NFL Nation: Kellen Winslow Jr.
According to New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, his wide receivers could barely catch a cold in this week’s minicamp.
Is anyone surprised by this revelation?
Ryan is coming to the realization of what most people outside the Jets already knew: the offense is a train wreck.
There are too many holes on that side of the football. The quarterback competition has been lukewarm at best, there are off-the-field issues with Mike Goodson at running back, and the wide receivers are either banged up (Santonio Holmes) or experiencing butter fingers in practice (Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley).
Let's be frank: New York's offense desperately lacks playmakers. The Jets better fix it ASAP if they want to score enough points to be competitive this season. Two ideas I can think of off the top of the my head would be to add former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow, who had a terrific tryout this week, as well as former Jets receiver Braylon Edwards. These are two proven playmakers who will make life easier for quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith.
Ryan is in a must-win situation in 2013. Waiting on Holmes (foot) to get healthy or for Hill to come around are dangerous propositions for New York’s head coach. Hill, in particular, is a raw prospect with a lot of measurables. Yet he struggled with drops, injuries and adjusting to the NFL last season. It’s fair to give a rookie a pass, but so far it’s been more of the same for Hill in Year 2.
New offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is a solid coach. His schemes have worked in the past, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the proper personnel. Right now, the Jets are running thin on offensive talent in what amounts to a rebuilding year. However, New York can do a little more this offseason to at least avoid a weekly embarrassment on offense in the fall.
Let’s take a look at whose stock is rising and falling in the AFC East.
1. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills safety: Buffalo's Pro Bowl safety was a no-show this week for mandatory minicamp. That certainly does not help his standing with the team and its coaching staff. Byrd was not fined because he has yet to sign his one-year franchise tag. He’s holding out for a long-term extension and both sides have until later this summer to work something out. Byrd is a very good player and deserving of an extension. But I’m not sure skipping the entire offseason is the best way to go about it.
2. Geno Smith, New York Jets quarterback: The highly-touted second-round pick has not created any separation with struggling incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez, and that’s a bad thing. New York’s lukewarm quarterback competition this offseason hasn’t done much to inspire hope for the Jets this year. Smith is struggling with the difficult transition from a wide-open spread offense at West Virginia to a precise West Coast scheme in New York. Sanchez will enter training camp as the favorite, and if the season started today, Sanchez probably would be the starter. But the good news for Smith is the season doesn’t start for another three months.
1. Kellen Winslow Jr., free-agent tight end: The Jets are desperate for playmakers, and first-year general manager John Idzik made a smart move to bring Winslow in for a three-day tryout at minicamp. By all accounts, Winslow looked impressive in practices and made an impact with the Jets this week. New York needs someone who can get open and make plays in its new West Coast offense. Winslow is a former Pro Bowler who caught 75 receptions in his last full season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011. The Jets don’t have much at tight end or wide receiver and would be smart to sign Winslow to their roster.
2. Brandon Gibson, Dolphins receiver: About a month ago when organized team activities began, Gibson looked like a receiver unsure of himself and his role as a slot receiver. But several weeks later, Gibson looks smooth and confident. Due to need, Gibson is playing inside full-time for the first time in his career after Miami traded Davone Bess to the Cleveland Browns. He made numerous explosive plays this week in Miami’s minicamp, displaying good hands and good routes. Gibson had a solid week, which should provide momentum heading into training camp.
3. EJ Manuel, Bills quarterback: Manuel had a tall task of beating out two veteran quarterbacks in training camp. But the Bills did the No. 16 overall pick in April’s draft a small favor by getting rid of Tarvaris Jackson this week. Buffalo’s quarterback competition is now a two-man race between Manuel and Kevin Kolb. The rookie is still the underdog, but Manuel’s percentages for playing at some point this year just went up.
That is why it was good move for the reigning AFC champs to sign the best tight end on the market: Kellen Winslow Jr. A source tells the AFC East blog Tuesday morning that New England has agreed to a one-year contract with the former Pro Bowler.
Winslow brings many of the same skills the Patriots lost with injured tight end Aaron Hernandez, who will be out a few weeks with an ankle injury. Winslow is athletic with very good hands. He's averaged 73 receptions and 792.3 yards the past three seasons.
