by Mike Tanier
Biggest Hole: Special Teams
The Ravens don't need much, but they could use a good swift kick. And maybe a punt.
The team released kicker Matt Stover at the beginning of March. They made a second-round tender offer to restricted free agent punter Sam Koch. If Koch gets an offer elsewhere, the Ravens could start next season with untested Steven Hauschka as their kicker and a gaping void at punter.
Koch's net average of 39.9 yards per punt ranked fifth in the NFL, but that doesn't tell the whole story. At Football Outsiders, we adjust the net average based on field position, so a player who often punts from midfield isn't penalized for hanging "short" 35-yard punts inside the 20. With adjustments, Koch had the best net punting average in the NFL, topping even Oakland's Shane Lechler, whose numbers are inflated by lots of punts from deep in his own territory. Thanks in part to Koch, Ravens opponents started their average drive at the 28.34-yard line, the seventh worst field position in the NFL.
Assuming Koch re-signs, the Ravens still have a decision to make at kicker. Hauschka had a fine year in 2008 as a kickoff specialist. His average kickoff (65.9 yards) sailed further than Stover's (62.5), giving the Ravens another field position boost. Hauschka has the credentials to replace Stover: He was 16-of-18 on field goals at North Carolina State in 2007, made all four of his preseason field goals for the Vikings last year, and booted a 54-yarder in relief of Stover during the regular season. Still, he lacks experience, and the defense-minded Ravens need a kicker capable of picking up the slack when the offense stalls.
The Ravens must retain Koch, and they would be wise to generate some camp competition for Hauschka. A player like Utah's Louie Sakoda (22-of-24 field goals last year) would provide insurance in exchange for a seventh-round pick. It would be a wise investment. No one wants to dumpster dive for kickers in late August.
Free Agency Recap
One day after re-signing Ray Lewis, the Ravens filled a huge hole at center by signing Matt Birk. Birk replaces Jason Brown (now with the Rams), and he'll provide stability to an otherwise youthful offensive line. Birk is 33 but still has a year or two left.
The Ravens may not be done acquiring 33-year-old geezer linemen. Orlando Pace visited the team last week. It's a long shot, but the Ravens may make a run at him to provide insurance at tackle if he passes a physical. The Ravens signed Willie Anderson to fill a hole on the line in 2008, so they have a precedent for signing last-legs linemen.
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth is coming off a good half-year starting for Atlanta, but he had never been more than a nickel defender before that. His game charting numbers are good -- 63 percent Success Rate, 5.9 yards allowed per pass, roughly the same as Asante Samuel and Antoine Winfield -- but that's still just one season. Before that, teams were talking about switching him to safety. The Baltimore pass rush will help him prove he's starting corner quality, of course.
L.J. Smith could be useful as a move tight end or flex player if he can find a way to catch Joe Flacco fastballs before they ricochet off his chest. He can be a minor asset if the Ravens keep Todd Heap. If Heap is released, Smith will be a disaster as a starter. Coordinator Cam Cameron liked to use unbalanced formations last year, with Heap or another tight end acting as the de facto right tackle. If Smith is playing right tackle, Flacco will taste turf a half-second after the snap.
Biggest hole: Offensive Line
If you don't recognize the Bengals offensive line when camp opens, don't worry. They probably won't even recognize one another.
Right tackle Stacy Andrews signed with the Eagles. Left tackle Levi Jones missed the final six games of last season and may be a cap casualty. Center Eric Ghiaciuc is an unrestricted free agent who probably won't return.
This year's draft is full of quality linemen, so this is a good time for the Bengals to reload. They could take Baylor's Jason Smith in Round One and Louisville center Eric Wood in Round Two, and they would be set at two key positions for the next six years. In the long term, that strategy might pay off. In the short term, the Bengals risk creating too much turnover on the offensive line.
