by Doug Farrar
Lost in the Supermarket
There's been one major arrival in Atlanta this off-season, and there's now one big departure.
Despite the fact that they have needs everywhere, a long-standing two-back system, one piece of the puzzle in place with Jerious Norwood, and a class of running back draft prospects as good as any in recent memory, the Falcons made their big free-agency splash (six years, $34.5 million, $15 million guaranteed) on former Chargers backup Michael Turner.
In relief of LaDainian Tomlinson over the last four years, Turner has been the star of Sample SizeTheater -- his 6.5 yards per carry average and six touchdowns in 228 career carries speaks to a great deal of potential. What we don't know is whether Turner can thrive as a feature back over a full season. The outlook is positive in theory, but concerns about Atlanta's offensive line and the possibility that Turner's success is due to what Marshall Faulk once called the "breather effect" -- a phenomenon that occurs when elite backs are taken out of a game and defenses relax for backups -- leave the move as less than a slam-dunk.
If the Turner deal displayed questionable financial acumen, the deal the Raiders made for ex-Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall borders on outright lunacy. Oakland will give the talented, but overrated and oft-disgruntled, Hall a seven-year, $70 million contract, and Atlanta will get Oakland's second-round pick this year and fifth-round pick next year for the privilege. The Falcons will find it somewhat difficult to match Hall's raw potential on their roster, but they won't miss a guy who's proven to be a pain in the butt when his team isn't on the upside.
Free Agency Recap
The five stages of grief (of any severe loss -- job, income, freedom), based on the Kubler-Ross model, are as follows: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
The Falcons have gone through an endless loop of these emotions since the Vick disaster melted into the Petrino Debacle, which merged into the Blank Embarrassments, which finally became Some Sort of New Beginning. What that New Beginning will become is still in doubt, but the most recent round of bargaining began on February 15, when new general manager Thomas Dimitroff started a roster purge by releasing seven players, including tight end Alge Crumpler, the team's most consistent offensive weapon over the last few seasons. Tackles went by the wayside on both offense (Wayne Gandy) and defense (Rod Coleman), as did quarterback Byron Leftwich and his sundial-timed release point.
Quarterbacks Joey Harrington and Chris Redman hung on, though many think they'll play backup sooner rather than later to whichever quarterback the Falcons take early in the draft. Don't be surprised, however, if Dimitroff follows the New England model and gets his lines in shape before anything else. Franchise cornerstone Warrick Dunn, who has rushed for more yards than any Falcon not named Gerald Riggs, was released as most suspected he would be, and returned to Tampa Bay.
Dimitroff and new head coach Mike Smith thus had a clean slate of sorts, and the financial wherewithal to move forward. And with grievous needs at so many positions, and a nearly complete rebuild still ahead, the Falcons' 2008 draft is more crucial than most for future success.
The Hall trade gives Atlanta a total of four draft picks in the first 48 selections, according to NFL.com. Gandy's release gives the team little to go on at left tackle, and though Atlanta's league-lowest ranking in Adjusted Line Yards had a lot to do with injuries and schematic misfits under Petrino, the rebuild probably starts here. Michigan's Jake Long would be the perfect pointman for the new power offense. If they don't pick the nasty drive-blocker, the Falcons could define the defensive line with one of two explosive defensive tackles, LSU's Glenn Dorsey or USC's Sedrick Ellis. Perhaps Chad Henne or Joe Flacco gets the nod at future franchise quarterback with that extra early second-round pick.
Later picks could find the team filling a huge need at middle linebacker -- they've got to get Keith Brooking back outside -- with someone like Oklahoma tackling machine Curtis Lofton. Replacing Hall finds the Falcons in a bit of a numbers game. There isn't a cornerback in this draft worthy of the third overall selection, but there's a lot of depth in the second round and early second day. Indiana's Tracy Porter is a speedy, man-on-man corner with suspect tackling ability. USC's Terrell Thomas is a Marcus Trufant-esque player with a physical style, decent speed, and questionable short-area burst. You might see one of these names among those four early picks. At tight end, Tennessee's Brad Cottam recently impressed at his Pro Day, and he'd be a nice target for whoever's throwing the ball in the ATL.
