by Vince Verhei
Arizona Cardinals: Can anyone around here throw a football?
Ken Whisenhunt entered the 2010 season with Matt Leinart as his starting quarterback, but for whatever reason coach and player could not coexist, and so Leinart was shown the door during the preseason. Apparently Whisenhunt was more comfortable with a one-year wonder and a pair of undrafted rookies than he was with Leinart. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything. Derek Anderson, the one-year wonder, played as he always has outside of 2007 -- lousy. He completed only 52 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. That's right in line with his career numbers (53 percent, 53 touchdowns, 55 interceptions). He was so bad that he was benched for Max Hall, an undrafted rookie out of BYU. Hall showed why he went undrafted, completing half his passes with just one touchdown and six interceptions before going on injured reserve with a separated shoulder. Anderson returned to the lineup, but suffered a concussion in Week 12 and did not play again. Instead the Cardinals turned to a fifth-round pick, John Skelton of Fordham, who completed only 48 percent of his passes. By the end of the season the Cards were being quarterbacked by Richard Bartel, who was fresh off a stint as a backup (repeat: backup) in the UFL.
(Leinart, meanwhile, made a reported $600,000 with the Houston Texans without throwing a single pass. As revenge goes, it's not Brett Favre leading the Vikings to a win over the Packers in his return to Lambeau Field, but it'll have to do.)
It's unrealistic to expect any of Arizona's quarterbacks to improve in 2011. Their best bet to upgrade will likely be the draft, when they pick fifth. The Panthers, with the first pick, are likely to take a passer. The next three teams all have question marks at the position. Is new Denver Broncos coach John Fox committed to Tim Tebow? Are the Buffalo Bills satisfied with the mediocrity of Ryan Fitzpatrick? Are the Cincinnati Bengals going to lose Carson Palmer to trade or retirement?
If one or two passers go off the board before Arizona picks, they may be better off going with a veteran like Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, or even Palmer. Those would have been fine options in, say, 2005. In 2011? Not so much.
Failing all of that, Arizona could stand pat and go with another season of Derek and the Dominoes. It wouldn't be all bad -- they'd have a great chance of landing Andrew Luck in 2012.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
You could almost field a whole offense with Arizona's free agents, although it might not be any good. We'll start with the line, where the entire interior -- center Lyle Sendlein and guards Deuce Lutui and Alan Faneca -- are unrestricted free agents. At 34, Faneca is also considering retirement. Also on the UFA list are wide receiver Steve Breaston and tight ends Stephen Spach and Ben Patrick. We'll have to turn to restricted free agents for our tackle (Brandon Keith), second wideout (Early Doucet), and running back (Tim Hightower). All we need is another tackle and a quarterback, but if you've read this far, you know that the Cardinals don't have any quarterbacks they need to worry about losing anyway. And when the offense goes three-and-out, punter Ben Graham is also a UFA.
For all of that, the biggest free agent concern for Arizona actually has one more year on his contract. Larry Fitzgerald is set to be a free agent in 2012, when he'll be 28 years old, still in the prime of his career. The mission for Arizona is not to contend for a playoff spot this year; it's to convince Fitzgerald that the pieces are in place to contend for many years to come.
St. Louis Rams: Can anyone around here catch a football?
The St. Louis Rams were the kings of small-ball in 2010, ranking ninth in total completions but just 30th in 20-yard pass plays. Part of that was an ultra-conservative game plan designed to keep rookie quarterback Sam Bradford in manageable down-and-distance situations, but part of it was a receiving corps that lacked any kind of big-play threat.
The problem is not Bradford's arm strength. The Football Outsiders game charting project charts a reason for every incomplete pass of the season. On Bradford's incomplete deep passes, the reason "underthrown" is used exactly one time. However, there are dozens of entries reading "defensed" (because receivers couldn't get separation), "overthrown" (because receivers couldn’t run down Bradford's passes), or "dropped"(because receivers simply couldn't hang on to the ball).
By season's end, Bradford's top wideouts were Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and Laurent Robinson, and his tight end was Daniel Fells. Bradford only had one target who had ever gone over 700 receiving yards in a season -- and it wasn't any of those players, it was running back Steven Jackson.
