Four Downs: NFC South
by Mike Tanier
Here’s the FO slant on the comings and goings in Hotlanta:
Joe Horn signed: Horn can still play; he ranked 18th in the NFL in DPAR last season despite missing parts of the year with groin and hamstring injuries. But he wasn’t worth the $5.5 million the Saints were due to pay him in 2007. The Falcons had a greater need for a stabilizing veteran receiver, but $19 million over four years is a lot to pay for a player on the downside of his career.
Horn’s departure from New Orleans was hardly a clean withdraw. In the days before the start of free agency, Horn stated that he would not accept a pay cut. He later changed his tune, saying that he would have happily taken a cut to the $3 million range to stay in the Big Easy. He then claimed that coach Sean Payton didn’t want him back. Gosh, Joe, maybe he thought that when you said you wouldn’t take a pay cut it meant that you wouldn’t take a pay cut.
Horn should click with Michael Vick; he spent six years catching passes from Vick’s cousin Aaron Brooks, so he knows that the ball won’t always arrive between the numbers or before the safeties converge. He’s also an outspoken player who can usually be counted upon for a candid remark when not talking about his own salary expectations. As the next story suggests, the Falcons need more players who call ‘em as they see ‘em.
Patrick Kerney gone: In early February, it looked like Kerney would remain in Atlanta. But in the days leading up to the free agency period, he voided the final two years of his contract. Market changes clearly influenced his decision: once Dwight Freeney, Charles Grant, and Justin Smith were franchised, Kerney became the best available defensive end.
But there’s more to the Kerney story, as Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in late February. Kerney was disappointed by the Falcons’ late-season fade in 2006 and suggested in interviews that not everyone on the team was focused on winning. “I look at the whole picture,” Kerney said before his whirlwind free agent tour. “Your performance on the field on Sunday is just a byproduct of a year-round commitment. How do you treat your body? How do you handle yourself in the off-season? What’s your devotion to your teammates, even away from the locker room? When you talk about team chemistry, that’s how it’s developed. You pull for that guy next to you.”
There’s a Falcons player who’s not making a year-round commitment? One who may have wanted to get the season finale over quickly so he could go to a New Years party? Someone who may not understand the basics of airport security? Who could Kerney be referring to? We can only guess.
Ed Hartwell and Ike Reese released, Marcus Wilkins signed: The 2005 signings of Hartwell and Reese are exhibits 5,000 and 5,001 in the NFL’s Museum of Free Agency Failures. Hartwell was supposed to be Ray Lewis Lite, a top all-purpose middle linebacker who would make the whole defense better for the low price of $26 million over five years. Reese was a special teams ace who would also help as a nickel linebacker and super sub. But instead of a Pro Bowler and a valuable spare part, the Falcons got an injury-prone cap drain who played just 13 games in two years and a journeyman no better than a hundred other kick gunners.
The Falcons signed former Bengals special teams gunner Marcus Wilkins on March 3rd to replace Reese. Wilkins had 14 special teams tackles last year and comes as a relative bargain ($3 million over three years). The team tendered outside linebacker Demorrio Williams a one-year deal worth $1.3 million, meaning that potential suitors must sacrifice a second-round pick to sign him. As of now, Williams is the weakside starter, with Michael Boley on the strong side and Keith Brooking in the middle. Third-year pro Jordan Beck could unseat Boley or possibly Brooking, who is a poor fit in the middle and doesn’t like playing there.
Ovie Mughelli signed, Justin Griffith released: Griffith is an all-purpose fullback who can catch, run, and block fairly well. Mughelli is an exceptional run blocker coming off his first decent season as a rushing threat. Bobby Petrino likes his backs to fill clearly defined roles, and Mughelli will be asked to lead block and only lead block.
Toniu Fonoti and Derrick Hamilton Signed: Fonoti looked like an exceptional prospect coming out of Nebraska in 2002. But he battled injuries, never got into top condition, and displayed terrible footwork in two seasons as the Chargers’ starting guard. Hamilton is a king-sized receiver who tore his ACL in 2004 and never developed. He’s now part of a crowd at receiver for the Falcons. Both players are reclamation projects.
