Change affects everyone, even world champions. The salary cap and free agency have made it impossible for clubs to keep their rosters intact from one season to the next, especially with the presence of free-spending owners who believe that their teams’ odds of winning a Super Bowl increase with each dollar spent.In the mid-’90s, Al Davis collected Super Bowl MVPs (Larry Brown and Desmond Howard). Daniel Snyder has never met a high-priced free agent that he didn’t like.
General managers have many options available to them to shape their rosters—the draft, free agency, trades, waivers, and/or outright releases—but none come with a guarantee for success.
Recent Super Bowl Champions such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, and Indianapolis Colts have, for the most part, stood on the sideline during free agency, choosing instead to spend their money on player retention—extending the contracts of their core players—and building their rosters via the draft.
Removing a player from its roster can be beneficial to a team as well. Moves such as these can eliminate off-the-field distractions, thereby improving team unity, or create cap relief, which enables the club to add depth or “fill holes” at other positions.
Before training camps opening this week in various cities, let’s take a look at each NFL team’s best offseason player moves. Although a single player-personnel decision won’t make a champion, the following transactions will go a long way in determining which two teams will travel to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV.
Baltimore Ravens: Matt Birk, Center (Free Agent, Minnesota Vikings)
With second-year quarterback Joe Flacco still in a developmental stage, it was imperative for general manager Ozzie Newsome to bring in a proven veteran at the center position to replace Jason Brown, who signed a lucrative free-agent contract with St. Louis.
Birk not only provides leadership and the ability to make all the line calls, but also a mentor for the young signal-caller.
Cincinnati Bengals: Laveranues Coles, Wide Receiver (Free Agent, New York Jets)
With constant chatter emanating from the mouth of Chad Ochocinco, it’s easy to overlook the impact that soft-spoken Laveranues Coles will have on the club’s offense. A very productive yet underappreciated receiver for the Jets, Coles will force opposing defensive coordinators to think twice about which Bengal receiver—Coles, Ochocinco, and/or Chris Henry—should draw double-coverage.
Coles, who possesses superb body control and footwork along the sidelines, will become a favorite third-down target of quarterback Carson Palmer.
Cleveland Browns: Kellen Winslow, Tight End (Traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
This move can be characterized as “addition by subtraction.” Winslow had worn out his welcome in Cleveland, and the disgruntled tight end certainly would’ve had a hard time conforming to Mangini’s Belichickian team culture.
The trade not only eliminated a perennial distraction, but also enables Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to incorporate second-year tight end Martin Rucker (6'5", 260) into the passing game, providing the club’s starting quarterback (Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson) with a big red-zone target.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver/Kickoff Returner (Third-Round Draft Pick, Mississippi)
In typical Steelers fashion, the team didn’t jump into the free-agency fray, choosing instead to concentrate on retaining their own free agents, with defensive back Keiwan Ratliff (Colts) and wide receiver Shaun McDonald (Lions) as the only signings from other teams.
Pittsburgh’s best offseason move occurred in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, when the team selected Ole Miss wide receiver Mike Wallace, a record-setting kickoff returner with elite speed (4.33 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine). Wallace will electrify the Steelers’ kick-return team and provide a vertical threat in the passing game.
Houston Texans: Connor Barwin, Defensive End (Second-Round Draft Pick, Cincinnati)
As a team, Houston’s defense registered just 25 sacks in 2008. Not good. To alleviate some of the pressure on Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams (12 sacks in 2008) to get to the quarterback, the Texans’ brass selected Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
A converted tight end, Barwin played just one season on the defensive side of the ball at Cincinnati but the results were a team- and Big East-leading 12 sacks and 20 quarterback pressures last season. The former Bearcat has the athleticism to play in a two- or three-point stance, providing Houston’s defensive coaching staff the luxury of using him in a variety of positions on passing downs.
Indianapolis Colts: Austin Collie, Wide Receiver (Fourth-Round Draft Pick, BYU)
When Peyton Manning is under center, it’s imperative to have multiple weapons at his disposal. The selection of Collie in the fourth round of the 2009 NFL Draft gives Manning another viable option in the passing game, as the rookie wide receiver will join Anthony Gonzalez and Reggie Wayne when the Colts offense utilizes multiple-receiver sets.