Even without any major additions, this unit is likely to improve in 2011. Remember that the Rams' theoretical top two wideouts, Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton, played in only five games last season, all by Clayton, and he was done for the year by mid-October. With Avery coming back from a torn ACL and Clayton returning from a torn patella tendon, the Rams' receivers almost have to be better. On the other hand, they're still Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton. Avery's career catch rate is hovering around 50 percent, while Clayton has only had one season over 700 yards himself -- and that was in 2006. Even if these two were in perfect health, the Rams would need to upgrade.
Most mock drafts have the Rams taking Alabama receiver Julio Jones with the 14th pick in the first round. If Jones doesn't make it that far, the Rams have enough other holes that they don't need to reach for a shaky prospect. For starters, Jackson isn't getting any younger, and they could use another cornerback opposite Ron Bartell. In a perfect world, though, they'll end up with Jones (whose big-play ability is "exceptional," according to Scouts, Inc.) and likely be the favorites to win the 2011 NFC West.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
The Rams released safety O.J. Atogwe rather than pay him $8 million in 2011. They are hopeful he'll return to the team, and Atogwe has said there is "no bad blood" between himself and the Rams, but he has already visited the Redskins and plans to visit the Bills. He has also said that he doesn't plan to sign anywhere before the CBA expires on March 4.
Otherwise, the Rams are in pretty good shape entering free agency. Few starters will hit the market, and none of them can be considered close to stars. Right guard Adam Goldberg started 16 games and committed only three penalties, and our charting project has him with just eight blown blocks, but it's not as if the offensive line was the strength of the team. Defensive tackle Gary Gibson also started every game, but only made 20 plays on the season -- not even enough to qualify for our leaderboards. He did help the Rams in short yardage -- they were fifth in power situations. After that, you're looking at guys who should probably be replaced anyway. Mark Clayton and Laurent Robinson are free agents, though neither will be highly sought after. The restricted free agent list includes Danny Amendola and a trio of backup linebackers who saw a lot of playing time in 2010: Larry Grant, Chris Chamberlain, and David Vobora. And that's about all the Rams have to worry about.
San Francisco 49ers: Is there any hope for Alex Smith?
Let's play a game. I'll give you the two-year stat lines of six different quarterbacks, and you see if you can guess which is Alex Smith's over the last two seasons:
|Let's Play the Quarterback Game!|
Alex Smith is C. The others are Brett Favre (1992-93), Stan Humphries (1992-93), Rich Gannon (1990-91), Mark Rypien (1988-89), and Neil O'Donnell (1991-92) -- two or three years (or, in Gannon's case, 11 years) before they played in Super Bowls. Smith is 26; the other seasons shown in the table represent quarterbacks as young as 24 (Favre) and as old as 28 (Humphries).
No, I am not saying that Alex Smith will be a Super Bowl quarterback in the next five years. This table needs to be taken with not just a grain of salt, but with several pillars' worth. Most obviously, the NFL is a different game now than it was in the early 1990s. In 2010, 20 quarterbacks completed at least 60 percent of their passes, but only three did it in 1990.
I also cherry-picked the best names with numbers similar to Smith. While he did have similar stats as Favre, Humphries, etc., Smith also resembled less successful names like Jeff Blake, John Friesz, Dave Brown, and Craig Whelihan.
The lesson of that table, really, is that good things happen to quarterbacks who are given time to develop. Humphries, Gannon, Rypien, and O'Donnell were 25 or older in their first seasons as full-time starters. Favre was 23. Smith, meanwhile, was just 21, a top overall draft pick thrown to the wolves on one of the worst teams in recent NFL history. Is it any wonder he struggled so badly early in his career? Now imagine if he had been a late-round draft pick who didn't play his first three years. After his last two campaigns, fans would be clamoring for Smith to get a chance. Being drafted first overall may have been the worst thing that ever happened to Smith as a football player.
If the 49ers are dead set on replacing Smith, well, re-read what I said about Arizona earlier, except that the 49ers are two spots lower on the draft totem pole. Franchise quarterbacks don't grow on trees.
Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has been spending plenty of time getting to know Smith. It looks like Harbaugh has decided that like it or not, the 49ers' best chance to win now and in the future is to hope that Smith is a late bloomer.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
The 49ers' front seven was far and away the best unit in the NFC West (unless you count Seattle's special teams as one unit), but there could be a lot of transition here in 2011. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebackers Manny Lawson and Takeo Spikes are unrestricted free agents. They also could lose starters at safety (Dashon Goldson), guard (David Baas), and quarterback (both Alex Smith and Troy Smith), although all indications are that Alex Smith will be returning. Brian Westbrook is also unrestricted. He saw very limited action last year (101 combined rushes and targets), but he was still effective, especially as a receiver, and could help a team looking for a third-down back.
Seattle Seahawks: Can Red Bryant return to health?
It's a little-known secret that the Seattle Seahawks had one of the best run defenses in the NFL in 2010 -- for nearly half a season, anyway. Through Week 7, the Seahawks were allowing only 3.4 yards per rush, and only 41 percent of opponent's carries gained successful yardage. At the time, Seattle ranked second and sixth in these categories. Then came a disastrous Week 8 game against Oakland, when the Raiders stampeded for 239 yards. From that game forward, Seattle allowed 4.9 yards per carry (fourth-worst in the league) and a Success Rate of 47 percent (14th).
What changed? The simplest explanation is that late in the second half against the Raiders, defensive end Red Bryant tore his ACL and was lost for the year. The effect was dramatic and immediate. In the first half of that game, Oakland rushed 21 times for 71 yards. In the second half, with no Bryant on the field, they gained 168 yards on only 18 carries.
What made Bryant such an effective run defender? To answer that, we have to look at the Seahawks' defense under Pete Carroll, a hybrid 4-3 scheme that usually brings a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the formation, almost as a fifth lineman. The Seahawks then plant the tackle on that side of the field in the A-gap between guard and center. That leaves the strongside end (usually Bryant, before he was injured) to line up in a five-technique on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. With the linebacker occupying the tight end and the defensive tackle taking the guard, it becomes very difficult for the offensive line to get a double-team on Bryant, usually leaving him one-on-one with the tackle.
As it turns out, that's often a mismatch. Bryant was drafted as a defensive tackle, but found himself inactive for most of his first two seasons, stuck behind Rocky Bernard, Brandon Mebane, and Colin Cole. Carroll and his staff moved the 323-pound Bryant outside, making him one of the largest 4-3 ends you'll ever see. Between his size and surprising quickness he was too much for most right tackles to handle.
After Bryant went down, Kentwan Balmer took his place, and the individual numbers tell the tale. Bryant made 16 run tackles last season, and 15 of them prevented the runner from gaining meaningful yardage, with the average gain coming just 1.4 yards past the line of scrimmage. With Bryant out of the lineup, only 61 percent of Balmer's tackles qualified as stops, with an average gain of 3.1 yards.
Can Bryant return to health? He's played only 17 games in three seasons, with a history of knee and ankle problems dating back to his days at Texas A&M. Headlines in Seattle over the offseason will focus on Matt Hasselbeck and whichever rookies Seattle finds in the draft, but it's Bryant's health that will really determine success or failure for the Seahawks in 2011.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
First and foremost, Matt Hasselbeck is an unrestricted free agent. Pete Carroll has said that re-signing Hasselbeck is Seattle's top offseason priority, and he's certainly worth more to the Seahawks than he would be to anyone else. It would be a pretty big shock if he left. It would not be a shock, though, if center Chris Spencer left -- the former first-round draft pick has been a disappointment, and Seattle already drafted his replacement, Max Unger, in 2009. Tackle Sean Locklear is also unrestricted. The defense is at risk of losing a pair of starters, cornerback Kelly Jennings and tackle Brandon Mebane, as well as defensive end Raheem Brock. He had a career-high nine sacks in 2010 without starting a single game. Leroy Hill, who once looked like a rising star before his career was derailed by injuries and legal woes, will almost certainly not be back. Leon Washington and Olindo Mare two, of the biggest contributors to Seattle's elite special teams, will also hit the open market.
The Seahawks prevented two other starters from hitting free agency when they signed wide receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu to three-year contracts in January. It was Williams' fourth season, Obomanu's third, but both players more than doubled their career reception totals in 2010.