Matt Schaub tendered: For just $2 million, the Falcons get a solid backup quarterback and still-hot prospect who could become the most important man in Atlanta if Michael Vick decides to throw Petrino’s playbook in the paper shredder. That, my friends, is a bargain.
Here’s the FO slant on the comings and goings in Charlotte:
Mike Rucker, Dan Morgan, and Na’il Diggs get new deals: “Continuity” is the watchword in Carolina. The Panthers were over the cap days before the start of free agency, so they busied themselves restructuring the contracts of defensive end Mike Rucker and linebacker Dan Morgan to make them more palatable to all parties. They then re-signed linebacker Na’il Diggs to a one-year deal.
Overall, it’s a wise strategy. The Panthers finished ninth in the NFL in defensive DVOA last year, and most of their problems are on the other side of the ball. Rucker is 32 and coming off an ACL tear, but he is still a dangerous pass rusher and solid run defender. Diggs is an adequate veteran at a position where the Panthers lack depth. The Morgan deal is the most risky: Morgan missed most of last season with his fifth (at least) concussion since 2003. Panthers GM Marty Hurney defended the move in early March, noting that Morgan had been cleared to play by leading concussion specialists and had met with team doctors and head coach John Fox.
Morgan may not last the full season, and Diggs won’t be a major difference-maker. But the Panthers don’t want to rely on guys like Adam Seward to play major roles this season. Morgan’s new deal is incentive-laden, so he won’t cost the team much if he cannot play. Look for them to improve their depth at linebacker in the draft, at least when they aren’t selecting reinforcements on offense.
Jake Delhomme restructures: Delhomme helped the team clear cap space by turning some of his future salary into a $4 million signing bonus. Despite some December speculation around the league, Delhomme isn’t in danger of losing his starting job. That late-season announcement by Terry Bradshaw stating that Delhomme was through in Carolina? Pat Yasinskas of the Charlotte Observer reported last month that the statement was an error by a script writer who feeds Bradshaw information. Oops. That being said, Delhomme needs to step his game up, or he’ll be the subject of non-erroneous speculation after the 2007 season.
Kris Mangum retired: Mangum’s departure doesn’t exactly leave the Panthers with a void at tight end; the void was there even when Mangum was in the lineup. Mangum saw his playing time and productivity drop every year since 2004, and he wasn’t exactly Shannon Sharpe in 2004. Mangum, who backed up Wesley Walls in the halcyon days at the start of the millennium, gradually lost his starting job to Michael Gaines, a 280-pound right tackle who was accidentally issued a uniform number in the 80’s.
The Panthers are looking for a pass-catching tight end who fits new coordinator Jeff Davidson’s system. Former Raiders tight end Doug Jolley, who visited the team last week, fits the bill. The Panthers have little money to spend, so they will have to settle for budgetastic options like Jolley.
Al Wallace, Karl Hankton, and Kevin McCadam released: You don’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you don’t get below the cap without releasing some roster-filler veterans. Hankton was the Panthers’ special teams captain but contributed nothing to the offense. Wallace turns 33 late in the month but can still help some team as a rotation player on the defensive line. McCadam is a bottom-of-the-roster dime defender who also played a major role on special teams. When a team gets in serious cap trouble, they have to cut vets like these and give their jobs to sixth-round draft picks. The Panthers did re-sign Alex Haynes, a blocker on the return units who has shown promise as a running back in NFL Europa. New acquisitions Terrence Melton and Stephen Williams will round out the back of the bench while saving the team a few pennies.
New Orleans Saints
Here’s the FO slant on the comings and goings from the Crescent City:
Brian Simmons and Kevin Kaesviharn signed: The Saints needed to upgrade their talent level at linebacker and in the secondary. The Simmons and Kaesviharn signings made the Saints defense faster, deeper, and more flexible.
Signing Simmons was a wise move. While he’s no longer an elite playmaker, Simmons is still very effective as a run defender and can play a role as a pass rusher. Our statistical breakdowns show that Simmons has lost a step in pass coverage — he made 30 tackles on passing plays, but his average stop occurred 8.2 yards down field, meaning that he was letting receivers gain too much yardage before bringing them down. But the Saints still have a viable coverage linebacker in Mark Simoneau and can also use Scott Shanle as a third down linebacker. With Simmons and Scott Fujita on the field at the same time, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs will have more blitz options. And with Simoneau on the bench, the Saints are insulated against injuries.
