Saturday, February 21, 2009

5 Questions NFC West: St. Louis Rams

Next up in my five questions series are the St. Louis Rams. The Rams went backwards in 2008 which is pretty hard to do when you are coming off a 3-13 season. St. Louis had as many coaches as they did wins this past year, firing head coach Scott Linehan after he went 0-4 and letting interim head coach Jim Hasslett leave after he lost his last 10 games. New head coach Steve Spagnuolo and his staff have a number of daunting questions facing them. Here are 5 of the most pressing:

1. Is it time to trade team leaders and likely Hall of Famers, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace?

Holt and Pace have been franchise icons and were corner stones of the teams' Super Bowl runs in 1999 and 2001, and between them they've had 14 Pro Bowl appearances. Now both players are on the wrong side of 30. Both also have high salary cap numbers, making them a luxury a rebuilding team like the Rams can't afford. One problem facing the Rams with trading these players, is that it won't likely be a popular move amongst fans. The fans will be even more upset over the return from their two Pro Bowlers, as the Rams will be lucky to get a 3rd rounder for each player. There was a time 3 years ago where it would have cost at least two first rounders for either player, but given their age and contracts they would be lucky to get a 2nd rounder for both players together. My Take: Make the trade for whatever you can get. While its always sad to say goodbye to team leaders, you can't live in the past and build for the future at the same time.

2. What to do with the 2nd overall pick in the draft?

For the second year in a row the Rams will hold the 2nd overall pick in the draft. And while last year they saw the teams drafting before and after them (Dolphins and Falcons) have immediate turn arounds and become playoff teams, the Rams are still one of the worst teams in the league. Now that is not say that they made the wrong or poor choice in DE Chris Long. Long had a solid rookie campaign finishing with 4 sacks and should be a key component of the Rams defense for years to come. The question is now what do they do for this years' 2nd overall pick. For a team with as many needs as the Rams they could find an immediate starter at just about any position. They could take a top flight receiver in Micheal Crabtree, a dominate defensive tackle in B.J. Raji, a potential shut down corner in Malcolm Jenkins or Vontae Davis, or an explosive pass rusher in Aaron Curry. Any one of those players would fill an major need for the Rams and all are in the top 5 discussion when talking about the draft. But none of them should be the Rams pick on April 25th. Their pick has to be one of the top offensive tackles in this draft, as their offensive line was their Achilles heel last season and will only get worse if the Rams trade away Orlando Pace. There are three top tackles likely to be taken among the top 10 picks in this draft so the Rams will have a few to choose from. Any one of Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, and Micheal Oher will be a significant upgrade on the Rams offensive line. My Take: Even if the Lions grab a tackle with the first pick the talent level is so close and the need is so great that the Rams have to take a tackle. If all players are available Eugene Monroe would be my pick as I think he's the best of the bunch. But you can't fault them for grabbing any of these guys.

3. Do the Rams have the offensive talent to return to the dominance they had at the beginning of the decade?

Simply put the answer to this is no. The Rams used to have the "greatest show on turf" practically scoring at will, now have one of the most anemic offenses in the league. They finished 30th in the league in total points and 27th in total yards. That is quite a bit off from the Rams teams between 1999-2001 when they led the league in both scoring and total yardage. The Rams do have a few bright spots led by running back Steven Jackson. Jackson is one of the best and most complete running backs in the league. He is a weapon catching the ball out of the back field as well and must always be accounted for by opposing defenses. Last years 2nd round pick WR Donnie Avery had a very good rookie year finishing with 53 catches, 674 yards and 3 touchdowns. Avery will likely be the go-to-guy next year and will need to take his game to the next level. Quarterback Marc Bulger has struggled these past two years, but did throw for over 4,300 yards in 2006 so you know that the arm is there. Bulger is not among the elite quarterbacks but still has the tools to be a solid signal caller for the Rams. Tight end Randy McMicheal is the next best player but he is coming off a serious injury and isn't nearly as effective as he was with the Dolphins. Unfortunately, beyond those few players the cupboard is pretty bare for St. Louis. Drew Bennett has been a major bust since the Rams signed him two years ago and the other receivers are all extremely young and raw. The offensive line is a glaring weakness and should be in the discussion for the worst in the league. The Rams need to take their cap savings from getting rid of Holt and Pace and invest it in the O-line and another receiver. My Take: The Rams need to build around Jackson and Avery going forward . They also need a complete overhaul of the offensive line. With a new line Jackson and Bulger can hopefully bring this team back to respectability.

