Monday, September 01, 2008

Offseason moves

AFC East
Buffalo Bills: The Bills quiet took a huge step forward last season, finishing 7-9 despite a rash in injuries. They were only a couple of close loses from being a contender despite terrible offensive and defensive rankings. They had a quiet free agent period probably not adding any starters, their biggest name was Giants LB Kawika Mitchell – which was funny as that is a deep position for them (especially with solid rookie Paul Posluszny coming off IR). However this team will be significantly better having traded for Marcus Stroud of the Jaguars (for only a 3rd and 5th), drafted a corner in the first round to shore up a weakness, and added a big WR in the second to pay opposite deep threat Lee Evans. Hopefully a year of experience will help Trent Edwards – if not they still have J.P. Losman (thankfully because it is not Quinn-Anderson it isn’t always in the press festering so it should not hurt the team too much). I will say I am not sure how much I trust Dick Jauron – but right now playoffs seem a least possible (Favre trade hurt that).

Miami Dolphins: So far I have not been wildly impressed with the Tuna. He’s upgraded the team here and there but the team remains pretty limited. The starting QB was probably going to be Josh McNown a deserved career backup who in the last three years has paid for the Cards, Lions, and Raiders until Chad Pennington came free as part of the Favre debacle. As it is Pennington represents a major upgrade (and to be fair Parcells drafted him into the league in 2000).When healthy (admittedly never a guaranteed proposition) Pennington has shown himself to be a smart QB – better than your average NFL starter. He’s not a big arm guy but completes a lot of passes (he actually the all time leader in completion percentage) and will win you games as a manager even if he does not throw a team to victory (I favor a manager – big arm guys often throw their teams to losses too). Unless Ted Ginn Jr. gets a lot better (we’ll call that “iffy”), the best WR looked to be Jags castoff Ernest Wilford, a big bodied possession guy (but he lost his starting spot in camp). TE Anthony Fasano is an upgrade too. The OL is the most improved with Jake Long and free agent guard Justin Smiley (49ers) – which will help them get better, but no way are they a contender. The defense is basically the same cast – minus their clearly best player in Jason Taylor.

New England Patriots: I think their #1 bit Mayo will be an average body – I don’t remember watching Tennessee and seeing a great LB on that team. I think spygate is over for them, so that helps, but having one of your starting tackles wear a wire in a drug bust ensures the distractions aren’t going away (nor does Kevin Faulk’s drug bust help). How will losing one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets affect them? Tough to say, but it helps they have won before – although Tom Brady is getting a little too Hollywood. That and the arrests – which didn’t used to happen with this team – make me wonder if they have shifted personalities from a young hungry team to one of stars with their minds not entirely on football. Hearing that Richard Seymour and others were inviting the Giants to their Super Bowl victory parties during the FIRST HALF (which they never lead by more than 4 points remind you) really makes me wonder about the Pats They did as well as could be expected in free agency. Not that they really deserve credit for signing Randy Moss who wanted to stay. But nor do they deserve castigation for losing Asante Samuel – was going to leave for more money than the Pats had to give. They signed CB Deltha O’Neal, a gambler who has always been occasionally beatable. Maybe with the Pats good coaching the falloff in secondary might not be as much as you might expect (plus Ellis Hobbs was reportedly playing hurt and should be healed). They also signed SF Tank Williams, which wasn’t bad until he blew up his knee. After that they signed 36 year old John Lynch, because their defense wasn’t old enough (too bad it isn’t a decade ago). The late pickup of Lamont Jordan really helps the runningback corps as with him, Sammy Morris, and Lawrence Maroney you have three pretty good quality backs and the fact that all of them are injury-prone doesn’t matter if there are three of them (what are the chances all three are out the same week?). In the end they are about the same team they were last year and if that is good enough to go 18-0, they are still a contender. Although as the Giants proved, they are beatable (and that was becoming clear down the stretch when they were beating, but not destroying, the Jets and Phins in December – and should have lost to the Ravens. Yeah they won twice at home against to get to Glendale, but one win was over the spent Chargers without LaDainian Tomlinson – not that I am claiming I thought the G-Men would do it).

