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But surely the club never expected the defensive end to land with the division rival Green Bay Packers.
Peppers signed a three-year deal with the Packers on Saturday worth up to $30 million, including $7.5 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. Financially, the deal makes sense for the Packers, which begs the question of whether such a contract could've been done with the Bears.
According to a source familiar with the situation, that possibility was never explored between Peppers and the Bears.
Why? Well, one league source said the Bears simply didn't want to bring back Peppers. In four years playing for the Bears, Peppers started in every game (64), generated 37.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in all but one season (2013). In all, Peppers generated 118.5 sacks throughout his career, which puts him at No. 2 in the NFL since coming into the league in 2002, and 17th in NFL history since 1982, when the league began to tally sacks as an official statistic.
But in 2013, Peppers’ effort wasn't up to snuff enough for the Chicago Bears to feel comfortable about bringing him back for 2014 on what’s expected to be a youth-infused defense with a hard-nosed, physical mentality. Make no mistake about it: Peppers’ salary played perhaps the largest role in his release. But a league source said Peppers gave the Bears only six to eight solid snaps per game, and the belief was the defense could consistently get better effort from less accomplished players.
That perception shouldn't be seen as foreshadowing for what the Packers will get in 2014 from Peppers.
Although some scouts said Peppers “didn't seem like he was into it” for a good portion of 2013, some of that could be attributed to playing on a horrid Bears defense riddled by injury, in addition to losing former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who is known to be a strong motivator.
After all, in 12 seasons in the NFL, Peppers has finished with fewer than eight sacks in a season just three times (2003, 2007 and 2013).
Besides that, it’s likely the Packers will get a highly motivated Peppers in 2014, caught up in the rivalry between the clubs and eager to prove Chicago made a mistake in cutting him loose.
We also shouldn't underestimate the potential power in a Peppers reunion with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who worked with the defensive end in Carolina during his prime (2002-08) or the fact he’ll be a complement opposite Clay Matthews instead of the focal point in opponents’ protection schemes.
Shortly after releasing Peppers on Tuesday, Bears general manager Phil Emery said, “We wish him the best.”
Perhaps the sentiment changes now that Peppers has joined Chicago’s hated rivals up north.
So now the Cowboys hope that Dallas native Henry Melton doesn't sign with anybody else before his scheduled visit to Valley Ranch this weekend. He might not even get here until Monday.
Jared Allen, Anthony Spencer and Robert Ayers are other names the Cowboys have an interest in.
Yet because of the Cowboys' limited monies in the salary cap, they are going to be careful with any signing. They want a quality player but at their own price.
None of the free agents the Cowboys sign are going to get that five-year, $50.1 million deal that Brandon Carr got two years ago when he signed on from Kansas City.
Expect a low base salary for a free agent with a nice $6 million to $8 million signing bonus for a two- or three-year deal.
Spencer (microfracture) and Melton (ACL) are coming off injuries, so teams, while interested, could have some leverage from a financial basis due to the health of the players.
The Cowboys have time to make a move, but finding the player they want in free agency is growing tougher.
Finnegan, 30, is the early favorite to start opposite Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes. It could be a formidable duo if Finnegan can return to the old form that he had with the Tennessee Titans. Somewhere, that got lost during his stint in St. Louis.
“I play with an edge, and I’ve learned to control that throughout the years with the fines going down,” Finnegan explained during his teleconference Friday with the Miami media. “At the same time I want to bring that same tenacity and spunk that I had that maybe I was missing. I know a lot of people said maybe something was missing. Maybe that’s what it was.”
Finnegan, at his best, was one of the most physical cornerbacks in the NFL. He was an aggressor who often got in the heads of receivers.
A starting cornerback job is wide open in Miami. Finnegan will compete with 2013 draft picks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis in training camp. Taylor and Davis had injury-plagued seasons and will be hungry to earn bigger roles with the team in 2014.
Finnegan has a lot to prove with his new Dolphins team, as well.
“I’m going to work,” Finnegan said. “Nothing was ever given to me, and I don’t want it. I want to come in and compete for any job of that magnitude. I hope the younger guys are coming in to compete.”
Finnegan said he’s out to prove he has something left in the tank. His inconsistent play last season has many wondering if he’s hit a wall. The Dolphins signing Finnegan to a two-year contract shows the coaching staff believes last season was an aberration.
Finnegan said he expects to be “110 percent” by organized team activities in the spring.
“Now it’s a clean slate,” Finnegan said. “I’m on a new team with great coaches. I have to let my play do the talking.”
So although Tillman is a big name in Chicago, he certainly fits the above description. That's why the Bears benefitted greatly Friday by agreeing to terms with Tillman, who embodies all the traits Chicago’s front office constantly raves about.