The Right Profile
Steve Smith's long national nightmare may finally be over. After four years of double-teams from opposing defenses and below-average production from other receivers on the roster, there's help on the way. After cutting ties with Drew Carter and Keary Colbert, two receivers who never lived up to their potential, the Panthers took a solid look at the situation around Smith and made some serious moves.
The first step was to re-sign Mushin Muhammad, Smith's last real production partner in the air when he finished third in DPAR in 2004. Muhammad has spent three years in Chicago; now he comes back to his original NFL home at age 34, and as a third receiver behind Smith and Carolina's second step -- former Seahawks receiver D.J. Hackett. Hackett is a great player when healthy, but that's a major caveat. He missed 10 games in 2007 with various injuries, and it's that concern that left him with substandard offers from the Redskins and Buccaneers when he headed east on a free agency tour. Scout.com's Adam Caplan first reported that the Seahawks, who told Hackett and his agent to head back to the Pacific Northwest so that they could ostensibly match whatever was on the table, said "Feh!" to Carolina's two-year, $3.5 million offer and let Hackett walk. If Hackett stays healthy all year, the Panthers will have a steal, and Seattle general manager Tim Ruskell will have a lot of 'splainin' to do.
How bad was it for Smith after Muhammad left? He finished first in DPAR for receivers in 2005; Ricky Proehl was next for the Panthers at 53rd. In 2006, Smith ranked 14th, and Keyshawn Johnson was next for the team at 55th. 2007 saw all Carolina receivers hit the pavement (which is what happens when four different quarterbacks throw the ball to you, and one of them is David Carr). Smith finished 73rd in DPAR, Carter was 66th, and Colbert received the dubious honor of Low Man among NFL receivers with 50 passes or more thrown in their general direction. His -10.6 DPAR was worst in the NFL. Muhammad finished 60th in DPAR with the Bears, and when that's an improvement, you know your offense is in some serious trouble. Hackett is the wild card. If he stays on his feet and can reproduce his best efforts with the Seahawks, it'll make Smith very happy. And quite a bit less covered.
Free Agency Recap
The Panthers will have as many as nine new starters in 2008. In addition to the redefinition of the receiver corps, Carolina's offensive line -- the one strength of the offense last year -- will see a lot of change. Guard Mike Wahle was released as a cap casualty and signed by Seattle. Center Justin Hartwig was signed by the Steelers after Carolina tried to trade him and found no takers. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was traded to the Jets for a pair of draft picks. Part of his five-year, $30 million contract with New York provides $25,000 bonuses when Jenkins, who reportedly finished 2007 at 390 pounds, makes weight during scheduled times. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan ran into the excellence of rookie Jon Beason and his own formidable concussion history and signed with the Saints. Even some who are staying around are changing places -- tackle Travelle Wharton, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract, will most likely move inside to Wahle's old spot at left guard. Defensive end Julius Peppers, whose 2008 cap hit of over $14 million stands in very sharp contrast to his three sacks last season, has been the subject of several trade rumors.
Carolina needs an elite left tackle above all. They have a good shot at Boise State's Ryan Clady with the 13th overall pick. Clady has a great mixture of run- and pass-blocking moves, and he'd form a pretty special left side with Wharton. At running back, DeShaun Foster was another name on the long list of Carolina releases. He took his subpar production to San Francisco and left the starting job with DeAngelo Williams where it belongs. However, the Panthers would be wise to take advantage of this running back class in later rounds. Bigger backs like Tulane's Matt Forte or Central Florida's Kevin Smith would provide a solid contrast to Williams' elusive style. Look for some secondary help to be selected later on, as well. Terrence Holt, known mostly in NFL circles for being Torry Holt's younger brother, was signed to fill space at free safety.
