Friday March 7th, 2008

Before we review the first full week of the NFL's free-agency period, a few quick points: We're going to avoid the hackneyed "winners and losers'' headings because there are no final results posted in March, at the very beginning of personnel acquisition season. We'll give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to teams, based on whether we can make sense of their offseason moves and if they strike us as reasonable and well-thought out decisions, or not. We either get it, or we don't.

Also, keep in mind that we're not just exclusively focused on free agency, but include any and all personnel moves that have transpired this offseason, be they trades, signings or retirements. Lastly, we're not striving to have a nice balanced approach here. The way we see it, there are more questions raised than answers arrived at every year in free agency, and this offseason is certainly no different.

Cleveland Browns -- Ideally what free agency is designed to do is put a team into good position for the draft, setting it up to address its remaining needs depending on the strength of those positions in the collegiate pool. Unless of course you're the Browns, who have traded away four-fifths of their draft choices and will essentially sit out the late April pick-fest.

But that looks like a smart move for the Browns, because in a draft that isn't deep at defensive tackle, they weren't going to do better than Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers with the second- and third-round picks that it cost to obtain them. The lack of a pass rush from their defensive line was the Browns' glaring weakness last season, and Williams and Rogers provide a major upgrade.

In addition, I liked Cleveland's move to wisely secure starting quarterback Derek Anderson with a three-year deal and add a decent complementary receiving weapon in Donte' Stallworth (for whom I happen to think they overpaid).

Granted, Cleveland is taking a bit of a flyer on Rogers, who was something of an enigma in Detroit. But if he's on his game, a third-round pick and cornerback Leigh Bodden in trade could wind up being a steal. The Browns were a 10-win team in 2007, just like AFC North champion Pittsburgh. With the Steelers making no real noise thus far, it seems to me the Browns have closed the gap on Pittsburgh and then some. That makes Cleveland the team to beat in its division.

Philadelphia Eagles -- The Eagles have narrowed down their draft needs, leaving themselves to address the offensive line. They're paying huge dollars to Asante Samuel, but the best thing they did for their new No. 1 cornerback was to sign an underrated pass rusher in defensive end Chris Clemons. Giving blitz-happy defensive coordinator Jim Johnson more options with his pass rush should make things easier for Samuel and the rest of Philly's secondary, which struggled to produce turnovers without much pass pressure in 2007.

The Eagles can now turn their attention to an aging offensive line in the early rounds of the draft, taking a tackle who will eventually replace either Jon Runyan or William Thomas. Better to select a tackle in the draft than to overpay for one in what was a shallow free-agent market at the position. Receiver is another area of need, and you have to at least give Philadelphia credit its willingness to swing for the fence in trying to land Randy Moss.

New Orleans Saints -- The centerpiece move for the Saints so far has been the acquisition of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who could help New Orleans take a significant step forward if he's sufficiently recovered from last fall's knee surgery. Vilma is back in a 4-3 formation, which should provide a comfort zone for the former defensive rookie of the year, after the past two seasons in the Jets' 3-4. As down on Vilma as New York head coach Eric Mangini was, he's still a 25-year-old who brings both an aggressive playing style and great leadership to the field.

The Saints undoubtedly didn't want to lose center Jeff Faine, but the Bucs were willing to over-pay to wrest him away from their division rival. That's a loss, but given New Orleans' array of talent on offense, it shouldn't be a back-breaker. The Saints retained several key performers on offense, namely receivers Devery Henderson and David Patten, as well as running back Aaron Stecker. Henderson has shown inconsistent hands, but getting him back for 2008 at a reasonable $2 million was a deft move.

Signing defensive end Bobby McCray wasn't the biggest headline, but the ex-Jaguar isn't too far removed from a 10-sack season. More important, his presence allows the Saints to line up Charles Grant inside at tackle, which allows New Orleans to, in essence, play three defensive ends and become a much more athletic front four. That's a similar approach to what worked so well for the pass rush of the Super Bowl champion Giants last season. The Saints also upgraded their depth at their No. 1-need position, cornerback, signing ex-Patriot Randall Gay to at least compete for the nickelback role.

Atlanta Falcons -- This won't take long. The Falcons landed running back Michael Turner in free agency, and that's a big plus in our book. For the record, we don't think this is a repeat of LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes, two rushers who were superb in supporting roles but have yet to prove they were worth No. 1 running back money. (Don't forget, they both signed in Oakland, meaning it's impossible to separate their disappointing play from the dysfunction all around them).

The Falcons also signed ex-Jets safety Erik Coleman, and it wasn't all that long ago when Coleman was a pretty impressive young player in New York. A change of scenery could rejuvenate his game.

On the downside, Atlanta let go of proven players such as tight end Alge Crumpler, running back Warrick Dunn and defensive tackle Rod Coleman without getting anything in return. That's not the best way to do business in the NFL, even when you're cleaning house after a debacle of a season like '07 in Atlanta.

New York Jets -- The Jets seem to be getting credit for trying in free agency, but that's not necessarily always the right approach. Just ask a Redskins or 49ers fan. I sense a certain lack of rhyme or reason in New York's additions, as if the Jets aren't really sure who they are as a football team. Are they still right on the heels of the Patriots in the AFC East, as they appeared in 2006, or miles behind them, as was the case in 2007? How big a gap are they trying to close?

Many believe Kris Jenkins is an upgrade at nose tackle, but it's a different role for him compared to playing defensive tackle in a 4-3. I've got questions about how he'll adapt and how long he'll stay healthy. And while Alan Faneca and Damien Woody look like a huge improvement on paper, Woody shifting to right tackle this late in his career is a puzzler. Faneca, it must be noted, was part of a Steelers O-line that was the weakest link on the team. For that matter, the same was true of Woody in Detroit. For all the extra money he'll cost, will Faneca be a head-and-shoulder improvement at guard over the exiled Pete Kendall?