“Charles is one of the NFL’s great players and a true leader on and off the field, and we’re happy he will be staying in Chicago,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “He remains the best in our game at forcing turnovers, and always has brought a tough, physical presence to our secondary. Charles also has a special connection to the people and community across Chicago and we’re excited for that to continue.”
A two-time Pro Bowler and the 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman ranks No. 3 in team history with 36 interceptions and leads the franchise in defensive return touchdowns (nine), INT return TDs (eight) and interception return yards (675).
Since Tillman came into the league in 2003, he’s tied for fifth in INTs, fifth in INT return yardage, and he’s tied for second in INT return TDs, all accomplished while starting in 150 of 154 games.
Tillman’s 42 forced fumbles rank as second in the league since 2003, and is the most among active cornerbacks. Tillman ranks as the only player since 2003 to pick off 30 or more passes and force 30-plus fumbles. In six of the last nine seasons, Tillman has ranked in the top 10 in forced fumbles.
Tillman currently ranks No. 5 in franchise history in tackles, and he’s broken up 132 passes which is good for fifth in the NFL since 2003.
At the NFL combine back in February, Emery said that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told him a team’s cornerbacks are usually indicative of a defense’s toughness. Emery agreed, and with Tillman now in the fold paired with Tim Jennings, the stage is set for the Bears to build the defense exactly the way the front office envisioned.
“We need tough, physical players,” Emery said at the combine. “That’s what we want: tough, physical athletes. Mel [Tucker] has said it several times to me and I believe it. I know our players believe it: that, generally, the toughness of the team shows up at corner.”
Well, they don’t get much tougher than Tillman.
Former second-round pick Jamar Taylor and third-round pick Will Davis will be provided a chance to fill significant roles with the Dolphins in 2014. Both had redshirt rookie years last season. Taylor and Davis both battled various injuries early in the season and couldn’t work their way into the rotation.
But the Dolphins, via their recent roster moves, are making it clear that Taylor and Davis will be provided a clean slate this season. Miami cut veteran starter Dimitri Patterson last week to save $5 million on its salary cap. The Dolphins also allowed veteran Nolan Carroll to walk in free agency. Carroll signed Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles. Between Patterson and Carroll, Miami lost seven total interceptions from last season.
Taylor and Davis were highly-touted players entering last year’s draft who have potential. Taylor was a playmaker at Boise State who was considered by many to be a first-round prospect. But health issues leading up to the draft dropped Taylor to the second round. Miami felt it got value in Taylor, but his issues and injuries carried into training camp and the early portion of the season. Taylor got playing time sparingly late in the season, but he didn't get enough reps to show what he can do.
Davis is a ballhawk who showed flashes in training camp. He unofficially led the Dolphins in interceptions during training camp practices. As a member of the scout defense, Davis picked off Miami starting cornerback Ryan Tannehill three times in summer practices, which opened some eyes. Davis also had an interception in the preseason against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But a toe injury late in the preseason put him behind and he never found a consistent spot in the rotation.
Miami is hosting veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan Friday. That is a sign the team is looking for another veteran presence to add to the mix. But the Dolphins also are hoping one -- or both -- of their young cornerbacks steps up this year.
Why else would the Bears let Melton take multiple visits to other teams -- including one to the division rival Minnesota Vikings -- when they could've snatched him up before the start of free agency?
If you remember, Grapevine police arrested Melton in December with the club on the road preparing to face the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was charged with assault and public intoxication stemming from an altercation with a bartender. Payne, the owner of that establishment, is suing Melton, which is interesting considering the defensive tackle's legal representation was also planning to file a lawsuit.
Asked about the civil suit Thursday filed in Texas against Melton, Bears general manager Phil Emery admitted he was just hearing for the first time about the latest development.
"If that's related to the situation down in Texas, I think that's been an ongoing issue in terms of that issue coming to conclusion and that's all I can talk about it," Emery said. "In terms of evaluating Henry the player, that's separate from that. His on-the-field is one thing in terms of evaluation. The off-the-field is the other. It is a part of it, but that's a legal issue, and that's all I need to say about that."
Will that affect the club's desire to re-sign Melton? Absolutely not, but it does give the Bears ammunition when forming a position about the level of compensation at which they'd feel comfortable paying Melton, not to mention the fact he's coming off a torn ACL. That's not a surprise.
Emery had already been planting the seeds for what's transpiring this very minute back on Jan. 2, and rightfully so, given the cap situation.