New York Jets: Well I had to revise this thanks to Favre. For the Jets it is a great move. It makes them the number two team in the division and a possible playoff team. The surrounding cast is better than people realize: much of the personal remains from their 10-6 playoff 2006 team, which is why I contend they were better than the 4-12 they put up last year (even with just a healthy Pennington they could have contended for the postseason). Most of their other moves this year were boned-headed from the perspective of the cap, but the lineups they will put out will be better, if overpaid. Before landing Favre their biggest question is at QB – so that trade was doubly beneficial. I wasn’t impressed with how Man-maybe-genius? handled it. He didn’t seem to like Chad Pennington and was doing his damnest to give the job to Kellen Clemens, even though Clemens hadn’t shown anything. Good coaches don’t fall for the guy with the sexy gun over the smart QB who knows how to manage a game and get the W. I don’t consider Favre to even be in the argument as the greatest QB of all time, and don’t know how happy is to be in NYC (he clearly preferred to be elsewhere), but he resolves a position debate and creates some excitement for this team. And the other players will respect him and believe he makes the team better (which will make the better). Their draft was okay – I’m not convinced that Vernon Gholston will be a stud, but maybe that TE out of Purdue will give them a threat at that position for the first time in a while. I don’t know that Kris Jenkins is really upgrades the DL that much either. He has never been the same after blowing out his knee after Carolina’s Super Bowl run. The Panthers are not deep at DT and still traded him. And one good season in a contract year after being a bust for four years doesn’t convince me that Calvin Pace is an elite team changing pass-rusher. Their free agent moves on the offense I like a lot more – heavily upgrading the OL will help protect Favre and open more holes for Thomas Jones. This team has the skill position players to score on people – and they will have to because the defense is not as good. Also, now that they have signed Favre, I would feel remiss if I did not mention they had previously signed TE Bubba Franks, who Favre used to often look to at close to the goal line.

AFC North
Baltimore Ravens: This is basically the same team as last year save for the retirements of Steve McNair and Jonathan Ogden. They do have a new coach who may push the team to prove himself (some the ever so self-confident Brian Billick rarely did). Otherwise they are a year older with the same problems (bad WRs and QB play). This is a team getting up there in age that doesn’t have much young talent coming in. They might be a little better than last year (McNair and Odgen were both true studs in their day, but were past their prime and hurt last year). The only new names of note are Rutgers rebirth hero RB Ray Rice, who will back up oft-injured Willis MacGahee, and Joe Flacco. Barring a Derek Anderson-esque surprised from OSU’s Toy Smith (which is hard for a Gator fan to imagine) Flacco will play at some point because Kyle Boller proved long ago he can’t play (I honestly can’t think of a single reason for him to still be on this roster). Flacco won’t impress this season (NFL is a little tougher the Deleware), but long term is tougher to prognosticate. I’m not a believe in taking a QB just because he can throw it a country mile (see Boller, Kyle), can certainly not one from I-AA, but I don’t know him very well. They are rebuilding, definitely not a playoff team. They traded for DE Marques Douglas right before the start of the season, he’s not bad for a 3-4 end and played for the Ravens in the past.

Cincinnati Bungles: For all the press coverage on the lover’s spat between Marvin Lewis and the enigma that is Chad Johnson the really story of this team is on the other side of the ball. Despite earning his reputation as while being a defensive guru with the Ravens, Lewis has never had a defense even rank in the top half of the league as a head coach (last year they were 27th). They’ve especially susceptible to the run during that time. This offseason they lost two of their better players to free agency in DE Justin Smith and SF Madieu Williams. They added DE Antwan Odom from the Titans, who is a quality starter, but a downgrade from Smith (not just saying that because he signed with San Fran – they overpaid him and he is not a first tier DE or elite passrusher). Their only rookie liable to make in impact this year is USC linebacker Keith Rivers. So basically their defense will suck again and they will have to try to outscore everyone. They cut malcontent 3rd WR Chris Henry – who was suspended for half the season last year anyway (and the first four of this year despite not being on a team) so it was not a huge loss. But wait, then they resigned him. Great PR move. With Rudi Johnson healthy again and improved TE play from Ben Utecht (good blocker) the offense is probably a little better on paper. Of course with the reality of Chad Johnson probably being a jackass all season it is going to be a long year in Cincy.

Cleveland Browns: I’ll give Browns’ management credit for not being afraid to aggressively fill a need. Despite not having a first round pick after trading it away last year to get their backup QB they gave up their 2nd and 3rd rounders in trades for DTs. I’m not convince that Corey Williams was worth a second rounder, but teaming him up with Shaun Rogers (who I think they got a good deal for – even if it left them thin at CB, their safeties are quality and can help cover for that) will give them a strong DL. Last year this team was all offense, these moves might get them towards an average D – they still need more passrush though. On offense not only do they return everyone they added some OL depth in the underappreciated Rex Hadnot and a potentially explosive weapon in WR Dante Stallworth. He was not much last season in New England and has always been injury prone, but when his hamstrings are right look out. People forget how good he was at times in Philly and New Orleans. Here he is the third option behind last year’s revelation Braylon Edwards and Wilson Jr.- that makes for a dangerous offense. Of course they have little behind his injury-prone self besides Joe Jurevicius – who of course is battling back from a major injury. They also have no solid RB besides Jamal Lewis, who has had injury issues of his own in the past. Of course by far and away the biggest question is whether Derek Anderson is the real deal or a one shot wonder. I’ll say that his chances of looking as good this year as he did last year are “probable” (which is better than “possible”).

