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Reviewing this offseason's winners and losers
Are you ready for the “other” football?
Now that the World Cup has ended, NFL training camps are right around the corner.
Before the road to Super Bowl XLV begins in earnest, here’s a look at who scored and who got red-carded this offseason.
Washington Redskins: The team’s most competent head coach-general manager pairing since the early 1990s has made strides to help the Skins return to those glory days. Donovan McNabb should thrive in Mike Shanahan’s offense, especially with the bookend tackles - 2010 first-round pick Trent Williams and two-time Pro Bowl selection Jammal Brown - added by Bruce Allen to help protect Washington’s new starting quarterback.
Now, do the Redskins have the right personnel to quickly thrive in Jim Haslett’s 3-4 defense? Will the Albert Haynesworth situation get even more toxic? And can the Redskins get production out of their suspect running backs and wide receivers? Although there’s too much uncertainty to predict a Redskins playoff berth, this franchise is definitely back on track.
Oakland Raiders: Could Al Davis be hitting his stride once again at age 81? I wouldn’t be surprised after this stellar offseason. Jason Campbell ranks in the lower tier of starting quarterbacks, but is a significant upgrade to what the Raiders had in the released JaMarcus Russell. Defensively, the front seven was bolstered by the drafting of hard-hitting Alabama MLB Rolando McClain (first round) and Texas DT Lamarr Houston (second), plus the acquisition of three veterans - DT John Henderson and OLBs Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves.
The Raiders still have a shaky offensive line and wide receiver corps, but an NFL-record streak of seven consecutive seasons with 11-plus losses should end.
Chicago Bears free-agent signings (DE Julius Peppers, RB Chester Taylor and TE Brandon Manumaleuna): With a head coach (Lovie Smith) on the hot seat and no first- or second-round picks, this trio financially benefited from Chicago’s desperation to make a splash in free agency. Peppers is set to earn $40.5 million over the next three seasons as part of a six-year, $84 million contract. Taylor’s four-year, $12.5 million deal included $7 million guaranteed - a remarkable sum considering his age (31 in September) and backup jack-of-all-trades role. And thanks to new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s need for a formidable blocking tight end, a niche player like Manumaleuna scored $6 million guaranteed in his five-year, $15 million haul.
Even if the Bears can’t leapfrog Green Bay or Minnesota for a playoff spot, Peppers, Taylor and Manumaleuna already have enjoyed a prosperous 2010.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger’s 4-6 game NFL suspension wasn’t the only bad offseason news. Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman (RT Willie Colon/Achilles’ tendon) is out for the season, and the top big-play threat (WR Santonio Holmes) was traded to the Jets because of off-field concerns.
Until Roethlisberger returns, Pittsburgh needs its spotty running game and a defense bolstered by the return of SS Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith from the 2009 injured-reserve list to carry the load. Otherwise, the Steelers may dig an early season hole they can’t get out of with one of the NFL’s toughest schedules on tap.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Karlos Dansby, FS Antrel Rolle and WR Anquan Boldin are huge losses, but the retirement of QB Kurt Warner hurts most of all. Five years removed from his glory days at USC, Warner replacement Matt Leinart has yet to prove he can match his college success. Don’t be surprised if the Cardinals shift gears and try to emphasize a running game led by 2009 first-round pick Chris “Beanie” Wells.
Restricted free agents: The number of accrued seasons required to become an unrestricted free agent jumped from four to six in the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s final year. That kept a slew of young standouts from cashing in with market-value contracts. Only two low-end RFAs – RB Mike Bell (New Orleans to Philadelphia) and DE Jason Babin (Philadelphia to Tennessee) – switched teams.
BEST OF THE REST
Best Status Quo: New Orleans Saints
No significant roster or coaching turnover is great news for the defending Super Bowl kingpin. Twenty of the 22 starters and every top assistant from last year’s win over Indianapolis are back in the fold. The runner-up Colts are almost in the same boat, although top offensive coaches Tom Moore (coordinator) and Howard Mudd (line) no longer hold those positions.
Worst Status Quo: Carolina Panthers
Not even a head coach as good as lame-duck John Fox could make hay with this roster. Because of offseason penny-pinching, the Panthers had no major veteran acquisitions or a first-round draft choice after trading it the previous year to select DE Everette Brown (the jury’s still out on that move). DE Julius Peppers took his 81 career sacks to Chicago, WR Steve Smith remains the only big-play threat and OLB Thomas Davis (knee) is already out for the season. Carolina fielded the NFL’s top running game over the past two seasons, but that can only take Fox’s troops so far.