"Henry, in particular, he has got to fully dedicate himself to rehab. He has to fully dedicate his mind and his focus to football, which is extremely important," Emery said then. "And as I have sat down and talked to him, there was a reason we franchise-tagged him [last season]. There was a reason for that investment. The under-tackle position in the scheme that we're in is the engine that drives the defense. When he was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was very evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense. So he knows, and that has been related to him that we signed you for a reason. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
Emery makes several valid points. But let's keep it real here: If the Bears wanted to sign Melton badly enough, they would've made a concrete offer (they haven't, by the way) instead of waiting for his agent, Jordan Woy, to first find the defensive tackle's value on the open market. You can't fault the team for taking that position, though. At the same time, the fact is the Bears want to bring back Melton as cheaply as possible.
It's not happenstance that Emery on Wednesday mentioned that teams are "very interested in [Melton's] medical status."
Starting with the Minnesota Vikings, Melton is taking several free-agent trips according to a source.
"We pretty much left it with Jordan that he was going to go through this process, and when he got through it and he had a pretty good idea of what his market is, we could talk at that time," Emery said. "Of course, the clock is ticking. So our resources or what we have at the time may have changed. But we'll see where we're at when that's all finished."
If somehow it all gets 'finished' as Emery says with Melton winding up in Chicago, you can bet the defensive tackle won't receive anything remotely close to the $8.45 million the club paid in 2013, when it tagged the defensive tackle as its franchise player.
But given the club's recent signings of defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, in addition to Jeremiah Ratliff, the truth is Melton could prove to be the missing piece that completes the puzzle.
Mitchell didn’t get that opportunity with the Houston Texans. He was a 3-4 nose tackle whose job was to take on double-teams and hold his ground in the middle.
Part of that is collapsing the pocket and getting to the quarterback. Mitchell recorded just 1.5 sacks last season in a 3-4. He believes that number will improve with the Dolphins in 2014.
Mitchell will join a deep and talented group of defensive linemen that includes Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will have a lot of pieces to play with up front and should be more aggressive.
Miami general manager Dennis Hickey described Mitchell as “a young player that was on the rise and we felt like we had great things ahead of him.” Mitchell was not a player on the radar of many people when free agency began this week. But the Dolphins made him a first-day priority.
“I know a lot of guys don’t know about me,” Mitchell admitted. “But I originally played offense and once I moved over to defense it was definitely an adjustment period but I feel like I’ve gotten better and better and ever since I stepped into the position of playing defense.”
Chicago’s signings thus far in free agency certainly make such a move prudent. Although the Bears re-signed defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins before the start of free agency, the club still hasn’t put together an enticing enough offer to bring back Henry Melton, who, according to a league source, is visiting Minnesota but also has several other visits lined up.
If the Bears can’t re-sign Melton or any other starting-level defensive tackles in free agency, they’ll certainly turn to the draft to address that need. Kiper sent Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan to the Bears at No. 14 in his first two mock drafts, writing in Mock 2.0 that “I’m a bigger fan of Jernigan in a 4-3 look, where he’s using his power to go through a blocker and not trying to beat people off the snap and use quickness.”
McShay chose Donald in his last mock draft, saying, "Donald is a perfect fit for the Bears’ scheme as a 3-technique defensive tackle. I don’t know if there’s been a prospect who has helped his stock more during the draft process than him. He was unblockable at the Senior Bowl, and that, put together with an unbelievable overall workout at the combine. He’s shorter than prototype size, but he has long arms and a powerful upper body and creates a lot of big plays with his anticipation and quickness. FSU’s Timmy Jernigan is a fit as a 3-technique as well, but Donald is a much better finisher as a pass-rusher."
Kiper and McShay have both been consistent throughout their mock drafts in Chicago's using its first-round pick to address the defensive tackle position, and from this vantage point they’re on the money.
Donald might actually be more of a fit than Jernigan at No. 14 because the Bears might benefit from pairing him with Ratliff next season. If Donald doesn’t pan out early, the worst-case scenario is he would provide depth at a position that lacked it in 2013 when injuries rendered the defense rudderless.
The Bears last season gave up the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history as opponents put together 10 100-yard-rushing performances.
Uncertainty still exists along Chicago’s defensive line despite the signings of Ratliff, Collins and free-agent defensive end Lamarr Houston. The Bears need to add along the front four to avoid experiencing another catastrophe such as what they endured in 2013.
“I feel like I can make an impact right away, feel like I can come in and have trust in the coaches and playbook and make plays right away,” Donald said last month at the NFL combine.
At this point, that’s certainly what the Bears need in their attempt to revamp the defense.
