Little, and would be very wise to focus on defensive and offensive line depth in the draft.
San Francisco 49ers
The Audacity of Hope
The 49ers came within one win of an interesting feat -- doubling their win total for the second straight year. The 2-14 team Mike Nolan inherited after the 2004 season finished 7-9 in 2006. The 49ers can thank a stellar rushing attack, an offensive line nobody expected, Walt Harris' best season in an 11-year career, and the low-hanging fruit of the NFC West. Some believe that the 49ers are one more good draft away from a possible division title, but there should be some hesitation before people go nuts and jump on this bandwagon. First, there are San Francisco's DVOA numbers -- 29th overall in team efficiency, 22nd on offense and 28th on defense. The rushing attack, despite Frank Gore's franchise record 1,695 yards, still finished 15th in DVOA. How is this possible?
Because, among other things, DVOA adjusts for opponent, and the 49ers didn't beat a single top-shelf team in 2006. Their seven wins came against the Rams, Raiders, Vikings, Lions, Seahawks (twice), and Broncos. They were swept by the Cardinals, they beat two teams with winning records, and the winning record in both cases was 9-7 (Seattle, Denver). The aggregate season-ending DVOA of the teams San Francisco beat was -13.5%, which would rank right between the Seahawks (25th) and the Cardinals (26th).
However, there is some reality behind the fantasy of the first competitive 49ers team since the Mariucci era ended in 2002. Gore and fullback Moran Norris anchor a backfield loaded with promise, the offensive line finished seventh in FO's Adjusted Line Yards statistic, the linebacker corps has a great future with Manny Lawson and Brandon Moore, and cornerback Walt Harris, a Redskins reject, went off the freakin' hook with a career-high eight interceptions.
The questions that will need to be answered, through free agency or the draft, emanate from a front office renowned for its parsimony and naivetÃ©. What's not often discussed is the turnaround in the executive branch, as bumptious owner John York spends more time extending the Monster Park lease and wondering where his next stadium will be, leaving personnel matters to the able Scot McCloughan and Paraag Marathe. There's an intriguing blend of the new and old schools, and it bodes well for the team's future.
Who Could Leave?
The 49ers re-upped Norris for three more years, a very smart move. They'd love to re-sign UFA tight end Eric Johnson, who caught 49 passes while subbing for injured top pick Vernon Davis, but Johnson wants -- and can get -- a starting job. He'll head for greener pastures. The 49ers are also waiting to see if offensive coordinator Norv Turner will become the Cowboys' head coach.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $42.1 million)
The 49ers have more money to spend than any other team, and some real positions of need. Wide receiver is a big bugaboo after Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle disappointed in 2006, and there will be positions to fill as the defense solidifies its 3-4 future. This is where the money needs to go. Isaac Sopoaga is the most likely nose tackle on the roster, but reinforcements will be required. The 49ers also lack the fourth linebacker for that formation, which is why they were stuck in 4-3 for most of 2006 in spite of Nolan's preferences.
King Midas in Reverse
As the first team since the 1999-2000 Tennessee Titans to lose the Super Bowl and make it back to the playoffs the following season, the Seahawks set aside that mysterious "Loser's Curse" (Double Yoi!) and came within an overtime field goal of the NFC Championship game. However, their season ended in Chicago on fumes and spare parts. With 59 starter-games lost to injury in 2006, the Seahawks were by far the most depleted playoff team, and the impressive nature of that accomplishment was mitigated by the weakness of their division -- Seattle's NFC West opponents finished 20th, 26th and 29th in total DVOA (St. Louis, Arizona, and San Francisco, respectively) -- which is how the Seahawks finished 25th in that category and still got a postseason home game.
