Can a tight end coming off a 39-catch season lead the Rams' offense back to prominence?
As unlikely as it sounds, that is one of the questions that new offensive coordinator Al Saunders has been faced with in his return to St. Louis. He takes over an offense that finished 24th in total offense. However, that should change and one of the keys may be Randy McMichael.
Despite coming off the worst season of his career (those 39 receptions for 424 yards and three touchdowns), McMichael figures to play a more prominent role under Saunders. The innovative play-caller incorporates the tight end heavily and McMichael's skills are a perfect match.
"He has the ability to put up big numbers in that offense," said a NFC scout. "I'm not saying that he is a better player than Chris Cooley, but he is a better athlete and he'll get enough opportunities to be a problem for the defense."
McMichael creates a matchup dilemma for defenses as his athleticism makes him a tough draw for linebackers and his size poses a problem for smaller defenders in space.
Saunders has a history of taking advantage of such mismatches, having been instrumental in the development of perennial two Pro Bowl tight ends: Cooley and Tony Gonzalez. Under Saunders' direction, the starting tight end has averaged 72 receptions for 900 yards and six touchdowns. Saunders, who undoubtedly learned how to utilize the tight end while as working as an offensive assistant on Don Coryell's staff with the Chargers during the Kellen Winslow era, builds his attack from inside-out, using the running back and tight end in prominent roles.
McMichael has flourished as the focal point in the past, and his career includes three seasons with over 60 receptions as a Dolphins. Although the presence of Steven Jackson and Torry Holt will make the Rams less reliant on McMichael in the passing game, the seven-year veteran will benefit from the attention directed to the Rams' top playmakers. With teams sure to load up the box with an assortment of eight-man fronts to clog up Jackson's running lanes on early downs, McMichael should find plenty of room to operate against soft three-deep zones that accompany those looks. And his presence down the middle of the field is the ideal remedy for the double coverage or two-deep zones that teams use to minimize Holt's impact.
The Rams' offense was a disappointment of epic proportions last season, but the re-emergence of McMichael should lead the unit out of the doldrums and back to the ranks of the elite.
• The Falcons' decision to release CB Jimmy Williams caps a surprising fall for the third-year pro. Williams, the Falcons second-round pick (No.37) in the 2006 draft, was once viewed as a "can't miss" prospect by several scouts prior to his senior season. Although Williams fell down draft boards due to an inconsistent senior year and questionable attitude, many observers expected Williams to develop into an impact player with the Falcons. "He had all of the tools to be a quality starter," said an AFC scout who scouted Williams as a collegian. However, Williams never appeared to be a great fit in the Falcons' scheme as a corner, and his move to safety was deemed a failure after he struggled to make the proper checks and adjustments in the back end. "He is a press or cover-2-type corner, but they never used him in that way," said an AFC scout. "They asked him to do things that were never his strengths, and the move to safety was bound to fail because never possessed the intangibles to handle the responsibilities associated with being the leader in the secondary. He is not capable of making calls and setting the defense -- that's too much information for him to process."
Interestingly, the defensive system that Mike Smith prefers should've been a great fit for Williams. As a corner in a Cover-2 defense, Williams would have few responsibilities in coverage and his size would make him an imposing run defender on the edge. Unfortunately, Williams failed to take advantage of the opportunity by reporting to offseason workouts overweight, and his series of unexcused absences from the workouts led to his eventual dismissal after plunging down the depth charts. Williams may get another chance to make a team, but for him to reach the potential that so many scouts had predicted for him, it is essential that he finds the right fit.
• Much has been written about how the Vikings' free agent acquisitions have vaulted the defense into the ranks of the elite, but the biggest beneficiary of the Vikings' free spending will be Darren Sharper. The four-time Pro Bowler has 58 career takeaways, including four interceptions last season, but the Vikings' inconsistent pass rush prevented Sharper from gambling as much as he had in the past. However, that should change with the additions of Jared Allen and Madieu Williams to the lineup. Allen gives the team the vaunted pass rusher it has been missing for years. His 43 sacks in the past four years ranks only behind Jason Taylor among active players, and his persistent presence off the edge forces quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quicker from the pocket, which often results in a high number of turnovers off tips or overthrows.
Last season, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier relied heavily on the blitz to generate the pass rush, and that repeatedly left the secondary exposed in man coverage. With Allen in the lineup, the Vikings are able to use more four-man rush schemes while playing an assortment of zone coverage behind the pressure to blanket receivers down the field. In addition, the pairing of Williams with Sharper allows Frazier to interchange his safeties liberally to create more ball hawking opportunities for secondary's eldest member.
"Madieu Williams is a clear upgrade over Dwight Smith at safety," said a NFC scout. "Smith and Sharper didn't appear to have a natural chemistry, but Williams is a more complete player and that should allow Sharper to take more chances because he knows his partner is capable of covering for him." Sharper is still regarded as one of the league's top playmakers, and the Vikings' offseason additions should allow him plenty of chances to cement his reputation as a game-changer.
• Count me as one of the league observers surprised by the reported trade interest in Chargers' WR Eric Parker. Although the seven-year veteran has logged 40 career starts, he missed all of 2007 with a toe injury and has never completed a full season without missing a game due to injury. Plus, he has never been an impressive starter when in the lineup and his three career receptions over 40 yards are considerably low for a player regarded as a "speed" receiver. Thus, I'm miffed that a team would consider adding Parker to their lineup at his current salary ($1,850,000). While some would argue that Parker brings added value as a returner, he has never distinguished himself as a top flight returner (8.4 yard career punt return avg.), and he lacks the juice to boost a sagging return unit. As a receiver, Parker is ideally suited to be a fourth or fifth receiver, but his lack of size makes him a liability on special teams. Therefore, a team interested in acquiring Parker likely has a specific plan for getting him on the field or desperately needs to add a reliable veteran to a young receiving corps. Regardless, it seems unlikely that Parker will be dealt via trade, so expect the veteran to latch onto a team after the Chargers eventually release him prior to training camp.