For all of their problems last season, the Bengals enjoyed offensive line stability. The starting line of Jones, Andrew Whitworth, Ghiaciuc, Bobbie Williams, and Andrews stayed together for the first 10 games of 2008. The Bengals used just three different line combinations and eight different linemen last year. At Football Outsiders, we use these statistics to create Continuity Scores for offensive lines. The Bengals earned a Continuity Score of 34, well above the league average.
Continuity matters on the offensive line. Teams with excellent continuity (Continuity Scores over 41) average 1.87 points per drive and commit about 21 false starts in a season. Teams with average continuity score 1.70 points per drive and commit about 23 false starts. Once teams start shuffling linemen (Continuity Scores below 26), those values drop to 1.49 points and 26 false starts. It's easy to confuse cause and effect in this situation -- poor play leads to personnel changes as much as personnel changes lead to poor play -- but the numbers suggest that teams should be wary of changing linemen just for change's sake.
The Bengals committed just 14 false starts, but they scored just 1.02 points per drive last year, dead last in the league. Things could get even worse if they're forced to throw rookies into the lineup. The Bengals may not want to part with their veteran linemen so quickly. A little extra stability could go a long way.
Free Agency Recap
The Bengals lose little by swapping T.J. Houshmandzadeh for Laveranues Coles. The players were targeted about the same number of times (137 for Houshmandzadeh, 115 for Coles) and produced similar numbers for DYAR (163 to 144) and DVOA (2.4% to 2.0%). Coles is two inches shorter and just three months younger; he's more of a deep threat, but Carson Palmer will miss Houshmandzadeh's size over the middle. There's no telling how the chemistry will change in the Bengals locker room, but Coles has always been a 1B-type of receiver, so he shouldn't threaten the resident egomaniac any more than Houshmandzadeh did.
J.T. O'Sullivan was miscast as a starter with the 49ers, but he's a better fit as Palmer's backup than Ryan Fitzpatrick was. O'Sullivan is a better pocket passer, and the offense shouldn't bog down if he's forced to start a game or two. The Bengals re-signed Cedric Benson, whose overall numbers only looked good because they were next to Chris Perry's on the stat sheet. Benson isn't an awful choice as a backup/change-up runner, but the Bengals must add a featured back to their wish list.
Biggest Hole: Offensive Playmakers
The Browns traded Kellen Winslow. Reserve running back Jason Wright signed with the Cardinals. Donte Stallworth's future is in doubt because of legal problems. Joe Jurevicius, who missed all of last season, was released. The Browns lost a lot of offensive firepower in recent weeks, and tight end Robert Royal was their only significant skill position acquisition.
Braylon Edwards is already bracing for triple coverage.
If they don't find more playmakers, the Browns will be hard-pressed to move the ball. Jamal Lewis only had three runs of 20 or more yards last year, none of them after Week 10. Change-up back Jerome Harrison had runs of 72 and 33 yards, but his third-longest run gained just 16 yards. Josh Cribbs is a dangerous return man, but he generated just one play from scrimmage longer than 20 yards. Winslow and Stallworth didn't set highlight reels ablaze either last season, but they had the speed and talent to take heat off Edwards.
Royal won't provide much help. He does have some seam-splitting ability: He caught seven passes of 20 or more yards, five of them over the deep middle of the field. But Football Outsiders rated him as the second-worst starting tight end last season with -85 DYAR. Royal caught just 58 percent of the passes thrown to him, more than Winslow (52 percent) but less than the top tight ends, who usually catch 65 to 70 percent of targeted passes. At best, Royal is a drop in the offensive bucket.
Eric Mangini likes to spread the field and create space for receivers to get open, but Edwards is the only player on the roster who scares defenders more than 15 yards downfield. Receiver Michael Crabtree may be available when the Browns pick sixth overall, but if he's gone, the Browns may need to address other needs instead of reaching for Rutgers' Kenny Britt or Mizzou's Jeremy Macklin. If they wait until later rounds, they'll have to settle for players like Brandon Tate (North Carolina) or Mohamed Massaquoi (Georgia). A running back like Mike Goodson of Texas A&M could also add some quick-strike capability.
