Four Downs: AFC East
by Sean McCormick
Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?
When free agency started, one of the safer assumptions was that Buffalo would add a receiver, and preferably a big receiver. Last year Buffalo fielded the smallest group of receivers in the league, with Lee Evans, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish all standing under 6 feet tall. Coincidentally or not, Trent Edwards completed only 57 percent of his passes on the season, and he was often seen squinting into the distance just before being sacked.
There were several big receivers on the free agent market, and the Bills hosted two of them, but both Bryant Johnson and D.J. Hackett left Orchard Park without a contract. Hackett signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal with Carolina, while Johnson inked a one-year deal with San Francisco, which means at the very least that it's unlikely that the Bills were outbid for their services.
With the last viable receivers off the market, the next option is the draft, but herein lies the rub, because it's not a strong receiving class. No one seems to know who the best receiver is, whether it is Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly or Texas' Limas Sweed or even LSU's Early Doucet, but the one thing that most draft analysts are agreed on is that there isn't a surefire star in the group.
Free Agency Recap
Buffalo's biggest addition came not through free agency but via a trade, as they sent third- and fifth-round picks to Jacksonville for mammoth defensive tackle Marcus Stroud. Stroud is freakishly athletic for a big man, but the Jaguars were concerned that recurring injuries were sapping his explosiveness. Stroud will be asked primarily to tie up blockers in this scheme, so as long as he stays off the South Beach Diet, he should do fine.
The Bills also signed Kavika Mitchell to bolster the linebacking corp, and took fliers on Minnesota reserve Spencer Johnson, tight end Courtney Anderson and star-crossed cornerback Will "Don't Call Me Peterson" James.
Did we mention that the Bills need a receiver? Unfortunately, they picked the wrong draft, as there aren't any receivers worthy of the 11th overall selection. The Bills haven't been shy about putting need above value in recent years, as they took Donte Whitner, John McCargo and Marshawn Lynch all well before those players expected to hear their name called, so it's possible that the front office simply settles on a big receiver like Devin Thomas or Limas Sweed and calls it a day.
Another possibility is that the Bills take a corner and wait on the receiver until the second round, in which case guys like Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Mike Jenkins could be options. If they don't like the value at corner, they could take a defensive end like Clemson's Phillip Merling, who would provide more solid run defense than the current rotation of Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney. Expect the Bills to look for a receiving tight end at some point in the middle rounds and possibly a developmental quarterback that would allow the team to cut its ties to J.P. Losman.
To QB or not to QB?
In the drafts that Bill Parcells has had final say over, he's selected the following group of players with his first-round picks: Drew Bledsoe, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, James Farrior, Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, Chad Pennington, Anthony Becht, Terrence Newman, Marcus Spears and Bobby Carpenter. That's eight defensive players out of eleven picks. What's more, Parcells wanted to use a first-round pick on Tony Brackens instead of Terry Glenn, only to be overruled by owner Bob Kraft in the Great New England Supermarket Massacre of 1996.
Clearly Parcells is a believer in the desirability of building around first-round defensive talent. But he has also shown a proclivity for building his offenses around top quarterback talent. He spent most of his coaching career trotting out Phil Simms (seventh overall selection in 1979), Drew Bledsoe (first overall selection in 1993) or Vinny Testaverde (first overall selection in 1987). It is highly likely he would have spent the first overall pick in 1997 on Peyton Manning had Manning entered the draft after his junior season.
Two quarterbacks in the draft have the kind of size and arm strength that Parcells has traditionally valued: Boston College's Matt Ryan and Delaware's Joe Flacco. To get Ryan, the Dolphins would have to use the No. 1 overall selection on him. Flacco is a rising star and may not be on the board by the time Miami exercises its second-round pick. The odds are good that one of these two will end up wearing orange and teal, but which one?
Free Agency Recap
When looking at Miami's off-season moves, one would almost get the impression that Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland didn't think highly of the roster they inherited. The Dolphins cut ten players, signed 12 free agents and traded for Parcells' binky Jason Ferguson just for good measure.
