by Mike Tanier
The Ray-Ray Trio
Question: Are the Ravens in deep trouble if they lose their three top linebackers to free agency?
Answer: Think "Marianas Trench." That deep.
Few teams could absorb the loss of three starting linebackers, and no team has a trio as good as Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Bart Scott. If all three leave Baltimore, the Ravens will lose more than Lewis' leadership, Suggs' sacks, and Scott's steadiness.
At Football Outsiders, we classify tackles in a variety of ways. A "stop" is a tackle for a short gain. A "defeat" is a tackle for no gain or a loss, or a tackle that prevents a conversion on third down. Stops are good plays, defeats are great plays, and the Lewis-Suggs-Scott trio made more than its share of both in 2008.
Lewis finished 14th in the league in stops, Suggs finished 18th, and Scott finished 30th. Suggs led the NFL with 36 defeats; Lewis was 11th with 27. The average linebacker records between 12 and 18 defeats per year, so those numbers are extraordinary. Scott didn't record many defeats on passing plays, but he and Lewis each earned 12 defeats against the run (tied for 11th in the NFL), while Suggs was second in the league with 17 run defeats. Add them up, and all of those "quiet" big plays were as important to the Ravens defense as Ed Reed's highlight-reel interception returns.
Replace Suggs, Lewis, and Scott with ordinary linebackers, and the Ravens will lose much more than some sacks and pregame speeches. They would lose about 25 defeats, which would translate into almost as many first downs for opposing offenses. Their stops would also drop to league averages, turning two-yard gains into five-yarders. Opponents' drives would be longer, and because the Ravens would force fewer third-and-long situations, they would also generate fewer sacks, fumbles, and interceptions. Ironically, the tackle totals of the replacement linebackers might actually go up; with teams driving down the field, there would be more opponents to tackle!
The Ravens will try to keep as much of their linebacker corps intact as possible, but they have multiple free agents to satisfy and only so many cap dollars. Given their options, they should take care of Lewis and company first. Keep Ray Lewis happy: Now that's always good advice.
Who Could Leave?
The term "hometown discount" is rapidly entering the national consciousness. Terrell Suggs is amenable to giving the Ravens a break in free agency so he can stay in Baltimore. Lewis disagrees, at least outwardly. The whole Ravens organization is working hard to keep Lewis satisfied. Both Ozzie Newsome and Jim Harbaugh have stressed Lewis' importance in the last two weeks, and Newsome said that he would outbid just about any offer. One likely scenario: Lewis and Suggs stay, every other key free agent walks.
Those other free agents include Jim Leonhard, who had a fine season at safety but looks like a system guy, and Corey Ivy, a replaceable third cornerback. Chris McAlister will probably retire. Jason Brown had a great season at center, but the Ravens probably won't be able to keep him if they break the bank at linebacker.
Both kicker Matt Stover and punter Sam Koch are free agents. Stover is a 20-year vet, and the Ravens may opt to get younger on special teams. Role players like tight end Dan Wilcox and Lorenzo Neal will only return if the price is really right. Kyle Boller may sell you your next insurance policy.
Who Should They Sign?
Internal signings will be the Ravens' top priority. They'll look to fill their biggest needs, starting at wide receiver, through the draft. If they splurge, the Ravens could seek a younger veteran kicker like Shayne Graham or add a depth-type receiver. Brandon Lloyd is a lousy fit in most NFL offenses, but imagine him streaking down the field a few times per game, then leaping for a Joe Flacco bomb. As a third or fourth option in this offense, he could be a productive fire-and-forget weapon.
Dink and Dunked
Question: What part of the Bengals offense needs immediate repair?
Answer: Fix the screen. Bugs are getting in.
The 2008 Bengals were the Roger Bannister of dink-and-dunk attacks, averaging just 8.8 yards per completion, becoming the first offense in league history to dip below nine yards per catch. The former record was 9.2, held by the 2006 Texans and another squad hailing from the Queen City, the 1934 Cincinnati Reds. Last season, the Bengals were nearly three yards below the league average of 11.4 and almost five yards below the league-leading Panthers, who averaged 13.4 yards per completion.
There's nothing wrong with building an offense around short passes, but those passes must be productive. The Bengals completed 77 passes that netted less than five yards. Five of those plays resulted in first downs and touchdowns, so we'll consider them successful. That leaves 72 junk passes, or 23.8 percent of the team's completions. No other team had such a high percentage of its passes go nowhere.
Ryan Fitzpatrick only deserves part of the blame. Carson Palmer averaged just 8.9 yards per completion before getting injured, still well below league average. Play-calling was a larger issue. T.J. Houshmandzadeh's statistics reflect the team's low-calorie, high-filler passing diet. Fourteen of his 92 receptions netted four yards or less. Eight of them occurred on first-and-10, when the team was hoping for more than a two-yard plunge. Coordinator Bob Bratkowski dialed up lots of screens to get Hooch involved, but far too many of those plays were barely more productive than an incomplete pass.