Quite simply, the Eagles' offense is built to spread out defenses and give ball carriers space to run. And no one in the NFL capitalized on those opportunities more than Sproles during his three-year run with the New Orleans Saints.
Take a look at the chart, which shows that Sproles has led the NFL since 2011 with 1,888 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure represents 95 percent of his total receiving yards over that period, and it is the precise skill that Eagles coach Chip Kelly attempts to maximize.
Last season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy accumulated 603 YAC. His average of 11.6 YAC per catch led the NFL.
(Statistical quirk: McCoy had more YAC than net receiving yards because of the frequency of receptions behind the line of scrimmage. The same goes for the Saints' Pierre Thomas. McCoy and Sproles, in fact, have the NFL's most catches behind the line -- 105 and 95, respectively -- over the past three years.)
Why do the Eagles need two players who do the same thing? I don't think it's quite that simple. Sproles and McCoy are both excellent runners in the open field, but in different ways and from different places.
At the top, it's worth pointing out that McCoy led NFL running backs with 366 touches last season and ranks No. 1 in offensive snaps per game (54) by running backs over the past four seasons. Sproles, on the other hand, has only 815 offensive touches in his nine-year career. Perhaps Sproles' presence can get McCoy a bit more rest without sacrificing a key threat in their offense.
Second, Sproles proved especially productive in New Orleans when lined up somewhere other than the backfield. His 89 receptions in those situations since 2011 is twice that of the next-closest running back, Marcel Reece (44). Such familiarity with the slot and outside receiving positions give the Eagles a scary potential to use Sproles and McCoy on the field at the same time.
All of this is to say what has seemed obvious from the start: The Eagles and Sproles are an ideal match. It makes perfect sense.
The Bears added five starters on offense last year and, as a result, the club experienced somewhat of a resurgence on that side of the ball with the unit gaining a franchise-record 6,109 net yards, in addition to the passing game setting single-season records in gross passing yards (4,450), net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (96.9). The 2013 offense also finished second in team history in scoring (445 points).
Defensively, the Bears yielded drastically different results, as they allowed the most total yards in franchise history, in addition to giving up 10 100-yard rushing performances.
So now, it’s time to upgrade the defense. The Bears made that abundantly clear in free agency, as every acquisition the club made plays on that side of the ball. But given all the holes on defense, the club’s efforts in free agency up to this point haven’t been sufficient. More needs to be done. That’s why the draft is important.
Although it’s still up in the air as to whether cornerback Charles Tillman will return for 2014, the club still needs to find his heir apparent. But after cutting defensive end Julius Peppers, and adding Lamarr Houston from Oakland, the Bears are still in danger of losing defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Corey Wootton via free agency. So reinforcements need to be added first along the defensive line, which was the main source of the club’s problems in 2013.
So expect the Bears to look at some of the top-tier defensive linemen, such as Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald or Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, with the 14th pick in the draft, but the club could also help itself by acquiring help on the back end with players such as Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert or Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Check out ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s Mock Draft 3.0 to see which players he thinks the Bears should target with the No. 14 overall pick.
That is why it is so important for Miami to nail the NFL draft. The Dolphins hold the No. 19 overall pick and should be able to get some quality talent in what is considered one of the deepest draft pools in years.
It’s no secret the Dolphins must address their offensive line. Miami made a huge splash this week by signing left tackle Branden Albert to a five-year, $47 million contract. That is a move in the right direction. But major holes at right tackle and guard remain. The Dolphins won’t be able to fill all those positions on the offensive line by signing expensive free agents. Therefore, expect Miami also to use resources in the draft -- perhaps in the first round.
With Albert now firmly entrenched at left tackle, that relieves some pressure to fill the hardest position on the offensive line. Key targets such as Zack Martin of Notre Dame and Cyrus Kouandjio of Alabama could be possibilities at No. 19 to play the easier position of right tackle.
Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey has said on several occasions that he’s looking for the best available player regardless of position. If that’s the case, the Dolphins could be a wild card. Ignoring a glaring need on the offensive line doesn’t seem like the best move. But there will be quality players on the board at other positions such as cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver and defensive tackle.
There's the New England Patriots ... and then there's everyone else.
With a few exceptions, that has been the makeup of the AFC East since 2001, when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won their first division title -- and Super Bowl -- for New England. Even when the Patriots lose, they win. One day after free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib left for Denver, New England replaced him with perennial Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis.
Belichick will turn 62 next month and Brady turns 37 in August. Both are closer to the end of their careers, so is it realistic to expect the Patriots to decline soon? The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are all surely hoping so, as recent history has been that they need to get past the Patriots to make a playoff run.