Kaesviharn, another ex-Bengal, can also be a weapon as a pass rusher. The former substitute teacher started for the Bengals in 2005 and was a spot starter in 2004 and 2006. He has seen action as both a cornerback and free safety. Kaesviharn is a liability in run defense as a safety but is a better player than Omar Stoutmire, whom he will likely replace. The Saints will also have Roman Harper back from the injury that cost him half his rookie season.
Charles Grant franchised: Like most franchise players, Grant isn’t happy that he was slapped with the tag. He isn’t Lance Briggs angry, but he’s miffed. Grant expressed his feeling last month when interviewed after a Mardi Gras parade. “The GM told me I wasn’t one of them guys midway through the season, that I wasn’t one of them guys that deserved money like that. So I said to myself, ‘I’m a loyal individual to this community and to this team. If I’m not one of them guys, let me touch that free agent market.’”
The Saints traveled this road before. They used the franchise tag on defensive end Darren Howard in 2004 and 2005, and Howard spent those two seasons as a disgruntled employee before bolting for Philadelphia. The Saints don’t appear to be in any rush to reach the negotiating table, but they should be. If they wait until Colts franchise player Dwight Freeney signs a deal and sets a new market for defensive ends, they could be in real trouble: Grant might demand Freeney money, and not even Freeney will be worth Freeney money.
At press time, Grant was talking to the Buccaneers, who would have to surrender two first-round picks to sign him. Grant isn’t better than Calvin Johnson, let alone Johnson and another young prospect. But he’s good, and he can help the Saints reach the Super Bowl. They should pay the man.
Hollis Thomas re-signed: Thomas’ numbers don’t exactly stand out: he recorded 43 total tackles and 3.5 sacks (his highest total since 2000) in 12 games before receiving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s steroid policy. But Thomas isn’t a numbers player: he’s a run-stuffing one-technique space hog. He’s also a smart player who sniffs out screens and misdirection plays and at least slows the ballcarrier down. Thomas lists at 306 pounds, an indication that the Saints perform their weigh-ins on the moon. His four-year, $12 million contract seems excessive, but if you’re familiar with NFL contracts, you know that Thomas won’t be around for all four years, nor will he earn all 12 million dollars. The 33-year-old is slated to make $6 million next year, which buys a lot of muffuletta.
Eric Johnson signed, Billy Miller re-signed, Ernie Conwell released: Conwell and Miller are similar players: aging tight ends with good hands but little speed who work zones well and can be effective targets on first and second down. There’s only room for one player like that on a roster (at most), and Miller is four years younger and better as a blocker on punt and kick returns.
When healthy, Johnson is still a productive receiver. But Johnson missed two of the last four seasons with foot and neck injuries, then battled ankle injuries through the latter half of last season. Johnson or Miller will start the season as the team’s receiving tight end. Mark Campbell, John Owens, and Robert Johnson are still on the team’s payroll, so the Saints have no shortage of blocking tight ends.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here’s the FO slant on the comings and goings on Florida’s Gold Coast:
Jeff Garcia signed: It’s time to play Jeff Garcia multiple-choice. Finish the thought: Garcia is …
A) An aging journeyman who enjoyed surprising success at the helm of a very good Eagles offense last year. His fine December performance made him too expensive for the cap-conscious Eagles to keep, especially since it was completely out of line with his efforts the previous two years.
A dangerous threat to Donovan McNabb’s status as Andy Reid’s sacred cow quarterback whose presence on the Eagles roster endangered McNabb’s fragile psyche. Garcia was therefore forced out of Philly by a cabal that included Reid, bean-counting team president Joe Banner, and McNabb’s blog-happy mother Wilma.
If you answered “A,” you know your football. If you answered “B,” you are either a Philadelphia sports talk radio enthusiast or one of the conspiracy moonbats who caters to that crowd. If you chose “A,” you know that the Bucs got a capable backup who can start a few games and outperform the likes of Bruce Gradkowski. If you chose “B,” you are already lining up for Bucs playoff tickets. Be prepared for disappointment.