Pittsburgh Steelers: Well they only lost one important player, but it was a doozy: Al Faneca, arguably the best guard in the NFL. They signed Justin Hartwig, a capable starting center, but that is a down grade. The draft went much better because they added two weapons: Rashard Mendenhall - a good back to spell Willie Parker (they also signed Mewelde Moore from the Vikings, he’s a good dual threat guy who will get on the field with some frequency) - and Limas Sweed – a big-bodied WR (6’5”) who I felt was the best in the draft (admittedly a draft with no receivers taken in the first round). He’ll play this year learning from an aging Hines Ward, but in future years combine with Santonio Holmes and TE Heath Miller to give Roethlisberger a great bunch of targets. On defense, they are basically the same – which is not good because they are getting older. Mainstays Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu are having injuries start to pile up. Even the best non-household name corner for years, Deshea Townsend turns 33 this season and is getting pressed for his job. However the bottom line is this team won the division last year with a new coach and only Cleveland might be able to take it from them. Unless the possible change in ownership distracts them.

AFC South

Houston Texans: Last year I predicted them as my surprise team, and the did do better than most expected, but at 8-8 when everyone else in the division goes to the playoffs you don’t get noticed. They didn’t do much in the offseason either. Their most notable move I guess would be cutting Ron Dayne – their leading rusher. In the draft they followed the herd and will pay for it. Everyone is now convinced that offensive linemen are the least like position to bust as a first round draft pick. The used to be case because no one drafted them early and good linemen slid. Now everyone is reaching for them and bust more often. The Texans reached for a left tackle from Virginia Tech (Duane Brown) in their never ending quest to solve that position (remember their first pick in the expansion draft was washed up Tony Boselli who never played a down for them). Maybe they were too busy focusing on patting themselves on the back for taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. The only other guy worth mentioning is one of their third round picks: Steve Slaton who two years ago looked awesome for West Virginia – but an injury riddled year hurt his stock. If he works out that would be good because their RB corps is currently headed by Ahman Green, who is done, and injury prone Chris Brown from the Titans. Still they are a growing team and if Matt Schaub keeps improving, he and WR Andre Johnson (legitimate probowler) can stay healthy, then they might make some noise (especially if Slaton steps up).

Indianapolis Colts: This is basically the same team. They lost their #2 TE, resigned their former #2 RB and did not have a draft pick until #59 over (but that wasn’t bad – they lost it getting LT Tony Ugoh last year, who did pretty well as a rookie replacing surprise retirement Tarik Glenn – who had been to three straight pro-bowls). After Manning got hurt they signed a couple of small names to compete for the second and third QB spots just in case. They lost in disappoint fashion at home in the playoffs and have a ton of guys coming back from injuries (Manning, Harrison, Freeney, Bob Sanders, most of their linebackers), but this is still their division.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags lost three former starters. The first was their leading receiver - Ernest Wilford a tall, not particularly fast, possession receiver. They brought in Jerry Porter – who when healthy (he’s hurt again as I write) or not feuding with Raiders management (he gets a pass as it is the Raiders) could represent a real upgrade. They also traded for Troy Williamson the massive bust Minnesota thought would replace Randy Moss. He fast as anyone, but has no hands. They also lost DE Bobby McCary, who isn’t particular special. The Jags went out of their way to upgrade their pass rush trading up to eighth overall to draft Gator Derrick Harvey (who was not nearly as good without Jarvis Moss on the other side) and then Auburn’s Quentin Groves (who was good two years ago, but not last year – those guys fall in draft, but work out a fair amount of the time) in the second round. I actually don’t object to grabbing two guys at the same position – it costs you elsewhere, but if you want to make sure you solve one spot that’s one way. Then they got cheap with Darrick Harvey and he did not sign until after training camp. The last starter gone is half of their big DT tandem: Marcus Stroud, who they traded to the Bills. I don’t like the Stroud move – yes Rob Meier is solid, but better to have three good DTs (they did sign former first round bust Jimmy Kennedy). I’m surprised they did this because they think of themselves as contenders, and you don’t thin the herd going into the season. I want to be clear that I don’t think they contenders – Garrard became a hero last year by guiding them to eleven wins and only throw three picks, but he is not as good as you might think. He can’t put a team on his back, and he makes more mistakes than those three picks would lead you to believe (he himself said he was lucky to have some dropped – he threw three more in two playoff games). They also added one more starter: CB Drayton Florence who was a nickel back for San Diego last year (and had started before). With him, Rashean Mathis (one of the best young CBs in the league), and Brian Williams they have great corners – or they would if they had not moved Williams to safety. But if he works out as a stay at home guy SF, then that will let former Gator Reggie Nelson freelance – which is when he makes most of his game changing plays. Still for quite a while now Jacksonville has had great talent but the defense, while good, has not less than the sum of its parts.