The Calvin Pace signing makes sense to me, because New York had no pass rush last season, and he could really help on that front. But I still think the Jets wasted Vilma's talents and wound up giving him away to New Orleans. Getting fullback Tony Richardson should also aid the chances of lead rusher Thomas Jones having a bounce-back second season in New York. Jones was a disappointment last season, but it likely had more to do with the Jets underachieving offensive line.

And then there's the karma factor. The Jets' spending spree in free agency seems to have ticked off some of their best players, top receiver Laveranues Coles among them. That could wind up being a bit counterproductive. Lost in the shuffle so far is another key point: Who's definitively the Jets' guy at quarterback: Kellen Clemens or Chad Pennington? Until that's resolved, it's hard to know exactly which direction New York is headed.

Oakland Raiders -- Where to begin? The Raiders gave defensive end-turned-tackle Tommy Kelly more than $18 million guaranteed despite the fact that the onetime undrafted collegiate free agent played just seven games last season and is coming off ACL surgery. They paid a steep price for receiver Javon Walker, who has had three knee surgeries and is said to be playing with a bone-on-bone situation in one of his knees. And they added ex-49ers offensive tackle Kwame Harris, a former first-round pick who couldn't even stay in the lineup for San Francisco's less-than-dominating offensive line last season.

Ex-Giants safety Gabril Wilson is a solid -- if unspectacular player -- but at $39 million, the Raiders had to over-pay to entice him to town. While it certainly made sense to re-sign running back Justin Fargas and franchise cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders saw receiver Jerry Porter and quarterback Josh McCown walk away in free agency without getting anything in return. At this point, quarterback is again a concern, because no one knows if JaMarcus Russell is ready to take over the starting job. There are rumors that he's close to 300 pounds and not exactly prepared for his close-up.

San Francisco 49ers -- The 49ers made finding a pass-rusher their top priority in free agency, and then went out and picked off a player (defensive end Justin Smith) who had minimal success for the worst pass-rushing team in the NFL in 2007 -- Cincinnati. Does that make any sense? Even if you consider Smith a solid, dependable veteran who will be part of the solution rather than the problem -- and we do -- it's hard to make a case for him as an impact player based on the first seven years of his NFL career.

As for the rest of the 49ers early moves, well, it would certainly seem that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has a big say in things. You can't really convince me that San Francisco would have gone out and pursued either ex-Rams receiver Isaac Bruce or ex-Lions backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan if Martz wasn't telling head coach Mike Nolan and general manager Scot McCloughan he wanted them.

DeShaun Foster has a chance to be a nice pickup as backfield insurance for running back Frank Gore, and retaining backup nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga made sense given the 49ers lack of depth on the defensive line. Losing reserve offensive tackle Kwame Harris to Oakland shouldn't hurt, but San Francisco does have to find a replacement for starting guard Justin Smiley, who signed with Miami minutes after free agency began.

Miami Dolphins -- Yes, the Dolphins are getting younger, but does that necessarily equate to getting better? We'll see. Guard Justin Smiley, linebackers Reggie Torbor and Charlie Anderson, defensive tackles Jason Ferguson and Randy Starks, receiver Ernest Wilford, tight end Sean Ryan and quarterback Josh McCown aren't a lot to get excited about so far. The Dolphins clearly are undergoing a locker room transformation and attempting to get Bill Parcells' type of players in place.

This much seems clear in terms of how Miami's early moves impacts the draft: With Ferguson and Starks coming aboard, it's looking a lot less likely that defensive tackles Glenn Dorsey of LSU or Sedrick Ellis of USC will be candidates to go No. 1 overall to the Dolphins.

Kansas City Chiefs -- With 11 picks in the draft, the Chiefs are hoping to re-make their aging roster with an infusion of youth and their salary cap with all those inexpensive rookies. But they haven't given themselves much of a cushion in the draft by doing some preliminary work on their needs in free agency. Kansas City's only acquisition of note has been ex-Falcons linebacker Demorrio Williams, and that despite linebacker being one of the Chiefs' deeper positions.

Kansas City has released a host of veterans as part of its rebuilding process -- Ty Law, Eddie Kennison, Kendrell Bell and John Welbourne among them -- but at some point there has to be bodies to fill all those holes. Patience is apparently the byword for now.

On another potentially costly free-agent front, the clock is ticking on the team's stand-off of sorts with franchised defensive end Jared Allen. He says if he's forced to start playing the 2008 season with the tag, any chance of him ever signing a long-term deal will be gone. Such tough talk can change -- see: Briggs, Lance -- but it's a potential distraction the Chiefs could certainly do without.

Tennessee Titans -- I'm not as down on the Titans' go-slow approach as some, because I happen to agree with Tennessee general manager Mike Reinfeldt that far more mistakes are made in the first frenzied week of free agency than any other time in the NFL year. But when you've got beaucoup salary cap room to work with, and all you've done is sign ex-Falcons tight end Alge Crumper, bring back 31-year-old Jevon Kearse for old times' sake, and re-sign receiver Justin Gage, you're going to leave yourself open to some second-guessing.

The Titans have lost a number of free agents, but the only one I'm assuming they wish they still had is defensive end Antwan Odom, who signed with Cincinnati. The departure of players such as Travis LaBoy, Ben Troupe, Randy Starks and Ben Hartsock shouldn't be tough to overcome.

Tennessee fans would love to see the addition of a veteran receiver for quarterback Vince Young, and the Titans' free-agency picture would change dramatically for the better if they could land a talent like Seattle's D.J. Hackett, who, surprisingly, is still available.

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