Garcia became expendable when, after stating that he wanted to stay in Philly, he asked for five days to test the market and, you know, rope the Eagles into a public bidding war with the Broncos, Raiders, and Bucs. The Eagles sniffed out this stratagem, noted that McNabb’s ACL rehab is on schedule, and told Garcia he had all the time in the world. Just days later, Garcia became Jon Gruden’s Jake Plummer consolation prize.
Garcia is now the object in Chris Simms’ rearview mirror, a player good enough to compete with Simms for the starting job but old enough to play the role of sagacious backup if he lands on the bench. Garcia is a Gruden-type of quarterback (small, fast, weak-armed veteran), and he’s streaky, so anything can happen in camp next year. But the Bucs will eventually learn that they purchased the 2004 (Browns) or 2005 (Lions) Garcia, not the 2006 Eagles model. For evidence, just check out the Bucs’ offensive roster, particularly the line. The Bucs look a lot more like the Lions or Browns than the Eagles, don’t they?
Either Simms or Garcia could lead the Bucs to 8-8 this year. But neither of them will lead the team to anything more. And only Simms has the potential to get better.
Kevin Carter signed; Dewayne White to Lions: The Bucs are hemorrhaging young talent on defense. The team traded Anthony McFarland during last season and failed to re-sign White, leaving the defensive line dangerously thin and manned by journeymen and aging players like Simeon Rice and Chris Hovan. White wasn’t a household name, but he led all Bucs linemen in defeats (tackles for no gain or a loss or stops on third down) and stops on passing plays.
The 33-year-old Carter still has some tread on his tires; he made 35 stops on rushing plays last season, the second best total on the Dolphins line. Despite 5.5 sacks, Carter isn’t much of a pass rusher anymore, as many of his sacks came on clean-up detail. Carter-for-White is almost an even swap if you overlook the fact that Carter is five years older.
The Derrick Brooks generation is graying quickly in Tampa. By bringing in another 30-something, the Bucs have set themselves up for a depressing Children of Men-type scenario on defense.
Cato June Signed: June’s raw tackle stats (96 solos, 45 assists) are pretty impressive. The game tape shows that June gets blocked too easily and sometimes hesitates to fit the hole, with many of his tackles occurring 12 yards downfield. But our stat breakdowns show that he was somewhat effective against the run and very good against the pass. He’s a good fit in Tampa Bay because a) he played in a similar defense in Indy; b) he fills a need now that Derrick Brooks has flipped to strongside linebacker and Shelton Quarles is probably retired, and c) he doesn’t have an AARP card in his wallet.
Patrick Chukwurah also signed with the Bucs in early March. Chukwurah is an end/linebacker tweener who played in Denver under new Bucs line coach Larry Coyer. Chukwurah can rush the passer, but he’s an ineffective run defender who missed some time with injuries last season.
Mike Alstott re-signed, B.J. Askew signed: Buccaneers quarterbacks threw 38 passes to Alstott last season. He caught just 21 of them, gaining a whopping 85 yards. That’s 2.24 yards per pass play, a number that fits nicely with Alstott’s 2.9 yards per rush. Alstott is, in short, a big minus on the field. Off the field, he provides grit, moxie, leadership, and all that other stuff that Garcia is supposedly bringing with him from Philly. After inking Alstott, the Bucs acquired Askew, another pass-catching fullback with delusions of halfbackdom. Askew is a better player than Alstott right now and can be an asset as a lead blocker. The Bucs are now the deepest team in the league at fullback, for what it’s worth.
Luke Petitgout signed, Kenyatta Walker released: Walker had a checkered career in Tampa. He started 16 games as a rookie first round pick in 2001 but was briefly benched in 2004 for having too many concentration lapses, and he never developed into a dominating tackle. Walker missed most of last season with a knee injury, which gave the Bucs a chance to get acquainted with Jeremy Trueblood. Petitgout is a solid-if-unspectacular left tackle who will keep his quarterback upright when he isn’t injured or jumping offsides. Petitgout should be able to unseat Anthony Davis at left tackle. The 330-pound Davis, a two-year starter, could then provide depth all along the line.
Later this week: NFC North by Ned Macey