New Orleans Saints
Train in Vain
In 2007, Saints running back Reggie Bush suffered through a losing season for the first time in his life as his team went 7-9 in the NFL's worst division. A knee injury stole his last four games. New Orleans bounced through several different complementary running backs who would play thunder to Bush's lightning -- Deuce McAllister, who suffered another serious knee injury; then veteran Aaron Stecker; then undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas, whose late-season efforts caused the kind of excitement that Bush himself is used to producing. Bush caught 73 balls in 2007 -- his second NFL season with at least this many catches -- but his yards per reception dropped from 8.4 to 5.7, and he ended the year with the worst rushing DPAR for any running with at least 75 carries. The aforementioned Thomas had the NFL's best DPAR among backs with 74 or fewer carries, which is as good a metaphor as any for the footsteps Bush must hear behind him.
This spring and summer will find Bush in the team's off-season conditioning program. He went home to Southern California after his rookie year, and though he participated in conditioning of sorts, he now realizes the value of staying put. "Last year, I kind of felt like I could still do the same things out there that I could do here," he told Nola.com this week. "I was, but it was also a little different. Sometimes you can get your teammates in the film room and with the coaches, you get to go over little things that you can't get when you're not here at the facility."
The Saints re-signed Stecker, and Thomas looks to be a good one, but McAllister's future is in doubt. It was recently revealed that he not only underwent surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee last September, but also a microfracture procedure on his previously injured right knee. He has delayed his 2008 roster bonus until April 15 so the team can see how he's healing.
With all this roster drama swirling around him, it's still Bush's load to carry. That's what happens when you're selected second overall in the draft. What Bush, his fans and his detractors will have to realize is that the Saints didn't draft a back that can pound the rock all day. He's a piece of the puzzle -- albeit a very talented one -- who needs another consistent, reliable back on the field to take some of the defensive focus away from him.
Free Agency Recap
The Saints finished eighth in passing DVOA last season and set about retaining all the major players. Receivers Devery Henderson, Terrance Copper and David Patten; tight ends Eric Johnson and Billy Miller; and linemen Jamar Nesbit and Jonathan Goodwin all re-upped. The reorganization of a defense that finished 27th in total DVOA -- dead last in DVOA against the pass -- and resembled a CFL squad far more often than it should have began with the acquisition of two middle linebackers: Dan Morgan, signed away from the Panthers, and Jonathan Vilma, acquired for a fourth-round pick from the Jets. Vilma's an interesting acquisition. If his knee checks out, he's a dynamic addition to the Saints' 4-3 scheme. Morgan may get some work outside. The Saints also signed veteran quarterback Mark Brunell, who should be an upgrade over Jamie Martin as the backup to Drew Brees.
In our last NFC South Four Downs, we detailed the perils of New Orleans' secondary; there may not be a bigger need in the NFL than for this team to upgrade that squad. Jason David was outplayed by a bare area in the middle of the field, and Mike McKenzie has some serious ACL surgical recovery to complete. McKenzie's still an effective player when healthy, but he's 31 and it's time to start thinking about reinforcements. Ex-Patriot Randall Gay is a decent stopgap. The Saints have the 10th pick in the 2008 draft, and they may zero in on Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin, this year's top-rated corner. If McKelvin is gone and neither Glen Dorsey nor Sedrick Ellis is there at 10 (there's little doubt New Orleans would take either player if such a miracle occurred), don't be surprised if they take a shot at Dominique Rogers-Cromartie. "DRC" has the deep speed to help stop this defense's penchant for giving up big plays.
