NFL Nation: vet hot seat 09
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The assignment sounded simple enough: Identify and elaborate upon a veteran NFC West player "on the hot seat" this season.
The hard part was settling on just one.
The stakes are always highest for quarterbacks.
Smith is probably feeling less heat after accepting a reduced contract and the reduced expectations that came with it, but his career is unmistakably at a crossroads. That's a big deal for the first player chosen in the 2005 NFL draft.
Smith is one of 21 players remaining on the 49ers' roster from the most recent regular-season game he played, a 24-0 defeat to Seattle on Nov. 12, 2007. While the 49ers promised Smith a chance to battle Shaun Hill for the starting job in return for Smith accepting a significant pay reduction, they won't wait forever.
The agenda for Smith, still only 25, should include the following priorities:
- Getting healthy. Smith still isn't 100 percent following shoulder surgery. He should be much closer to full strength by training camp.
- Staying healthy. Smith described his most recent shoulder injury as "freaky" because nothing seemed to cause it. Injuries suffered for no apparent reason fail to inspire confidence in future health.
- Asserting himself. The college scouting reports described Smith as a terrific leader by words and actions. Smith is smart, amiable and a sympathetic figure. Those traits aren't enough. Perhaps a return to health will help Smith assert himself in other ways. He'll have to step forward to win over the team and coach Mike Singletary.
- Having fun. Smith is newly married and sounds at peace with his personal situation. He likes the new attitude Singletary has brought. Football needs to be fun for him and others need to see that he is having fun.
Smith will have gone 671 days between regular-season starts if he beats out Hill for the No. 1 job heading into the 2009 opener. The future is now for Smith.
Bulger, trying to bounce back after three poor seasons, was arguably more qualified than Smith for the NFC West veteran's hot seat. Two main reasons:
- New blood: The Rams have remade their front office and coaching staff since Bulger signed his current deal before the 2007 season, with Chip Rosenbloom taking over for his late mother as principle owner. Fewer people in the organization have a stake in whether Bulger succeeds.
- Old money. Bulger's inflated salary -- $6.5 million this season and $24 million over the next three -- carries inflated expectations. Salary-cap ramifications made releasing Bulger nearly prohibitive in 2009, but less so after the season.
Additional hot-seat candidates from the NFC West, arranged by team:
- Alan Branch, nose tackle. Second-round choice has shown little in first two seasons.
- Matt Leinart, quarterback. The Cardinals gave raises to fellow quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brian St. Pierre, even offering St. Pierre a chance to compete with Leinart for the No. 2 job.
- Deuce Lutui, right guard. The Cardinals weren't always happy with Lutui last season.
- Mark Roman, free safety. The 49ers have already benched him and let him seek trade opportunities. There were no takers.
Battle, receiver. Will the 49ers have a roster spot for him? Prospects could be dim if the team keeps five receivers instead of six.
- Patrick Kerney, defensive end. He is coming off another shoulder surgery while carrying a massive contract into his third season with the team.
- Kelly Jennings, cornerback. Adding Ken Lucas affirmed where Jennings stands, particularly while he recovers from a shoulder injury.
- Chris Spencer, center. First-round pick enters the final year of his contract with rookie second-rounder Max Unger onboard as a potential successor.
- Deion Branch, receiver. Adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deon Butler gave the Seahawks options. Branch needs to justify his contract this season.
- Nate Burleson, receiver. Burleson is more affordable than Branch, but he is also coming off knee surgery.
- Tye Hill, cornerback. Has yet to play like the 15th player chosen in his draft class (2006).
- Alex Barron, tackle. How he performs in 2009 will determine whether Barron finds riches in free agency after the season.
- Joe Klopfenstein, tight end. Hasn't lived up to second-round draft status.
- Jacob Bell, guard. The Rams invested heavily in him last offseason. Time to see some results.
- Everyone predating the current staff. The Rams are remaking their roster. Tis better to be a newcomer than a holdover in St. Louis.
Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams will face huge expectations in '09 based on the draft picks the Cowboys gave up to acquire him last season. He was supposed to be the perfect complement to Terrell Owens, but he instead ran around looking lost in the second half of the season. His 19 catches for 198 yards in 10 games were embarrassing in Dallas.
But according to everyone at Valley Ranch, Williams has been one of the team's most committed players this offseason. During the recent rookie minicamp, receivers coach Ray Sherman couldn't stop bragging on how Williams is becoming more of a complete player. And for the Cowboys to have a chance at making the playoffs, Williams has to at least be a threat on the outside.