The AFC East hasn't produced a wild-card playoff team since 2010, when the Jets went on the road to upset the Patriots and punch their ticket to the AFC Championship Game. The Jets' success was short-lived, and they've since been cast back into the pack with the Bills and Dolphins.
Overall, this is a young division. All four teams, including the Patriots, were among the youngest in the AFC at the start of last season. That youth shows up most at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel are all green and looking to prove their worth in the NFL. Their teams' ability to challenge the Patriots might hang in the balance.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the power structure in the AFC East and some other some key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team is closest to catching the Patriots?
Rich Cimini: The Jets, no question about it. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins are three teams with question marks at quarterback -- and quarterback play is everything in the NFL. So why the Jets? When rating teams, I like to look at which ones can be dominant on at least one side of the ball. Clearly, the defenses of the Bills and Jets (ranked 10th and 11th, respectively) are the best units among the three Patriots-chasing teams. Beyond the stats, I'd give an edge to the Jets because their defensive line has a chance to be the most dominant position group in the division. And the Bills lost their best defensive player, safety Jairus Byrd. Another reason I'd pick the Jets is the coaching staff. Granted, Rex Ryan has missed the playoffs for three straight years, but he has a veteran staff that experienced little upheaval. Continuity is important. The Bills have a new defensive coordinator and the Dolphins ... well, that situation is dysfunctional.
Mike Rodak: The Patriots hardly tore through the division last season, losing to the Dolphins and Jets on the road, while nearly dropping their season opener in Buffalo. But it's difficult to see the other three teams contending for a division title until their quarterbacks emerge as quality NFL starters. In Miami, Ryan Tannehill showed flashes last season. It's hard to predict much of anything season to season in the NFL, but I think the Dolphins are the closest to contending. The Jets and Bills are not that far behind.
James Walker: My short answer is no AFC East team is ready to catch the Patriots in 2014. As long as Tom Brady is healthy and Bill Belichick is coaching, the Patriots will be the favorites to win the division. But the team with the smallest gap is the Dolphins. They have the most talented roster to challenge New England and the second-best quarterback in the division in Ryan Tannehill. Miami's problem is it can't stay out of its own way with infighting and in-house controversy. Last year, there was the bullying scandal and coach Joe Philbin had a falling out with former general manager Jeff Ireland. Miami still split with the Patriots, mostly because of talent. But how can the Dolphins win consistently when they're fighting themselves?
How justified is the AFC East's reputation as a weak division?
Cimini: I hate to say it, but it's justified. The division doesn't have much street cred these days. The Jets helped the cause with their little run there in 2009 and 2010, when Ryan was in his "I'm not kissing Belichick's rings" phase, but the AFC East has turned into a bottom-heavy division. Since 2011, the Jets are 22-26, the Dolphins are 21-27 and the Bills are 18-30. In that span, the teams not named the Patriots have combined for a grand total of zero playoff appearances. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999, which is practically prehistoric. The Dolphins haven't made it since 2008. Records aside, the division lacks star power, save for Brady, Belichick & Co. Each team has a handful of good players, but we're not talking about guys with a lot of box-office appeal. Everything is cyclical in the NFL, so I'm sure things will swing the other way. But right now, the AFC East is in a state of depression -- except for the Patriots.
Rodak: Strength of divisions is always difficult to measure because it changes so often. The NFC West was considered a weak division for several years, but recently it has been the class of the NFL. The Seahawks groomed their young talent into a perennial playoff team, while the 49ers found a coach (Jim Harbaugh) who has brought his team to three consecutive NFC title games. They're a far cry from the Seahawks, but the Bills and Jets both had some of the NFL's youngest rosters last season. Let's see if those teams can make the next step before we label the AFC East as "weak." Plus, how many other divisions have a team that has been as dominant as the Patriots? That adds strength at the top of the division while making life tougher for everyone else.
Walker: Absolutely, the reputation is justified. I cannot think of another NFL division that was mostly owned by one team over the past dozen years. I've said since last summer that the 2013 Patriots were the weakest New England team in years. That Patriots group still won the AFC East by four games! That is more of an indication of poor football by the Jets, Dolphins and Bills than dominant football by New England. Here is all you need to know about the AFC East: No team other than New England has posted a winning record the past three seasons.
Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel: Which young QB will still be his team's starter in three years?