Collie has been compare favorably to former Colts receiver Brandon Stokley, due to both players’ ability to line up in the slot, run precise routes, and find holes in opposing defenses.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Torry Holt, Wide Receiver (Free Agent, St. Louis Rams)
Statistically, last season was Holt’s worst as a pro since his rookie campaign (1999), hauling in just 64 receptions for 796 yards and three touchdowns. Though his substandard performance can, at least in part, be blamed on poor quarterback play and knee problems, the 11-year vet’s best days certainly are behind him.
Nonetheless, Holt has enough gas left in the tank to provide a boost to the Jaguars’ young receiving corps, which lost veteran receivers Reggie Williams, Matt Jones—both former first-round draft picks—Jerry Porter, and Dennis Northcutt in the offseason.
Tennessee Titans: Nate Washington, Wide Receiver (Free Agent, Pittsburgh Steelers)
After spending the past four seasons as the third option in the Steelers’ passing game, Nate Washington comes to the Titans with the opportunity to be the featured pass-catcher.
Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Mike Reinfeldt desperately needed to add a receiver who could open up the Titans’ pass offense, which ranked 27th in the NFL last season, gaining a mere 176 yards per game, and Washington gives them that player. The former Steeler caught a career-high 40 passes in 2008 and owns a healthy 16.4 yards-per-catch average for his career.
Buffalo Bills: Eric Wood, Center (First-Round Draft Pick, Louisville) and Andy Levitre, Offensive Tackle (Second-Round Draft Pick, Oregon State)
Though technically not a single player move, the collective selections of Wood and Levitre on the first day of the 2009 NFL Draft should pay big dividends for the Bills, who are in the process of rebuilding its offensive line.
Wood and Levitre give Buffalo two players who can man multiple positions on the offensive line, lending flexibility to a position in a state of flux. Both players could be in the starting lineup on opening weekend.
Miami Dolphins: Jason Taylor, Outside Linebacker (Free Agent, Washington Redskins)
Jason Taylor never wanted to leave Miami, but his falling out with Bill Parcells resulted in a trade that sent the Pro Bowl defensive end to Washington, where he spent one frustrating and injury-plagued season. Though critics will be quick to point out his age (he’ll be 35 at the start of the season) and his mere 3.5 sacks last season, Taylor returns to the Dolphins with a chip on his shoulder, ready to return to his All-Pro form.
In Miami, Taylor will move to outside linebacker in the team’s 3-4 defense, a scheme that will give him and fellow linebacker Joey Porter plenty of opportunities to harass opposing quarterbacks.
New England Patriots: Fred Taylor, Running Back (Free Agent, Jacksonville)
After 11 seasons in Jacksonville, running back Fred Taylor signed a two-year deal with New England, where he’ll not only get an opportunity to start, but also has a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl ring, which has eluded the tailback during his decade-plus career.
Taylor, who has rushed for 11,271 yards in his career (16th best in NFL history) and who is only two years removed from a 1,200-yard season, will battle veteran back Sammy Morris and an injury-prone Laurence Maroney for the starting spot. Head coach Bill Belichick persuaded Taylor, who nearly inked a contract with Buffalo, to sign with the Patriots, so you can bet that he’ll receive plenty of touches in 2009.
New York Jets: Lito Sheppard, Cornerback (Trade, Philadelphia Eagles)
The acquisition of two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard via a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last February gives the Jets one of the NFL’s best cornerback tandems, which also includes Darrelle Revis, a first-time Pro Bowl selection last season and one of the league’s rising defensive stars.
Sheppard will be part of a Jets secondary that includes Revis, safety Kerry Rhodes, and former Ravens safety Jim Leonhard—a significant upgrade from a year ago, when 34-year-old Ty Law finished the season as the team’s starting right cornerback and third-year pro Eric Smith was paired with Rhodes at safety.
If you throw former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott and head coach Rex Ryan’s pressure defense into the mix, the Jets have the makings of a Top 5 defense.
