Archive for July 2009

Depth Perceptions: New England Patriots’ Cornerbacks

July 31, 2009

Depth Perceptions is a weekly look at the depth chart and positional battles all over the NFL.

One common thread that has run through the near decade-long successful run of the New England Patriots has been their ability to adapt to personnel changes. The Pats have shown a remarkable ability to utilize every player on the roster to help improve the team (see Tom Brady, 2001) or fill holes in desperate scenarios (see Troy Brown, 2004). Each offseason they retool and enter the regular season as one of the odds-on favorites to reach the Super Bowl – 2009 should be no different.

Youngsters Wilhite and Wheatley will be bigger contributors in 2009.

Coming off a dominant 2007 campaign that ended in Super Bowl XLII heartbreak, the Patriots had high hopes for the 2008 season. However there were some glaring positional concerns entering last season, particularly at cornerback. First team All-Pro CB Asante Samuel signed a six-year, $57 million with the Philadelphia Eagles and his ability to track down the ball was sorely missed. Samuel was replaced by capable veteran Deltha O’Neal to complement second-year starter Ellis Hobbs at corner but the big play was alive and well against the Pats defense last season, resulting in the following stats:

-New England allowed 27 passing TDs on defense in 2008, the second highest total in the NFL

-New England allowed 12 pass plays of 40 or more yards, the second highest total in the NFL

So, the Patriots shook things up again by dealing Hobbs on draft day to the aforementioned Eagles for draft picks. In addition, they brought in veteran cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden via free agency and took UConn product Darius Butler early in the second round of the draft. Let’s take a look at the state of the cornerbacks in New England for 2009.

Shawn Springs – The 13-year veteran will give this defensive backfield some much needed experience that left with the retirement of former Strong Safety Rodney Harrison. Springs’ best days are certainly behind him producing only one INT in 2008 along with a pedestrian 36 tackles. But, he will likely fill one of the starting corner roles if he is able to stay healthy, something he could not do two of the last three seasons.

Leigh Bodden – Bodden had developed into a solid corner for the Browns, turning in his best season in 2007 (88 TKL, 6 INT) before being shipped off to ‘Football Siberia’ a.k.a Detroit in 2008. The defense in Detroit was historically bad so it is fairly easy to write off Bodden’s drop in numbers. The Pats are hoping he returns to 2007 form and uses his six years in the league to complement Springs for a nicely rebuilt starting duo at CB.

Terrence Wheatley – The second round draft pick in 2008 out of Colorado saw very limited action in six games logging just two tackles. Corner is one of the most difficult positions on the field for rookies to contribute immediately, so his ‘struggles’ should be seen as part of the growing process. New England has high hopes for him to have a much bigger impact this season and you can expect him to see a lot more action in 2009.

Darius Butler – Butler received first-round consideration and was coveted by many teams on draft day. New England snatched him with the 41st pick getting a player with excellent ball skills who can contribute immediately as a returner on special teams, something he did very well at UConn. Again, rookies will struggle at CB but expect Butler to be used often this season especially in nickel and dime packages as the Pats don’t have the luxury of great depth at this position.

Jonathan Wilhite – A fourth round pick in the 2008 draft, the Auburn rookie played in every game in 2008 chipping in with 28 tackles and an interception. The Patriots were pleased with his progress as he got up to speed quickly even starting the last four games at corner opposite Ellis Hobbs. By exceeding expectations in his rookie season, Wilhite will likely start the season on the 2-deep at corner but will battle Wheatley and Butler consistently for playing time in all defensive packages.

Mike Richardson – In his first year on the Pats’ roster, Richardson contributed 17 tackles during 10 games of limited action. He will provide depth in specialty packages and may have to fight to keep himself on the roster as opposed to being placed on the practice squad once again. His special teams contributions could save him a spot on the roster in 2009.

SUMMARY

While everyone connected to the Patriots was dejected after the loss of Asante Samuel before the 2008 season, it was justified by knowing it would be too difficult to pay top dollar to keep him. You won’t see too many people in the same mood over Hobbs’ departure. He played tough through injuries over the last two seasons, but was regularly picked on by bigger wideouts (see Plaxico Burress’ SB XLII-winning catch) and his ceiling had been determined to be limited by the Pats.

By bringing in two veterans with a combined 19 years of experience and drafting three corners in the last two years, New England acknowledged the need for an overhaul at the position. With all-everything QB Tom Brady back from injury, head coach Bill Belichick is aware than the margin for error in winning the Super Bowl is razor-thin and they cannot afford a weakness at any position.