Chris Perry, prime suspect for most of the Bengals offensive woes in 2008, was also culpable in the short passing game. He averaged just 3.6 yards per catch. Perry's misadventures include two 5-yard losses, a 4-yard loss, a 3-yard loss, and three no-gainers. Every running back gets stuffed on a screen once in a while, but Perry did it on 35 percent of his receptions.
Bratkowski won't have to worry about Perry or Fitzpatrick next year, but he will probably also be without Houshmandzadeh, a great player who averaged 11.8 yards per catch before last season. Bratkowski will have to get the short passing game on track by improving the blocking on screens and by cultivating a running back who can do damage in the open field. He'll also have to pick his spots better. Too many tunnel screens on first down can kill an offense, especially when the tunnel doesn't lead anywhere.
Who Could Leave?
Chad Johnson thinks Houshmadzadeh wants to return to the Bengals. As reliable sources go, Ocho Cinco is right up there with the boy who cried wolf. The Bengals reportedly made Hooch an offer recently, but it was rejected. The franchise tag is still an option. Defensive tackle John Thornton is optimistic about the Bengals' chances of making the playoffs next year but pessimistic about his chances of staying in Cincy. Thornton is on the downside of his career but will get some offers.
Kicker Shayne Graham could cash in with another team if the Bengals focus their efforts on signing second-tier free agents like linebacker Richard Jeanty. Tackle Stacy Andrews, last year's franchise player, should be back. He's recovering from major knee injuries and is working on a new deal.
Who Should They Sign?
The Bengals need help on defense, and there are impact defenders on the market. If they cannot land a blue chip like Terrell Suggs or Julius Peppers, the Bengals should be able to upgrade the defense by signing Karlos Dansby or LeRoy Hill. With Keith Rivers expected back next year, one good signing could turn the linebacker corps from a weakness to a strength.
Cedric Benson is a free agent, and the Bengals might bring him back after his passable-at-times performance in the second half of last season. Making Benson a full-time back would be a big mistake. There are plenty of change-up backs on the market, including Derrick Ward and Darren Sproles, who could handle a 15-carry, 10-target workload. That would allow Benson to work between the tackles and in short yardage.
If Hooch leaves, the Bengals will need depth at wide receiver. Unless they work some Anquan Boldin miracle, they won't get a player in Hooch's class. If they want a possession receiver to tide them over for a year, they could grab an old-timer like Bobby Engram or a career slot player like Shaun McDonald.
ManGenius by the Lake
Question: How will the Browns offense be different under Eric Mangini?
Answer: The future is wide open.
Eric Mangini likes to spread the field and spread the ball around. His Jets lined up in shotgun on 38 percent of their offensive snaps last year, 10th in the NFL. Brett Favre attempted 522 passes, many of them from empty backfield sets that made the running game an empty threat. The Jets line up with four or more wide receivers about 25 percent of the time, even though running back Leon Washington and tight end Dustin Keller are split out as wide receivers.
The Browns will certainly be more shotgun-oriented in 2009. They used the formation just 30 percent of the time last year, and they would have used it far less if they weren't playing from behind in so many games. Mangini's shotgun-spread tendencies will be obvious in certain situations. The Browns, like most teams, usually ran the ball on third-and-short in 2008: 23 runs versus 15 passes on third-and-less than two yards. Mangini likes to pass in short yardage situations, throwing 31 times versus 14 runs. The coach may change his tune a little when he sees the Browns quarterback situation, but look for him to spread the field and ask Brady Quinn (or someone) throw short to get the tough yards.
That quarterback will need more receivers to target. Braylon Edwards will get his opportunities, and Kellen Winslow will fit the offense perfectly if he's healthy. The Jets threw to their tight ends 119 times last year, and Mangini will increase that number to get the ball to one of his best weapons. But Mangini likes to get the running backs involved in the passing game. Thomas Jones and Leon Washington combined for 83 receptions on 103 attempts last year. The Browns' top three running backs caught just 57 passes in 87 attempts. Mangini will have to cultivate someone to take Washington's role as the flat pass and draw play threat on third down.
Shotgun sets, passes on third-and-short, and dump-offs to the running back. Mangini football frustrated Jets fans, but Browns fans may find the aerial attack to be a breath of fresh air.
Who Could Leave?
New General Manager George Kokinis is still settling in and taking care of housecleaning matters: hanging photos, stocking his desk, cutting Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski. Kokinis also released journeyman cornerback Terry Cousin and injury case Antwaan Peek, signaling the start of yet another new era.
It's not clear what Kokinis plans to do with safety Sean Jones or linebacker Andra Davis. Jones missed several games with injuries last season, but he's got good range and ball skills. He wants to stay in Cleveland, and the team should accommodate him. Davis is a productive run defender who doesn't offer much in the passing game anymore. He's expendable.