The Patriots did not want to shelve a large portion of their offensive playbook until Hernandez returned. Winslow can fill that void and allow quarterback Tom Brady to run the successful two-tight end sets that led New England to the Super Bowl last season. The Patriots' offense struggled without the formation on Sunday and didn't score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
New England has enough issues on its plate. The pass protection is inconsistent. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker is mysteriously losing playing time and the team is .500 with a tough upcoming stretch against the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos.
The addition of Winslow plugs a hole on offense and gives New England one less thing to worry about.
There was maybe a two-hour window between the time Monday morning that the news broke about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shopping (and, more likely, cutting) tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and when people started asking me on Twitter whether he'd make sense for their team. Usually it's quicker than that. But I guess it's a rainy Monday, and maybe folks aren't feeling like themselves. I include myself, of course. Did you catch that Matthew Berry-style column lead up there?
They have been looking, since Martellus Bennett signed with the Giants, for a second tight end to replace Bennett. They drafted James Hanna, but he's not likely the solution right away. The issue here is that Winslow isn't really a blocking tight end, and it might be tough to convince him that he's not among the top options as a receiver.
New York Giants
They signed Bennett, but he only accounts for one of the two holes opened by the ACL injuries of tight ends Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum in the Super Bowl. There are reports that Beckum could be ready early in the season, but optimism sometimes gives way to reality, and the Giants may want to have coverage. As is always the case with the Giants, if they're interested, it would have to be for their specific price.
There's been talk in Philly for a couple of years about Andy Reid wanting to use more two-tight-end sets. It hasn't come to fruition, but a re-energized Winslow paired with Brent Celek could open up some of those possibilities. Again, though, as in Dallas and New York, he wouldn't be among the top receiving options, given the rest of the talent on the roster.
This only makes sense if the Redskins decide to cut Chris Cooley loose for financial or injury reasons. If that happens, they don't have many (any?) real strong tight ends behind Fred Davis. Receiver Niles Paul and even linebacker Lorenzo Alexander have been mentioned as candidates for tight end snaps this offseason, so it's not as though the roster is currently teeming with options should Cooley be cut.
"The thing that sets him apart is his consistency to make plays, play after play," Davis said. "Everybody talks about him not being a good blocker, but they don't look at the other side, his consistency."
Davis said he sees the position continually evolving away from bigger tight ends to those with the athletic ability to challenge defenses in the passing game. We're seeing that in the NFC West with Davis, Delanie Walker, Zach Miller and rookie draft choices Lance Kendricks and Rob Housler, among others. A quick check through the NFL rosters I maintain showed no more than 10 tight ends listed at 270-plus pounds.
"The position has evolved tremendously," Davis said. "I say that because you don't have these 6-6, 6-7, 275-pound guys any more. We're normally around 6-3, 6-4, 240-250 pounds and can move fast. That is what it's about nowadays. Teams are looking for that tight end that can really stretch the seam and can run with the football in his hand."
Along those lines, I recently asked 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards to compare Davis to Edwards' former teammate in Cleveland, Kellen Winslow Jr. Edwards offered these thoughts:
They are both extremely talented. 'K2' is, before I got here, the best I played with. Watching him, he was, before his motorcycle accident, probably would have been the best pass receiving tight end of our era. But he is still doing his thing.
"Vernon is faster than Kellen and I think he is a little stronger in the blocking game than Kellen. I think that is the big difference between the two. They both run good routes, they both have extremely good hands, good size, but I think the big thing is, Vernon is a blocker. I’ve seen him on film and he takes that to heart and he destroys guys play after play after play. I think that is the difference between him and a lot of tight ends."
Davis leads NFL tight ends in touchdown receptions over the past two seasons with 20.
Earlier: Why I ranked Davis third among NFL tight ends, and what Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks of him.
"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.
Consider it done.
Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
- Jason Witten, who edged Antonio Gates for the top spot in our rankings, dropped only two of the 126 passes thrown his way last season. That gave him easily the lowest drop rate -- 1.6 percent -- among tight ends with at least 50 receptions.
- Heath Miller had the most receptions (42) without a drop. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley (21), Jacksonville's Zach Miller (20) and Jim Kleinsasser (17) were next.
- Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller and Kevin Boss had the most drops with nine apiece. Chris Cooley, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez and Owen Daniels were next with six each.