Bodden will pleasantly surprise Pats’ fans and Butler will open eyes at least in the return game. If Springs stays healthy, a sizable ‘if’, the Pats have upgraded at both corner spots with three talented youngsters backing them up and supporting in special packages. That is as good an overhaul as can be done in just over a year’s time and the position now has a very good makeup for a team trying to return to the Super Bowl after a one-year hiatus.

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Depth Perceptions: San Francisco 49ers’ Quarterbacks

July 24, 2009

The 2008 season was supposed to be one of promise for the San Francisco 49ers but quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in a midseason coaching change and personnel change to come with it. Former coach Mike Nolan’s 2-5 start led to his dismissal and NFL legend Mike Singletary was tasked with turning around a franchise who’s quarterback of the present and/or future, Alex Smith, was on injured reserve for the year. In his first game as head coach, Singletary put his stamp on the team by replacing starter J.T. O’Sullivan with journeyman Shaun Hill.

Who will be the man in 2009?

Who will be the man in 2009?

The real question entering 2009 is whether or not Hill can be the starter for the long-term. Alex Smith, after all, is the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, a player who showed promise a few years ago. He restructured his six-year, $49.5 million contract so it does not impact the team negatively and showed that he wanted to be a part of the 49er family going forward. Hill has earned the respect of his teammates but Singletary has declared the job an open competition when camp opens next week.

“I believe … at the right time, one of those guys will be the guy that will take us where we need to go,” Singletary said recently. “I feel very strongly that one of those guys is going to take us where we need to go. I have two quarterbacks I feel very confident about. I don’t have one great guy. I have two good guys, and somebody is going to step up.”

Let’s take a look at this important battle and the pros and cons of each player…

Shaun Hill

Prior to December 2007, very few fans even knew who Shaun Hill was, let alone did they have an idea of how well he would play in NFL action. Having spent time in the now-defunct NFL Europe as well as four years as a backup with the Vikings, he had yet to even throw a pass until pressed into action due to injury and abhorrent play by his QB peers in San Francisco. Even after posting a 2-0 record as a starter in 2007, the job was J.T. O’Sullivan’s in 2008 before Hill received another chance to take the snaps as the No. 1 man for the Niners.

Singletary’s move to Hill appeared to work as it energized a struggling squad and led them to a 5-3 record in the second half of the season. While quarterback was only one of many issues to be solved in San Francisco, the Niners at least found someone on the roster that could potentially lead this team into the following season. Hill’s statistics were also impressive: 62.8 completion percentage, 13 to 8 TD/INT ratio, 2046 yards in just over 8 games, and a 84 QB rating that placed him 12th in the league by season’s end.

While not known for overpowering arm strength, Hill has impressed with his overall athleticism and his ability to put the ball on the money for his receivers to catch in tight spaces. His size and experience are assets as he enters the season as the 49ers potential starter in 2009.

Alex Smith

Well, it’s safe to say the bloom is off the rose. No longer is Alex Smith the lone savior of the franchise. His big-time contract has been mostly paid out and ultimately restructured but here he remains in San Francisco, fighting for another chance at the starting job. If nothing else, you have to admire that tenacity, his desire to lead the team that he was asked to lead over four years ago.

No one doubts Smith’s ability to read a playbook; he is by all accounts a quick learner. This will clearly help during all of the offseason workouts dealing with new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s system. But, he is coming off another major injury, one that sidelined him for all of 2008.

One can understand the hesitance of a Niners fan to trust the fate of the franchise to Smith again but if he earns it and outplays Hill, then so be it – Singletary will hand him the job.  Smith’s size, ability to thread the needle, and cerebral approach are all coveted by NFL teams, but his penchant for overanalyzing, taking sacks, and throwing interceptions are equally unattractive. It should also not be underestimated that the only 25-year old QB may be fighting for his career and trying to make believers of us all.

SUMMARY

Very often in the NFL, we see the media try to drum up interest by fabricating ‘legitimate’ positional battles, particularly at quarterback, when it’s essentially been decided before training camp starts. This…is not one of those cases. This QB battle will be wide open because Singletary knows that it will help both players to raise their level of play and will create a competitive environment in training camp that he hopes will become contagious at every position.

Singletary knows changes have been made (hello, Michael Crabtree) that can lift his team to another level especially in a division where the title that has changed hands quite a few times this decade. He was as intense a player as there ever was and you can see he is not in coaching to plod along and improve slowly – he is there to win now.

Unlike the Browns, the Niners’ QB battle could have a big impact on their team’s overall success and affect the playoff picture in the NFC. I think it is fair to say that Hill has the slight edge over Smith going into camp but I genuinely think this is as compelling battle going into next week as will see all summer.