None of the new additions would qualify as big-name players, but they are generally young and almost invariably better than the players they are replacing. The one exception might be Josh McCown, who managed the Herculean feat of being worse than all three of Miami's quarterbacks last year. But players like Ernest Wilford, Randy Starks and Justin Smiley figure at the very least to remove some of the team's matchup liabilities even if they don't generate major problems for opponents. The Dolphins did make a play for one big-ticket free agent in end/linebacker hybrid Calvin Pace, but he elected to sign with the division-rival Jets.
What the Dolphins need more than anything is to not whiff with the first pick overall. Matt Ryan will be a consideration for all the reasons discussed, but if Miami cannot trade down, it seems more likely that they will choose between two of the safest prospects in the draft in Jake Long and Chris Long, with Howie's boy being the odds-on favorite. Chris Long has the flexibility to play with his hand on the ground or standing up in the 3-4, and he has excelled under the watchful eye of Parcells' old linebackers coach, Al Groh. Long's senior stat line -- 79 tackles, 19 for a loss, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles, 10 pass deflections and one interception -- highlight both his versatility and his consistency.
The Dolphins will probably target Flacco in the second round, and they may decide to package picks to move up into the back end of the first to ensure that they get him. But most of this draft will go towards rebuilding the offensive line and the defensive front seven.
New England Patriots
It's a Question of Perspective
The glass-half-empty take on New England's off-season would be to say that the team has been bleeding talent from the moment they walked off the field in Glendale. Asante Samuel and Randall Gay are gone, leaving the secondary in tatters. The depth at wide receiver that made the passing offense unstoppable has been hit hard by the loss of Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington. Rosevelt Colvin, whose injury was a key factor in the decline of the defense over the second half of the season, was cut.
The glass-half-full response would say that none of that matters because the team retained Randy Moss.
As it turns out, holding onto Moss was no sure thing, as several teams, most notably the Eagles, took a run at the league's top receiver when the negotiations between Moss and the Patriots appeared to stall. Ultimately Moss signed a relatively modest three-year, $27 million contract that should keep him in New England for the rest of his career. If Moss can even come close to duplicating last year's 1,482-yard, 23-touchdown campaign, he will be worth every penny of it.
Free Agency Recap
Last year the Patriots were the darlings of the off-season, making major trades and signing impact free agents left and right. It seemed as if Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli were taking the Patriot Way playbook and throwing it out the window. Fast-forward one year and it's time to comb the grounds, dust off the cover and bring the moldy playbook back into the office. The Patriots did what they had to do in re-signing Moss, but they simply haven't had the cap room to do much more than stick fingers in the dike. To counter the loss of Samuel and Gay, the Pats signed Fernando Bryant and Jason Webster. Bryant spent the last few seasons plying his trade in Detroit's secondary, which pretty much speaks for itself, while Webster was briefly a starter in Buffalo last year before getting hurt and losing his job. The Pats also skimmed receiver Sam Aiken off the bottom of the Bills' depth chart, and they re-signed Jabar Gaffney.
For an 18-1 team, there are an awful lot of question marks in the back seven, and if the Pats can't trade down, it's almost certain they will use their first-round pick on either a pass rushing linebacker or a cornerback. Ohio State's Vernon Gholston and Florida's Derrick Harvey figure to be the two top end/linebacker hybrids. Gholston has more speed coming off the edge, but Harvey is bigger and plays with more violence. Gholston's combine performance vaulted him into top-five consideration, and it seems unlikely that he'll make it past the Jets, so Scott Pioli might consider a trade up if he thinks Gholston is a special player. But it's more likely that the team has Gholston and Harvey with similar grades.
There is no real consensus on who the top corner is, and ideally the team would be able to use the presence of Matt Ryan or one of the top two defensive tackles to net a trade down before selecting one. South Florida's Mike Jenkins doesn't have the upside of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but he has good size and does everything well, so he might be a consideration. The cupboard at corner is so bare that the team might double-dip on the first day.
Adding some youth at linebacker is a must, and the Pats could target a player like Curtis Lofton or Cliff Avril in the second round. While the offensive line is not a need area, this is considered a tremendous class of tackles and there could be a worthwhile developmental prospect in the middle rounds.