Riskiest offseason: New York Jets
This franchise is trying to straddle the line between a win-now mentality and long-term prosperity. That meant a salary purge of three well-respected veterans (RB Thomas Jones, LG Alan Faneca and K Jay Feely) who helped the team reach last season’s AFC championship game. The freed money’s designated toward long-term contract extensions for the top core youngsters – LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, LB David Harris, C Nick Mangold and CB Darrelle Revis. Ferguson signed last week, but deals for the other three remain elusive.
The Jets also are counting on RB LaDainian Tomlinson and OLB Jason Taylor having something left in the tank while hoping talent trumps character with trades for CB Antonio Cromartie and WR Santonio Holmes. This motley crew should make HBO’s Hard Knocks a must-see during training camp.
Best free-agent signing: Chiefs RB Thomas Jones
From a cost and productivity standpoint, this was a steal. The Jets think the 31-year-old Jones is slipping, but this workout warrior is coming off his best season with 1,402 rushing yards. Jones won’t be asked to carry as heavy a workload in Kansas City while paired with Jamaal Charles, a 1,100-yard rusher in 2009. Jones, who signed a two-year, $5 million contract, is one of several offseason acquisitions who make the Chiefs a dark-horse playoff contender.
Worst free-agent signing: Browns QB Jake Delhomme
He’s a class act who didn’t have much to work with recently in Carolina, but expecting the 35-year-old Delhomme to reinvent himself after last season’s eight-touchdown, 18-interception campaign is a major reach, especially considering Cleveland’s unproven wide receivers.
Riskiest free-agent signing: Cardinals OLB Joey Porter
In a best-case scenario, the 33-year-old Porter regains his swagger and adds pass-rush punch to a defense that needs it. The worst-case scenario: Porter’s precipitous slide (from 17.5 sacks in 2008 to nine in 2009) continues and he proves to be the same kind of internally disruptive force that led to his offseason Dolphins release.
Best trade: Ravens acquiring WR Anquan Boldin and fifth-round pick from Cardinals for third and fourth-round selections
With all due respect to 36-year-old Derrick Mason – a 1,000-yard receiver in seven of the past eight seasons – Boldin gives QB Joe Flacco his best target since becoming Baltimore’s starter in 2008.
Worst trade: Eagles shipping QB Donovan McNabb to Redskins for a second-round draft choice
Just ask Green Bay what can happen when a spurned quarterback joins a division rival. I understand that Kevin Kolb’s time has come, but Philadelphia’s brain trust may regret sending McNabb to a rival they must play twice a year.
Riskiest trade: Dolphins landing WR Brandon Marshall from Broncos
It isn’t the money – Marshall signed a five-year, $47.3 million contract extension – or second-round draft compensation that makes this such a gamble. Rather, it’s Marshall himself. He was suspended last year for both the season opener and finale in Denver and has a history of off-field incidents. The Dolphins are now heavily counting on a player whose brilliant talent has gotten overshadowed by his deviant behavior. This is a boom-or-bust proposition for top Dolphins executive Bill “No Thugs” Parcells.
Best remaining free-agent: WR Terrell Owens
The popcorn’s gotten stale. A combination of attitude, diminished skill and salary demands have kept the 36-year-old Owens unemployed. Eventually, though, a team desperate for wide receiver help will take the plunge.
Most disgraceful offseason (player): Ben Roethlisberger
For NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend a player who’d never been arrested or charged with a crime reflects the depth of Roethlisberger’s abhorrent off-field behavior.
Most disgraceful offseason (team): Miami
The Dolphins lead the league with four arrests since Super Bowl XLIV, but have taken no actions to sanction their own players. Allowing DE Phillip Merling to practice at minicamp one day after his arrest on felony charges for allegedly battering his pregnant girlfriend was particularly shameful.
Biggest remaining question
At what point in the preseason does Brett Favre return as Minnesota’s starting quarterback? My guess is he’ll be back for the third preseason game August 28 at home against Seattle.
The next big move before camp
Tennessee finding a way to resolve its contract impasse with RB Chris Johnson. As reported by profootballtalk.com and The Tennessean, the Titans are exploring a way to restructure Johnson’s deal following his 2,000-yard rushing effort in 2009. If the deal can’t be finalized and he holds out, a rough 2010 for Tennessee already will get even worse.
Final salute: Kurt Warner
The NFL’s loss will be the Hall of Fame’s gain in five years.
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