Depth Perceptions: Cleveland Browns’ Quarterbacks

July 16, 2009

Depth Perceptions is a weekly look at the depth chart and positional battles all over the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns followed up a promising 2007 season by reverting back to the tougher times we saw throughout the decade, stumbling to a 4-12 record in 2008. After missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, including all four in their respective tenures, head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage were fired during the late December house cleaning. New head honchos, high profile trades, and even higher profile court cases dotted the Browns’ landscape and will make for a very (hopefully) different 2009 season.

New GM George Kokinis comes from the Baltimore staff and head coach Eric Mangini gets his second opportunity to prove he can have success at the helm of an NFL team after being let go by the New York Jets. Both men got to work quickly as they dealt talented but injury-plagued tight end Kellen Winslow to Tampa Bay in February. Mangini has been installing his philosophy since January and has had to deal with rumblings that some veteran players’ feathers (Shaun Rogers) were ruffled by the new regime. Donte Stallworth’s tragic off-field incident and false trade rumors involving star WR Braylon Edwards added to a very difficult beginning for the new regime as they try to set the tone for better results this year.

derekanderson_bradyquinn

Above and beyond all the other questions, the most important one remains:

Who will be the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns this season, Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn?

Let’s find out…

Derek Anderson

Now that New England’s QB Tom Brady has made it en vogue for late round picks to become successful stars, several players have followed in his footsteps and Anderson is one of them. A sixth-round pick out of Oregon State in 2005, Anderson did not see his first action until 2006 and then won the starting job away from Charlie Frye during Week 1 of the 2007 season. Anderson shocked everyone as he led the Browns to a 10-5 record in 15 starts and went on to throw for 3,787 yards and 29 TDs to earn himself a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Blessed with prototypical size at 6’6”, Anderson looks the part but could not replicate the performance last year that we saw two years ago. Signing a three-year, $24 million contract extension should have put him at ease but poor play, myriad drops by Browns wideouts, and nagging injuries led to a lackluster season that resulted in a 50% completion rate and a 66.5 QB rating. Yikes.

Brady Quinn’s arrival seemed to light a fire under him in 2007, yet now it seems he may be affected by the process that left him wondering whether or not he would be a full-time starter – and that uncertainty continues throughout this offseason.

Brady Quinn

The Browns’ brass rejoiced in 2007 when they wheeled n’ dealed draft picks to trade back into the first round in order to take Brady Quinn with the No. 22 pick overall. They finally ‘had their franchise guy’ again after the failure with Tim Couch several years earlier. Little did they know that Derek Anderson was on the precipice of a great season that would create a quarterback controversy for the next couple of seasons…and possibly beyond.

Quinn also has ideal size at 6’4” with a very good arm and a great pedigree having excelled at Notre Dame under the tutelage of alleged offensive guru Charlie Weis. Quinn got his first chance to start last November and played very well in a close loss to Denver (23 for 35, 239 yds, 2 TDs). Unfortunately for Quinn, his season would be cut short by a broken index finger that he suffered the following week versus Buffalo and ultimately played with for two games.

Quinn is also the recipient of a fairly large contract that could reach $30 million with incentive bonuses over the five-year term and his confidence is an asset that has been conspicuous throughout his career, stretching back to college.

SUMMARY

For a team that finished near the bottom of the league in almost every significant offensive category, the fortunes will not change on the arm of one man alone. Near the top of the league in drops, struggling to get any ground game going in 2008 and now instituting a new system in 2009, it will be an uphill climb for either player to have a very productive season. Both are capable and both may very well see time this season as the Browns attempt to turn the page from the previous regime’s failure.

This job is absolutely up for grabs going into training camp later this month and this could be the most compelling positional battle we see all summer.  It seems that Mangini favors Quinn at this stage and will choose him in a dead heat in training camp.

I think Quinn wins the job and struggles to keep it at times during the year, unless of course Anderson gets traded.  Don’t count on it, even with Mangini favorite Brett Ratliff at third string they will wait another year to deal someone and make sure they have the right players in place.  It is the Browns after all, what’s the rush?

Depth Perceptions: Buffalo Bills’ Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

July 10, 2009

This is a special double-dip edition of Depth Perceptions and how better to capitalize on the Dallas Cowboys shake up from yesterday, than to look at how the arrival of Terrell Owens will affect the Buffalo Bills in 2009.

