Editorials

Steelers Fever – AFC North Free Agency Report Cards

AFC North Free Agency Report Cards – By Ryan Wilson

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

As the offseason progresses, I’ll take a look at what improvements the Steeler’s AFC North rivals have made through free agency acquisitions and April draft picks. Since the draft isn’t until the end of April, I’ll start with free agency.

Compared to teams like the Redskins and Eagles, the AFC North has been conspicuously quiet this free agency. Some of this may be intentional (Pittsburgh) while some may be the result of questionable judgment on the part of the free agents (Cincinnati, Warren Sapp and Troy Vincent), questionable judgment on the part of the front office (Cleveland and Tim Couch) or both (Baltimore with Terrell Owens).

I’ll take a look at how each team did during free agency based on their needs at the end of the 2003 season and whether they have addressed any of those needs to date (with the understanding that some needs can be addressed during the draft). Let’s get going with Part I — The AFC North Division:

Baltimore Ravens: Needs at the end of 2003:
Defensively, the Ravens finished second in the league — so relatively speaking, they are solid there. And they put the franchise tag on All-Pro CB Chris McAlister, so they have him for at least one more year. ‘One-dimensional’ does not even begin to describe the Ravens offensively, however. Head coach Brian Billick made clear on more than one occasion that the offense was built around 2,000 yard rusher, Jamal Lewis (He accounted for 42 percent of the offense and scored 14 of the team’s 34 offensive touchdowns). Billick has been insistent this offseason that the Ravens are not looking to find a replacement for Lewis in the event his legal woes prevent him from playing next season (Currently they have capable backups Musa Smith and Chester Taylor).

That said, the Ravens still have glaring weaknesses at WR and to a lesser extent at QB. As I mention below, All-Pro TE Todd Heap led the team in receptions and QBs Todd Boller and Anthony Wright didn’t have a consistent go-to target on the outside all season (WR Marcus Robinson, who did become Wright’s primary target towards the end of the season will play in Minnesota next season). Of course, the Ravens did everything by the book to acquire Terrell Owens, and were summarily told to take a hike. As a result they got a fifth round pick for their troubles and the pleasure of trying to fill the WR void with the likes of Dez White, James McKnight, Curtis Conway, Bill Schroeder and Antonio Freeman — the remaining free agent WRs. They are now trying to acquire Dennis Northcutt from the Browns, but it is not clear if that will work out. So far they chosen (wisely) to do nothing.

Which leads me to the Ravens next area of concern — QB. It’s hard to tell if Boller progressed enough last season to be a reliable starter coming into 2004. He struggled for most of the season (which certainly isn’t unexpected for a rookie) but a strong case could easily be made that he was better than both Anthony Wright (a perpetual NFL backup) and Chris Redman (who had one of the worst performances I’ve seen recently when he came in for the injured Boller against St. Louis). Given that Boller is entering his second year in the league, I’m sure Billick has no intentions of using either free agency or the draft to address the QB position. He’ll get a few more years to prove he’s not Trent Dilfer/Tony Banks/Elvis Grbac (and I mean that in a good way).

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Orlando Brown, T
Matt Stover, K
Adalius Thomas, LB
Anthony Wright, QB
Chris McAlister, CB (franchise)
Mike Flynn, C

Players lost through Free Agency:
Marcus Robinson, WR (to Vikings)
Tom Knight, CB (to Tampa Bay)

Orlando Brown, although known for his anger management issues, does provide some level of stability at the tackle position. Matt Stover is one of the most consistent, clutch kickers in the NFL and would have not been easily replaced. It looks like Adalius Thomas will continue to backup both Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs and serve as the special teams guru (after making the Pro Bowl for special teams last season). Anthony Wright, as we all know by now, had a serviceable season last year and helped the Ravens get to the playoffs (at least in the sense that he minimized mistakes at the QB position). He’ll certainly be adequate as a backup to Boller. And of course Chris McAlister, when not letting Plaxico Burress or Hines Ward take him out of his game, can be an impact player.

Draft picks in April:
The Ravens have 7 draft picks this April.
2(51), 3(88), 4(119), 5(150), 5(155), 6(181), 7(212)

Likely first round pick:
The Ravens do not have a first round pick in the 2004 draft because they traded it to the New England Patriots last year for the right to draft QB Kyle Boller (taken with the 19th pick). There is some speculation that the Ravens will take a WR in the second round because their leading receiver last season was a TE (granted, Todd Heap is an All-Pro TE, but a TE nonetheless). Heap led the team with 57 catches (693 yds) and the next closer receiver was Travis Taylor who had 39 catches (632 yds). Fourth on the list: Jamal Lewis with 26 catches (205 yds). Wide receivers mentioned include Washington State’s Devard Darling, Virginia Tech’s Ernest Wilford and Wisconsin’s Lee Evans, who all may be available in the second round.