Tennessee Titans: Tennessee let two starting quality young DEs leave through free agency in Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy (a combined 14 sacks). To put opposite Kyle Vanden Bosch they brought back Jevon Kearse – but “The Freak” has never equaled his rookie season and has little left in the tank. Their biggest need (besides a QB who can throw accurately) remains wide receiver – which they barely addressed by signing former Falcon TE Alge Crumpler. But even if he returns to pro-bowl form (which is certainly reasonable) that still leaves a receiving corps led by journeyman Justin Gage and Roydell Williams – who is returning from injury. Their first round pick was a total waste – a little speed back named Chris Johnson from Eastern Carolina. This marks the third year in a row they have taken a RB in the first two rounds (and LenDale White quietly went for 1,100 yards last year). Johnson will just be a situational guy who will never be a valuable as the Titans front office expected from his combine numbers. Seriously name me a little speedback in the league you think is worth a first rounder. This team is basically as good as it was last year, which wasn’t really playoff caliber. They got some breaks last year that they probably won’t get again and will be home come January.

AFC West
Denver Broncos: Denver might be better this year, but mainly because they underachieved last year and their big arm QB now knows he has diabetes and put his missing 30 lbs back on. But maybe not, they replaced Javon Walker - who while inconsistent, still could had some serious talent - with washed up Darrell Jackson (who even the 49ers cut) and two never wases in Keary Colbert and Sammy Parker. Add to that Brandon Marshall's frequent cameos on "NFL Cops" and his three game suspension and I have concerns. They have Brandon Stokely and TE Tony Scheffler - provided they can unexpectedly stay healthy for once. Another big name gone (for also being good elsewhere prior, but not in Denver) is Travis Henry. The days of being able to stick anyone behind a great OL and have it work out for the Broncos are over - unless their first round pick LT Ryan Clady from Boise State is ready to play at a Pro Bowl level. Not picking well in recent years has let Denver's OL get old. They don't have a great back either - new addition Michael Pittman wasn't bad, but is now 33. On defense they added a bunch of bodies - 1st round Jets bust DT Dewayne Robertson (who they traded for), Champ's little brother, undersized and frequently hurt LB Boss Bailey, and two journeymen safeties (Marlon McCree and Marquand Manuel - really, did you need those names?) who allowed them to cut a just about done John Lynch. They are a borderline playoff team - but I'll say no. For what it is worth they also cut longtime solid kicker Jason Elam, so I say that hurts them.

Kansas City Chiefs: While they might be the worst team in the league this year they had a great offseason. They didn't lose anyone - and handled Jared Allen brilliantly. He had told them point blank he would never sign a long term deal with them, so rather than go several rounds with him, franchise him, waste his talents on bad teams, and then eventually trade him for less than what he was worth GM Carl Peterson (if I am mentioning him you know he is good) moved Allen for a good package from the Vikings and got the rebuilding job started. They were not a player in free agency - the only guy they got who might have an impact is underrated ex-Falcon (is there another type from that perennially sorry franchise?) LB Demorrio Williams. In the draft they added two big names I am not entirely sold on - LSU DT Glenn Dorsey (How is the leg? Where was he for most the game against UF?) and LT Brandon Albert from UVA (If he is such a good LT, why was he primarily a guard in college? What stud Cavaleir held him off?). They added a hot RB from Texas named Jamaal Charles to back up Larry Johnson - or replace him if he can't get healthy again (lets hope they can get their lone offensive weapon back). Not a bad first few steps - now we see if Brody Croyle is NFL material (I say 50-50, he was good in college, but awfully fragile).

Oakland Raiders: When you don’t have much talent you can’t lose much. Warren Sapp retired, but he was only a mild loss. The only free agent of note they lost was WR Jerry Porter. He is talented, but never put together a great season and has fought with some coaches in the past (always have to take that with a grain of salt in Oakland). They replaced him with Javon Walker – who has shown he can be special, but has been chronically injured of late. After signing he got beaten up in Vegas and considered retiring. He was with Broncos CB Darrent Williams when he was gunned down, and there are rumors that messed with his head. They also wildly overpaid for him as no one else would have given him that much after being do dinged last year. Of course it was the summer of overspending in Oakland where resigning DL Tommy Kelly and former Giant SF Gibril Wilson both got way more money than other team would have dreamed of giving them. They did a little better by trading for CB DeAngelo Hall who malcontented his way out of Atlanta (what else is new for the Raiders?). Their best move was their simplest – staying put at 4th overall in the draft and taking Darren McFadden. He is a special player – and unlike Reggie Bush will live up to his hype. Sure RB was not a position of need for Oakland, but you don’t pass up that type of potential. The Raiders are better, but they are not good. I have no faith in JaMarcus Russell – this team will still be rebuilding next year.

