ESPN INSIDER: Five biggest offseason moves

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Well-Known Member
Jul 5, 2006
Panthers, Seahawks improve defenses
By Matt Williamson
Scouts Inc.

Every year NFL executives make tons of decisions to reshape their teams in free agency. They allow popular players and fan favorites to walk away -- sometimes to division rivals (LB David Thornton going from the Colts to the Titans) or to serious competitors (K Adam Vinatieri leaving the Patriots for the Colts). Other times, teams believe that they have a young player waiting in the wings to replace a fixture whose contract is up (New Orleans DE Will Smith taking over for the departed Darren Howard, who is now with the Eagles), so they can use those funds to help their team in other areas.

Many players will go back to an old team (Philadelphia's Shawn Barber) or many coaches and general managers will bring in players who they trust from past winning relationships (Willie McGinest going from the Patriots to the Browns). Teams with a recent history of losing (Tennessee) will overspend a bit to bring in players from winning organizations to infuse a healthier perspective to their locker room.

This offseason, perennial powerhouses New England and Indianapolis took steps backward, while up-and-coming teams Arizona and Cleveland made strides toward building a winner. This is the beauty of the NFL offseason -- it brings hope. Ask Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates fans if they would be interested in such a system in Major League Baseball that would restore their teams somewhere close to respectability instead of being the farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees year after year.

NFL executives watch countless hours of film, manipulate salary cap numbers and do extensive off-the-field research and background checks to ensure they are bringing in and letting go the correct players to build a winner. Still, mistakes are made. Even the most stable of franchises tweak their starters and depth to keep up with the Jerry Joneses. Here are the five most newsworthy moves made during free agency:

1. Allowing James to leave Indy
It is difficult to decide which will have greater impact -- Edgerrin James' arrival in Arizona or his departure from Indianapolis. Of course we have the luxury of criticizing this move from a distance. Coming up with a deal that would have allowed the Colts to fit James' large contract demands under their salary cap clearly would have been very difficult, but his departure is going to hurt in a big way and it could be fatal for the Colts' Super Bowl hopes. Why will James be missed so much? Of course he is a great running back who is one of the best in the business as a ball carrier. He provided the Colts' offense with much-needed balance, but the other areas of his game will be much more difficult to replace. Dominic Rhodes has proven to be an effective spot duty change-of-pace runner behind a powerhouse like James, and Indianapolis was wise to use its first-round pick on the position with Joseph Addai, who looks to be a good fit for their offense. But to think that these two combined will compare to what James brings to the table would be foolish.

Neither Rhodes nor Addai matches James in terms of being a short-yardage or physical runner. How many times has James gotten the tough yard or two to extend a drive or to get into the end zone? James is one of the best in the business at getting that key first down or plunging for a touchdown. It isn't nearly as easy as he makes it look. Not only will the new stable of backs have less success in clutch short-yardage situations, but they also will not punish a defense throughout a game nearly as much as James does. The Colts have a finesse offense and James was the only physical weapon they had last season. Tackling James all day long gets old in a hurry, and it takes a toll on a defense.

James' rapport with Peyton Manning in the passing game will not be quickly duplicated by Rhodes or Addai. Although both players catch the ball well and Rhodes has experience in the offense, James' sure hands, precise routes and outstanding timing to release into his pattern produced a lot of yardage and first downs as a check-down option over the years. This continuity will take a long time to recapture.

Do not overlook James' big-game experience, ball security and overall reliability. On Indianapolis' own 2-yard line in an AFC championship game in Foxborough, Mass., or Pittsburgh, who would you rather carry the rock, James or Rhodes/Addai? Enough said.

All that said, where James might be missed most is as a pass blocker. Few running backs in the league are as stout in protection as James. Will Rhodes and Addai be able to brace up and keep a blitzing linebacker like Keith Bulluck or Joey Porter off Manning? Not only is James a skilled pass blocker who takes that area of his game very seriously, but he understands the Colts' complex offense and protection schemes very well without making mental errors. How pleased are Manning and Tony Dungy going to be when Addai misses an assignment in Week 3 and a blitzing Mike Peterson gets a free shot on the franchise quarterback? Scary thought.

