Winds of Change in the NFL

March 2, 2009

Barely a month removed from the Super Bowl, and two full months away from the NFL draft, teams are nevertheless busy trying to improve their squads for the upcoming 2009 season. Already we have seen coaching changes (Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Herm Edwards), trades, cuts, and even a few retirements (Tony Dungy, Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren). Here are some of the offseason's more interesting moves which should impact the league next year:

Snyder Again Empties the Bank

Washington's little Napoleonic owner Daniel Snyder has had a history of making bad free agent investments by overpaying fading, veteran players. Although some credit must be given for his willingness to do whatever is needed to improve his team, his efforts have ultimately been futile.

This year Snyder inked two free agents to large multi-year deals -- defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall received a 6 year, $55 million deal, while Haynesworth received a multi-year deal worth $100 million, with a whopping $41 million in guaranteed money.

In the NFL, the key to any deal is guaranteed money, since contracts with non-guaranteed years routinely become useless when the player is waived by his team during the life of the contract.

Last year the 'Skins failed to make the playoffs, but a large part of that failure was rooted in the fact that Washington plays in the league's toughest division, the NFC East. Hence, there is reason to believe that Washington is only an impact player or two away from a playoff spot.

In order to get such a player, Snyder needed to make a trade or sign a free agent, since the Washington does not have many draft picks this year. Furthermore, that individual would likely have to be a defensive player, as Washington already boasts a solid collection of skill players, including Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, and their quality receiving corps.

In Haynesworth, they may have found that one player who could make the difference.

Haynesworth was the anchor on last year's stellar Titans defense. He is a true run-stopper who can regularly beat double-teams and make a play. Haynesworth also can provide Washington with an interior pass rush, a difficult skill to find in today's NFL. More importantly, Haynesworth is entering the prime of his career, and it is this fact which distinguishes him from some of Snyder's past signings.

Hall's signing, on the other hand, looks more like one of Snyder's typical mistakes.

Last year, Hall showed his limitations while playing for the Raiders. More of a "system" guy than a true shutdown corner, Hall struggled when put on an island in bump-and-run coverage. Those struggles prompted Raider owner Al Davis to waive Hall midseason.

Despite having his limitations exposed, Hall was able to convince Snyder to give him elite cover corner type money comparable to the great Nnamdi Asomugha. However, unless Hall is put in the right schemes defensively, Washington fans can expect less return from this move.

Dallas Fills One Need, But Takes Some Hits Defensively

The Cowboys entered last season as the consensus Super Bowl favorite based on their superior talent, position-by-position. However, the one roster spot that GM Jerry Jones failed to properly address on last year's team was the backup quarterback position, as Jones incorrectly assumed that old man Brad Johnson still had enough left in him to successfully manage games.

In reality, that assessment proved disastrous when star Tony Romo missed a month of action due to injury, and the ineffective Johnson was forced to take over. Johnson had trouble throwing deep balls to his targets, limiting the big-play capability of the 'Boys offense. The losses incurred with Johnson at the helm essentially kept the Cowboys from reaching the playoffs.

To correct last year's error, Jerry Jones has now traded for veteran Jon Kitna. Although the deal did not come cheap (Dallas gave up starting corner Anthony Henry), it should at least give Dallas the insurance at QB that they have needed. Kitna is still young enough to make an impact, and has been relatively productive in the past. His best years came with the Bengals from 2001-2005, where he served as a mentor to Carson Palmer.

On defense, things appear less certain for the 'Boys.

The loss of Henry is a tough blow to the secondary. Although not an elite cover corner, Henry was generally average-to-solid in coverage. He was good in run support, and a tremedous situational asset in the red zone due to his above-average size. In other words, Henry's height deterred many opposing coaches from calling fade routes against him.

With PacMan Jones no longer with the team, Henry's primary replacements figure to be either Orlando Scandrick or Mike Jenkins. Both are green second-year guys with good coverage skills (particularly Scandrick), but neither man may be quite ready for the starting role.

