by Ned Macey
The Birth of a Leader
Jay Cutler has often been compared to Brett Favre due to his strong arm and willingness to take chances. Now, Cutler has added another Favre trait: valuable team leadership. When Cutler's top wide receiver Brandon Marshall injured his hand in an off-field accident, Cutler ripped into him in the media: "He's not my favorite person right now. I support him, but it's always something with him and right now you can't have that."
The story behind Marshall's injury is not entirely clear. He was roughhousing with his brother and ended up putting his right arm through a television. The accident took place when the 24-year-old Marshall was on vacation with his family and was wrestling with his brother for fun. How irresponsible. As Cutler noted "it was an accident," but nonetheless, Marshall "knows he's running out of chances."
Cutler should justifiably be upset that Marshall will miss off-season workouts. It is unclear, however, why a quarterback is appointed the role of publicly slamming a fellow teammate. The decision is all the more odd when the teammate is the person most responsible for your success. Perhaps Cutler is overreacting because he's terrified at the prospect of playing without Marshall.
Last season, Cutler threw 496 passes. Of those, 169 were directed at Marshall. Only T.J. Houshmandzadeh was targeted more often. Carson Palmer threw one more pass to Housh than Cutler threw to Marshall, but Palmer threw almost 100 more passes overall. No quarterback relied so much on one receiver as Cutler did on Marshall. Marshall's off-field mishaps may contribute to lost practice time or a lack of "trust," as Cutler put it. Ponder this: Who did more to destroy the relationship between quarterback and primary receiver, the player who gets injured off the field but will be ready for Week 1, or the quarterback who rips into him in the media? That's true leadership!
Marshall was asked about the controversy and chose not to respond publicly. It is unclear which player needs to grow up.
Free Agency Recap
The Broncos approached free agency as addition by subtraction. To prove the point, they cut the head off by firing general manager Ted Sundquist. In the Broncos' hierarchy, it was unclear how much power Sundquist yielded, or how responsible he was for the talent erosion of the past several seasons. When the GM sits below the coach on the organizational flow chart, it is hard to gauge who is responsible for which moves. Clearly unsatisfied with the direction of the team, Mike Shanahan pulled the plug on the long-time Broncos employee. Time will tell if his dismissal leads to improved player acquisitions.
On the field, the Broncos said goodbye to starting safety Nick Ferguson, center Chris Myers, receiver Javon Walker, and kicker Jason Elam. Ferguson and Myers went to Denver South to rejoin old Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and the Texans. Ferguson is an average player; Denver could do better, but they could also do worse. Myers is an intriguing player with only a few years of experience who will be blocked by the veteran Tom Nalen.
Walker is one of the odder acquisitions in recent years. He burst onto the scene in 2006 with a surprisingly quick recovery from an ACL injury. Last season, when he theoretically was going to be healthy, he battled injuries all year, feuded with coaches, and generally disappointed. (Walker is reportedly devastated by the death of Darrent Williams, who died in Walker's arms. Needless to say, it is hard to impugn Walker's effort, priorities, or attitude.)
Elam's departure has hit Broncos' fans the hardest, if only because he has been kicking for them since Wade Phillips was head coach. He has exceptional career statistics and has been a fine kicker for a number of years. Still, Elam's age is a factor, and his decline is masked by the high altitude in Denver. The Broncos have been below average on kickoff coverage every year since 2003. Kickers are easy to replace on the whole, but a few missed clutch kicks by his to-be-determined replacement will leave the Broncos' fans up in arms.
The Broncos' moves were not all departures, as they did heavy lifting in the mediocre veteran market. Boss Bailey, Keary Colbert, Marquand Manuel, Marlon McCree, and Casey Wiegmann were all added. If the Broncos are not counting on any of them, then they provide some reliability at various positions. The massive influx of veterans makes it doubtful that the Broncos are considering trusting their young players. Of the added players, maybe the most intriguing is McCree, who should help solidify the porous run defense.
The Broncos have a glaring hole in the middle of the defensive line, are short a left tackle, and lack a run-stuffing middle linebacker. The one bright side about having a great deal of needs is that it allows you to draft the best player available. Glenn Dorsey and Sedrick Ellis will be gone by the time the Broncos' draft at No. 12. Chris Williams is the most realistic option because he is the most athletic offensive tackle likely to be available at number 12.