Cimini: I'll be blunt: I'm not confident that any of the three young quarterbacks will be starting in three years. They all have talent, but each one was thrown into a difficult situation. Smith and Manuel were rushed into starting jobs, and Tannehill was under siege last season, behind the worst (and most dysfunctional) offensive line in the league. Out of this group, I'd say Tannehill probably has the most staying power. I'm not saying he will be a star, because I've seen him throw passes that conjure up images of Nuke LaLoosh of "Bull Durham" fame, but he has a decent amount of talent and moxie. That said, Tannehill has a new coordinator, and he could have another one next year if the Dolphins decide to blow up the coaching staff. The same could happen to Smith next year if things go sideways on the Jets. Continuity is vital for a young quarterback. So is the quality of his supporting cast. Smith could overtake Tannehill in this category if the Jets surround him with better players. That, undoubtedly, would accelerate his growth.
Rodak: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have dealt with inconsistent quarterback play for the past decade. Of those three teams, only the Jets with Chad Pennington had a starter for more than three consecutive seasons since 2000. Three years is a very long time in the NFL -- enough time for young quarterbacks to see their stars rise and fall. Smith, Tannehill and Manuel were all high draft picks and have the potential to be long-term starters. Of the three, I think Smith is least likely to stick. Playing in New York can be tough, while the Jets' coaching situation remains volatile. The Bills might have the most stable environment for Manuel to grow, but his knee injuries are a concern. Tannehill has shown promise in Miami, but changes in the front office might bring different opinions. This might be radical, but I don't see any of the three quarterbacks starting in three years.
Walker: My first response hinted at my answer: I'm going with Tannehill, though the instability of the Dolphins' organization gives me pause. Joe Philbin might not be Miami's head coach in 2015, let alone in three years. That obviously impacts Tannehill's job security. However, I think Tannehill has the most pure talent of the three young quarterbacks. Tannehill set career highs in yards (3,913), touchdowns (24) and passer rating (81.7) last season. He also was sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season and had little help from the running game. I believe Tannehill can thrive with good pass protection and a stronger running game. He needs to work on his deep ball and make quicker decisions, but that might improve with time.
The Dolphins, Bills and Patriots each experienced noteworthy changes to their coaching staff. Which will have the greatest impact?
Cimini: The Patriots lost a beloved assistant coach, Dante Scarnecchia, but let's be honest: As long as Bill Belichick is the HC of the NEP, the Patriots will be a highly competitive team. Assistants and coordinators come and go, but the Patriots remain the Patriots because of one man. I think the Bills' coaching change -- Jim Schwartz as the new defensive coordinator -- will have the greatest impact in the division. True, the Bills took a big jump last season under the departed Mike Pettine, but they still stunk against the run. Schwartz will fix that. The Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, has a chance to make a big impact, but it won't happen right away. Why not? Because the Dolphins' offensive line is in shambles (maybe you heard about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin mess), and no offensive genius has invented a scheme that works without efficient line play. They addressed it in free agency by signing Branden Albert, but there will be growing pains for the offense.
Rodak: I think the Patriots' changes are the least likely to have an impact given Bill Belichick's reputation to wield nearly absolute control. Assistant coaches come and go in New England, but Belichick keeps his staff small and his message consistent, so there typically isn't much change. It's a toss-up, then, between the Dolphins and Bills. The Bills have seen significant changes on their defensive coaching staff, but their personnel doesn't figure to change dramatically. The Dolphins have a new offensive coordinator, and while their skill positions could remain intact, their offensive line will be different next season. That, coupled with the need for a culture change after their bullying scandal last season, means the Dolphins' coaches have more to overcome this season.
Walker: I really like the addition of Jim Schwartz in Buffalo, and it goes beyond X's and O's. Schwartz brings head-coaching experience to Buffalo's coaching staff. Bills head coach Doug Marrone is entering his second year after a 6-10 record in 2013. There were some things last year that appeared a little too fast for him as a rookie head coach in the NFL -- and that's expected. Schwartz can help slow things down in Year 2 for Marrone, who is trying to make the transition from the college game. Schwartz experienced plenty of ups and downs with the Detroit Lions and can be a shoulder for Marrone to lean on. Mike Pettine also was a solid defensive coordinator, but he couldn't bring that element to Buffalo's staff.
@mikerodak Sherman for Lazor better have a huge gain or heads will roll in Miami- Rob (@420wong) March 11, 2014
Day 2 of the NFL's free agent market brought some unintentional hilarity in Oakland and a brewing arms race elsewhere in the AFC. I'm not sure which event was more entertaining, but we'll start with the virtual haymakers thrown between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots.
The Broncos' aggressive acquisition of defensive players over the past two days included former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who accepted a stunning six-year contract that included $28 million in guarantees and bonuses. Between Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos are clearly trying to build a defense to catch up with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks -- whose defense stomped them in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Patriots, of course, are trying to pull alongside the Broncos after losing to them in AFC Championship Game. What better way to match the Talib acquisition than to sign the best cornerback in the game? Darrelle Revis agreed to terms with the Patriots less than five hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. Early reports indicated a one-year, $12 million deal.