Dencer Broncos: Brian Dawkins, Safety (Free Agent, Philadelphia Eagles)
One of the most active clubs in free agency this past offseason, the Broncos signed the 14-year veteran to a multi-year contract less than 24 hours after the signing period commenced.
Though he’ll turn 36 in October, Dawkins, a potential Hall-of-Famer, lends veteran leadership to the locker room and to a secondary that ranked 26th in the NFL last season, yielding nearly 230 yards per game to its opponents. A strong run-defender, the former Eagle safety also should help firm up the Broncos’ porous run defense, which also ranked near the bottom of the league in 2008.
Kansas City Chiefs: : Matt Cassel, Quarterback (Trade, New England Patriots)
Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley obviously weren’t sold on the team’s starting quarterback from last season, Tyler Thigpen. Consequently, the duo traded for Patriots backup Matt Cassel, a player that Pioli drafted during his time in New England and where the two spent four years together.
Despite his relative inexperience as an NFL starting quarterback (15 career starts), Cassel has been mentored by one of the best minds in the business, Bill Belichick, and threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns while subbing for an injured Tom Brady last season. A new six-year, $63 million contract, with $28 million guaranteed, speaks to Pioli’s and Haley’s confidence in their new QB.
Oakland Raiders: Jeff Garcia, Quarterback (Free Agent, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
This is a make-or-break year for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the first-overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Should he falter in the preseason or early in the regular season, the Raiders hedged their bets by signing journeyman quarterback Jeff Garcia to a one-year contract in early April.
Oakland is the fifth stop for the 39-year-old Garcia since leaving San Francisco after the 2003 season, yet the veteran signal-caller has done nothing but produce for each of those clubs, throwing for 25,537 yards and 161 touchdowns during his 10-year NFL career. You can bet that Russell is looking over his shoulder.
San Diego Chargers: Larry English, Outside Linebacker (First-Round Draft Pick, Northern Illinois)
A defensive end at Northern Illinois, English will move to outside linebacker in San Diego’s 3-4 defense, where he’ll back up standout linebackers Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman. English, a two-time Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, was a pass-rushing specialist at NIU (31.5 career sacks) and will get plenty of opportunities to “bring the heat” on third downs when the regular season rolls around.
The acquisition of English also provides insurance should Merriman experience any setbacks during his return from knee-ligament surgery, which cause him to miss the 2008 season.
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler, Quarterback (Trade, Denver Broncos)
Kyle Orton, Brian Griese, Rex Grossman, Chad Hutchinson, Kordell Stewart, Cade McNown… Well, you get the picture. The Bears’ inability to find a permanent, championship-caliber quarterback since Jim McMahon’s final season in 1988 has been well documented.
Although there are some character concerns following his fallout with Denver head coach Josh McDaniels, Cutler is a bona fide Pro Bowler who threw for more than 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. The former Bronco signal-caller already has the Windy City abuzz with Super Bowl talk.
Detroit Lions: Brandon Pettigrew, Tight End (First-Round Draft Pick, Oklahoma State)
Selected 19 spots after the first-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and the Lions’ presumptive starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, former Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew will play an integral role in his teammate’s success.
One of the fiercest blocking tight ends in college football the past two seasons, Pettigrew (6'5", 263), who acts as an extra tackle on the offensive line, will help to improve the Lions’ dreadful rushing attack, alleviating some of the pressure on Stafford, and provide the signal-call with a big red-zone target and safety valve in the passing game.
Green Bay Packers: B.J. Raji, Defensive Tackle (First-Round Draft Pick, Boston College)
General manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy surely were ecstatic to see Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji’s name still on the board at pick No. 9. The consensus top tackle in the 2009 NFL Draft, Raji provides defensive coordinator Dom Capers with a prototypical nose tackle for the Packers’ conversion to the 3-4 defense.
A better pass-rusher than starting NT Ryan Pickett, look for Capers to get Raji plenty of snaps at defensive end on early downs and substituting the rookie for Pickett in passing situations.
Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin, Wide Receiver (First-Round Draft Pick, Florida)
The thought of defending Minnesota’s offense this season (presuming that a certain quarterback will be coming out of “retirement”) undoubtedly keeps defensive coordinators in the NFC North awake at night. The addition of Percy Harvin adds a whole new dimension to the Vikings’ offense. Defenses that put eight men in the box to stop running back Adrian Peterson are more susceptible to deep passes, where Harvin’s world-class speed can be exploited.