This Buffalo Bills team is a difficult one to figure out. With head coach Dick Jauron firmly on the hot seat entering the 2008 season, they stampeded out to a 5-1 record, earning him an unexpected contract extension, only to collapse by losing eight of their last ten games before the ink was dry. In possession of Pro-Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch and up-and-coming quarterback Trent Edwards, the offense has building blocks in place that they feel will carry them to the next level. However, the inability to protect the football by not turning it over and the defense’s failure to stop opposing rushing attacks were the downfall of the Bills last season.

In an effort to speed up the learning curve for Edwards and just flat out pick up some yards through the air, the Bills made an impactful signing that very few insiders expected. Of all the cities that T.O was rumored to land in, Buffalo never seemed likely yet here we are in July and he will be running routes and catching passes in upstate New York.  It’s a long way from Big D but maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered. He is a major addition to a highly underrated receiving corps and is possibly the final piece that can push a borderline playoff team into a meaningful January game. Let’s take a look at how this unit shapes up in 2009.

terrell-owens

Terrell Owens – Well, T.O.’s soap opera ended in Dallas and opens up a new chapter in Buffalo. Clearly, this was not where he expected to continue his career but for all the negatives that come with his diva behavior, the guy can ball. Last season was his eighth 1,000-yard season out of the last nine and his 10 TDs signify his continued assault on the end zone. Third-year QB Trent Edwards already had a talented corps to work with and now he has a bona fide hall of famer to try and get the Bills to the next level.  Since Buffalo does a pretty good job running the ball, T.O. may not have the inflated numbers he has had in the past but he is sure to assume the No. 1 receiver role and get plenty of looks in the red zone.

Lee Evans – Can Evans handle no longer being the first option? It will be a very important question as the season progresses and the receiving unit adapts to its new structure. Evans notched his second 1,000-yard receiving season in 2008 and will be in an interesting situation in 2009. He essentially loses the cachet of being the first option on the team but is likely helped dramatically by the addition of T.O. The Bills will have a very talented 1-2 punch and will probably look to open it up more providing Evans with more single coverage opportunities when he is lining up opposite Owens. The irony is that Evans may see his numbers jump back up to the level we saw in his best season in 2006 (82 rec, 1,292 yds, 8 TDs).

Josh Reed – Reed basically loses his starting job but may not be impacted much statistically as we would expect the Bills to line up three-wide fairly often. The former second round pick now enters his eighth season in Buffalo and his experience will be an asset as the roles being to shift and the offense picks up some pace. He is a reliable possession receiver whose numbers have increased consistently in the NFL and is a perfect complement to T.O. and Evans.

James Hardy – Hardy is entering his second season after being a high second-round draft pick in 2008. His production in his rookie season was, um, modest to say the least with only nine catches for 87 yards. His height (6’6”) was used for a couple of TDs in 2008 so expect that to continue in 2009. His growth is as much a focus for the Bills as their outlook on Edwards; it is a tandem that they hope will be around for many years to come. Hardy will push for the third or fourth receiver spot this season.

Roscoe Parrish – An explosive player when he gets his hands on the ball, Parrish’s biggest contributions have been as a special teamer throughout his career. He may see more touches in 2009 but his production has been relatively modest on the offensive end. Parrish will also be seeing plenty of competition as Hardy continues to develop in his second season.

Derek Fine – Fine was a fourth round pick in the 2008 draft and was used sparingly as a pass catcher in his first season with the Bills. It is unlikely that we will see too much more production out of him as a receiver as that is not currently a focus of Buffalo’s offense

Derek Schouman – Schouman was slightly more productive than Fine in 2008 in his second season with the team. Frankly, both players are primarily blockers and neither player will see a ton of passes except as an occasional red-zone option.

SUMMARY

One thing that can be said about the Bills is that they have ABSOLUTELY addressed their needs at wide receiver over the years. Evans (first round), Reed (second), Parrish (second) and now Hardy (second) were all high draft picks. This leaves them with an extremely physically talented group as well as experience that can’t really be matched by most other teams in the league.

The addition of T.O. seems good on paper but every Bills fan on the planet will be holding their breath and hoping the other show does not drop during this season. It is likely to be a one-year run for him in Buffalo and is probably worth the risk, but the fortunes of this team will rely on the arm of Trent Edwards, not just the amount of talent on the outside.

I expect this unit to flourish but it is a gamble based on how I expect Edwards to develop in his third year, not just the addition of everyone’s (least) favorite NFL drama queen.