- The St. Louis Rams' Daniel Fells ranked 13th in lowest drop percentage among players with at least 20 targets. Teammate Billy Bajema, with three drops in 21 targets, had the highest drop percentage in the same category.
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.
The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.
The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.
ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.
The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.
Miller came in at No. 13 in this week's ranking of the NFL's best tight ends. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and I were the only two voters who had Miller on their ballots. Clayton voted Miller ninth and I ranked Miller seventh.
This confirms what most of us in the AFC North blog already suspected: Miller remains one of the league's most underrated players. Injuries hurt his numbers in 2010 (42 receptions for 512 yards). But Miller was recently an AFC representative in the Pro Bowl two seasons ago with 76 receptions for 789 yards and six touchdowns.
Miller is not flashy and will never catch 100 passes per season playing in Pittsburgh's offense. But in my opinion, Miller is one of the NFL's most complete tight ends and worthy of being on this list.
Miller makes the most of his limited opportunities. He's sure-handed and great at running downhill after the catch. He's also a phenomenal run- and pass-blocker, and essentially serves as Pittsburgh's third offensive tackle.
The Steelers know how important Miller is to their offense. His contributions cannot be measured strictly by numbers because Miller adds much more with his toughness, blocking ability and being a safety valve over the middle for Roethlisberger.
Miller may not be tops at his position. But I would not select 12 tight ends for my team before taking Miller.
ESPN.com's Tight End Power Rankings
1. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
2. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts
4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
5. Chris Cooley, Washington Redskins
6. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
7. Kellen Winslow Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
9. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions
10. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers
Walker's Tight End Power Rankings
1. Jason Witten, Dallas
2. Antonio Gates, San Diego
3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis
4. Kellen Winslow Jr., Tampa Bay
5. Vernon Davis, San Francisco
6. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta
7. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh
8. Chris Cooley, Washington
9. Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders
10. Dustin Keller, New York Jets
As it turned out, not too well.
Pettigrew took the No. 9 slot and Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley snuck into the No. 10 spot despite appearing on less than half of the ballots. I was the only voter to put Greg Olsen of the Chicago Bears and Visanthe Shiancoe of the Minnesota Vikings on my ballot.
In this case, I feel like neither a homer nor a power ranking manipulator, which I believe is a psychiatric condition outlined in most college-level textbooks. Instead, I feel like I was in was in a unique position to be able to judge these players in context. That's something I admittedly couldn't do with the two top 10 tight ends I left off my list, Kellen Winslow Jr. of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Marcedes Lewis of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
(But with each divisional blogger participating, it should all come out in the wash, right?)
I voted for Olsen because we're only one year removed from him being the top receiving option in the Bears' offense. He caught 60 passes, including eight touchdowns, in 2009. It's true that his numbers dipped significantly in 2010, but context is important: His 41 receptions were the most ever for a tight end in a Mike Martz offense, which traditionally relegates tight ends to blockers. Even San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who finished No. 4 overall in this balloting, managed 31 catches in his one season under Martz (2008).
That should count for something. (In Olsen's case, it put him No. 15 in our expanded balloting.)
As with Olsen, there is no arguing that Shiancoe's production slipped in 2010. Most notably, his touchdowns dropped from 11 to two. But I would argue that his 47 receptions last season were just as impressive, if not more, than his 56 in 2009, when you consider the rag-tag quarterback situation the Vikings found themselves in for the better part of 2010. That should count for something, and for Shiancoe it put him at No. 17.
Finley, meanwhile, no doubt would have ranked higher had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last season. It's probably an accomplishment to rank in the top 10 considering he has missed 14 games over the past two seasons due to injury.
For the record, here is how I voted:
Here is our AFC North all-decade team.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Analysis: You can really start and stop this argument with Roethlisberger's two Super Bowls wins in the decade. In terms of starting quarterbacks, Roethlisberger trails only the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, who won three titles in the decade. Outside of Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals, no one was even remotely close for consideration, unless you wanted to reach for quarterbacks who had one or two good seasons in the decade, such as Kordell Stewart, Joe Flacco or Derek Anderson.