San Diego Chargers: I’ll admit I was surprised that they did as well as they did with Norv Turner – I still don’t believe in him, the team is just talented – and I bet they take a step back this year. There isn’t much to talk about in terms of additions – for the fourth time in seven years they drafted a corner in the first round (they’ve also taken a SF and a CB in the second over that time). It did not make much sense as they had already had a solid secondary and this guy was not someone everyone was dying to get (he fell to 27 and wasn’t a lock to go in the first round). They did lose solid CB starter Drayton Florence and journeyman SF starter Marlon McCree. Their only other pick of note was Jacob Hester in the third round – who will backup LaDainian Tomlinson and play some fullback (yes, the powerback from LSU who killed the Gators last year). He replaces Michael Turner – who everyone knew was going because he could get starter money elsewhere and they should have traded – and FB Lorenzo Neal, a great blocker who they cut – probably because he is 37 and can’t do much else. Still a very talented team (remember they traded for Chris Chambers mid season too) that is getting older, but not adding much. Playoff team, but not a Super Bowl.

NFC East
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowpokes only made four moves of note with regards to veterans. The biggest was trading for the talented CB Pacman Jones from the Titans. Exactly how talented is tough to tell because I don't get Penal Football League games (PFL costs extra on my cable package). He was a high pick and has looked good at times, so if he has wised up enough to stay out of trouble (a very big if), he improves the team. I don't know he is a good of a corner as the 6th overall pick Tennessee gave up to draft him three years - but he’s a good return man. Dallas also added Zach Thomas after Parcells cut him from the Phins. He was once good (if not as good as his rep), but can Wade Phillips squeeze another season out of him? Thankfully they don't need him to be the key of their LB core. Dallas cut WR Terry Glenn, but he was hurt all last year (and is possibly done), so that is not a huge loss (although they did try to trade for about half a dozen replacements without success). Neither is RB Julius Jones - who they let walk and replaced with 1st round pick Felix Jones from Arkansas (so he is already used to being the number 2 guy with Marion Barber). They also took another corner in the first round which means they added Jones and USF's Mike Jenkins to Terrance Newman and Anthony Henry (they also gave a new contract to SF Ken Hamlin). Henry may move to SF - possibly to replace Roy Williams who everyone finally realized is a dog in coverage after years of me saying it. Last year they were the best team in the NFC during the regular season - with largely the same roster they are probably a playoff team if not the division champs.

New York Giants: Speaking of more or less the same team. The Giants replaced free agent loss SF Gibril Wilson with their first round pick Kenny Phillips from Miami and signed Sammy Knight - one of the all time smartest safeties, but who is now 32. They also picked up Michigan's bigname WR Marion Manningham, who they got in the 3rd round (where he fell after showing he is about as immature as conceivably possible). I should point out the oddness of these picks given they drafted CB Aaron Ross and WR Steve Smith last year and they both looked good. Off course the biggest news is the retirement of Michael Strahan and trading Jeremy Shockey. As funny as it is given their personalities, but that was their team leadership last year. Do you think Eli Manning can fill that role? And the loss of Strahan was compounded when Osi Umenyiora blew out his knee. Production wise Mathias Kiwanuka hurt last year in the playoffs may get some of Strahan's sacks. Shockey was down during their playoff run anyway - they figure Kevin Boss can handle it. While they are the same team, I am not convinced they don't take a step back. They had the look of a team that got hot at the right time, not a team for the ages. One thing is certain. If Manning goes down, they are done because for reason I don't fathom they decided to give David Carr another chance as a backup.

Philadelphia Eagles: Philly did not lose anyone important (unless you count a very washed up Javon Kearse). They added three players who might affect the coming season. 1) Chris Clemons - a small DE who they paid a lot after he had a season in Oakland last year after doing nothing before that. 2) Pintsized WR DeSean Jackson from Cal in the second round of the draft. He can be explosive in limited action, but can't carry an offense - so the search for a WR continues. 3) Asanta Samuel. The former Patriots corner is the latest of a long line of not really that good players to cash on a big contract because he played on a good team. In a twist on the situation the Eagles demanded too much for his predecessor, Lito Sheppard, so they can go back to him once they realize Samuel wasn't carrying New England. Overall they are a good, but not great team. That may mean playoffs, but if it does it also means a quick exit.

Washington Redskins: Holy crap! Washington didn't go nuts in free agency. And I like their new coach. Is Daniel Snyder actually learning? Given that he tried to trade for the Bungles malcontent WR Chad Johnson I'll hedge my bets towards no. With the picks they hadn't traded away, Washington carpet bombed their passing game with 2 WRs and a TE in the second round, none of whom I will name as I don't expect much from any of them this season. The new addition I do expect a contribution from is former Dolphin DE Jason Taylor (can I get some credit for not calling him “the dancing man?”). He's getting up there, but still has enough talent to serious upgrade this team's passrush. I'm surprising even myself, but they have the look of a playoff team.