There is room for debate, to be sure, but I'm pretty sure I want Revis in 2014 more than I want to be locked into a long-term deal with Talib. Revis suffered a torn ACL in 2012 and played in only two games that year, but he has missed only three additional games in his seven-year career. Talib has never played a complete season. From a performance standpoint, there has never been a debate about who is best in coverage.
The Talib-Revis tit-for-tat came a year after the Broncos signed Wes Welker away from the Patriots. That move undoubtedly weakened the Patriots, but on Wednesday they made sure it didn't happen again.
Some other Day 2 thoughts:
- Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie can't give away his surplus cash and cap space. The decision to void an agreement with free agent offensive lineman Rodger Saffold -- the Raiders cited a failed physical -- leaves the team without a credible left tackle and with money still burning a hole in their pocket. There are no specific guidelines for team physicals, so it's not surprising that Saffold quickly re-signed with the St. Louis Rams. But in some ways, this development saved the Raiders from themselves. Personally, I'd rather deal with the embarrassment of a botched deal than to have the oft-injured Saffold locked into an outlandish contract that included $21 million in guaranteed money. The point is not just to spend money, but to dole it out in responsible increments to those who deserve it. The Raiders are probably better off seeking a left tackle in the draft, but McKenzie's performance over the past few days isn't likely to earn any trust from owner Mark Davis.
- We'll get to the Buccaneers' aggressive strike in free agency in a moment. First, however, we need to close the door on Revis' departure. General manager Jason Licht and coach Lovie Smith weren't responsible for acquiring Revis, which cost the franchise first- and fourth-round draft picks as well as market-crushing $16 million salary. But they were awfully quick to jettison one of the NFL's best players. Yes, the Bucs used Revis' cash and cap space to fill multiple needs. And I realize that Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier aren't known for using the man-coverage schemes that Revis excels in. But I'm not sure those factors get the Bucs completely off the hook. Revis is a once-in-a-generation player at his position. The best coaches and organizations change what they do to fit the skills of their best assets. The Bucs' decision here is defensible, but I don't think it was a no-brainer in a year of salary cap surplus around the league. There should never be a question about whether a player like Revis fits what a team does. It's OK to change to fit what he does.
- The NFL can limit the movement of its top players better than any other professional American sport, which makes it wild that Revis has is on his third team in three seasons. He has done it by getting the New York Jets to agree not to use the franchise tag after the 2012 season, eventually forcing a trade to the Bucs -- where he signed a pay-as-you-go contract that gave the team an easy out if it wanted to move on. Rather than play under a monster long-term contract, Revis will instead play at least two seasons on what amount to one-year deals. He will earn $28 million between 2013-14 and could then be in position to market himself again to the highest bidder again in 2015. The Patriots could give him their franchise tag at that point, but it's worth noting they decided against doing that for Talib last week.
- Their Revis decision aside, the Bucs did some nice things in the past few days. The signing of quarterback Josh McCown got Tuesday's headlines, but I love their attempt to build on what was already a pretty talented defense. This was a group that included defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and two good safeties in Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. You add defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner -- and perhaps veteran Charles Tillman as well -- and you're talking about a defense that is capable of playing the stifling scheme Smith employed with the Chicago Bears. As we saw in the Super Bowl, defenses can still win championships.[+] EnlargeJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Bucs bought some insurance by signing Josh McCown.
- The Broncos' expensive quarterback made it reasonable to assume they would be tight against the salary cap entering free agency. Some of you can't fathom how they squeezed this haul onto their roster over the past two days. It's true that Peyton Manning will count $17.5 million against the Broncos' 2014 cap, but they actually have room to spare. They entered the week with about $25 million in space, thanks to the release of cornerback Champ Bailey and the NFL's unexpected $10 million cap bump. Standard cap accounting made it relatively easy to acquire the new defensive trio. Ward will count $3.25 million against the 2014 cap and Ware's figure is $9.7 million. A breakdown of Talib's deal isn't yet available, but even a $10 million figure (which is unlikely) would have worked for the moment. Now more than ever, there is always a way to make the salary cap work if you want something badly enough. Each player's cap number will rise in future years, but early indications suggest the NFL's salary cap number will hit $150 million by 2016. If that's the case, the Broncos aren't necessarily headed toward a long-term cap disaster.
