by Ben Riley
Biggest hole: Running back
The Cardinals are still expected to cut veteran Edgerrin James, although they have not yet done so. Rookie Tim Hightower, who replaced James in the starting lineup for part of last season, was the second-worst running back in the league (minimum 100 carries) in both of Football Outsiders' advanced statistics, DYAR and DVOA. (Only Cincinnati's Chris Perry was worse.) Third-down back J.J. Arrington has left for Denver. Suffice to say, the Cardinals have a need at this position.
The 2009 draft is not particularly stocked with running-back talent, especially compared to last year's phenomenal class -- but that may actually work in the Cardinals' favor given that they will be picking at the end of the first round. Chris "Beanie" Wells clocked around a 4.40 40-yard dash time at his Pro Day and is shooting up draft boards, so the Cardinals will have to trade up if they want him. That leaves the two other "elite" backs in this draft: Knowshon Moreno of Georgia and LeSean McCoy from Pitt. Moreno possesses Barry Sanders-like lateral quickness, and although he lacks elite speed, the Cardinals should snap him up if he falls to them. As for McCoy, he has great hands, but he is undersized and struggles with pass protection. The Cardinals already tried this experiment with Arrington, and there's no reason to try again.
Free Agency Recap
As always, the Cardinals were relatively quiet in free agency. After dithering around for a few weeks on Kurt Warner's new contract, the front office managed to add cornerback Bryant McFadden to help shore up the secondary and play across from rookie phenom Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The team also added journeyman running back Jason Wright, who should enjoy his year playing lots of special teams, where he will likely be joined by former Rams tight end Anthony Becht.
As for depatures, the Texans' signing of defensive end Antonio Smith was probably the biggest loss, though certainly not a devastating one by any stretch. The Cardinals also won't miss Arrington, linebacker Monty Beisel, or cornerback Eric Green (now of the Miami Dolphins) either.
St. Louis Rams
Biggest hole: Wide receiver
Quick quiz: Can you identify a single Rams wideout not named Donnie Avery? After the release of Torry Holt and Drew Bennett, the current roster consists of the following receivers under contract: Keenan Burton, Derek Stanley, Joel Filani, Travis Brown, Nate Jones, and Chad Lucas. These six players have 24 career catches combined. No wonder Rams general manager Bill Devaney has joked about bringing back the wishbone offense. (At least, we think it's a joke.)
Given this desperate shortage of receiving talent, the Rams were rumored to be pursuing Nate Washington and Brandon Jones in free agency, but these players signed with the Titans and 49ers instead. The remaining big name free-agency options are geriatric -- the Rams really don't want Marvin Harrison, Amani Toomer, or Marty Booker -- but St. Louis could consider Eagles wide receiver Hank Baskett, a restricted free agent. This will come as a shock, but Baskett managed to post 89 DYAR and 8.6% DVOA last year, good for 23rd in the league and ahead of guys like Brandon Marshall, Terrell Owens, and Santana Moss. Even more shocking, Baskett is married to Kendra Wilkinson, one of Hugh Hefner's former concubines on "The Girls Next Door." Yes, really.
As for the draft, virtually everyone agrees that Devaney will use the second overall pick on a left tackle to replace Orlando Pace (filling one of the many other holes on this roster). Thus, although Michael Crabtree is a tempting possibility, the Rams will wait until the later rounds to find someone to pair with Avery. Maryland's Darrius Hayward-Bey has the size and the speed to create all sorts of matchup problems at the next level, but the Rams will have to trade up if they want to grab him. Another possibility is Brian Robiskie of Ohio State, who is also big (6-foot-3), but the Buckeyes haven't exactly produced a lot of offensive stars in the NFL lately, have they? A better option is Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias, a strong possession receiver who won't be afraid to go over the middle when Avery goes deep.
Free Agency Recap
We might have to stop making fun of the Rams' offensive line soon. By signing center Jason Brown, formerly of the Ravens, the Rams acquired the best lineman available in free agency this year -- and who cares if they had to make him the league's highest paid center to woo him to St. Louis, or that the NFL invalidated the initial contract he signed? With Brown anchoring the middle and someone like Virginia's Eugene Monroe at left tackle, Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger could be poised for breakout fantasy seasons, to say nothing of the real Rams team. Brown's signing also made centers Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg expendable (they signed with the Saints and Falcons, respectively).
By the way, the Rams still have an additional 13 unrestricted free agents on the roster, and most of them will not return. Devaney is clearly pursuing the "blow it up and start over" method of franchise building. It's somewhat refreshing, if long overdue.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest hole: Quarterback
What a weird situation this is. Alex Smith, first overall pick of the 2005 draft, has become a case study in how not to groom a franchise quarterback (Hint: Try not to change offensive coordinators every year he's in the league) and yet, strangely, Smith reworked his contract to stay in San Francisco and took less money than he likely would have commanded on the open market. He has been promised the opportunity to compete for the starting job (again) but with a lifetime DVOA of -39.9%, Smith is pretty sure to join Akili Smith, David Klingler, and Ryan Leaf in the great Pantheon of First-Round Quarterback Busts.