Other considerations: Palmer (Bengals)
Running backs: Jamal Lewis (Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens) and Jerome Bettis (Steelers)
Analysis: Typical of the AFC North, our all-decade backfield is as physical and heavy duty as it gets. Lewis, who retired after the 2009 season, registered 10,607 total rushing yards as a member of the Browns and Ravens. He had a 2,000-yard season with Baltimore in 2003. Bettis played six seasons (2000-05) in the decade with the Steelers and rushed for 5,199 yards in that span. Both players won Super Bowls and will be considered for the Hall of Fame. Although we don't have a traditional fullback, Bettis is versatile and big enough for the position.
Other considerations: Willie Parker (Steelers), Rudi Johnson (Bengals)
Analysis: We have a good mix at receiver. Ochocinco came to Cincinnati as a raw second-round pick who worked his way to become a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the biggest personalities in the NFL. Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler in the decade, was a former college quarterback who now is one of the toughest and smartest players in the league.
Other considerations: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Bengals), Derrick Mason (Ravens)
Tight End: Todd Heap (Ravens)
Analysis: When you look at the total numbers over the past decade, Heap was the clear choice as the top tight end in the division. Heap caught 427 passes over that span and made two Pro Bowls. Pittsburgh's Heath Miller, who has 244 receptions, is two years younger and may eventually match Heap's production. But Heap has the better numbers to date. Former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. also put up impressive numbers in just three full seasons with Cleveland.
Other considerations: Miller (Steelers), Winslow Jr. (Browns)
Offensive line: OT Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), OT Willie Anderson (Bengals/Ravens), G Eric Steinbach (Browns/Bengals), G Alan Faneca (Steelers), C Jeff Hartings (Steelers)
Analysis: Besides leaving off three-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, putting the offensive line together was easier than I thought. Anderson of the Bengals got the edge over Thomas for two reasons: He's a natural right tackle and played nine years last decade at a high level. Thomas, with just three years, doesn't have the same longevity.
Other considerations: OT Thomas (Browns), OT Levi Jones (Bengals), C Rich Braham (Bengals)
Specialists: K Matt Stover (Ravens), P Chris Gardocki (Steelers/Browns), KR Josh Cribbs (Browns), LS Ryan Pontbriand (Browns)
Analysis: Stover made the Pro Bowl in 2000, and his 93.3 field goal percentage in 2006 led the NFL. He's been consistent for a very long time, which is all you ask from kickers. Gardocki and Dave Zastudil is a toss up. But Gardocki led the NFL in punts two years in a row (2000 and 2001) as well as punting yards in 2000. Zastudil cannot boast those claims. Cribbs was a no-brainer, and teammate Pontbriand made two Pro Bowls as Cleveland's long-snapper.
Other considerations: K Phil Dawson (Browns), K Jeff Reed (Steelers), P Zastudil (Ravens/Browns), B.J. Sams (Ravens)
Defense line: Casey Hampton (Steelers), Aaron Smith (Steelers), Justin Smith (Bengals)
Analysis: It's only fair that the AFC North all-decade defense runs a 3-4 scheme. Since 2001, Hampton has embodied what a 3-4 nose tackle looks like and plays like. He has five Pro Bowls in the decade, including this past season. Aaron Smith also is a prototype for 3-4 defensive ends. He's always put personal numbers aside so other defenders in Pittsburgh could flourish. Justin Smith of Cincinnati never quite lived up to his lofty draft status. But he was a consistent player for the Bengals.
Other considerations: DT Kelly Gregg (Ravens), DE Kimo von Oelhoffen (Steelers), DE Trevor Pryce (Ravens)
Analysis: You can win a lot of games with this group. You have intelligence and physicality in the middle, and plenty of pass-rush ability on the outside. Lewis, a future Hall of Famer, is the captain and emotional leader of the all-decade defense. Farrior also has the smarts to keep everyone in line, while Suggs and Porter can fly around and wreak havoc on the quarterback. There were several very good candidates at outside linebacker. But Porter and Suggs were dominant forces in the AFC North for a longer period.
Other considerations: OLB James Harrison (Steelers), OLB Adalius Thomas (Ravens)
Defensive backs: CB Chris McAlister (Ravens), CB Ike Taylor (Steelers), S Troy Polamalu (Steelers), S Ed Reed (Ravens)
Analysis: Polamalu and Reed are two of the all-time great safeties, so there is no debate there. Also, fans may recently remember the aging and injured McAlister who was cut by the Ravens last year. But at one point "C-Mac" was the most physically dominant cornerback in the division. Taylor won two Super Bowls with the Steelers and is the best of what's left at cornerback. I also considered Anthony Henry, who played in Cleveland for four years during the decade and had one stellar season when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2001.
