Question: Where do you think DeAngelo Williams will play this year? — John M.
Answer: John, his future is pretty much tied to the current labor situation. If last year’s free-agency rules are in effect, he would be a restricted free agent. And since he was given a first- and third-round tender, it’s highly unlikely any team would give up that compensation for a running back. So, under last year’s rules, look for Williams to stay for another season. If the 2009 rules are used, Williams would be an unrestricted free agent. And if he is, look for him to play elsewhere. I can’t see the Panthers paying what it would take to retain him considering they have Jonathan Stewart, who could easily be a feature back if healthy, and third-year back Mike Goodson, who was terrific in extended playing time last season.
There are few starting jobs left, so this is a case where having the draft before free agency has hurt a player. And because of that, he’s likely looking at getting a job in a two-back system, instead of finding a clear path where he wouldn’t be sharing the ball.
Here’s a look at the teams that still have a need for a veteran running back:
Cincinnati Bengals — The Bengals have made it clear that they want to re-sign veteran Cedric Benson. But if Benson surprisingly signed elsewhere, then they would have to look at signing another power back to become the starter. I don’t think the Bengals would pay Williams ultimately what he will command, which will likely be more money than Benson.
Denver Broncos — It’s not a secret the new coaching staff isn’t enthralled with third-year back Knowshon Moreno. As I noted previously, no one should have been surprised if the Broncos had selected a back in the second or third round. While they didn’t wind up drafting one, it’s expected that they will add a veteran in free agency capable of handling a decent amount of carries. Head coach John Fox is a proponent of the power running game, so Williams, who played under Fox for his first five seasons, could be in play here.
Miami Dolphins — With veterans Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams unsigned, second-round pick Daniel Thomas projects to be the starter right now. The Dolphins will always be a power running team under head coach Tony Sparano, so Williams is an obvious fit.
Washington Redskins — Head coach/executive vice president Mike Shanahan had success when he was with the Denver Broncos with such unheralded backs as Terrell Davis (sixth round) Mike Anderson (sixth round), Olandis Gary (fourth round) and Mike Bell (undrafted).
Rookie Roy Helu (fourth round) fits in well with Washington’s one-cut zone rushing scheme, so Shanahan might see him as his next starting running back. And because of that, I expect them to pass on Williams. It’s possible, however, that the team signs another veteran for depth purposes while Helu and Ryan Torain compete for the top spot on the depth chart this season.
So the Broncos or Dolphins seem to be the best guesses at this point for Williams.
Question: Will this be Dez Bryant’s breakout season? Can they count on him? — Mike R.
Answer: Mike, for a rookie receiver, Bryant really performed at a high level before he suffered a broken leg during Week 13 against the Indianapolis Colts. He wound up participating in 410 plays and was targeted 70 times in the passing game last season before getting hurt. His 45 receptions for 561 yards and six touchdowns were excellent numbers for a first-year player at his position for 12 games.
Talent obviously is not the issue with Bryant. The reason he dropped all the way to the 24th spot in the first round was his off-the-field character, not what he’s done on the field.
Whether they can count on him is a question that I’m sure the coaches have been asking themselves since he was drafted. Besides the recent lawsuits, he was suspended for most of his junior season at Oklahoma State. So it’s fair to question how committed he is in doing the right thing all the time, not just some of the time.
Bryant, to me, is a top-five talent, or at least he projects to be that type of player based on his obviously outstanding skill set.
To me, it doesn’t matter that the Cowboys have other strong passing options such as Jason Witten, Miles Austin and even Roy Williams — Bryant commands the ball, based on his high-level skill set, more than any of those players.
WILL BABIN JOIN HIS DL COACH AGAIN?
Question: I know that Jason Babin did well last year. So will he join his former defensive line coach in Philly? — Jerry L.
Answer: Jerry, I know the popular sentiment among the fans is that Babin will sign with the Philadelphia Eagles since his defensive line coach with the Tennessee Titans last season, Jim Washburn, is now with the Eagles. And I can certainly understand why fans would want him to sign with the Eagles considering he posted a career-high 12 ½ sacks in his only season with the Titans. The prolonged lockout could actually help him gain leverage should he want to re-sign with the Eagles considering he knows Washburn’s system so well. And he could walk right in and play right away, which would not be the case with other veteran free agents who hadn’t played previously under Washburn.
But Babin, even at 31, might be looking for a big payday after having such a good season. I think some teams will question, however, whether Babin is capable of putting up big sack numbers without having Washburn coaching him.
Babin, in a reserve role with the Eagles two years ago, participated in 210 out of 1,092 defensive snaps (19.2 percent) and posted just 2 ½ sacks. So you can see how getting to play for Washburn really made a difference in just one season.
I’m not saying the Eagles aren’t interested in Babin — I think they are. My sense is that he has interest in re-signing, but I just don’t know if Babin could find a big enough role with them or if he would be satisfied with whatever role they could offer him.
He participated in 713 out of 1,188 defensive snaps (60 percent) with the Titans last season as a full-time starter. I don’t see him getting more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps with the Eagles based on the projected depth behind the top three ends — Trent Cole (876 out of 1,050 snaps last season/83.4 percent), Juqua Parker (464 snaps/44.1 percent) and Darryl Tapp (432 snaps/41.1 percent). There’s no question that the Eagles need to add one more veteran to the rotation because second-year end Brandon Graham (knee) could start the season on the PUP list. So Babin would be the perfect final addition to the defensive-end rotation, but interest elsewhere and money will come into play in this particular situation.
DID THE FALCONS OVERPAY FOR JULIO JONES?
Question: Did the Falcons give up too much to get Julio Jones? I can’t understand why you would give all that up for a wide receiver. — Jay R.
Answer: Jay, I’m well aware of the criticism the Falcons received for the compensation they gave up in the trade with the Cleveland Browns, but I think it was the right move.
The Falcons’ offense, with little help on the opposite side of veteran wide receiver Roddy White last season, became easier to defend. Veteran wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who had somewhat of a breakout season in 2008, was less of a factor the past two seasons. And White, who had a career-high 115 receptions last season, actually had the lowest yards-per-catch average of his career — 12.1. The Falcons badly needed another downfield passing option capable of taking away double teams from White.
And Jones, who has good size, moves very well and is capable of commanding attention from defenses. He’ll be able to fill a huge need for the team not just for this season, but for many seasons to come.
And based on what Tom Dimitroff told me after I asked him during the NFL Scouting Combine about his draft and free agency philosophy compared to the Super Bowl teams (Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers), both of which believe in building strictly through the draft, you could tell he believes in building in whatever way is needed to help the team get to the next level.
"I personally don't like to be categorized as a draft guy or a free-agent guy,” he said. “I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency. I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeon-holed as one type of team builder.”
The bottom line is that if the Falcons were a bad team, then essentially giving up five picks for one would make little sense. But with this team being perhaps just two players away from being in the Super Bowl or winning it, Dimitroff is trying to do his best to get to that level now as opposed to down the road — which is all fans could ask for.