Grade (through free agency):
Because TO’s antics prevented the Ravens from addressing the WR position, and because the remaining WRs were not impact players, the Ravens garner a C –. With TO the Ravens get an A.

Cincinnati Bengals: Needs at the end of 2003:
Even with Marvin Lewis as head coach, Cincinnati had an insufferable defensive backfield. They released CB Artrell Hawkins (who has since signed with the Panthers) and Jeff Burris. Tory James was surprisingly consistent, but he can’t cover both WRs at the same time. The Bengals were spurned by Warren Sapp in favor of the Raiders and Troy Vincent chose to sign with the Bills. There are reports that Bobby Taylor is still on the radar screen after the Bengals made a more amenable offer. Marvin Lewis has made it clear however, that his goal is to build a consistently winning team without sacrificing the future by back-loading contracts. So this may indicate slow-going in free agency with the plan to stock the team through the draft.

The good news is that the Bengals plan to start second year QB, Carson Palmer and will have a solid backup in Jon Kitna (although there are reports that Dennis Erickson will be looking to get Kitna in San Francisco if he’s available).

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Rich Braham, C
Shayne Graham, K
Reggie Myles, CB
Kim Herring, S (from the Rams)
Patrick Johnson, WR (from Washington)
Nate Webster, LB (from Tampa Bay)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Mike Goff, OL (to San Diego)
Matt O’Dwyer, OL (to Tampa Bay)
Brandon Bennett, RB (to Tampa Bay)

As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer the players who have signed and re-signed are keys to the team’s fortunes in 2004: Kim Herring will be a starting safety. Nate Webster will start at middle linebacker and should make a difference in the run defense. Center Rich Braham will be invaluable to first-year starting quarterback Carson Palmer, and kicker Shayne Graham has added to the special teams’ stability.

Draft picks in April:
The Bengals have 7 draft picks this April.
1(17), 2(49), 3(80), 4(113), 5(144), 6(177), 7(208)

Likely first round pick:
Since the Bengals lost out on Warren Sapp and have yet to sign Bobby Taylor, they will be looking to address those needs via the draft. Don’t be surprised if they take a CB with the 17th pick. Who might that be? It’s too early to tell for no other reason than as Pro Day’s continue, players will move up and down the board as scouts adjust and re-adjust their player rankings. There could be anywhere from two to five CBs selected before the 17th pick, depending on which draft board you believe. Of course losing out on Sapp means that if DT Vince Wilfork (Miami) is available at 17 (which seems pretty doubtful right now), you can be pretty sure that the Bengals will take him.

Grade (through free agency):
If the Bengals had signed Sapp, Vincent or Taylor they would have gotten an A. Having yet to sign anyone that addresses their immediate needs, I’ll give them a D. Of course, come April 24, if the Bengals are somehow able to get Wilfork at 17 and a CB in the second round, it’ll be an entirely different story.

Cleveland Browns: Needs at the end of 2003:
Apparently Coach Butch Davis felt that the Browns had a need at QB because they now have Jeff Garcia penciled in as the starter and Tim Couch on the way out. Cleveland also has some concerns on the offensive line (a matter they had hoped to address through free agency). There are also rumors that Davis might use their first round pick on TE Kellen Winslow Jr.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Brant Boyer, LB
Frisman Jackson, WR
Michael Myers, DL
Terrelle Smith, FB
Ebenezer Ekuban, DE (from Dallas)
Jeff Garcia, QB (from San Francisco)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Chris Gardocki, P (to Pittsburgh)
Lewis Sanders, CB (to Jacksonville)
Jamel White, RB (to Tampa Bay)
Shaun O’Hara, OL (to Giants)
Barry Stokes, OL (to Giants)

Jeff Garcia should be an impact player and is undoubtedly an improvement over the Couch/Holcombe combo. Tracy Morgan and Andre Davis will need to have productive seasons to help the Browns improve a lackluster offense. Additionally, it looks like Lee Suggs will be the starter since White has signed with the Bucs and I wouldn’t be surprised if Green is traded or released. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported that the Browns are considering two players at the tackle position: Orlando Pace and Robert Gallery. It looks like the 29-year old Pace wants too much money and to get Robert Gallery the Browns would have to give up some picks to move up in the draft. While they will probably get neither, the Browns have signed G Kelvin Garmon as insurance from San Diego. Garmon, who started 16 games last season for the Chargers, was part of the blocking effort that paved the way for LaDainian Tomlinson to rush for 200 yards against the Browns in a 26-20 San Diego victory on Oct. 19.