I can't think of anyone in the division who will face more scrutiny -- outside of the quarterbacks of course. Even former quarterback Troy Aikman has questioned the Williams trade, saying it could by "one of the biggest busts" in league history if it doesn't work out. I think Williams will be better this season, but it's hard to project where that puts him. He's had one Pro Bowl season in the league. Other than that, he's had a very pedestrian career so far.
Honorable mention: I think all eyes will be on Eagles left tackle Jason Peters. Was he worth a first-round draft pick? Well, we're about to find out. Can he return to the form of '07 or will he look like the player who was beaten for way too many sacks in '08? I think he'll be excellent in Philly, but he's still firmly on the hot seat.
When the door finally stopped swinging at One Buccaneer Place back in February, Ronde Barber was the only one of the old Bucs still standing inside.
The legend of all Tampa Bay legends, Derrick Brooks, was gone. So were Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn. Almost everyone with ties to the Tony Dungy era was gone. Even a lot of guys who came in under Jon Gruden were gone. Raheem Morris, 32, was taking over and just about everyone older than him packed their bags.
Except Barber, who is 34 and coming off a season that a lot of fans thought was subpar. But there's really only one opinion that matters in Tampa Bay these days and that's Morris'. He kept Barber around and there's a reason for that.
Morris believes Barber still can play. So does Barber. He hasn't been talking to the Tampa Bay media much these days and Morris has said it's because Barber is upset with suggestions that he's over the hill. That may be a good thing because it gives Barber something to prove and the Bucs might need that.
They're starting Aqib Talib on the other side. They've got Elbert Mack, a young prospect they're high on, but the other starting job still belongs to Barber and that might not be as bad a thing as many fans think.
Morris was the defensive backs coach last year and he knows Barber better than anyone. The fact is Barber did struggle last year, but not all of last year. He had some rough games early on, but he played well down the stretch.
If Morris thinks there's something left in Barber's tank, there probably is. But his age and the perception of fans means he's probably the NFC South player who is on the hottest seat (Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme draws honorable mention in this category) until he proves otherwise.
The quick answer, of course, is quarterback Jay Cutler.
Wednesday, ESPN.com is identifying veterans on the hot seat throughout the NFL, and you would think most NFC North eyes will be focused squarely on the Bears' new quarterback. But if you scour the Bears' roster, you'll find a player with at least the same potential to impact the Bears' season. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is only one year removed from an eight-sack season and could personally return the Bears to defensive prominence if he can reestablish himself as a premier interior pass-rusher.
The Bears' scheme is largely predicated on consistent pressure and penetration from defensive linemen, and Harris is best equipped to provide it. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of the NFL's top defensive line coaches to help him in Rod Marinelli, and the Bears' decision not to address the position in free agency indicates they are counting on Harris to pick up where he left off in 2007.
Without a reliable pass rush, the Bears might be compelled to continue the heavy blitz packages that largely got them into trouble last season. Devoting linebackers and safeties to the pass rush leaves the rest of the defense exposed, especially when defensive backs are put in one-on-one coverage situations. You hate to put too much pressure on one player, but the old Tommie Harris could allow the Bears to return their scheme to a four-man rush.
If you want to know the limitations of a Pro Bowl quarterback on team with a sub-par defense, check out Denver's record last season with Cutler at the helm.
Honorable mention: Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton. The Packers already have a significant hole on the right side of their line, where injured incumbent Mark Tauscher (who is also a free agent) might not be ready to play when the season begins. Clifton, who turns 33 next month, seemed on his last legs at times in 2008 and had surgery on both knees after the season. The Packers need to squeeze at least one more year out of him to avoid a one-year overhaul of their offensive line.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
We're going out of the box for our AFC West veteran on the hot seat in the form of LaDainian Tomlinson.
There are plenty of folks in the new-look AFC West who will face pressure. But most of those players are on teams that are a long shot to win the division.
Tomlinson's Chargers are the prohibitive favorites to win the division. So, while Tomlinson hasn't done much personally to put pressure on him, he is a vital cog to the Chargers' cause. If he falters, the team will be in danger of floundering.
Tomlinson went through a long contract renegotiation this offseason. The result was a new deal to keep him in Southern California. However, if Tomlinson, who will turn 30 in June (which is borderline ancient for an NFL running back), has a poor season, it could be his last in San Diego. He is coming off injuries in the past two postseasons and 2009 was his least productive yardage total in his eight-year NFL season. If the injuries continue to pile up and Tomlinson's yardage total goes down, it could be a major sign that his career is winding down.