NFC North

Chicago Bears: Let's see. Last year 'Da Bears went 7-9. Here were their moves: They cut underachieving, possibly alcoholic Cedric Benson at running back and signed talented, but injury prone Kevin Jones - who the Lions had cut. I'll say upgrade. They also drafted Matt Forte in the second round after passing on a RB in the first round when there were lots of good ones. Not that I know much about Forte - other than that he has a reputation as a fumbler. Their first round pick was Vandy OT Chris Williams who just had back surgery (some teams stayed away from his suspecting he had injury issues). They lost their top two WRs in deep threat (and little more) Bernard Berrian and old Mushin Muhammad, which would not be much of a loss if they had addressed the position in any way beyond switching kick returner extraordinaire Devin Hester from DB to WR. But most importantly (and egregiously) they did nothing to improve their QB spot above keeping Rex Grossman to compete with Kyle Orton.

Detroit Lions: The biggest move this team made as firing Mike Martz - which will totally chance the personality of the offense. I'm not a Martz fan, but he does do some good things. In terms of personal changes the Lions lost a bunch of (quasi) talented, if not huge name defenders, and replaced them with a bunch of (quasi) talented, if not huge name defenders. So DE Kalimba Edwards, LB Boss Bailey, LB Teddy Lehman, CB Fernando Bryant, and SF Kenoy Kennedy left for DT Chuck Darby, CB Brian Kelly, CB Leigh Bodden, and SF Dwight Smith. They also drafted undersized (and once arrested) Colorado LB Jordan Dizon in the second round. They traded away arguably their best defender in DT Shaun Rogers, but to be fair he has battled weight, injuries, and laziness in the past. On the OL they lost experienced veteran Damien Woody, but their spent their first round pick on an OT from Boston College (Gosder Cherilus). They gave up on RB Kevin Jones - who showed talent on those rare occasions he was healthy enough to get on the field - and T.J. Duckett - who has pretty conclusively demonstrated he is not a starting running back. Their likely replacement is Kevin Smith - who put up a mess of yards for a small school (UCF). What does all this mean? It means they are still just a middling team.

Green Bay Packers: Okay, yes they lost Favre. But Aaron Rodgers has played well enough in his spot duty (I know you didn't see it because it was on the NFL Network (bastards!) even if I did, but he looked good against Dallas) to make me think they are the favorites to win the North. Unless he gets hurt (50-50 odds). Or wigs out because the Pack drafted Brian Brohm in the 2nd round (unlikely given how much Brohm has struggled so far). No of their picks are likey to start (because of pre-existing depth) so I only have two names. They signed LB Brandon Chillar from the Rams who may start - or at the very least be in the rotation. They lost DT Corey Williams, who they franchised and traded. Is a pretty good player (against both run and pass) and they did little to replace him. Picking them to win the division is more a reflection of the rest competition.

Minnesota Vikings: The only team that could challenge the Packers for the division is the Vikes. Unfortunately, while they did not lose anyone irreplaceable, the only QB they added is the much traveled Gus Frerotte (to be the backup - ironically if he starts enough games rather than Travaris Jackson they might pass Green Bay with that talented surrounding cast). Otherwise the Vikings are a good team and made some good moves. Trading for DE Jared Allen and SF Madieu Williams will help them on all levels of the defense (run, rush, pass). They are less impressive on the other side of the ball - wildly overpaying for the Bears's Bernard Berrian - a one dimension deep threat. They have to hope second year man Sidney Rice can carry the load (which is not entirely improbable).

NFC South
Atlanta Falcons: With a year between them and BeastMaster Vick (fry in hell Vick!) the rebuilding has begun. They dumped a lot of guys who had been key players for them: RB Warrick Dunn (older, but a good team leader), TE Alge Crumper (a little old, with some injury issues, and showed a little attitude during an awful season last year, but someone they should have kept), DT Rod Coleman (older, injuryprone, criminal issues, but a good interior passrusher), LB Demorrio Williams (solid starter) and traded CB DeAngelo Hall to the Raiders (the only wise move of the bunch, because he is a malcontent despite his talent and would cause a lot of waves on a rebuilding team). They added some free agents - the biggest one was RB Michael Turner, formerly Tomlinson's backup in San Diego. He's looked good in spot duty, but plenty of backs have and not been able to cut it as starters. He's not a household name, but former Jets SF Erik Coleman can help out a very thin secondary. They also brought in kicker Jason Elam from Denver. Not sure about that move, he's 38 and it is not as they were just a kicker away from contending. How strong will his leg be when this team is actually playing for something? On the other hand they drafted very well. Their second round pick LB Curtis Lofton from Oklahoma is a tackling machine, 3rd round pick CB Chevis Jackson (LSU) might end up starting in a thin secondary, as might their second 1st round pick USC OT Sam Baker. Of course the most eyes will be on Matt Ryan. I'm not sure what I think of him. I saw him some in college and thought he could start in the NFL, but not that he would be a star. He also didn't look ready to play from day one. Chris Redman actually didn't look back last season on a terrible team (I always thought the Ravens should have given him more of a chance) and as I have always favored bringing QBs along slowly it makes sense to let him keep the seat warm for Ryan. [I know they canned Joe Horn - but I have given that as much comment as I felt it warranted]