4. Can new head coach Steve Spagnuolo get his new defense to play like his world champion New York Giants defense?

If he can, it will be a long road up as the Rams defense was even more futile than their offense, finishing 31st in the league in points allowed and 28th in total yardage. One of their best young players, corner back Ronald Bartell, is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to test the open market. If the Rams lose him, they will be left with only two corner backs on the roster and neither one has been too effective to date. Jonathan Wade may eventually develop into a solid corner but Tye Hill, the Rams 1st round pick in 2006 has been a complete bust and can't be counted on to handle a starting job. Another weakness of the Rams is their lack of talent through the middle of their defense, which was exploited by other teams leading them to have the 29th ranked rushing defense. Their middle linebacker Will Witherspoon is moving to the outside where he's better suited and they have no obvious replacement. Strong safety Corey Chavous and defensive tackle La'Roi Glover are both free agents and shouldn't be resigned. The other defensive tackle Adam Carriker hasn't been too productive since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007 and should probably play defensive end. Carriker has always been a bit of a tweener on the line and might be more effective in a hybrid role playing end on rushing downs and moving inside on passing downs. In addition to the chance of Carriker having a resurgence there are other reasons to hope for the St. Louis defense. Chris Long and veteran Leonard Little can both get after the quarterback and Long has all the tools to be an elite defensive end. Outside linebackers Will Witherspoon and Pisa Tinoisamoa are both above average solid contributors. Free Safety O.J. Atogwe is the clubs franchise player and a legitimate ball-hawk. While he will get burned occasionally he did have 5 interceptions and forced 6 fumbles this past season. My Take: Resigning Bartell needs to be a priority if they can at least have two good players in the defensive backfield it will allow them to have a solid pass defense. Outside of that they need to get strong up the middle a MLB and DT need to be priorities. A Carriker and Little platoon at one end position should help their rushing defense and help keep Little healthy and fresh to attack the quarterback.

5. What will the Rams do in free agency and the NFL Draft?

In addition to drafting an offensive tackle and resigning Bartell the Rams have a lot of work to do this off season. In free agency they won't have much money to spend but should be able to sign one or two solid players. If they don't re-sign Bartell then corner back should be their number one priority. As for other major signings they should probably split their money and target one guy on offense and one on defense. On offense they should focus on a second tier offensive lineman to help Bulger and Jackson. As for defense anyone up the middle would be a big help with the most likely addition at either middle linebacker or strong safety. Free agent SS James Butler played for Spagnuolo with the Giants and would make the most sense. As for the draft, grabbing the tackle is most important. After that the Rams could go in any number of directions and will likely depend on what they address in free agency. The Rams should hope that either a DT like Peria Jerry or MLB like James Laurinaitis fall out of the first round. Either player would be an immediate starter and fill a gaping hole on defense. If they don't the Rams should take either the best offensive lineman or corner back available. My Take: Convince Bartell to resign and bring in Butler to shore up the secondary. After that I'd use my mid round picks to add defensive linemen, corners and linebackers. Add a veteran offensive line-man, and a veteran receiver in free agency. Take Monroe or Smith with the number 2 overall pick and if guard Duke Robinson or center Alex Mack last until the second round grab them and have a brand new offensive line for Jackson to run behind. I'd look to add a receiver in the mid rounds and maybe a back up running back late.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

5 Questions NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

With the NFL Scouting Combine starting and Free Agency beginning at the end of next week now seemed like a good time to start looking at the NFL off season. To begin we will ask 5 questions that each team will be facing this off season and answer them. I encourage all readers to feel free to give their answers as well.

First up we will take a look at the NFC West, a division that has a pretty wide talent gap between the NFC champions Arizona Cardinals and the other 3 teams that will all be picking in the top 10 in Aprils draft. The answers to these questions are not what I necessarily think the teams will do but rather what I think they should do.

Arizona Cardinals:

The Cardinals already answered their top question by deciding to place the Franchise tag on LB Karlos Dansby, keeping him off the open market. I believe also that Kurt Warner will re-sign so that too will not be one of the questions addressed here.

1. What to do with Anquan Boldin?

Boldin has been a major part of the Cardinals offense since they drafted him in the second round in 2003. Over the last six years he's caught over 500 balls for 6,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. Now Boldin wants a new contract and is saying that he wants a new team. I think the Cardinals have no choice but to trade Boldin. The Cards should look at what the Lions got in return for Roy Williams and expect a little more. The Cards have more leverage with Boldin than the Lions did with Williams, Williams would have been a free agent at seasons end and while they could have used the Franchise tag it is a difficult process. Boldin on the other hand is under contract for two more years, meaning the Cards don't have to trade him right now. Also Boldin has been a more productive receiver than Williams was with the Lions. My take: Make the trade and get the picks, between Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban, and Early Doucet the Cards have plenty of talent to pair with Larry Fitzgerald at the receiver position.

2. What to do with Matt Leinart?

Now I know conventional wisdom says to keep Leinart as Warner's understudy for the next two years and hand him the job when Warner retires. The main problem with that line of thinking is that you are putting an expiration date on Kurt Warner who just led your team to the Super Bowl. What if Warner continues putting up big numbers and still wants to play two years from now, will you just let him walk? The other problem is that Leinart is only under contract for three more years, so if Warner is the starter for another two then you only have one year of Leinart before you need to make a decision on whether or not to extend him. Now I know the flip side of that argument is that if Warner is injured or ineffective Leinart is there as a capable back-up. While that is true, the Cards could trade Leinart to a team looking for a QB pick up a couple of picks and then sign a Byron Leftwich or Kyle Boller to be Kurt Warner's caddy. Now this is not to say that I believe that Arizona could get a king's ransom for Leinart, but getting a couple 3rd rounders is not out of the question. My take: Cash in now while there is still value and draft a quarterback in the mid rounds this year to be the next heir apparent.