New York Jets
What's That You Say, Mr. Robertson?
Lost amid the flurry of signings that has marked the Jets' off-season is the fact that despite all of the front office's best efforts, Dewayne Robertson is still on the roster. The Jets had a deal in place to send the defensive tackle to Cincinnati in exchange for fourth- and fifth-round picks, but the deal fell through when the Bengals and Robertson were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. There were also whispers that Robertson had failed his physical. Next general manager Mike Tannenbaum tried to ship Robertson to Denver, but that deal also broke down. Robertson failed his physical again, and while the Broncos were willing to trade for him anyway, they balked at doing so without first having a new contract in place.
The Jets traded two first-rounders and a fourth-rounder for the chance to move up and select Robertson with the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft with the idea that he would become the centerpiece of Herm Edwards' Cover-2 defense, but it never really worked out. Robertson showed flashes of greatness but never developed into a dominant 3-technique tackle, and when Eric Mangini came in and installed the 3-4, Robertson became a player without a true position. He labored for two seasons as an undersized nose tackle on a terrible run defense, and now he's due to make $11.2 million, which is one-tenth of the team's total cap space. While Robertson could conceivably stay and play defensive end, it makes no sense to keep him at that kind of money and Robertson has no incentive to renegotiate his contract. All signs point to Robertson being a cap casualty, an ignominious end for one of the signature picks of the Terry Bradway/Herm Edwards era.
Free Agency Recap
No team did more to address its weaknesses through free agency than the Jets. Left guard? Check. Nose tackle? Check. Pass-rushing outside linebacker for the 3-4? Check. Right tackle? Check. Blocking fullback? Check.
The big name addition was Alan Faneca, who was arguably the best player available in free agency. While Faneca has been stuck the last two years on a bad Pittsburgh line, most observers feel he still is playing at a high level. Even if he doesn't show All-Pro form, Faneca could be worth the money for the impact his presence has on D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, as both players struggled with inconsistency last year.
The Jets also revamped the defense by signing Calvin Pace and trading third- and fifth-round picks (the going rate for a defensive tackle this year) to Carolina for Kris Jenkins. For two seasons the Jets have tried to play a 3-4 while missing signature pieces like a massive nose tackle and a legitimate edge rusher, and the hope is that Pace and Jenkins will fill those roles well enough to at least allow the scheme to work.
The reaction to New York's moves has generally been negative, as the team has been accused of making a desperate play to win now, or of mimicking the failed approach of Dan Snyder to free agency, but that probably misstates what Eric Mangini and Mike Tannenbaum are up to. They're not abandoning the draft -- had the Dewayne Robertson trade gone through, the team would have had more draft picks at the end of March than they did at the beginning -- and they're not necessarily expecting to be in the Super Bowl next year. Instead, they're providing free agency's most spectacular example of Bill Parcells' hold-the-fort strategy. They've signed several veterans at key spots for expensive but short-term deals that will allow them to run their offensive and defensive systems and properly evaluate the other players on the roster. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen.
Thanks to the front office's March spending spree, the team has some flexibility to use the sixth overall pick on the best player available, though ideally, that best player would happen to be Chris Long, Vernon Gholston or Darren McFadden. Gholston is sometimes compared to Shawne Merriman thanks to his freakish combination of speed and strength, but he is a much less polished prospect than Merriman was coming out of Maryland. Despite his 14 sacks, Gholston only recorded 37 tackles on the season, so when he wasn't sacking the quarterback, he was taking a nap.
The Jets need to add a corner at some point, and a third receiving option, but there is no value at those positions at the top of the draft. They've shown interest in James Hardy, the 6-foot-6 receiver from Indiana. Hardy isn't considered a polished route runner, but he could step in immediately as a red zone target.
The Jets have worked out Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm and Joe Flacco, which might not bode well for the long-term prospects of Kellen Clemens. Clemens performed unevenly when thrown into the lineup at midseason, and it's possible the team would add another second-round quarterback to add competition and bolster depth.