Tomlinson may not be playing for his career, but he has had to have a strong 2009 and that's why he is the most pressured veteran in the AFC West.
An honorable mention pick is new Denver quarterback Kyle Orton. New Denver coach Josh McDaniels believes in Orton. Still, Orton needs to show he can capably replace the traded Jay Cutler (Orton was part of the package that sent Cutler to Chicago) or both Orton and McDaniels will feel the heat.
This will be a critical year for the injury-prone Edwards. The Bills desperately want him to be their franchise quarterback and have surrounded him with enough weapons to make many of his peers envious.
Now it's time for him to prove he's the man to handle the job for the long term.
Edwards isn't the sure thing everybody thought he was evolving into early last season, but the stage is set for him to show what he can do.
While there are other hot-seat candidates in the AFC East -- New England Patriots running back Laurence Maroney immediately comes to mind -- Edwards and the Bills form a prime example of a player and a team together at a crossroads.
After the Bills charged to that 5-1 start, they dropped five out of six games in which Edwards threw five touchdowns and eight interceptions, lost two fumbles and was sacked nine times.
The Bills boldly signed receiver Terrell Owens to give defensive backs someone other than Lee Evans to worry about. The Bills have two viable slot receivers in Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish. They signed Dominic Rhodes to round out a backfield that includes Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch and underrated backup Fred Jackson. The Bills drafted soft-handed tight end Shawn Nelson.
The Bills also are installing a no-huddle offense that will emphasize Edwards' best two traits: intelligence and passing accuracy.
The pressure will be on Edwards to make all the right calls and get the ball to his collection playmakers.
There aren't any more excuses.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
The year before, he played remarkably sharp football and led the Jaguars two rounds deep in the playoffs in 12 starts -- with 18 touchdown passes, just three interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating.
Such a low interception total wasn't something the Jaguars expected Garrard to be able to repeat in 2008, his first season under the new contract.
Then multiple injuries that rendered the offensive line unrecognizable severely dented his protection -- he absorbed 42 sacks in 2008 as compared to 21 the year before -- while players added to bolster the receiving corps -- Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson -- were absolute flops.
Garrard threw 15 TDs, 13 interceptions and saw his passer rating sink almost 21 points to 81.7.
Much was out of his control. But heading into 2009, Garrard's seen the Jaguars spend their top two draft picks on offensive linemen Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, sign veteran receiver Torry Holt and bring in some rookies that project as passing-game playmakers.
As much as anyone in the AFC South, Garrard is on the hot seat. He showed up for the team's offseason conditioning program much trimmer and is upbeat about the team's push to rebound from a 5-11 season.
If he plays well, he provides further evidence that last year's struggles were beyond his control and could key a bounce back for Jacksonville. If he plays poorly, he gives amplitude to the questions about whether the Jaguars were too quick to shell out the big dollars.
The runner-up in the AFC South: Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye.
His play dipped in his second year, with the lingering effects of a high-ankle sprain serving as a big contributing factor. A bounce back can be a real boon to Houston, but if Okoye plays more like he did in 2008 than in 2007, the team's efforts to prompt more production out of the players around Mario Williams will be slowed.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
There are numerous reasons why Pittsburgh Steelers starting running back Willie Parker finds himself on the hot seat for 2009. Let's start with the fact that he's had back-to-back injury-plagued seasons.
A broken leg derailed Parker's otherwise stellar 2007 campaign, and he battled shoulder and knee ailments in 2008, when he rushed for just 791 yards and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Those were Parker's lowest totals since becoming a full-time starter.
In a physical AFC North division, Parker has never been the biggest tailback at 5-foot-10, 209 pounds. Add in the fact that he's turning 29 in November, and Parker now has to deal with the age and durability questions in Pittsburgh.
Parker is in the final year of his contract, and all signs point to the Steelers letting him walk after the season. To date, there haven't been any serious discussions of extending Parker's contract before the start of the regular season, and the Steelers drafted tailback Rashard Mendenhall in the first round in 2008 to be his eventual replacement.
But a big year from Parker has the potential to change the landscape for his future in Pittsburgh and silence his critics.
Honorable mention: Similar to Parker, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco had one of his worst seasons in 2008. He recorded just 53 receptions for 540 yards last year, which are well below his career averages. At 31 and coming off injuries to his shoulder and ankle the past two seasons, Ocho Cinco has to prove he still has it. The Bengals certainly hope he does, because they desperately need the deep ball to return to their offense in 2009.
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