Depth Perceptions: Dallas Cowboys’ Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

July 9, 2009

All the hype, the pomp and circumstance, the camera lights that shine so bright on the Dallas Cowboys were a detriment in 2008. It seemingly accentuated the festering problems of a very talented team that had yet to win anything significant. The disappointment of the 2007 playoffs led to increased pressure and resulted in a 1-3 December that left them scratching their collective heads.

Witten will be the top pass catcher in Big D once again.

Witten will be the top pass catcher in Big D once again.

So, owner Jerry Jones decided changes were to be made for the 2009 season not the least of which was the release of pro-bowler/future hall of famer/irritant Terrell Owens from his contract. The Cowboys decided to free themselves of the drama king who had accused offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, quarterback Tony Romo, and tight end Jason Witten of conspiring against him in an effort to reduce his stake in the offensive game plan. How very high school of them all to do such a thing…

With that single transaction came the shifting of roles for every player in the Cowboys’ offense. Head coach Wade Phillips and Garrett will be tasked with replacing an experienced player who accounted for 38 TDs the last three seasons, more than any other receiver in the NFL in that span. We will see some of the returning stars continue to shine but it remains to be seen if what is left is a championship caliber football team, a standard that is the only one Jerry Jones will deem acceptable.

Jason Witten – Witten enjoyed his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation last season while leading the team with 81 catches. His ability to stretch the middle of the field and dominate linebackers in space is coveted by every team in the league and very few have a player that can match his talents at tight end. Witten’s close relationship with Romo was at the center of the T.O. controversy but the reality is that their on-field chemistry results in big plays season after season. Witten has become the No.1 target in Dallas (the real sore spot for T.O.) and his experience will be leaned on heavily by Romo and the offensive staff in 2009.

Roy Williams – The seemingly nonsensical, overpriced midseason trade for Williams in 2008 turns out to be just what the doctor ordered to replace the departed Owens. It makes one wonder if the Cowboys had set their plan in motion long before last season ever ended. Williams could never really get in sync with QB Tony Romo last year and has now had plenty of time to get on the same page and assume the No.1 WR role in Dallas in 2009. His career numbers on horrendous football teams in Detroit are more than respectable and Dallas threw for 29 TDs last season, fourth most in the NFL. Expect them to consistently utilize his size in the red zone.

Patrick Crayton – Crayton has worked to gradually increase his role in Dallas but saw it take a hit with the arrival of Roy Williams last year. Now that Owens is gone, Crayton should get more looks again and return to 2007 form or better but he will still be a fourth option behind Williams, Witten, and RB Marion Barber. Crayton will be a big key for this unit as he tries to prove he is not just an adequate second option on the outside but can make plays and alleviate double-coverage for his teammates.

Martellus Bennett – Those of us who watched the HBO documentary Hard Knocks last summer got a little bit of an inside look as to what the organization thinks of second- year tight end Martellus Bennett. He is a major physical talent and if they can harness his potential, then the sky is the limit for him. His ability would be an asset backing up Witten as well as allow the ‘Boys to use all that size to pound teams, particularly in the red zone where he caught 4 TDs in 2008. Expect Bennett to be used even more often this season in goal line sets and as a regular part of their offense.

Miles Austin – Austin was looking to have a breakout season in Dallas in 2008 but was caught in a logjam of options and suffered some injury problems. His ability as a kick returner is a key for Dallas and he should see a decent increase of last year’s 13 catches and 3 TDs. Austin will be looked upon as a solid piece of the puzzle to help fill out this unit with physically talented players

Sam Hurd – Hurd should earn the fourth wide receiver spot in training camp but the way Dallas uses their tight ends and running backs, that doesn’t lead to many balls being thrown his way. His 19 receptions two years ago were a building block but injuries last season stunted his NFL progress. He is a home-run hitter option and will be counted on to pick up where he left off in 2007.

Isaiah Stanback – The former college QB is still developing as a WR and has shown enough potential to warrant the Cowboys trusting him with kickoffs. His pure athletic ability will be an asset going forward as the Cowboys continue to evaluate his long-term value for the team.

SUMMARY

Dallas’ passing offense fared quite well last season, finishing ninth in the league in passing yardage, all while missing starting QB Tony Romo for three games. With their No. 1 receiver now a Buffalo Bill, it is time for players they have invested a lot of time and money in to step up and earn their keep. The overall athleticism displayed in this pass-catching unit is fantastic and with the supposed elimination of distractions from the locker room, it will be in Romo’s hands to bring this team back to the playoffs.

I think Witten and Williams are very bankable in 2009 and the use of RBs Marion Barber and Felix Jones out of the backfield will have the aerial attack back at the very top of the league once again, just like in 2007.

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July 9, 2009

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