Later in the draft, the Broncos will look for offensive playmakers with deep speed and players who excel at stopping the run. The Broncos would love for Jerod Mayo to fall to them in the second round, but he seems to be a fast riser and solid first-round pick. Dan Connor seems like a bit of a reach in the first round. The Broncos could look to move down and acquire a stout linebacker a few picks lower. Many predict that Denver will go after a wide receiver early, but Marshall appears to be on track for a full recovery, and Shanahan has a habit of finding talented receivers with later picks.
Kansas City Chiefs
Rebuilding and Proud of It
Sometimes in a 16-game season, a not-very-good team can seem deceptively close to championship contention. Bad teams often make the playoffs by sneaking in with a 9-7 record. The 2006 Chiefs were such a team. When you make the playoffs, it is difficult to justify rebuilding. The Chiefs were an aging team with numerous reasons for concern about long-term prospects. Still, the Chiefs almost needed a bad season to justify making the necessary changes to rebuild a flawed roster.
Nine straight losses to end 2007 are certainly an opening, and the Chiefs did not stand pat. Free agents acquired in recent years to shore up the defense -- such as Ty Law and Kendrell Bell -- were jettisoned. Aging players who helped the outstanding offenses of earlier this decade -- such as Eddie Kennison, Jason Dunn, and John Welbourn -- were sent on their way. The only free agents they have retained to date are their punter, Dustin Colquitt, and their outstanding defensive end Jared Allen.
Free Agency Recap
Needless to say, the Chiefs were not exactly big players in free agency. They did make two signings: wide receiver Devard Darling and linebacker Demorrio Williams. Both players are young and are good athletes. Williams should be an immediate starter, which could be a sign that Napoleon Harris is headed to the bench. Darling may slot in as a starter, which is a great deal to ask of someone with so little experience.
The Chiefs have innumerable holes, but the biggest weakness is the offensive line. The Chiefs have Brian Walters, Damion McIntosh, and three guys who have never been in my kitchen. Drafting fifth the Chiefs are likely to miss out on Jake Long, the premier offensive tackle. They could go with Ryan Clady, the Boise State tackle, who is also a prime prospect.
The Chiefs' other options are troubling for a variety of reasons. Their biggest strength is along the defensive line, and five of the draft's first ten likely picks were defensive linemen in college. Add in Darren McFadden (the running back who would duplicate Larry Johnson) and the likely off-the-board Long, and all the Chiefs really have to consider is Clady or quarterback Matt Ryan as the likely top rated players available.
The decision on Ryan, if he is available, will prove extremely interesting. Brodie Croyle remains, at best, a work in progress. Color me skeptical that Croyle is the future starter of a playoff-caliber team, but I remain a bit skeptical of Ryan as well. If the Chiefs think Ryan is a franchise quarterback, then they should jump at him if he is available (and Jake Long is gone).
After the first round, the Chiefs should look to the secondary. Law was released, and Patrick Surtain cannot have more than another year or two as a productive starter. They are also exceedingly thin at wide receiver, as Darling's assumption of a starting role on the depth chart attests. If they come out of Day One with an offensive lineman, cornerback, and receiver, they will have done a good job. The second day should be devoted to building offensive line depth. No number of offensive linemen would be too many.
Ahead of the Curve or Simply Mad?
The Raiders have become a bit of a punch line after a free agent shopping spree that would shame Daniel Snyder. The Raiders paid out big money to questionable targets in Javon Walker, Gibril Wilson, Kwame Harris, and Tommy Kelly.
The money is not as crazy as it first appears. Harris is easily cut after one year if he fails to develop. Wilson's $16 million guaranteed is excessive, but he is only 27 years old and a solid run defender, one of the few on the roster. Kelly is also only 27, and he can play either defensive end or defensive tackle. Walker is perhaps the most questionable acquisition because of repeated injury issues, advanced age for a receiver, and an excessive contract.
The salaries might be acceptable because the Raiders still have cap room even with star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha franchised as an exclusive rights free agent. The simple truth is that the salary cap has increased faster than salaries have escalated. Almost every team has salary cap space to spare. Furthermore, the Raiders do not exactly have a boatload of talented people playing at undervalued rookie contracts. Two bargains they had were Asomugha and Justin Fargas, who also just signed a big contract. In the next several years, they need only re-sign Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison to expensive raises.