3. Who will Kurt Warner be handing the ball off to?

Last year the Cardinals offense finished 2nd in the league in passing yards, 3rd in points scored, 4th in total yards and dead last in rushing. This is an area where the Cardinals need a lot of help. The Cards thought they had addressed the issue at running back when they signed Edgerrin James 3 years ago but he has been a major disappointment. Never coming close to matching his numbers with the Colts, James was benched part way through this season and while he played well in the playoffs James will likely be running somewhere else next season. Tim Hightower was a 5th round pick out of Richmond and was a nice surprise for Arizona excelling at both short yardage and catching the ball out of the back field. While he was a nice find in the 5th round he's far from a complete back as he only averaged 2.8 yards a carry despite leading the team with a 143 rushes. J.J Arrington is the third piece of the Cardinals running back puzzle and will be a free agent. While he has done a nice job as a 3rd down back he's shouldn't really be counted on for more than 40 rushes. The Cards need a back who can give them 300 carries a year and take some of the heat off the passing game. Unless the team makes a run at Derrick Ward they aren't going to find their answer in the Free Agent market. The Cards should look long and hard at taking a running back in the first round of April's draft with Knowshon Moreno, Chris Wells, and LeSean McCoy. While any running back would be an improvement for the Cards, Wells might not be the best fit as he's doesn't have the big play potential of the other two. Regardless one of these players should be in a Cardinals uniform next season. My Take: Given the fact that the Cards are likely to have an extra pick in the first round with a Boldin trade this is a no-brainer. I say add the best back available with my choice being LeSean McCoy.

4. Will losing their offensive and defensive coordinators set the Cardinals back at all?

With the 4th ranked offense in the league and an impressive playoff run it was no surprise when Arizona OC Todd Haley left to become the new head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. What was a surprise was the firing of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. While his defense finished 28th in the league in points allowed and 19th in total yards, coordinators from teams in the Super Bowl don't traditionally lose their jobs. It was even more surprising considering how well his defense played in the playoffs where they overcame some of the league's best offenses. Head coach Ken Wisenhunt and the Cardinals promoted from within with linebacker coach Billy Davis taking over as defensive coordinator and the offensive coordinator duties will be split between assistant head coach/ offensive line coach Russ Grimm and receivers coach Mike Miller. Davis will likely move to a 3-4 defense compared to the hybrid version they ran last year. Grimm will handle the ground attack while Miller is in charge of passing game plan, with Wisenhunt calling the plays. Outside of the possibility of some confusion on offense this seems like a good fit. You don't want to start over with a whole new offense so the Wisenhunt/Miller mix should keep the aerial attack one of the most feared in the league. Also Grimm is a well respected coach around the league so if anyone is gonna get a ground game going in Arizona it will be Russ Grimm. As for defense, Wisenhunt saw first hand what a 3-4 defense can do while he was in Pittsburgh, moving in that direction makes sense especially when you have linebackers like Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes. My Take: I wouldn't expect any set back at all, and if the changes help improve the running game and/or the defense the Cards could be looking at a first round bye in next year's playoffs.

5. What moves should the Cardinals look at making this off season in Free Agency and the NFL Draft?

With Dansby and Warner already addressed (and taking up a good chunk of cap room) the Cardinals don't have any other major free agents they need to sign. DE Antonio Smith is a nice player but the Cardinals shouldn't break the bank for him. RB J.J. Arrington should be retained also if its not to expensive. While he's not much of a running back he does offer some nice value as a kick returner. As for outside free agents, RB Derrick Ward would make a lot of sense but his price tag might get too high. If Boldin is traded they will likely not sign any big name free agents to replace him, but one that could make sense is Nate Washington whom Ken Wisenhunt knows from their days together in Pittsburgh. Outside of that, the Cardinals need depth on both lines and could use a veteran corner back. Given the number of decent and relatively young corners on the market, this could be one area where the Cards spend some money. As for the draft, if Arizona fails to sign Ward, running back has to be their number one priority. After that some young linebackers to go with Dansby and Hayes should be next on their to do list. Given their depth I don't think they will take a receiver in the first couple of rounds but I would imagine they'd look to grab one in the middle rounds to help replace Boldin. My Take: I would grab a veteran corner in free agency and an offensive lineman center is a weakness on this team and bringing in a big name like Jason Brown or Matt Birk could really help stabilize the offensive line. For the draft I'd add the top running back available and then with the additional top picks for Boldin and/or Leinart I'd look at get help at linebacker, offensive tackle and defensive line in that order. My Surprise pick for them would be grabbing a big play tight end in the 2nd or 3rd round with Chase Coffman from Missouri the guy I like the best.