Other considerations: CB Henry (Browns), S Rod Woodson (Ravens)
- Barring an unforeseen collapse, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) deserves strong consideration for coach of the year in 2009. It's hard to make Lewis the front-runner when two teams potentially could go 16-0. But Lewis should be firmly in the conversation with Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints (12-0) and Jim Caldwell of the Indianapolis Colts (12-0) for the job he's doing this season in Cincinnati, where winning is never easy. Cincinnati's 23-13 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday guaranteed the Bengals will finish with a winning record. Last year they were 4-11-1. There's also potential for Cincinnati to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye.
- The biggest indicator of how well Cincinnati is playing defensively is the fact it leads the NFL in fewest points allowed with 187. Opponents are averaging only 15.6 points per game, which takes a lot of pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer and the offense. Only twice have opponents scored 21 points or more against the Bengals.
- Last week I received some heat in our AFC North inbox when I stated Pittsburgh didn’t appear to be playoff worthy. I was simply trusting my eyes and basing it on the lack of quality football in recent weeks. Although I'm surprised the Steelers lost to the Oakland Raiders at home, Pittsburgh played the same way Sunday that it had played for the past month, which is why they plan on making significant changes. The Steelers have the potential to play better and get hot in December. But as I mentioned in this column last week, the difference in the way they're playing right now and this time a year ago is like night and day.
- The Steelers will make an interesting decision at cornerback. Starter William Gay is expected to miss Thursday's game against the Cleveland Browns because of a concussion. So Pittsburgh will go with rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis as his replacement. Neither has gotten much playing time, and that was apparent Sunday when Burnett dropped an easy interception in the fourth quarter that could have beaten Oakland. Can these first-year players respond in the clutch?
- Browns quarterback Brady Quinn is making it tough on the organization to figure out its future plans for the position -- and that’s a good thing. Quinn had his second solid game in three weeks against the San Diego Chargers. He threw for 271 yards, three touchdowns and had a passer rating of 95.7. The Browns may dangle Quinn as trade bait in the offseason or at least look to acquire another potential starter in 2010 via free agency or the draft. It's early. But a few more quality starts by Quinn in the final month could leave Cleveland with one fewer hole to fill in the offseason.
- If Quinn remains the quarterback, it will be vital for the Browns to acquire a good, pass-catching tight end in the offseason. Despite a good performance Sunday, odds are new signee Evan Moore (six catches, 80 yards) isn't the long-term solution. Quinn is in his comfort zone when he can make quick reads to his tight ends and running backs as safety valves. On Sunday, 15 of his 25 completions were to those two positions. One of the biggest mistakes Cleveland made last offseason was not getting another pass-catching tight end after trading Kellen Winslow Jr. The team signed Robert Royal instead, and he hasn't been a good fit for Quinn or the offense.
- Looking at the schedule of the Baltimore Ravens (6-5), a road win Monday night against the Green Bay Packers could set them up nicely to make a strong push for the playoffs. Starting next week, the Ravens have back-to-back home dates against the Lions (2-10) and Chicago Bears (5-7). Those are two very winnable games that could make the Ravens 9-5 with two games remaining if they can get past the Packers. The Denver Broncos (8-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) are the current wild cards and have tough games this week against the Colts (12-0) and Miami Dolphins (6-6), respectively.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- If the winless Cleveland Browns are willing to trade former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards, they can trade just about anyone.
"I’m definitely surprised," Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said.
That was the resounding reaction Wednesday in a shocked locker room after Cleveland’s blockbuster deal to send Edwards to the New York Jets.
Browns head coach Eric Mangini reiterated that personal conduct is very important. Through trading Edwards, Mangini’s message was clear: Get with the program or get out.
"That’s been the message since he got here," Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said. "You’re going to do things the way you’re coached to do it and the way you’re told to do it. If you’re not, then we’ll find somebody else."
Mangini added that, contrary to popular belief, he had trade talks with teams other than the Jets.