Also, look for offensive quarterback Darrell Bevell to utilize Harvin in the "Wildcat" formation and to put him in motion frequently to enable the wide receiver to get free releases off the line of scrimmage.
Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, Tight End (Trade, Kansas City Chiefs)
After a failed attempt to be traded prior to the 2008 season, Tony Gonzalez finally got his wish when the Atlanta Falcons sent a 2010 second-round pick to the Chiefs for the future Hall-of-Famer. Gonzalez, a 10-time Pro Bowler and NFL recorder-holder for receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end, adds another dynamic playmaker to the Falcons offense, which already includes quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White, and running back Michael Turner.
Despite his age (he turned 33 in February), the 2008 season was one of Gonzalez’s finest, as the tight end caught 96 passes for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns, numbers he could duplicate in Atlanta.
Carolina Panthers: Sherrod Martin, Cornerback (Second-Round Draft Pick, Troy)
Martin (6'1", 198) mostly played safety during his time at Troy but has the speed and agility to move outside to corner. The Panthers chose not to resign Ken Lucas, one of their starting cornerbacks last season, and, thus, filled a positional need with the selection of Martin in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Martin enters camp as the favorite to win the nickel-corner job and will push fourth-year pro Richard Marshall for Lucas’ old spot.
New Orleans Saints: Malcolm Jenkins, Cornerback (First-Round Draft Pick, Ohio State)
After ranking in the bottom third of the league in passing defense last season, giving up 222 yards/game and 21 touchdowns, the Saints’ secondary, a constant target of fans’ ire, has introduced several new faces to the unit, including free agent cornerback Jabari Greer (Buffalo), safety Darren Sharper (Minnesota), and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, the team’s first-round draft pick.
Jenkins provides the Saints secondary with an immediate upgrade and will compete with Greer, Tracy Porter, Randall Gay, and others for a starting spot. Due to his good size (6'0", 204), the former Buckeye could also slide inside to free safety, where he could push Sharper for playing time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Ward, Running Back (Free Agent, New York Giants)
After spending the past two years sharing carries with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw in New York, running back Derrick Ward signed a four-year, $17 million deal with Tampa Bay, where he’ll get an opportunity to be the featured back. Earnest Graham, the Bucs’ starter last season, missed six games in 2008 due to an injured ankle (and has never played a full, 16-game season), and former first-round pick Cadillac Williams is attempting to come back from his second torn patellar tendon.
Those key losses undoubtedly contributed to Tampa Bay’s modest 4.1 yards-per-carry average and paltry eight runs of 20-plus yards last season. Ward, who gained 1,025 yards on 182 carries (5.6 yards/carry) and added 41 catches for 384 yards, will thrive in offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski’s aggressive offense and improve last season’s numbers.
Dallas Cowboys: Terrell Owens, Wide Receiver (Released)
Like his stays in San Francisco and Philadelphia, Owens finally wore out his welcome in Dallas, where even Jerry Jones, one of the controversial receiver’s staunchest supporters, could no longer justify keeping his divisive presence in the Cowboys’ locker room, despite the numbers Owens was putting up on the field.
The absence of Owens will enable quarterback Tony Romo to concentrate on his on-the-field responsibilities—including getting the ball to tight end Jason Witten—without having to worry about an unhappy wide receiver waiting for him on the sideline. A more relaxed Romo should result in more victories for the team from Big D.
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver (First-Round Draft Pick, North Carolina)
The Giants selected North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft to add a playmaker to a receiving unit that will be without the services of Plaxico Burress (released) and Amani Toomer (free agent) this season.