Carolina Panthers: If Jake Delhomme can stay healthy they are probably a playoff team, but he is key because they refused to learn their lesson last year and still have no quality backup QB. The defense lost two name players, but ones who were overrated. DT Kris Jenkins was traded away to the Jets, but he was never the same after blowing his knee out after their Super Bowl year. On those rare occasions when Dan "The Human Concussion" Morgan was in the lineup at linebacker rather than seeing stars he was great, but he was dinged too often so they let the Saints sign him (and he promptly retired due to concussions). DE Mike Rucker wasn't overrated, just old - so he retired. On offense they shook up their offensive line canning their center and a guard (Justin Hartwig and Mike Whale), but drafting Jeff Otah in the first round to start at right tackle. At wide receiver they replaced a couple seemingly promising youngsters in Keary Colbert and Drew Carter who have never come through with a talented but injury-prone D.J. Hackett from Seattle and brought back old man Mushin Muhammad from Chicago, but that is still up an upgrade opposite Steve Smith (especially since he punched his way to a two game suspension). They also let average RB DeShaun Foster leave and drafted powerback Jonathan Stewart from Oregon in the first round, but he has a foot injury (of course that Panthers also have DeAnglo Williams).

New Orleans Saints: Last year New Orleans was expected to be a contender, but ended up 7-9. They identified their defense as the cause (truth is Brees started poorly so they began 0-4) so they went out and signed two big name linebackers with recent injury histories. Dan Morgan (Panthers) actually retried, but if former Jet Jonathan Vilma can regain his form that will toughen up the center of their D. He'll be playing behind their 1st round pick Sedrick Ellis out of USC (the defense free Pac-10 has actually some good defenders in the past. See Lott, Ronnie). And they brought in CB Randall Gay from the Pats. He is no superstar, but he started for a Super Bowl team - and the truth is even if he below average, he can still be an upgrade over last year's (MASSIVE BUST) free agent signee Jason David. However their biggest move was trading for disgruntled Giants TE Jeremy Shockey. He's over-hyped, and struggled to stay healthy at points - but can be a weapon and take pressure Marques Coleston. As can last year's 1st round pick Tennessee WR Robert Meachem - who has looked good after not playing at all last year. Their only loss was center Jeff Faine - an underrated blue collar guy. I’ll say playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They were the runner up in the Brett Favre sweepstakes, but Jeff Garcia is a solid starter (although as he ages, injuries seem to be catching up to him - especially given his gung ho playing style). He'll have a few new weapons to work with in Warrick Dunn - who is not an everydown back anymore (and yes, he was once), but can still make plays. Maybe Gruden will realize what a receiving threat he can be out of the backfield, the Falcons sure never seemed to. He replaces Michael Pittman. The Bucs also decided to give a second chance to WR Antonio Bryant - last seen on the 2006 San Francisco Sorryniners. He's talented, but a thug (and still has a suspension to serve from 2006 that will cost him the first month of the season). He can hang out with Jeremy Stevens. Talent-wise he would be an upgrade over slow Ike Hilliard opposite Joey Galloway. On the offensive line they made a couple of changes - cutting talent, but oft-injured (boy am I saying that a lot – football is a brutal game) left tackle Luke Petitgout (after he got a drug suspension). He only played four games last year anyway. They added Jeff Faine at center as a slight upgrade over the departed John Wade. As a whole the OL is shaky (they also saw blocking TE Anthony Becht depart). The defense is pretty much the same. They signed DE Marques Douglas but then traded him. The biggest shakeup is in the secondary where Brian Kelly, a very good corner who never got noticed playing opposite Rhonde Barber is gone. He may be replaced in house by Phillip Buchanon but their first round pick Aqib Talib may get the spot (provided he is not suspended first - genius got into a fight at the rookie symposium). They won the division last year at 9-7, but the Saints and Panthers both look better.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals: This one can be short and sweet, because seriously do you really care about the Cardinals? What are the chances this is the year the figure it out? They went 8-8 last year and lost one of their defensive leaders in LB/DE Calvin Pace, a former first round pick who had been a massive bust until his contract year, so probably he will never be that good again and they were wise to let the Jets overpay him. He'll be replaced in part by Titans DE Travis LaBoy, who can do a few things and Steelers LB Clark Haggans - who is a starter, but nothing special. The potentially special player is their first round pick CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He's from a I-AA school, but has constantly been able to hold his own and look impressive doing it. If he develops, he would seriously upgrade a weak spot on the Cardinals D. Overall they might slip into the playoffs - it is a weak division.