But in the end, New York once again provided the best package for Edwards. Cleveland in return gained receiver Chansi Stuckey, special-teams ace Jason Trusnik and two draft picks in 2010. It was the second trade in six months between those two teams.
Moving forward, it’s still to be determined who Cleveland’s starting receivers will be Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Rookie Mohamed Massaquoi will take one spot, while fellow rookie Brian Robiskie, Josh Cribbs and Mike Furrey will compete for the other starting job. Stuckey is out of the running for now as he has to learn the playbook.
Every pass-catcher from the high-powered offense of the Browns in 2007 is now gone. Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. were both traded in 2009 and Joe Jurevicius was released last offseason.
"There’s just times where you just move forward and we got to get better," said Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, who was also surprised by the move. "The 11 guys that we put out there, we got to find a way to get it done and execute the plays no matter who those guys are."
|Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris (left) is raising eyebrows after the sudden firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.|
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- I’m writing this from the luxurious media room at the palace that is One Buccaneer Place. But suddenly it feels like I’m back in that lovely little trailer that used to house the media when the Bucs were headquartered at their not-so-palatial compound right off an airport runway.
Anybody seen Sam Wyche?
Those days of “Wicky Whacky Wyche,’’ as he was dubbed by a radio announcer, seem to be back. Children of all ages, welcome to the circus.
Just when you thought the days of then-quarterback Trent Dilfer muttering something about Barnum & Bailey’ at the end of the Wyche tenure were long forgotten, it’s looking like a big top has been thrown over Raymond James Stadium.
The relative calm ushered in by Tony Dungy and Rich McKay and carried on, to some degree and perhaps only by extension, by Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen seems to be gone. Is it only a matter of time before Raheem Morris has his team practice its halftime routine and publicly tells wide receivers not to drop their paychecks, the way Wyche once did? Are the Bucs back to the point where they’re only entertaining because of a comedy of errors as they pile up double-digit losses?
Since the January day when the Bucs made Morris, then 32, the league’s youngest head coach, I’ve been trying to give the guy every benefit of the doubt. There long has been a school of thought that Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are in way over their heads.
It’s getting real difficult to argue that point. The latest evidence came Thursday morning (just a few hours after kicker Matt Bryant basically ripped anyone in his path) when the Bucs fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinki, the same guy they gloated about getting back in January. In simple terms, the reason for Jagodzinski’s firing was the Bucs came to the conclusion he didn’t have the wherewithal to be a coordinator. He didn’t even call his own plays, his practice methods didn’t make a lot of sense and there was overwhelming doubt that he could develop this offense into anything close to a competitive unit.
Well, weird things can happen in the NFL, but sometimes you create your own problems and this situation raises a lot of concern about Morris and Dominik.
After all, couldn’t the Jagodzinski debacle been avoided with a little homework? Sure, Jagodzinski had been the head coach at Boston College. But he also had a reputation around the NFL of perhaps being a guy who was more style than substance, more name than proven commodity. Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, who now takes over as offensive coordinator, didn’t even get an interview for the coordinator job when it first was open and he probably has a better reputation around the league than Jagodzinski.
Surely, the Bucs talked to some people around the league before making the Jagodzinski hire?
You would hope, but this isn’t the first time moves by Morris and Dominik have raised eyebrows around the league. In fact, they’re building quite a list of moves that can be questioned.
Start with what’s been described both as a last-minute jump or an exploratory look into the Matt Cassel sweepstakes. Either way, the Bucs didn't succeed. Or jump over to the decision to trade up in the draft to take quarterback Josh Freeman. The move was immediately booed by fans, who were hoping for a defensive player, at a draft party at the stadium.
As long as we’re talking quarterbacks, let’s talk about how the new regime has handled that position. It hasn’t quite been like the Gruden days when the Bucs seemed to sign three quarterbacks a week, and Morris and Dominik have made it clear from the beginning that they don’t want to play Freeman right away.
But everything else the Bucs have done at this position has come with no rhyme or reason. Early in their tenure, Morris and Dominik re-signed Luke McCown to a fairly large contract and told him he’d be given a chance to compete for the starting job.
Then, they turned around and signed Byron Leftwich. Although there was no clear-cut reason to think Leftwich outplayed McCown in the preseason, Morris handed him the starting job.
But there already were more red flags than usual flying at Raymond James Stadium even before the quarterback “battle’’ ended in a cease fire.
Morris and Dominik gutted the very core of everything good that ever has happened to this franchise in February when they unceremoniously cut Derrick Brooks. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and there is something to be said for getting younger.
You look for the flip side of that move and you wonder how the Bucs have replaced Brooks’ strong and positive influence in the locker room.
Trade for Kellen Winslow Jr. and give him a massive new contract?
Yeah, there’s a brilliant idea with no potential for absolute disaster. Hitch your wagon to a tight end, who -- without question -- is enormously talented and -- with absolutely no question -- has the ability to drain the life out of a locker room faster than anyone this side of Terrell Owens.
Again, let’s remember Morris at least gets a little benefit of the doubt until he actually loses a few games. But let’s be realistic: The doubt is getting really deep around here.
No, that actually wasn’t Wyche you saw cruising down Dale Mabry Highway this afternoon. But keep an eye out. There might be some Bill Cowher, Mike Shanahan or Mike Holmgren sightings in Tampa if the circus atmosphere continues.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:
Who's in: Matt Birk, center
Outlook: Although losing linebacker Bart Scott also was important, the center position could be even more vital because the Ravens play in the AFC North against quality defensive tackles such as Shaun Rogers, Casey Hampton and Domata Peko.
Baltimore is a physical, run-oriented team, and Brown was the top center in the division last year. Brown was very important in the team's three-headed rushing attack. The Ravens will use the same system in 2009 behind Birk, who is a six-time Pro Bowler. But he also is 32 and has some injury concerns.
Who's in: Laveranues Coles, wide receiver
Outlook: The Bengals lost a veteran receiver and got a solid veteran replacement in Coles.
Similar to Houshmandzadeh, Coles should have a lot of opportunities to make plays with No. 1 receiver Chad Ochocinco garnering most of the attention. Although Coles probably won't catch 90 or 100 balls like "Housh" did with the Bengals, 60 or 70 receptions would be a good year for Coles.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has worked hard to develop chemistry with his newest receiver this offseason in hopes that it pays off down the road.
Who's in: Robert Royal, tight end
Outlook: Really, you could pick a number of replacements with the Browns because of the significant turnover of this year's roster. But their biggest trade this offseason involved shipping former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay.
Cleveland signed former Buffalo Bills tight end Robert Royal, whom coach Eric Mangini was familiar with as the former coach of the New York Jets in the AFC East. Royal is more of a 30-catch tight end than an 80-catch tight end. But Cleveland expects to be a run-heavy team in 2009 so high production from that position isn't a necessity.
Who's in: Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
Outlook: Despite his inexperience, Timmons' athleticism and versatility should give Pittsburgh's linebacking group an upgrade, which is a scary thought.
Foote was solid but is primarily a run-stuffer. Timmons is just as physical, but can also blitz the passer and is fast enough to drop deep in coverage and cover tight ends.
Expect defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to come up with interesting ways to use Timmons this season. Pittsburgh's coaching staff has high hopes for Timmons as a full-time starter.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson will compete for the starting quarterback job during Cleveland's training camp.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
As the weather heats up, it's time to start looking ahead to this summer's NFL training camps.
The AFC North should be very interesting as several key position battles could make or break a team's 2009 season. Here is a look at the seven most intriguing competitions from around the division:
7. Cornerback: William Gay vs. field
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Why it's important: With a veteran-laden team that returns 20 of 22 starters, Gay is the only projected starter in any real danger of losing his job in training camp. All indications are that the job is his to lose. The Steelers signed veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and drafted rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett to provide depth and possibly be there in case Gay falters. But the organization has shown a lot of confidence in Gay since last season when he filled in for former Steeler Bryant McFadden, who signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Gay worked exclusively with the first team in Pittsburgh's full-squad minicamp.
Early favorite: Gay
6. Kicker: Steve Hauschka vs. Graham Gano
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Why it's important: According to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, this kicking competition in Baltimore is going to be "very interesting." Perhaps Harbaugh, a former special-teams coach, is overhyping this battle. But what is interesting is Baltimore is looking for just its second full-time kicker in franchise history. The position was held since the Ravens' inception in 1996 by veteran kicker Matt Stover. But Stover's age (41) finally started to show last season and opened the door for Hauschka and Gano to compete this year. Both young kickers have strong legs, but so far this offseason Hauschka and Gano haven't displayed Stover-type accuracy. If neither kicker comes into his own this summer, things might get "very interesting," as Harbaugh promised.
Early favorite: Even
Team: Cleveland Browns
Why it's important: This is a classic battle between a first-round pick and an experienced veteran who's started for winning teams and played in the postseason. Mack comes to Cleveland with lofty credentials and expectations. He's strong, smart and expected to be a starter from Day 1. The only person standing in his way is Fraley, 31, who's done a solid job in his two stops with the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. That Cleveland's new regime, led by coach Eric Mangini, took a center in the first round is a sign that Mack is the favorite to win the job. But if Fraley finds a way to hold the rookie off in training camp, Mack has the versatility to play guard, most likely on the right side.
Early favorite: Mack
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Why it's important: Cincinnati's defense, which was ranked No. 12 in 2008, is trying to take another step forward. In order to do this, dynamic linebacker play will be crucial. Maualuga fell to the Bengals in the second round because of several off-the-field questions surrounding the former USC linebacker. But no one questions that Maualuga is a first-round talent on the field. The issue with the Bengals is that Maualuga, a natural middle linebacker, cannot supplant leading tackler and defensive leader Dhani Jones this year. So Maualuga needs to supplant Johnson, the outside linebacker, if he wants to play right away as a rookie. Johnson is no slouch, either. He recorded 83 tackles, two interceptions and came on late last season. Rashad Jeanty, who started 15 games last year, also is a possibility at the other outside linebacker spot. Regardless, the trio of Jones, Keith Rivers and Maualuga/Johnson/Jeanty should make for a solid group of linebackers in Cincinnati.
Early favorite: Even
3. No. 2 receiver
Why it's important: Someone needs to help No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. The long list of candidates includes veterans David Patten, Mike Furrey, and rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Donte' Stallworth also remains on the roster. But based on Cleveland's roster moves, it appears the Browns expect Stallworth's legal situation to keep him out this season. With the loss of former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Edwards is Cleveland's only real receiving threat and he likely will see a lot of double teams. That will provide plenty of opportunities for Patten, Furrey, Robiskie or Massaquoi to make plays. But it remains to be seen if these players have the ability to step up.
Early favorites: Patten and Robiskie
Why it's important: The "bodyguard" role in Baltimore's defense is underrated but very important. There is a reason safety Ed Reed and linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are able to fly around the field and make plays. It's because the inside linebacker opposite Lewis, formerly the ultra-physical Bart Scott, takes on fullbacks and pulling offensive linemen at every chance. Now the Ravens are looking at Gooden or McClain as Scott's replacement. Both young players have good athleticism. But ultimately, the player who is the most physical will win this job. Gooden opened veteran minicamp as the starter, so you have to give him the edge heading into this summer.
Early favorite: Gooden
Why it's important: The Mangini era in Cleveland, in large part, will depend on his decision at quarterback. An antsy fan base in Cleveland is tired of waiting for a winner and will not give Mangini four years to turn it around. Therefore, the best thing Mangini can do is figure out quickly which player is the better quarterback. It's been three seasons and the Browns still haven't settled this debate. Anderson showed flashes with his Pro Bowl campaign in 2007, but his struggles last year left many questions. Quinn, a former first-round pick, looked up and down in limited playing time. Ironically, the two never directly competed against each other -- until now. According to the coaching staff, both players will be given a fair opportunity. But Cleveland's offensive system under Mangini is being built around a power running game and an efficient and conservative passing game, which seems to favor Quinn.
Early favorite: Quinn
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- The team has scheduled a pre-draft visit with University of Maine defensive end/outside linebacker Jovan Belcher, Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times reports.
- The Bengals inked their sixth unrestricted free agent on Tuesday in former Cowboys defensive tackle Tank Johnson, writes the Dayton Daily News' Chick Ludwig.
- The contract extension former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. signed with the Buccaneers made The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto "all the more grateful that the new Browns' front office shipped Winslow to the Bucs."
- In an interview on Sirius Radio, Winslow said that Brady Quinn should be the starting quarterback for the Browns next season, blogs the Dayton Daily News' Sean McClelland.
- The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Scott Brown writes that Plaxico Burress' recent misdeeds prove the Steelers did the right thing in letting the wideout walk away in free agency.