Nicks, who caught 68 passes for 1,222 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns for the Tar Heels last season, runs good routes, possess exceptional hands, and is a dynamic open-field runner, providing a nice addition to a crowded Giants receiving corps—Steve Smith, David Tyree, Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss, Mario Manningham, and fellow rookie Ramses Barden (Cal Poly), among others—in need of a playmaker and an identity.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Peters, Offensive Tackle (Trade, Buffalo Bills)
After losing free-agent left-tackle Tra Thomas to Jacksonville, the Eagles quickly filled the void on their offensive line by trading first- and fourth-round picks in the 2009 NFL Draft, as well as a sixth-round pick in 2010, for Peters, one of the league’s best young left tackles.
A former undrafted tight end from Arkansas, Peters was switched to right tackle prior to the 2005 season, his second year with Buffalo, before settling in at left tackle, where he has established himself as one of the most powerful and athletic players at his position in the NFL. Peters will open plenty of rushing lanes for tailbacks Brian Westbrook and rookie LeSean McCoy in 2009.
Washington Redskins: Albert Haynesworth, Defensive Tackle (Free Agent, Tennessee Titans)
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, never one to shy away from spending money on his players, hooked the biggest fish in the free-agent pond, Albert Haynesworth, signing the former Titan to a seven-year, $100 million contract, which includes an NFL-record $41 million in guarantees.
Though the Redskins finished the 2008 season with a top-10 defense, one of the weaknesses of the defense was its inability to get to the quarterback, registering just 24 sacks last season (third lowest total in the NFL). Although he doesn’t come to the Redskins without baggage (e.g., his cleat to Cowboys center Andre Gurode’s face in 2006), the 6'6", 350-pound Haynesworth recorded a career-high 8.5 sacks and 22 quarterback pressures last season, numbers he could exceed with the talent surrounding him in Washington, most notably 2009 first-round draft pick Brian Orakpo, a pass-rushing linebacker/defensive end from the University of Texas.
Arizona Cardinals: Beanie Wells, Running Back (First-Round Draft Pick, Ohio State)
Wells gives the Cards’ running game, which ranked dead last in the NFL last season, a much-needed boost. Although the team’s fifth-round pick last year, Tim Hightower, performed admirably in the postseason, his 2.8 yards-per-carry average in the regular season certainly was a concern. Wells (6'1", 235) is a powerful back who can pick up tough yardage between the tackles and use his good speed to break off long touchdown runs.
San Francisco 49ers: Michael Crabtree, Wide Receiver (First-Round Draft Pick, Texas Tech)
Not expecting him to be available at the 10th spot, the Niners were elated to select Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree, the consensus top wide receiver in the draft, with their first-round selection. Whoever wins the training-camp battle at quarterback, Shaun Hill or Alex Smith, will have two rising stars to throw the ball to in the regular season—Crabtree and the Niners’ 2008 sixth-round pick, Josh Morgan (Virginia Tech).
Crabtree already is penciled in as a starter and gives the San Francisco offense a sure-handed pass-catcher who can pick up big yardage after the catch, as the 6'2", 215-pound receiver possesses good elusiveness for a player of his physical dimensions.
Seattle Seahwaks: Ken Lucas, Cornerback (Free Agent, Carolina Panthers)
Considering Seattle’s lack of playmakers on offense, one might expect to see the team’s “big-name” free-agent signing in this slot, wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. While his inclusion certainly was considered, the Seahawks’ desperate need for help in the secondary, which ranked dead last in the NFL last season, yielding 259 yards per game and 25 touchdowns to its opponents, makes Lucas the team’s best offseason move.
Lucas, an eight-year veteran who spent his first four years in Seattle before leaving for Carolina, will lend a steady presence across the field from Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, enabling defensive coordinator Casey Bradley to move young corners Kelly Jennings and Josh Wilson into roles as the team’s nickel and dime backs.
St. Louis Rams: Jason Smith, Offensive Tackle (First-Round Draft Pick, Baylor)
Though it was tempting to include the Rams’ biggest free-agent acquisition, center Jason Brown, here, the other Jason—Jason Smith—the second-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, gets the nod, mainly because his job is to protect quarterback Marc Bulger’s blindside, one of the toughest tasks in football.
Last season, the Rams’ offensive line yielded 45 sacks to the opposition and mustered only 184 passing yards per game, numbers that will experience dramatic improvement in 2009 with Smith manning the left-tackle spot, where his athleticism and quickness as a pass-blocker will be readily apparent.
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