Draft picks in April:
The Browns have 8 draft picks this April.
1(7), 2(37), 3(68), 4(105), 5(136), 6(167), 6(170), 7(198)

Likely first round pick:
If Cleveland holds on to the seventh pick, it is still not clear who they will take. Davis came from the University of Miami and there have been reports that he’s very high on TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. There are also some draft boards that have QB Ben Roethlisberger falling to the Browns. Even though Tim Couch is on the trading blocks (and soon to be on the waiver wire), Kelly Holcombe has been demoted to second string and 34-year old Jeff Garcia is the new starter, don’t be surprised if the Browns take Roethlisberger. Garcia could start for two or three more years, and Roethlisberger could step in as the franchise QB for the next 10 years. Of course, the Browns have a glaring weakness on the offensive line and were unable to address this problem through free agency. There are reports that they are in love with LT Robert Gallery and might be interested in moving up to get him. Good luck with that.

Grade (through free agency):
With the signing of G Kelvin Garmon, the Browns have addressed (at least in the short term) one of their major concerns and made a marked improvement in the QB position with the signing of Jeff Garcia. Grade: B.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Needs at the end of 2003:
It was pretty obvious that the Steelers still had some serious concerns in the defensive backfield (even though Deshea Townsend, Mike Logan and to a lesser extent Ike Taylor were all pleasant surprises), the offensive line, running back and to a smaller degree, linebacker and quarterback.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Matt Cushing, TE
Chris Doering, WR
Clark Haggans, LB
Chris Hoke, DL
Dan Kreider, RB
Chukky Okobi, C
Mike Logan, S
Jeff Reed, K
Chris Gardocki, P (from Cleveland)
Travis Kirschke, RB (from San Francisco)
Duce Staley, RB (from Philadelphia)
Terry Fair, CB (formerly from Detroit)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Rodney Bailey, DE (to New England)
Mark Bruener, TE (to Houston)
Josh Miller, P (to New England)
Dwayne Washington, CB (to Jacksonville)

Duce Staley is the only marquee signing for the Steelers, and that may be by design. He’s a tough RB who can catch coming out of the backfield and it looks like the Steelers plan on returning to the run for 2004. In all likelihood, Doering will serve as the 4th WR after one of his best seasons in 2003. It looks like Haggans will take over for Gildon (who will probably be released and will free up some cap room) and maybe last year’s second round pick, OLB Alonzo Jackson will get some playing time in 2004. Kreider is a solid blocking FB who Staley will quickly come to appreciate. The safety position is solidified with the resigning of Mike Logan, who will probably start at free safety with second year player Troy Polamalu slated to be the strong safety. Jeff Reed needs to quit missing field goals from 25 yards and in (which may explain why Cowher has signed another kicker to compete with Reed during camp) and while Gardocki has never had a punt blocked, I’m not sure he’ll be a marked improvement over Josh Miller. Kirschke will be a backup, but his signing actually saved the Steelers some cash and got them a sixth round pick as compensation for the loss of DT Rodney Bailey (signed by the Pats).

Draft picks in April:
The Steelers have 9 draft picks this April.
1(11), 2(44), 3(75), 4(106), 5(140), 6(171), 6(188), 6(from the Pats), 7(202)

Likely first round pick:
There certainly is no consensus on who the Steelers should take in the first round. Most boards have the Steelers taking a CB in the first round (with which I agree). The top CBs to date are Virginia Tech’s DeAngelo Hall, South Carolina’s Dunta Robinson, USC’s Will Poole and Ohio State’s Chris Gamble. Others however, have the Steelers taking QB Philip Rivers with the eleventh pick, which to me seems like a stretch. If Pittsburgh is dead set on taking Rivers then they should trade down, land some more picks and get him later in the first round. There are also some rumors swirling that QB Ben Roethlisberger might fall to 11, but I think the chances of that happening are very, very slim — and if there’s even a remote possibility he is available at 11, sit back and watch a bevy of teams make offers to trade up and nab Roethlisberger before the Steelers ever get a chance to pick.

Grade through (free agency):
It seems like the Steelers plan from the outset was to be cautious in free agency and try to stockpile picks and address needs in April. If that’s the case, the Steelers seem to be on course. They signed Duce Staley, perhaps indicating they’ll use the first round pick for either CB or OL help. That being said, they could draft a RB for the future with second pick (if Greg Jones is available, there’s a good chance that the Steelers might take him) and address OL needs in the third round. Things should become clearer in the next few weeks. Grade: B –.

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