- The Broncos partially answered one of our Day 1 questions: They were willing to pay premium money for a 31-year-old pass-rusher. But it's fair to wonder if there is a similar deal awaiting another player with the same profile. The league's interest level in Jared Allen is unclear at the moment. There have been reports of discussions with the Chicago Bears, but I don't see a match there. Most teams blow the big-money portion of their budgets within days of the start of free agency. So the question -- first posed earlier this week by A.J. Mansour of KFAN.com, the Minnesota Vikings' radio affiliate -- could soon become if Allen signs with a team rather than when. I think Allen wants to play in 2014 in the right scenario, but after completing a $74 million contract last season, I don't think he wants to sign with anyone under any circumstance just to play. I'm sure he took some notes from former teammate Brett Favre, who needed to be cajoled back to the game in the final few years of his career. All I can say is stay tuned.
- The reported depth of receivers in the 2014 draft probably depressed the free agent market, so it was interesting to see the first deal came between Golden Tate and the Detroit Lions. I love the match. The Lions haven't had a receiver quite like Tate in the Matthew Stafford era. He is tough, strong and plays with a healthy attitude that will be a stark change for an otherwise passive group. And, importantly for this team, Tate has excellent hands. ESPN Stats and Information has credited him with only seven drops in 257 targets since he entered the NFL in 2010. (That ranks him No. 15 in the NFL over that period.) Finally, what's not to love about Tate playing the Green Bay Packers -- his "Fail Mary" victims -- twice per year?
- What could possibly be in store for us on Day 3????
At least Emery tried to, anyway.
“We released him, like we do with players,” Emery said. “There’s a good chance he’ll come back like we do with players. There isn’t anything other than that, just a process we’re going through. It’s a very fluid period. We like Dante. It isn’t anything he did.”
So why did the Bears release him? Emery still wouldn’t say, preferring to say “those reasons will remain internal.” But as Emery mentioned, the chaos of free agency makes for fluid situations that sometimes require quick decisions that outside observers might not necessarily understand. So Emery and the Bears probably deserve the benefit of the doubt in this case.
Rosario, 29, played in 15 games for the Bears last season, starting in three while participating in 186 snaps. As it stands right now, the Bears have only one other experienced tight end on the roster (Zach Miller) outside of starter Martellus Bennett. So as Emery said, there’s a good chance he could be back in a Bears uniform for 2014.
Just don’t ask Emery why.
“If we bring him back, those reasons will remain internal,” he said.
Trestman walks in, and in the hotel lobby, McCown had gathered the rookies for an impromptu film session in an attempt to help the inexperienced players digest the copious amounts of information they'd soon be trying to process on the practice field. As they watched film, McCown drew up the X's and O's on a grease board he'd borrowed from the front desk.
He'd pulled together everyone for film study without anybody ever asking him. Soon, starting quarterback Jay Cutler was doing the same thing with the rookies at that hotel.
That's the type of influence the Bears lose in McCown's departure to Tampa Bay. General manager Phil Emery once called McCown "a glue guy," while others within the organization have described him as "fatherly." That's why the team held supreme confidence in McCown's ability to get the job done in 2013 during the times Cutler was unable to play because of injuries.
Cutler will probably miss McCown the most.
"I'd like to see him come back," Cutler said back in January. "There are talks about him getting other opportunities, which I think, rightfully so he'll have. We've had candid talks about what he wants to do. I'll let Josh address that when he wants to. I know we'd love to have him back. I know Phil talked on it. We'd like to have him back in the building: Just the amount of work he does behind the scenes with the younger players and myself, just the experience he brings to the quarterback room, it's very valuable. The guys in the locker room are hoping we see 12 back next year."
They will, but McCown will be standing on the other side of the field playing for Tampa Bay -- possibly as the starter -- next season when the Bears host the Buccaneers at Soldier Field.
In weighing his options, McCown hoped for an opportunity to compete for a starting job, and it appears the Buccaneers will grant such a chance.
"To leave Chicago, it will be a situation where I'm looking to compete to start or to start, and be able to kind of grow more as a player," McCown said. "The only way as a player that you can do that is on the field. That will definitely be something that we are looking at. So we'll see. We'll see what opportunities come and where we are at tomorrow."
McCown is expected to receive a significant bump in pay from the one-year, $840,000 veteran league minimum salary he received from the Bears last offseason that included a $25,000 signing bonus and $5,600 workout bonus for a total compensation package of $870,600.
He'll be missed in Chicago. But Emery put it best Wednesday in reacting to the news McCown is headed elsewhere.
"We all want to congratulate Josh. He's been provided with a great opportunity to be a starter down there in Tampa. We're very happy for him and very proud for him," Emery said. "Obviously we look forward to competing against him on the field; very happy for him that he's had this opportunity. Josh has earned the right and respect to be given the opportunity."