Don't expect it to happen again. Coaching and personnel changes aside, the NFC West will most likely improve in 2007, under no other principle than the one which says that it can't get much worse. (I hesitate to use the term "regression to the mean" when talking about this division, because the "mean" may actually be this bad.) The Seahawks will have to improve as well, but the main thing that will have to improve is their fortune. Branch Rickey used to say that luck is the residue of design, and he was right -- losing center Robbie Tobeck and right tackle Sean Locklear for a total of 13 regular-season games to injury was a blow, but it would have been less of a blow had Steve Hutchinson not been living out his poison pill fantasies in Minnesota.
With that patchwork line, Matt Hasselbeck (knee, four games out) and Shaun Alexander (foot, six games out) were sitting ducks as never before. With such offensive flux, the defense was more strained due to the offense's inability to sustain long drives. Injuries to the defensive line exposed a weak secondary even before said secondary became so banged-up that GM Tim Ruskell was signing street free agent defensive backs for the playoffs.
Professional football is about subtraction by attrition to a very great extent, and smart front offices learn how to build from roster spots one through 53 -- the 2003 Patriots lost 87 starter-games to injury and still won the Super Bowl because they knew this. After a very Moneyball 2005, the Seahawks became reactive in the follow-up year, hoping that a few big transactions (Julian Peterson, Nate Burleson, Deion Branch) would cover the wounds just enough to get by. This team went from building wide to building tall, and they will pay for it in 2007 if a re-set isn't forthcoming.
Who Could Leave?
The Seahawks have 13 unrestricted free agents (Tobeck, listed as a UFA on some sites, has officially retired), and Priority One has to be kicker Josh Brown. Brown won four games in 2006 with late field goals, improved his kickoff distance for the fourth straight season, and three of his six misses were blocks in the season's first two weeks, when the team was adjusting to the loss of injured veteran long-snapper J.P. Darche. Darche is also a free agent, and the Seahawks will want him back if he's healthy. Priority Two is a tie between slot receiver Bobby Engram and free safety Ken Hamlin. Engram is 34 and has missed time the last two seasons, but he's Hasselbeck's second-most trusted receiver behind Darrell Jackson. Hamlin is streaky in coverage and as a tackler, but he led the team in interceptions and he's a defensive leader.
The likely departures are the second-tier players -- this could be said of just about every team with the salary cap increasing $7 million to $109 million total -- injury-prone guard Floyd Womack, dime corner Jimmy Williams, and utility linebacker D.D. Lewis, who could start elsewhere. Among Seattle's restricted free agents, receiver D.J. Hackett is likely to get the most interest from other teams -- Hackett was Seattle's best receiver in DPAR and ranked second in the NFL in DVOA. RFA right tackle Sean Locklear won't go far -- the Seahawks want no part of another Hutchinson debacle.
The one wild card is tight end Jerramy Stevens, whose contract voids this year. Stevens has the physical ability to be the best at his position but has never been able to put it together. Mike Holmgren's offense requires a reliably productive tight end, and it's still not known whether Stevens is that player. The Seahawks could franchise him at a relatively low number ($4,371,000, according to the NFLPA) or lose him to a team intrigued with his "could-be" factor.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Projected cap space: $21.9 million*)
Going into 2007, Seattle's obvious needs are at guard, defensive tackle (run-stopping version), and quite possibly both safety positions if Hamlin leaves. Strong safety Michael Boulware was demoted early in the season because he kept biting on running plays, though he rebounded late in the season. The Seahawks recently signed former 49ers defensive coordinator, Falcons head coach, and KJR talk-show star Jim Mora to coach their secondary, and that's a very interesting wrinkle when thinking of potential free agent DBs. On the lines, either guard Eric Steinbach or Kris Dielman would certainly look good between Walter Jones and Chris Spencer. Oakland's Terdell Sands is probably the best interior defensive lineman available for Seattle's 4-3 system. Kevin Kaesviharn is an intriguing safety option. If Mack Strong can't bounce back from an off year, fullback will be a major concern as well, because there isn't anyone behind him who's a good blocker.
Friday: AFC West by Michael David Smith
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.