Most of the remaining Browns free agents are old-timers like Willie McGinest or roster fillers. Look for most of them to walk as Mangini and Kokinis put their stamp on the roster.
Who Should They Sign?
Imagine Kurt Warner mentoring Brady Quinn. Mangini probably has. Prying Warner loose would be a tall order for the Browns, but a Warner-Quinn combination would be a perfect match of skills and personalities. If Warner isn't available, Mangini should look for another veteran placeholder, like Kerry Collins or (seriously) Joey Harrington. Harrington could be effective for a year or two in Mangini's short passing offense. Now that the entire front office is different, Jeff Garcia might even consider a return to Cleveland.
The Browns need to get younger and better on the offensive line, and center is a good place to start. Hank Fraley is getting old, and the Ravens' Jason Brown is on the market. The Browns won't be able to pursue both Brown and a top veteran quarterback, but if they opt to enter the season with Quinn, Derek Anderson, and a can-do spirit, they can afford a top-shelf lineman.
Hero, Just for One Day
Question: Was Santonio Holmes' Super Bowl performance a sign of things to come?
Answer: Steelers fans better hope not.
Santanio Holmes has never caught more than six passes in a regular season game, so his heroic nine-catch, 131-yard Super Bowl performance was a surprise. Holmes has been somewhat disappointing since the Steelers took him 25th overall in 2006: He is yet to record a 1,000-yard or 60-catch season. Perhaps the Super Bowl was Holmes' belated coming out party.
The Steelers targeted Holmes 13 times in the Super Bowl, not counting the reception that was called back because of intentional grounding. The Steelers rarely call Holmes' number that often. He was thrown to 13 times just once in 2008: in Week 9 against the Redskins. He was targeted for 10 passes once, nine passes three times, eight passes four times, and seven passes four times. It's hard to catch nine passes when you are only thrown to eight times, so it's easy to see why Holmes' regular-season numbers are low.
Holmes only caught 48 percent of the balls thrown to him in the regular season, but his rate in the Super Bowl was 69 percent. A couple of first-quarter screens helped beef up Holmes' numbers. Those short screens may bolster his future numbers: Seventy percent of the passes thrown to Holmes in the regular season were short passes. In the Super Bowl, he was only targeted deep twice. Get Holmes the ball in the perimeter, and he'll produce.
The problem is that Steelers don't want Holmes to produce that much. Holmes caught four passes on five attempts for 73 yards in the Steelers' final drive. The Steelers usually don't throw many passes late in the game; they are often sitting on a lead and trying to burn the clock. Holmes had three games in which he wasn't targeted at all in the fourth quarter and six others in which only one fourth quarter pass came his way. If the Cardinals had not come back, Holmes would have spent the final minutes of the Super Bowl blocking for Willie Parker, and his 5-catch, 58-yard performance would have fit right into his career averages.
The Super Bowl told us that Holmes can be a game-changer. It didn't tell us that a 90-catch season is in the works in 2009. Steelers fans should be satisfied: If Holmes catches more passes, it could be because the Steelers are struggling to win games instead of kneeling on leads.
Who Could Leave?
Five Steelers offensive linemen are free agents, and the team won't be able to keep all of them. Team executive Kevin Colbert said early in the week that he is still formulating strategy, but that he will definitely try to lock up either Max Starks or Marvel Smith. Starks was the team's franchise player last year, and while the team might tag him again, there's a chance that Colbert may make a major offer to keep him. Smith has battled injuries the last two seasons but will get a lot of attention on the open market. The team will try to keep both Starks and Smith; if that happens, the Steelers probably won't be able to keep starting guard Chris Kemoeatu or role player Trai Essex. Tackle Willie Colon is a restricted free agent.
Nate Washington is the biggest name free agent among the Steelers non-linemen. He will get some attention, and the Steelers won't break the bank to keep him. Cornerback Bryant McFadden will also get some offers from teams that are strapped in the secondary. The Steelers will let him walk in the name of solidifying the offensive line.
Who Should They Sign?
Colbert indicated that the team would like to get younger on the defensive line. That means the Steelers may prioritize the line in the draft, but don't rule out a minor free agent signing. A player like Gabe Watson (Cardinals) or Dwan Edwards (Ravens) would arrive with youth and an ability to play in a 3-4 system. For a little more money, the Steelers could make a run at Igor Olshansky.
The Steelers appear satisfied with Byron Leftwich at backup quarterback, but both Leftwich and Charlie Batch are free agents. If Leftwich leaves in search of a starting opportunity, the Steelers might pursue a young backup with experience in the Dan Orlavsky/Ryan Fitzpatrick mold. Beyond that, the Steelers will, as usual, be very conservative in free agency.