The question in some sense is whether or not the team is better off having these players than not having them. They could have let Walker go elsewhere for less, but then they would have almost no competent wide receivers. Wilson is better than Stuart Schweigert. Kelly was the team's best defensive lineman two years ago when they had an excellent defense.
Free Agency Recap
If the Raiders were capable of drafting and developing young players, then they would not need to venture into free agency. Had they not been willing to pay the price, they would have a weaker team this upcoming season. The rising salary cap should allow them to keep the majority of their desirable players going forward. This off-season spending spree may not be genius, but it is not as crazy as it first appears.
The final piece of the puzzle, and a much more defensible contract, was given out to DeAngelo Hall. The super-talented cornerback plays inconsistently and is overrated. At the same time, he becomes the Raiders' second cornerback and probably the best second cornerback in the NFL. The Hall acquisition shows the lack of faith the Raiders have in Fabian Washington, but even if they are giving up on him early, Hall could help create a dominant defense.
The Raiders have the draft's fourth overall selection, and it is a make-or-break pick for this draft. The Raiders do not pick again until the fourth round.
The Raiders are the opposite of the Chiefs in that they could use almost every player considered a top eight pick except for Matt Ryan. Fargas is a serviceable running back, but Al Davis may be excited by the big-play ability of McFadden. Adrian Peterson provided a big-play threat to an otherwise weak offense in Minnesota, and McFadden could provide the same spark to the Raiders, with Fargas playing the role of Chester Taylor. Long or Clady are the "safe" picks, but a team still suffering from Robert Gallery is unlikely to think that offensive linemen are all that safe.
The most intriguing move would be to pursue one of the top defensive linemen. The Raiders defense was gashed in the middle last season and never solved its run defense problems. If they acquired either Dorsey or Ellis, they could return to their 2006 form as a dominant defense.
The Raiders probably cannot afford to ignore the offensive side of the ball. The decision to try and build excellence on one side rather than mediocrity on the other makes for an interesting team-building exercise.
San Diego Chargers
The Next Frontier
The general premise of this second round of Four Downs is a look at holes that teams have and how they go about filling those holes. For almost every team, we identify the hole, ponder whether it was filled in free agency, and then predict what college player would best fill that need.
The Chargers have reached a level of sustained excellence that changes the calculus for them. Their internal debates are not about filling holes but about which established starters will be released. They are loaded with cap room, and their roster spots are devoted to only those players they actually want. They do not need to cut anyone due to his high salary.
That is what makes the Chargers' last four months so interesting. The team have outright released Shane Olivea, Marlon McCree, and Lorenzo Neal. Admittedly, Olivea lost his job late in the season, but as recently as 2006, he was regarded as an up-and-coming tackle. McCree is only 31 years old and has been starting at safety for the past two seasons. The Chargers, however, drafted Eric Weddle last season and apparently believe he already is the superior player.
Free Agency Recap
The one player the Chargers probably wanted to keep is Michael Turner, but even with cap room to spare, it would be silly to pay for two starting running backs. Darren Sproles is an excellent complementary second back, but he would be less conventional as an every-down back if something were to happen to LaDainian Tomlinson. Turner has been a great back-up running back for the past several seasons, and his departure will lead to a loss in value. Some of that value was earned in blowouts, but he also played a crucial role as an in-game substitute for Tomlinson in a number of close games. He will be missed.
The Chargers also differentiate themselves from most other clubs by their team-wide decision to be inactive in free agency. With tens of millions of dollars available to spend, the Chargers added Derek Smith, the 33-year-old linebacker released by the inept San Francisco 49ers, and... well, they added Derek Smith. He will provide support at inside linebacker.
The Chargers do not have any needs other than depth. No player taken where they draft would be assured of a place in the starting lineup. With that in mind, they can go with best available player. They are in many ways drafting for 2009 or 2010. The only borderline old players on the team are nose tackle Jamal Williams and guard Mike Goff. Do not be surprised if the Chargers take a nose tackle and an interior lineman at some point.
Some mock drafts predict San Diego to go with an offensive lineman to replace Olivea. The Chargers, however, appear happy with Jeromy Cleary, who really played well in the run game after assuming a starting role late in the season. A stronger need is at cornerback, where the departure of Drayton Florence leaves them without a proven nickelback.
One thing worth remembering is that the Chargers traded away their second-round pick to Miami to acquire Chris Chambers in the middle of last season. The lack of a second-round pick and no pressing needs make the Chargers a natural trading partner for anyone hoping to move up into the end of the first round.