2. Arizona's addition of James
James is worth mentioning twice because of the profound effect his move will have on the Cardinals. Big things are happening in the desert and no addition this offseason was more substantial than James becoming a Cardinal. Everyone knows that James is a great runner with the ball in his hands, but he brings so many other elements to an offense.

As everyone knows by now, the Cardinals had an outstanding passing game, a dreadful running game and awful red zone touchdown production last season. What few realize though are the extensive injuries the Cardinals dealt with on their offensive line and the multiple starting fives they were forced to play throughout the season. Of course, Arizona's offensive line deserves much of the blame for the failures from last season, but this isn't a unit devoid of talent. There have been offseason upgrades and the continuity gained from playing together week in and week out cannot be overstated.

Now back to James. What he brings off the field could be nearly as important as his immense on-the-field abilities. His signing shows the league and the Cardinals' beaten down fans that this organization now has a lot to offer and it is dedicated to winning. If it goes well, this signing will help Arizona compete for other top-flight free agents in the future. James brings a winning attitude and hard-working, professional approach to the game for young offensive players like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Matt Leinart to pattern their careers after.

On the field, James' presence will make defenses honor the running game and will provide Fitzgerald and Boldin with many more single coverage opportunities. As stated above, James' well-rounded game will benefit the Cardinals in many ways, but expect to see an improved time of possession; a lot more 4- to 6-yard runs; and better red zone production. Make no mistake, James is a difference maker.

3. Panthers add vet defensive tackles
True run-stuffing, powerful nose tackle-type defensive tackles are one of the most difficult positions in which to find quality players, which is why the Panthers quickly snatched up Maake Kemoeatu from Baltimore. Quickly after signing Kemoeatu, Carolina didn't stop there. The Panthers inked Damione Lewis, a talented former first-round pick who never really lived up to his lofty draft status in St. Louis. Brentson Buckner won't be back and probably will retire, but these two additions are an improvement over Buckner on what was one of the top defenses in the league for the second half of last season. In addition to adding Kemoeatu and Lewis, Kris Jenkins returns from injury and Jordan Carstens has proven to be a solid rotational player. Carolina's defensive tackles are now possibly the best group in the NFL.

Lewis is athletic with excellent quickness off the ball and a lot of playmaking ability, but he is undersized and can wear down as the game goes on. Having four defensive tackles to share the load will benefit Lewis a great deal and Carolina would be wise to use him as an interior pass rusher on throwing downs and maybe another 25 plays or so to keep him active, explosive and aggressive. He has a fine opportunity to post impressive numbers and become a very valuable member of an excellent defense in a rotation.



Well-Known Member
Jul 5, 2006

If Jenkins returns to form, he will again rank among the best defensive tackles in the league. He has rare size, strength, power and quickness for such a big man. His stamina is sure to be a problem early on after playing so little over the past two seasons, so this newfound depth will be a plus for Jenkins.

With Kemoeatu and Jenkins as the starters, the Panthers will have a defensive tackle tandem similar to what the Ravens had with Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa on their vaunted Super Bowl-winning defense. Kemoeatu is absolutely massive with rare power and will manhandle most centers if left one on one. His stamina can be a problem at times and he, in turn, then plays the game too high. The utilization of the tackle rotation will benefit him quite a bit.

Adams and Siragusa allowed Ray Lewis to run free and make plays all over the field. Although he isn't Ray Lewis in his prime, Dan Morgan is an attacking linebacker who runs extremely well and has outstanding playmaking instincts, but he doesn't take on big blockers well and needs this beef in front of him to maximize his potential. No one will benefit more from these two signings than Morgan and he will be a defensive MVP candidate if he can finally stay healthy.

Carolina's fine defensive ends should receive less attention from blocking schemes and their active but undersized outside linebackers should be able to flow to the ball more freely. There is little doubt that running the ball between the tackles is going to be a tedious chore against the Panthers this year.

Defense wins Super Bowls and the signing of these two defensive tackles was especially significant because it allowed Carolina to keep up with …

4. Seattle's signing of Peterson
The Seahawks' underrated and potent Super Bowl defense got much better with the addition of Julian Peterson. Before he tore his Achilles tendon in 2004, Peterson was on a path to becoming the best linebacker in the league. Yes, the best linebacker in the league. Injuries as severe as his take time to heal and we don't claim to be doctors, but he might just be ready to regain his old form. His supporting cast in Seattle will help that quite a bit as well.

