• Any way you cut it, the Jets' top-ranked pass defense just got better Thursday night with New York trading a 2011 third-round pick to San Diego for fourth-year Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
But let's be clear about one thing: The Cromartie who will be pulling on green and white next season is not the same Cromartie who was named first-team All-Pro in 2007, when he led the league with 10 interceptions in just his second season..
If the Jets and head coach Rex Ryan can get Cromartie's game to rebound to previous levels, the cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Cromartie will be the NFL's finest. Bar none. But that's a big if. Since his breakthrough season of '07, Cromartie has been inconsistent and maddeningly unreliable. He has just five interceptions the past two years combined, and often looked like anything but a No. 1 cornerback.
Opposing quarterbacks have picked on him at times, and as the Jets well know, his tackling is shoddy, at best. It was Cromartie who whiffed on the game-clinching Shonn Greene touchdown run in New York's 17-14 AFC divisional-round upset at San Diego in January -- the play that essentially convinced the Chargers to part ways with their 2006 first-round pick. San Diego also had grown tired of Cromartie's maturity issues, with the former Florida State product fathering seven children by five women. If you're one of your team's stars, such behavior might be overlooked. If you're on a downward trajectory, that's just one more reason to say goodbye.
Cromartie won't turn 26 until next month, and still has time to rehabilitate a career that has seemingly lost its way the past two years. And with the Jets giving up a third-round pick that can turn into a second-rounder if Cromartie reaches certain playing-time levels, the price will be right if Ryan can resurrect his game. New York is wisely not giving him a new deal as part of the trade, and Cromartie is entering the final year of his contract. If he produces, the Jets will be in the driver's seat to secure him long term.
Cromartie is an upgrade over Lito Sheppard, who the Jets released on Thursday, rather than pay an upcoming $10 million roster bonus. But how much of an upgrade remains to be seen. With Revis lining up on the opposite side, Cromartie will draw plenty of quality receivers who will be trying to avoid a head-to-head matchup with the game's best cover man.
It's a decent win for San Diego, because it got good value for a player it wanted no part of anymore. It's a risk-versus-reward move by the Jets, but probably a pretty good gamble. Defenders usually love playing for Ryan, and Cromartie is young enough and still talented enough to make the most of the fresh start he's been handed. But there's no time to waste. Cromartie might only have one season in New York to turn things around and make the past two years seem like the aberration.
• Now that the Jake Delhomme era in Carolina has officially ended, his contract extension after the 2008 season goes down as one of the worst deals in NFL history. And it's not a matter of second-guessing the Panthers, because nobody knew at the time what possessed them to award Delhomme a five-year, $42.5-million deal after his nightmare six-turnover meltdown against Arizona in the NFC playoffs in January 2009.
The deal included $20 million guaranteed, and the Panthers are reportedly having to eat the last $12.7 million of it upon his release. Good thing there's no salary cap in the NFL this year, or Delhomme would still be in Carolina, of that you can be sure.
Cutting ties with Delhomme -- the only Panthers quarterback to take the franchise to the Super Bowl -- was the right move for Carolina's future at quarterback. The Panthers weren't going to be able to ever put that genie back in the bottle, and having third-year quarterback Matt Moore play so well down the stretch last season (going 4-1 in five starts) should have quickly convinced Carolina that Delhomme's long and mostly successful run in Charlotte was over.
• Everything one writes this morning about the pursuit of Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers could be out-of-date and meaningless by the time it's published, but sources indicate the Bears are the most motivated team to get something done with the former All-Pro, which makes all kinds of sense. Chicago has already scheduled visits with Peppers and Vikings running back Chester Taylor on Friday, and I expect the Bears to do everything in their power to not let either player out of the building until they sign.
To the surprise of many, sources say Washington will actually try to restrain itself and sit out the early hours of the free-agency frenzy, making sure not to overpay for anyone like it did last March for defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. If early Friday morning reports are accurate, the Redskins may already have moved on from the pursuit of Peppers, all but leaving him for the Bears to scoop up.
With no picks in the first two rounds of April's draft, the Bears have precious few ways to improve their 7-9 club, if they don't make a big splash in free agency this year. And with general manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith entering make-or-break seasons in Chicago, there's not too much concern for the effects of what a blockbuster deal might have with 2011 and beyond.
After talking so much about his desire to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive formation at times last offseason, Peppers would be joining a 4-3 team and remain at defensive end in Chicago.
• With the Bears going all-out to land Peppers and maybe Taylor too, it doesn't surprise me to hear they've dropped out of the running for Arizona safety Antrel Rolle. If someone gives Rolle the $8 million per year he's reportedly seeking, they're badly overpaying.
The Dolphins might end up giving Rolle his richest deal, and the former University of Miami Hurricane has said he'd love to come home and play for the Fish. The Giants are also pursuing Rolle, as are the Cardinals. But Miami should be in the best position to land Rolle, and I'd be surprised if New York or Arizona hangs in the bidding for long.
• Rolle might not be the only Cardinals free-agent who's Miami-bound. Linebacker Karlos Dansby said he'll visit the Dolphins, presumably on Friday. Could Dansby and Rolle be competing for the same dollars, or will Miami open up the vault and pay them a market-setting deal at their positions?
The Giants are interested in Dansby too, and while New York has said it'll spend cautiously this offseason, losing out on both ex-Cardinals wouldn't build much momentum for the defensive makeover being undertaken by new Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
• If there's one free-agent pairing of player-team that I feel good about from my free agency preview on Wednesday, it's Houston receiver Kevin Walter winding up in Baltimore. While the Ravens have some limited interest in Terrell Owens, they have been focusing steadily on Walter for weeks. Baltimore believes he'll be a great fit as a No. 2 or 3 receiver on its depth chart, and that he makes for a good contrast of skills with the recently signed Donte Stallworth, who's more of a vertical, stretch-the-field threat. The Ravens are looking for tall receivers who run well, and the 28-year-old Walter fits the bill. He may not be the last pass-catcher Baltimore targets this offseason, but he's a clear priority.
• The Colts are said to be close to re-signing middle linebacker Gary Brackett, and that's just a deal that makes too much sense not to happen. Indy has made a habit of not paying to retain its free-agent linebackers, but Brackett is the team's defensive team captain and one of its most reliable playmakers. Losing him would have been a blow to a Colts defense that sometimes lives a bit on the edge -- even in the best of times.
• The buzz is whichever team fails to sign Peppers will immediately pursue Packers free-agent linebacker-defensive end Aaron Kampman as a consolation prize of sorts. Maybe that spells Kampman to the Redskins, but I'd be a bit surprised, because I thought Kampman would want to return to defensive end for a 4-3 team.
• Just because the Chargers reversed direction and decided to tender restricted running back Darren Sproles at the highest possible level -- first and third-round picks in compensation -- doesn't mean he can count on being in San Diego in 2010. The Chargers could still trade Sproles to any team that expresses interest in him, and it's not likely they would seek first and third-round picks.
Tendering Sproles at that level, however, protected the Chargers' investment, and gave San Diego the option of getting good value in exchange for letting him go. That's just smart football in this age of the uncapped NFL, even if the Chargers didn't quite figure out the wisdom of that approach from the start.