St. Louis Rams: With the second overall pick the Rams drafted Hall of Famer Howie Long's son, Chris - a DE out of UVA. I smell bust. But I cold be wrong, not as though I watched many UVA games. St. Louis fans better hope I am - because the only other player of note they added to a roster that went 3-13 last year was Seahawks strong legged kicker Josh Brown. The locals are also playing up the fact they got Orlando Pace back at OT, but he has gone with injury for the past two seasons. They lost a not bad starting LB in Brandon Chillar. They also lost Isaac Bruce but I am not sure how it matters given how steeply he had declined (Tory Holt is getting up there too). They'll be bad, Scott Linehan will probably be fired as a new owner cleans house before moving them back to LA.

San Francisco 49ers: Ugh, I am doing you a favor breaking down the whole league, so I don't feel obligated to go into great detail about the malaise that is my team. And you don't want to read it so let’s do this simply.

QB JT O'Sullivan, Lions - Bad (was unimportant, until he became the starter)
RB DeShaun Foster, Panthers - ok backup
WR Bryant Johnson, Cardinals - ok backup, but may start.
WR Isaac Bruce, Rams. Good. In 2004.
DE Justin Smith, Bungles. High energy guy, which is nice, but not an elite passrusher - and therefore not worth the big contract he got.
LB Takeo Spikes, Eagles. Was once good, but injuries robbed his ability. The Eagles cut him. Bad signing, especially since he is probably why Brandon Moore is gone.
LB Ahmad Brooks, Bungles. Cincy spent a supplemental 3rd round pick on him a couple of years ago, but he couldn’t make their weak D. He was in the supplemental draft because he was kicked of UVA for punching a woman in the face.
KR Allen Rossum, Steelers. Good return man, if not a need signing.

WR Darrell Jackson - just another washed out vet to finish his career with a year in San Fran. I thought he would do better.
OG Justin Smiley - Not a bad starter, but the team has some line depth
OT Kwame Harris - former first round pick bust.
DE Marques Douglas - A fairly good 3-4 DE, but not irreplaceable.
LB Derek Smith - Not bad in the past, but age caught up with him. No loss.

LB Brandon Moore. Huge mistake, one of their best defenders, but Nolan just didn't like him.

DT/DE Kentwan Balmer, UNC. Nothing special in a pick that could have been used to address the gaping hole at WR.

OG Larry Allen - past his prime, which was great in its day (for the Cowboys).
DT/DE Bryant Young - this hurts, he was still their best passrusher last year.

They also brought in Mike Martz in as an offensive coordinator. I don't know how I feel about this. His offenses are traditionally very hit or miss. So expect San Fran to hit some big plays, but also for them to get stoned and turn the ball over. The defense could be pretty good, so with some occasional bursts by the offense they might surprise people. Maybe I am being to optimistic after seeing them tear up the Bears in the preseason (they’re not on the TV often in FL), I'm not saying win the division (oh why not, hope springs eternal - 49ers go 10-6 this year), but it would be nice to NOT be in the argument for the worst team in football and a laughing stock.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks spent their first round pick on a DE out of USC, Lawrence Jackson. They better hope he can do something (buzz on him in camp has not been bad) because they lost three DTs: two serviceable vets in Chuck Darby and Ellis Wyms and their '04 first round pick Marcus Tubbs (injuries). Otherwise all their news is on offense (especially if you count kicker Josh Brown, who left for the Rams). At receiver they lost DJ Hackett, who showed flashes when he wasn't constantly hurt. They didn't replace him, which they are playing for now because they'll start the season with both Bobby Engram and Deion Branch hurt (come on Nate Burelson). Supposedly they are counting on their second round pick, TE John Carlson from Notre Dame, to pick up some of the slack - but relying on a rookie in the passing game is always a crapshoot (and one with bad odds). Hasselbach will also be handing off to different backs as Seattle cast off Shaun Alexander as done and signed Cowboys retread Julius Jones to combo with Maurice Morris. Give how poor Alexander was last year I will call it a draw. They also brought in big back TJ Duckett to presumably be the goalline/shortyardage/change of pace guy. They may also have gotten a minor upgrade at guard by signing Mike Wahle, most recently of the Panthers (Packers before that). That worked out well because last year's starter, 37 year old Chris Gray was forced into retirement by injuries. Of course Carolina just cut Wahle after signing to a nice contract the offseason before so you never know. They are not a great team, but are the best in the West. So they'll probably get a playoff homegame - but they are not an NFC power (especially not once they have to go on the road).


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