And then there's Shaun Hill, the undrafted wunderkind out of Hutchinson Community College and the University of Maryland. Over the past two years, Hill has compiled a 7-3 win-loss record as a starter with a 64 percent completion rate, which is all the more impressive considering the 49ers' dearth of receiving talent. On the other hand, his -2.3% DVOA ranked 28th in the league last year, and the coaching staff still refuses to anoint him the starter, so Hill doesn't seem to be the long-term answer either.
So what about Jay Cutler? Without rehashing the Is-he-a-Pro Bowler-versus-is-he-a-whiner debate, there's no doubt Cutler would excite the fanbase and possesses the potential to be the "next great 49ers quarterback," something the team has been looking for since, oh, the 1990s. Would Denver accept the 49ers' 10th overall pick packaged with Hill (or Smith) as compensation? Who knows, but 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan would be crazy not to find out.
The other option, of course, is to use the 10th pick on USC's Mark Sanchez. There's a lot to like about the Trojans quarterback -- he has ideal size, terrific footwork, and reassuring accuracy -- but the 49ers simply cannot afford to take a risk on player with only one proven year as a starter. (By the way, Sanchez has only one year of starting experience because he couldn't beat out John David Booty for the job in 2006. Warrants mentioning.) And even though Georgia's Matt Stafford would appear to be a tremendous "value" pick if he fell to the 49ers, beware the first-round quarterback with a college completion percentage under 60 percent. Those players are well represented in the Pantheon of Busts too.
|Alex Smith Career DVOA|
|2005||-89.4%||46 out of 46||Lowest ever for QB with min 100 passes|
|2006||-15.3%||35 out of 46||OC Norv Turner works his magic|
|2007||-49.4%||49 out of 52||OC Jim Hostler unworks it|
Free Agency Recap
Yawn. The biggest move the 49ers have made thus far in free agency, if it can be described as such, is signing former Titans wide receiver Brandon Jones. Memo to General Manager Scot McCloughan: If you are counting on a Titans receiver to revitalize your receiving corps, you may have a problem. Other signings include defensive end Demetric Evans and fullback Moran Norris. Blue chippers these guys ain't.
On the other side of the ledger, three-game wonder J.T. O'Sullivan decided to compete with Carson Palmer for a starting job with the Bengals, wide receiver Bryant Johnson signed with the Lions (yikes), and defensive tackle Ronald Fields joined the Broncos. Meanwhile, the entire FO staff is on pins and needles wondering if longtime whipping boy and unrestricted free agent DeShaun Foster will still have a job in 2009.
Biggest hole: Strong safety
The Seahawks have been busy this offseason. First, they wooed wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh by flying him around Seattle in Paul Allen's seaplane (paying him $7.5 million annually helped too). Then, after defensive tackle Rocky Bernard signed with the Giants, the Seahawks dealt Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson to the Lions for defensive tackle Cory Redding and a fifth-round pick, and the team added free agent tackle Colin Cole (formerly of the Packers) for depth.
As a result, the Seahawks are left with one obvious problem, and he goes by the name of "Brian Russell, strong safety." Seattle's pass defense posted a pathetic DVOA of 29.8% last year (29th overall), and while some of the breakdown may be attributed to a poor pass rush, a lot had to do with Russell whiffing on tackles, and occasionally screening his teammates out of a play (such as when he ran Deon Grant off of Ted Ginn, Jr., in Week 10, allowing Ginn to make a 40-yard shoestring touchdown catch).
For these reasons, the Seahawks would be foolish not to take a hard look at Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins with the fourth overall pick. Not only does Jenkins satisfy two of Seahawks' general manager Tim Ruskell's drafting prerequisites -- high character and big-program graduate -- he also has great size, something that is sorely lacking in Seattle's diminutive backfield. The only knock on Jenkins is his not-quite-elite speed, which is why he projects as a safety at the next level.
Most teams, however, don't want to invest a top-five pick in a safety. As a result, the Seahawks may turn to their second-round pick and take Oregon's Patrick Chung or Alabama's Rashad Johnson. Chung is strong, has great intangibles, and is stout against the run, and although he doesn't have ideal size, that's never stopped Ruskell before (as cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Josh Wilson can attest). If Chung is not available, Johnson has essentially the same skill set, and Ruskell is known to have a bit of a SEC fetish.
Free Agency Recap
The acquisition of Houshmandzadeh, Redding, and Cole should help offset the loss of seven players in free agency (the most of any team in the league). In addition to losing Bernard, the Wide Receiver Formerly Known as Third-Down Machine Bobby Engram signed with the Chiefs; the Lineman Still Known as Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack joined the Browns; the nickname-less tight end Will Heller and running back Maurice Morris departed for Detroit; fullback Leonard Weaver signed with the Eagles; and defensive tackle Howard Green traded Seattle's green-and-blue for the Jets' green-and-white. Whew.