Later rounds should see the Saints taking a defensive tackle somewhere. Age will catch up to Brian Young and Hollis Thomas sooner than later. Notre Dame's Trevor Laws is a slightly undersized interior lineman who would impress as a three-technique tackle in a 4-3. Most mocks have him as a second-round prospect, but the stock is rising. Any number of midround linebackers would be able to fight for starting time under the right circumstances.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brand New Cadillac
There's a nine-inch scar on the right knee of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. It's where the patellar tendon, torn last September 30 against the Carolina Panthers, was repaired. Williams, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2005, recently told the St. Petersburg Times that he's wondered at times whether the injury would be career-ending. "You're laying in bed, you're doing rehab and you can't move your leg,'' Williams said. "So you start to think that even though the doctor is telling you, 'Whoa, they're just speculating, be patient.' But we're human. You get to thinking like, 'Man, maybe it is."
Since then, there's been a lot of praying and even more rehab. Williams is now able to engage in light exercise, and he hopes to be ready to play when the 2008 season begins. According to various reports, the sentiment on the part of his team is that he'll be ready at midseason at best. The more insidious speculation is that his career may be over. Tampa Bay has 2007 surprise Earnest Graham, the re-signed Michael Bennett, and veteran Warrick Dunn in the fold; they seem to know that relying on Williams this year may be pure folly.
It's all speculation until the off-season conditioning program begins, but Dr. James Andrews, who performed the surgery, told Williams it's a 9- to 12-month recovery process. Williams points to Eagles running back Correll Buckhalter and Broncos linebacker Nate Webster as examples of players who have returned to the game after similar injuries. His current state of mind -- "I definitely have a great shot. I feel good about it" -- is the only way to go.
Free Agency Recap
The signing of Dunn, who began his estimable career in Tampa Bay and inspired fond memories long after he signed with the Falcons in 2002, is an interesting nostalgic notion. The Bucs plan to use him in the passing game more than they will as a serious rushing option, which will probably extend his career. Tampa Bay also stayed in the division with their biggest signing, a surprising six-year, $34.5 million deal with $15 million guaranteed for ex-Saints center Jeff Faine. That's a lot of scratch for a center, though the Saints did finish first overall in Adjusted Line Yards up the middle despite starting a running back who is not exactly known as a pile-pusher. Brian Griese, acquired in a trade with the Bears, will begin his second stint in Tampa Bay (he was their primary quarterback in 2004) backing up Jeff Garcia. They're also taking a chance with receiver Antonio Bryant, who missed the entire 2007 season wrestling with the league's substance-abuse policy.
The demolition of Tampa Bay's offense in their playoff loss to the Giants re-emphasized the team's primary need: When Joey Galloway was unable to make plays due to injury, Garcia had no other realistic options and spent a very long three hours getting his brains beaten in by New York's otherworldly defensive line. Cal's DeSean Jackson is a small speed-burner who is trying very hard indeed to avoid getting pigeonholed by Ted Ginn, Jr., comparisons, and he'd certainly give opposing cornerbacks something to think about downfield. Louisville's Harry Douglas might be a good option on the second day -- you may remember Douglas as the guy who disclosed at the Combine that he loves him some Ike Hilliard. He also crashed Brian Brohm's press conference and started asking questions. This is a guy who could make Bucs Cam very interesting.
Speaking of cornerbacks, with Brian Kelly opting out of Tampa Bay and signing with the Lions, and Ronde Barber approaching the wrong side of his thirties, it's possible that the Bucs will look at a fairly deep group at the position.
Reports also indicate that the team has shown a specific interest in San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson, the Shrine Game hero who suffered through an indifferent workout at the Combine. I wrote a pool report about Johnson from the RCA Dome, and I was alarmed at how much trouble he had throwing across his body and operating with reasonable consistency. What I didn't know at the time was that Johnson had suffered back spasms while running a 4.4 40-yard dash earlier in the day. His recent Pro Day, which was attended by representatives of more than 20 NFL teams, allowed him a fresh start. His stock may be rising again, and the Bucs are among his biggest advocates.