In the front seven there are many questions as well. First, Jerry Jones must give top priority to signing Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware to a contract extension. Ware has one year left on his deal, and must be kept at all costs.

Because Jones will throw most of his money toward Ware, the Cowboys could lose several of their defenders. Already, versatile defensive lineman Chris Canty has vacated for greener pastures with the Giants. Linebackers Zach Thomas and Kevin Burnett also could exit Big D, although these losses have been minimized somewhat by Jones signing Atlanta's former Pro Bowl veteran 'backer, Keith Brooking.

Compounding the defensive problems is the effect of last year's Roy Williams trade . That deal has left the Cowboys with only a handful of draft picks, including no first rounder. Given these issues, the Cowboys will likely enter 2009 with less depth on the defensive side of the ball.

Out With the Old, in With the New

Several teams have cut ties with the long-time faces of their respective franchises in an attempt to begin anew.

In Indy, veteran wideout Marvin Harrison has been given his walking papers, officially severing one of the league's best QB-Receiver combos in Harrison and Peyton Manning.

In Jacksonville, Fred Taylor has been given his release, clearing the way for rising star and big-play threat, Maurice Jones-Drew. Taylor will now bring his running skills to the New England Celtics.

Similarly, the Eagles have cut ties with two of their veteran DB's in locker room leader Brian Dawkins, and cornerback Lito Sheppard.

But perhaps no team has seen more change this offseason than Tampa Bay.

First, Tampa fired headman Jon Gruden. Second, the Bucs waived four of their aging veteran standouts, including former Pro Bowlers Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, and Joey Galloway. Finally, the Bucs brought youth to the tight end position by trading for budding star Kellen Winslow Jr. This last move raised some eyebrows, since it is unclear whether the Bucs intend to re-sign QB Jeff Garcia.

All of the above teams seem to share in the thinking that their various position voids could be better filled via either the draft, or cheaper bargains in the free agent market. Unfortunately, such thinking doesn't always turn out to be correct.

The Matt Cassell Trade

The Kansas City Chief and New England Celtics completed a major trade in which the Chiefs traded their second round pick (34th overall) to New England for quarterback Matt Cassell and linebacker Mike Vrabel.

For Kansas City, the deal was a no-brainer. For a mere second-rounder, the Chiefs will get a young quarterback prospect in Cassell, who already has proven himself to be an NFL-caliber starter. While some might say that Cassell was the mere beneficiary of excellent coaching and a solid supporting cast, his numbers (63.4% Completion rate, 3,693 passing yards, 21 TD's) speak for themselves.

And linebacker Mike Vrabel is no ordinary throw-in either, as the former Pro Bowler should have at least one more productive season left in him.

The real value of Cassell's acquisition is that the Chiefs no longer will have to debate over whether to gamble their number three overall pick on a college quarterback with unknown abilities. Instead, the pick can be used to get a position player, such as Michael Crabtree, whose talent can be more easily evaluated.

Cassell might not be a top 5 QB, but he does have some upside and should continue to improve. Moreover, even if he never gets any better than last year, such production would still be considered an upgrade for the Chiefs. Cassell will have several excellent throwing targets in potential superstar wideout Dwayne Bowe, and Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.

For New England, the deal did not bring them equal value, but merely provided management with a moral victory.

In other words, the Pats could not afford to get in a bidding war for Cassell's services, and thus, franchised him instead in order to guarantee that they would get something in return.

However, by designating Cassell with the franchise tag, New England obligated itself to pay him over $14 million for the upcoming year. So, Celtic management began soliciting trade offers.

Apparently, those offers were not for equal value.

Still, in the minds of New England's brass, they might feel as if they won a moral victory. Rather than let a QB prospect that they had groomed for years walk away for nothing, they at least got a fairly high pick in return, while simultaneously staying within their budget.

For New England, any negative repercussions from this deal will become moot if Tom Brady comes back as the Tom Brady he was before.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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