Assuming that Peterson is back to full health, he will make a very good defense exceptional. The Seahawks' doctors obviously gave the go-ahead and the front office pursued Peterson with vigor. Seattle signed Peterson to big money for a reason -- he can be a special player. He can line up over the tight end, on the weak side, well off the line of scrimmage or with his hand on the ground. He is very well-built with extremely long arms and huge hands. He is equally fluid and comfortable backpedaling in coverage against a shifty running back or charging downhill as a blitzer and taking on an offensive tackle. He covers a ton of ground, chases plays down from behind and creates turnovers with the best of them. When right, there is very little not to like about his game, and Seattle's defensive coaching staff has to be salivating as it devises ways to use its new prize.

After free agency, Seattle's front seven is now among the top units in the league. Two signings that didn't get a lot of publicity outside of the Northwest were the re-signing of Rocky Bernard and the addition of Russell Davis. These two, along with Marcus Tubbs and Chartric Darby, make up a very deep and underrated defensive tackle rotation. This foursome, along with a very solid group of defensive ends, will allow Seattle's ultra-athletic linebackers to be extra aggressive and flow to the football with fewer obstructions than ever. The addition of defensive end Darryl Tapp in the draft also adds a talented, aggressive, up-field player. Last year, it seemed as though every member of Seattle's defense had impressive sack totals, and that trend will continue in 2006. This group is going to wreak havoc, and Peterson will lead the way.

5. Vinatieri joining a conference rival
The stage is set. Foxborough. AFC Championship Game. Three seconds on the clock. Bitter cold. Brutal winds. A snow-covered field. Poor footing. Snow falling sideways. Poor visibility. A 47-yard field goal attempt to advance to Miami for the Super Bowl. Adam Vinatieri is set and waits. The ball is snapped. The hold is true. The kick is good! The Colts win, the Colts win! The Colts win?

When it comes to personnel decisions, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli have been outstanding. Uncanny really. Some would say genius. But not re-signing Vinatieri just doesn't make sense.

Stephen Gostkowski is the odds-on favorite to replace Vinatieri. Who? Yes, Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots' fourth-round selection from the University of Memphis. Martin Gramatica is also in the race, but converted just 16 of 26 field goal attempts in 2003 and hasn't attempted any kicks since.

So who is this Gostkowski fellow and why do the Patriots think he can be an adequate replacement for the best clutch kicker of all time? Gostkowski looks to be a decent enough prospect who had a very good college career and has the makings of an NFL starting kicker, but the biggest game he kicked in last season was probably Memphis' bowl game against Akron -- not exactly on par with the kick Vinatieri made with nine seconds on the clock to defeat Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This is not a knock on Gostkowski so much as it is on the Patriots' decision making in this particular instance. Even the best rookie kickers have a hard time adjusting to the NFL's "K Ball" and the pressure of their new environment. Gostkowski may go on to do great things in the NFL, but Vinatieri already has achieved extraordinary accomplishments and has not shown signs of slowing down.

Neither Gostkowski nor Gramatica has extensive experience at all kicking in poor weather. Except for four games with the Colts, Gramatica's career was spent in Tampa Bay and the weather Gostkowski experienced in Memphis during the college season is a far cry from daunting. There aren't many places that are more difficult to kick than Foxboro in January. But luckily for the new kicker, the Patriots host just one of their last four regular-season games, with the road contests played in sunny Miami, Jacksonville and Tennessee. But that luck could run out come playoff time.

Apparently the Patriots didn't want their salary cap space eaten up by the highest-paid kicker in the league, and that rationale does make some sense. But as of this writing, New England is quite a bit under the cap, and this is a team that has its goals set on returning to the Super Bowl. A kicker who the Pats can count on to come through in the clutch is a key ingredient to getting back to the big game in the brutal AFC. Replacing Vinatieri with an unknown was a mistake. You can't argue with geniuses, but sometimes they simply out-think themselves. :icon_wink: