NFL Nation: The Big Question 51810

The Big Question: Replacing Haynesworth

May, 18, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What would the Redskins’ defensive line look like without Albert Haynesworth?

[+] EnlargeMaake Kemoeatu
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesMaake Kemoeatu's bulk and power make him an ideal fit as a 3-4 nose tackle, but can he stay healthy?
Haynesworth doesn’t want to play in a 3-4 scheme, which is exactly what is being implemented in Washington as we speak. It still remains a real possibility that the Redskins will move their star defensive lineman. If that happens -- and no defensive players are received in the deal -- who will line up in the Redskins’ front three and what will be the impact of his departure?

There isn’t a more disruptive player in the league than Haynesworth when he is on his game and he is capable of doing more or less whatever he wants on a football field. If motivated, he could be a fantastic nose tackle, or better yet, a 3-4 end for Washington. But enough about his abilities. For the sake of this piece, Haynesworth is elsewhere.

At nose tackle, the Redskins were shrewd in signing Maake Kemoeatu. Health could be a concern, but he is custom-made to man the nose in this scheme with his bulk, power and run-stuffing abilities. Still, the fact that Kemoeatu missed all of 2009 with an Achilles tendon injury has to give you pause. I am not a doctor, but I am guessing that his extreme mass puts a lot of stress on a recovering Achilles and this injury surely hasn’t helped this massive human being’s conditioning in the meantime.

Kedric Golston is the other candidate for nose tackle. He is more of an upfield player than Kemoeatu, but he isn’t as massive or stout. These two should be solid in a rotation, but if Kemoeatu’s health becomes a major problem, I would worry about Golston’s ability to hold down the spot full time. He plays hard, though, and has starting experience. Still, you need more than that to excel at nose tackle in the NFL, even on a two-down basis.

With the current group of nose tackles, it is feasible that Haynesworth could be a disruptive end in this scheme, a la Richard Seymour. To me, that is the way to best utilize his skills, while also making him happier with the scheme change. Of course, he also could play nose tackle and on throwing downs would be a beast as an interior pass-rusher. But without him, the Redskins are very light at the end position.

Phillip Daniels looks pretty set as a starter. He is a bigger base end in the 4-3 whose abilities should translate well to the new scheme. And this switch should extend his career, but he is 37, so who knows how long he can contribute. If he can hold up, Daniels should be solid enough as a run stopper. But how many snaps can he play?

Two others whom I see potentially making an impact are Adam Carriker and Jeremy Jarmon. Both have ability. When they were running a 4-3, the Redskins used a third-round supplemental pick on Jarmon, but he probably would have been drafted higher than that in the typical draft format. But now he is playing in a 3-4, where his upfield abilities will not be utilized as much and he will be asked to anchor into the ground and stack and shed against bigger men. I am not writing him off for this detail -- he has the size to adapt, he is very young and improved as his rookie season went along -- but it is not what he was drafted to do.

In the 2007 draft, St. Louis used the 13th overall pick on Carriker to play in its 4-3 scheme. But he was miscast in that role and is clearly better suited to play end in an odd front. Injuries have been the big problem for Carriker and even when healthy, he has yet to show much in the NFL in any capacity. But I was extremely high on Carriker coming out of Nebraska as a 3-4 end prospect, so it wouldn’t shock me if he revitalized his career to some degree in Washington.

Recognizing the problem at defensive end, the Redskins signed Vonnie Holliday on Monday. Much like Daniels, he is a veteran without upside, but he does have the grit and experience needed to hold his own in the trenches. In fact, he played quite well for the Broncos last season and might still be the best pass-rusher of the current group of defensive ends in Washington. Still, keeping his snaps low would be wise at his age (34).

Trust me, I am not a believer in keeping unmotivated players who do not want to be with the team. And in the 3-4, you can often get by with tough, try-hard guys who do their job without a lot of fanfare. But if Haynesworth leaves town, the Redskins’ defensive line looks pretty atrocious to me.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers offer outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley a contract extension before the start of the 2010 season?

[+] EnlargeLaMarr Woodley
Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMILaMarr Woodley was one of the best bargains in the NFL last season, collecting 13.5 sacks while making $460,000.
Coming off a Pro Bowl year in 2009, there is little debate that Woodley has outperformed his rookie contract. He led the Steelers with 13.5 sacks while making $460,000 last season.

But new rules during the NFL’s uncapped year have made things very complicated for Woodley and the Steelers. The league’s 30 percent rule is the biggest hurdle for Pittsburgh to work out a pay raise for Woodley, as it is for several other quality players around the league who are nearing the end of their deals.

By rule, Woodley can make a maximum salary of $598,000 in 2010, which is a 30 percent increase over last season. The subsequent salaries could go up only 30 percent each year during the life of the contract. That means a substantial bulk of a multiyear deal would have to go into bonuses, forcing both parties to get extremely creative for Woodley to get fair market value.

Things have been quiet on the Steelers’ front. So far there has been no substantial movement from the team to negotiate a new deal with Woodley. Pittsburgh also drafted three linebackers in the first five rounds last month to groom for the future. But that probably has more to do with James Harrison, 32, than it does Woodley, 25, who is entering his prime.

Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis recently proved that it’s not impossible to get around the 30 percent rule. He signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers. The difference is San Francisco had more to work with in terms of base salary, because Willis is a former No. 11 overall pick. Woodley was a second-rounder.

Former second-round pick Kevin Kolb also worked out a one-year, $12 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles that was heavy in bonuses. Pittsburgh probably prefers to go the multiyear route with Woodley.

But it remains to be seen whether the Steelers are willing to work out a new deal this year. The franchise’s primary focus this offseason is to get star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back on track. Couple that with the 30 percent rule, and to date Pittsburgh hasn’t given Woodley’s situation a lot of attention.

The Big Question: Evans wasted in Buffalo?

May, 18, 2010
Have receiver Lee Evans' abilities been squandered in Buffalo?

AP Photo/Mike GrollBills receiver Lee Evans hasn't lived up to his huge contract in Buffalo.
Two summers ago, the Buffalo Bills gave Lee Evans the third-richest contract for any receiver. The four-year extension was worth $37.25 million, with $18.25 million in guarantees. The deal put Evans behind only Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald financially.

The gesture was impressive, a sign of commitment from the Bills to a player on the rise. But the money hasn't been well-spent.

On another team, Evans would be worthy of the handsome investment. He has game-breaking speed and fantastic hands. He should own some dazzling stats.

Yet he never has been to a Pro Bowl, never has put together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, never has cracked double-digit touchdowns -- all the things you'd expect from an elite receiver making elite money.

Evans, the 13th overall pick in 2004, flickered greatness. He was an immediate deep threat, scoring nine touchdowns and averaging 17.6 yards a catch as a rookie with Drew Bledsoe. Evans hasn't matched those numbers since, enduring a long list of offensive coordinators and substandard quarterbacks -- from J.P. Losman to Trent Edwards to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Evans has topped 63 receptions once, when he established career highs with 82 catches for 1,292 yards in 2006. has a feature that compares players whose careers were "of similar quality and shape."

Through three seasons, Evans was compared to the likes of Andre Rison, Ernest Givens, Andre Johnson and James Lofton.

Six seasons into Evans' career, he's grouped with Ron Shanklin, Santonio Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery, James Scott and Steve Watson.

Evans still has time to make something of his career, but his time in Buffalo has generally been a waste.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Are the Packers who we think they are?

Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWith nearly the entire team returning, and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Packers should be elite this season.
I thought I was stepping out on a limb by suggesting the Packers should be the preseason favorites in the NFC North. This week, Sports Illustrated's Peter King took things up a notch by placing the Packers atop his spring power rankings. For the entire NFL.

Here's what King wrote:
It's not just the maturation of Aaron Rodgers. It's the carryover from a fluky end to 2009 (the weird playoff loss at Arizona) and the fact that only one team in football -- New Orleans -- had a better point differential than the Pack's plus-164 last year. I like Jermichael Finley to become a great player in his second starting season. I don't trust the pass-rush (where Clay Matthews is the only real thing), and I worry about two of the top three corners coming off ACL surgery, and aging. But the defensive front is formidable, and a very good match for the good run teams of the NFC North. I also like Weeks 2 through 5 on the schedule (Buffalo, at Chicago, Detroit, at Washington), which sets up for a strong start.

I agree with much of King's assessment, especially the Packers' early schedule -- one that could have them 5-1 or 6-0 entering an Oct. 24 Lambeau Field showdown with the Minnesota Vikings. We've discussed Finley's projection several times this offseason. Most importantly, the Packers have every reason to believe they have an elite quarterback -- a critical ingredient for any championship-caliber team. Everything about Rodgers' first two seasons suggests he should be considered among the game's five best starters.

But that's as far as we can go. Preseason projections give us something to talk about in May -- when the regular season is a tortuous four months away -- and nothing more. Division champions? Super Bowl winners? Who knows. There are too many unpredictable hurdles in an NFL season to make any kind of serious projection.

All we can say with certainty is the Packers will return the same team that won seven of its last eight regular season games last season.They have the makings of a really good team -- and should be deeply disappointed if they aren't.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ready to give up on Sabby Piscitelli as their starting strong safety?

[+] EnlargePiscitelli
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireSabby Piscitelli's future with the Bucs is a little uncertain heading into the season.
If you watched Piscitelli in Monday’s workout, you saw him line up with the first-team defense. Maybe it’s just a matter of giving Sean Jones time to learn the playbook. Or maybe the Buccaneers really are giving Piscitelli a chance to keep his job.

If you watched Piscitelli last season, it was ugly. He had all sorts of problems in coverage and his tackling was bad. That’s a pretty brutal combination for a strong safety. But the Bucs did see something last year that inspired them to move Jermaine Phillips to linebacker in an effort to get Piscitelli on the field.

In the eyes of the fans, Piscitelli quickly went from being the next John Lynch to the symbol of all that was wrong with Tampa Bay’s defense. He certainly deserved some criticism, but I’m not ready to write this guy off just yet.

Strong safety is a position like right field in Little League or softball. When you’ve got a good defense, it’s not all that important. Fact is, the Bucs had a horrible defense last year and Piscitelli went from being hidden to being exploited badly.

Maybe -- and I’m just saying maybe -- all the moves on defense will make the Bucs better and give Piscitelli a chance. In theory, their pass rush should be better and the cornerback tandem of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib should keep the pressure off the safeties.

I think back to this time a year ago when a lot of New Orleans fans wanted to run off strong safety Roman Harper. On a bad defense in 2008, Harper was hung out in coverage a lot and he struggled. In 2009, the Saints upgraded their defense all over the place. Harper no longer got stuck in long-term coverage and turned in an excellent season. He was allowed to do what he does best, which is to make hits and sort of be an extra linebacker.

That’s kind of the ideal role for a strong safety. Maybe the improvements to Tampa Bay’s defense will prevent Piscitelli from having to do too much deep coverage and that would be a big plus. But if Piscitelli really is going to be the next Lynch, he has to start hitting like Lynch. Or, at very least, he has to make the tackles that are in front of him. If he can’t do that, Jones is waiting in the wings.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What does it mean to be a franchise player and will the 49ers wind up using the designation for Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis?

[+] EnlargeDavis
Kirby Lee/US PresswireAfter an underwhelmng start to his career, Vernon Davis has really come on, hauling in 13 TDs in 2009.
Davis is probably too good to become a franchise player based upon what the designation has come to mean in recent seasons.

The franchise tag remains, in theory, a tool for teams to prevent their best players from hitting the market should a long-term agreement prove elusive. The franchise tag has become a mechanism for teams to buy time so they can evaluate whether good players are really all that great. But the teams usually already know the player isn't all that great.

The Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe, the Cardinals' Karlos Dansby and the Seahawks' Leroy Hill were franchise players in the NFC West last offseason. They have combined for zero Pro Bowls. Dansby left in free agency this offseason. Atogwe could leave the Rams in another couple of weeks. Hill's future in Seattle also remains unclear, with the team asking him to stay away from organized team activities amid off-field concerns.

The 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin was the division's only franchise player this offseason. He also has never been to a Pro Bowl.

Massive increases in salary-cap space (followed this offseason by the removal of any cap at all) made it easier for teams to pay franchise-player premiums for one season at a time. That beat the alternatives, which consisted of losing the player or overspending for him on a long-term deal. The abolition of a salary cap also brought rules making it tougher to do long-term deals, but the 49ers still managed to reach a long-term agreement with Patrick Willis, a three-time Pro Bowl player, because they knew he was an elite player.

Which brings us back to Davis.

Once a disappointment, Davis has become everything the 49ers want in their tight end. He was always a hard worker and ferocious blocker. He proved last season that he can become a dangerous receiver if featured in an offense. Davis isn't perfect as a route runner and he'll still drop a pass occasionally, but he appears to be the type of home-grown young player the 49ers have sought to reward (Willis and Joe Staley come to mind). That makes him too valuable for the franchise tag.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will Shawne Merriman be a San Diego Charger in 2010?

There has been a lot of talk about Merriman’s future in San Diego.

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesKeeping Shawne Merriman could be the difference between a good season and a special one.
It has been reported that the Chargers had trade talks with three teams, including the New Orleans Saints, during the draft. However, trade talks are said to have stalled because of high contract demands by Merriman’s agent. The linebacker has since changed agents. Perhaps that could renew trade talks.

Merriman is a restricted free agent who has not signed his tender. He has, however, been working out with the team.

While a trade could happen, I expect Merriman to remain in San Diego in 2010. The Chargers are a good team and Merriman can help make them special.

True, he has not been the same player he was prior to a major 2008 knee injury. But he is a hard worker who is determined to become a major factor again. I think San Diego needs to give him another season to see if he can regain his sack mojo. If not, he is still a solid player.

If Merriman doesn’t become an impact player in 2010, then San Diego probably will let him walk as a free agent. If he does get double-digit sacks this season, perhaps the Chargers will give him a long-term deal.

I think there is no reason not to give Merriman another season in San Diego. Ultimately, though, I do expect it to be his final season in San Diego.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can Maurice Jones-Drew see?

With the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones-Drew’s primary worries on a football field come at close range, in small spaces.

[+] EnlargeJones-Drew
Jason Miller/US PresswireMaurice Jones-Drew had Lasik surgery in the offseason to improve his vision.
So his nearsightedness was never that big of an issue for him.

Still, this offseason he had Lasik surgery and now he’s seeing things more clearly, at work and away from the field.

“It was 70-40 before and now it’s [cornerback] Scotty Starks vision: 15-20,” Jones-Drew told me recently. “I didn’t wear contacts. I was just out there playing off instincts. Blurry. You get used to it. I was nearsighted. So I could see up close, I just couldn’t see on those long passes.”

“It’s a huge difference. Now, I can see the laces. You can see them coming at you from 20, 30, 40 feet away.”

Jones-Drew never thought of it as a big football issue. He’s been a good receiver in his four seasons, but he is a running back targeted on short stuff that gives him a chance to run in space, not a guy who’s asked to run many routes far downfield.

“[Trainers] said if you can play with it, if you can handle it, you’re fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing with it since I was in college, though, so it wasn’t that bad. I had contacts in college and I got hit and one fell out and it got all irritated. I didn’t wear anything. They said if I had to pass my driver’s test again I probably wouldn’t have passed.”

It wasn’t football that really motivated his decision to have the surgery.

He said he grew increasingly frustrated from things like not being able to read signs and get where he wanted to go.

“I can see now,” he said. “They say I might have 15-20.”

We’ll find out this fall if there are additional benefits on the field.



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