With Edwards and another deep threat stretching the defense, players like Cribbs and Harrison should be able to use their quickness to make things happen underneath. If the Browns don't get faster, scoring points may be a Royal pain.
Free Agency Recap
The Browns are treading water. Acquisitions like Royal, guard Pork Chop Womack, and tackle John St. Clair won't make the team appreciably better. St. Clair will probably replace Kevin Shaffer at right tackle; it's a case of the new regime trying to erase the personnel mistakes of the past by making a few of its own. On defense, the Browns are taking every former Jet on the market: end David Bowens, defensive back Hank Poteat, tackle C.J. Mosely, linebacker Eric Barton. Again, these moves have more to do with bringing in "Mangini Guys" then making real improvements. All of the players mentioned above will be 31 or 32 years old when the season starts except Moseley (he'll be 26), and none were impact players in their prime.
Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer believes that the Browns still have some big personnel moves in the works; he wrote this week that the only untouchable players on the roster are tackle Joe Thomas and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. You can't log onto the Internet without reading a Braylon Edwards rumor, and the Kellen Winslow trade proved that the Browns aren't shy about making controversial deals. If Edwards leaves, the Browns will have almost nothing to show for the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era, and the on-field product will be very hard to watch in 2009.
Biggest Hole: Seventh Shelf in Lombardi Trophy Display Case
The Steelers need players who can make a big impact. In 2011.
The Steelers usually hibernate through free agency, and this winter was no exception. They did light housekeeping, re-signing tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon and guard Chris Kemoeatu to stabilize the line. With no major holes in the lineup, the Steelers will do what they do best: draft for the future. The far-flung future.
Of the Steelers' 11 defensive starters last year, nine were drafted by the team. Only one of those players, nose tackle Casey Hampton, was a starter in his rookie season. The others served at least a one-season apprenticeship:
|Steelers' drafted starters|
|Name||Rookie Starts||Years on Bench|
The average Steelers starter (not counting Ryan Clark and James Farrior, who arrived as free agents) spent two seasons as a situational player before cracking the lineup. By the time they took on full-time roles, these players had developed into ready-to-win veterans.
On offense, the story is the same. Key players like Colon, Starks, Kemoeatu, Willie Parker, Hines Ward, and Santonio Holmes all spent at least a year on the bench before earning a promotion. That's how the Steelers organization works: They draft players who fit their system, mold those players to fit the system, and plug them when they are ready. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the high-profile exception to the rule.
The Steelers pipeline is still humming. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has spent two years on the bench and is ready for a bigger role. William Gay now has the experience to replace McFadden, who left for Arizona. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and wideout Limas Sweed didn't do much as rookies, but they will play bigger roles in 2009.
After the draft, pundits will give the Steelers bad grades for selecting a bunch of no-names who aren't ready to play. The Steelers will have the last laugh in three years.
Free Agency Recap
The Steelers signed Starks, Colon, and Kemoeatu, but they released tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons. Smith and Simmons both have long injury histories, and the Steelers have the depth to replace them. All-purpose backup Trai Essex re-signed with the team; he'll either start in place of Darnell Stapleton at guard or become the first lineman off the bench.
Unless you're a big fan of fullback Carey Davis or cornerback Fernando Bryant, the Steelers haven't done much to get your pulse racing since the Super Bowl. Defensive line coach John Mitchell summarized the team's philosophy while talking about Julius Peppers in the Rocky Mount Telegram. Mitchell said that Peppers would make a fine 3-4 linebacker, but that the Steelers wouldn't make a move to acquire him. "A lot of teams go out and get these free agents for an exorbitant amount of money. They don't fit in the locker room. They're not the type of player you thought they were. If you get in the free agent market you better know 'em because if you don't, its not one of these things where you can get a refund."