Bucky Brooks
Friday March 21st, 2008

The AFC West just got a little tougher or a little easier for receivers, depending on who you believe.

That's how mixed the reviews are from league insiders on the Raiders' recent acquisition of DeAngelo Hall, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback who has 17 career interceptions.

"He's a talented guy who gives them some plays, but he doesn't play smart at times," one NFC personnel exec said. "He gives up some plays to guys who shouldn't beat him." Others echoed that sentiment, saying the former first-round pick is an "overrated" cover corner who fails to play at an elite level consistently.

However, given Hall's age (24) and potential, the deal should be considered a bargain under the terms of the agreement. In exchange for a second- and sixth-round pick, the Raiders get a corner who is suited to Rob Ryan's man-heavy scheme. Hall can handle press coverage, and his outstanding speed allows him to challenge elite receivers at the line without fear.

"The move is a very aggressive play by the Raiders, but it gives them two top notch players at the corner in the prime of their careers," said an AFC scout. "Despite Hall's flaws, I love the way he competes against top receivers, and pairing him with Nmandi Asomugha makes life difficult for receivers in the AFC West."

Larry Fitzgerald's new four-year, $40 million contract will have a significant impact on several young receivers poised to hit the free-agent market in the next few years. Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans and Roy Williams are nearing the end of their rookie contracts and will use Fitzgerald's landmark deal to set their market value at the negotiating table.

Although Fitzgerald's career production (330 receptions) dwarfs the production of Evans (233), Edwards (173) and Williams (244), their respective representatives will attempt to justify a $10 million per year salary for the each of the aforementioned trio by pointing to Pro Bowl appearances and their current status as No.1 receivers on their teams.

"The most productive of those guys is going to hit the lottery. ... With Bernard Berrian averaging over $7 million per season, those guys will command at least $8 million to $9 million annually on their next deal," said an NFC personnel executive. "In fact, Fitzgerald's metrics should place him in the $11 million to $12 million a season category, but he gave the Cardinals a break by taking less money on a shorter deal."

With the kind of money that has been tossed around to several unproven receivers this offseason, teams would be wise to lock up these proven commodities before they hit the market at the end of their deals.

The Dolphins were the butt of jokes last season, and rightfully so. But after losing seven games by seven points or fewer, Miami players knew their 1-15 record wasn't as woeful as it seemed.

Special teams had a lot to do with those losses, which is why new coach Tony Sparano has used free agency to help tilt the field in Miami's favor.

By adding experienced special teams veterans Boomer Grigsby, Reggie Torbor, Keith Davis, Ernest Wilford and Tab Perry, the Dolphins hope to eliminate some of the shoddy play that affected the kicking game and kept last year's first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr. from shining as a returner.

Ginn averaged 22.3 yards on kick returns and 9.6 yards on punt returns, but was often victimized by penalties that nullified several of his big returns, including two potential touchdowns. With an improved core of special team stalwarts, Ginn should be able to provide the big play ability the Dolphins were looking for when they selected him with the ninth pick a season ago.

The new group should also improve the Dolphins' woeful coverage units. Davis, Wilford, Grisby and Perry are excellent cover guys and their tackling ability will shore up a group that yielded 9.9 on punt returns and 25.5 on kick returns last season.

Although Jevon Kearse's skills are diminishing, expect him to surprise critics in his return to the Titans.

Widely considered a free-agent disappointment during his four-year tenure with the Eagles, Kearse will greatly benefit from playing on the same line as Pro Bowl defenders Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch. "He will not be 'the Freak' of old, but he still possesses enough speed and quickness to press the pocket off the edge," said a Titans' official.

With the offensive attention focused on the right side of the Titans' defensive line, Kearse will have plenty of opportunities to work against single blocks on the left. The Titans don't envision Kearse as a double-digit sack artist at this stage of his career, but they are crafting a plan to maximize his skills as a rusher, including reducing his workload to keep him fresher. The Titans will also encourage him to think pass-rush first. By freeing Kearse from his run responsibilities, the Titans hope his aggressiveness will result in more sacks and pressures from the 10-year vet.

Despite languishing on the Detroit Lions bench for most of the last season, Tatum Bell has ascended to the top of the depth chart and is expected to be the Lions' feature back next season.

Bell, who only rushed for 144 yards last season, reportedly fell out of favor with former offensive coordinator Mike Martz despite a strong Week 1 debut against the Raiders (15 carries for 87 yards). But his downhill running style is considered a great fit in new offensive coordinator Jim Coletto's zone-based running scheme, and the Lions fully expect him to be productive in his new role. "People forget that he has been a 1,000-yard back in the league. ... With his speed, quickness and cutback ability, he should thrive in our new scheme," said a Lions' offensive coach.

Bell has rushed for over 2,500 yards in his four-year career and Lions officials are hoping his robust 4.8 yards per carry average will boost a rushing attack that has finished ranked in the bottom five of the league in three of the past five seasons.

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