Sunday, April 04, 2004

How have Steeler opponents done this free agency? -- Part III
As the transactions slow this offseason, I'll take this opportunity to assess how Pittsburgh's opponents for 2004 have faired in free agency -- specifically, have these teams made themselves better than they were at the end of last season (with full knowledge that the draft is a few weeks away)? In Part III I'll look at the Steelers away nondivisonal opponents. Part I looked at the AFC North opponents and Part II looked at the home nondivisional opponents.

Next month, I will take a look at Steeler opponents' improvements made through the draft.

Here's Part III -- The Nondivisional Away Opponents:

Buffalo Bills
Needs at the end of 2003:
For a season that started with such promise, the Buffalo Bills limped to the finish line in 2003. Winning six games didn't help Gregg Williams's job security and as a result, Mike Mularkey is the new head coach. The good news is that Mularkey brings Tom Clements with him from Pittsburgh to be the O-Coordinator (this is the guy who made Kordell Stewart an All-Pro in 2001). The bad news is that Mularkey's plethora of trick plays led to an offense that sputtered most of the 2003 season.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
OG Chris Villarrial (Bears)
CB Troy Vincent (Eagles)
OG Ross Tucker (re-signed)
OG Marques Sullivan (re-signed)
DE Keith McKenzie (re-signed)
DT Oliver Gibson (Bengals)

Players lost through Free Agency:
OG Ruben Brown (Bears)
TE Dave Moore (Bucs)
CB Antoine Winfield (Vikings)
RB Sammy Morris (Dolphins)
FB Sam Gash (Saints)

I'm convinced that Antoine Winfield was overrated and the Bills were wise to let him go. They signed Troy Vincent as his replacement and he'll work opposite Nate Clements, who will build on a strong 2003 season. Buffalo re-signed Keith McKenzie, but will probably look to the draft for one more DE. For a team that gave up a lot of sacks, Ruben Brown bolting for the Bears leaves a hole, but the Bills did replace him with (oddly enough) the Bears Chris Villarrial.

Draft picks in April:
The Bills have 7 draft picks this April.
1(13), 2(43), 3(74), 4(109), 5(144), 7(207), 7(214)

Likely first round pick:
There have been some rumors that if QB Philip Rivers falls to the Bills they may take him and groom him as Bledsoe's future replacement. The safe bet however, is that they take Kenechi Udeze, the DE from USC, who would come in and have an immediate impact.

Grade (through free agency):
The Bills have the greatest need at defensive end and didn't do anything in free agency to change that -- and that's not a bad thing. DE's in free agency were overpriced and as I mentioned above, it wouldn't be a total surprise if the Bills take Kenechi Udeze with the 13th pick. Grade: C.

Miami Dolphins
Needs at the end of 2003:
As has been the case the last few seasons, the Dolphins have started strong out of the gate only to limp across the finish line. They experimented with Brian Griese at QB, but ended up going back to Fiedler. Miami has since acquired QB Jay Feeley this offseason in the hopes that he's the next Tom Brady. The Dolphins also acquired WR David Boston who may be the only player in the NFL with more baggage than TO. The difference is that on Sunday's TO shows up to play. Maybe the change of scenery will revitalize his game.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
OG Jeno James (Panthers)
S Shawn Wooden (re-signed)
CB Reggie Howard (Panthers)
S Arturo Freeman (re-signed)
S Chris Akins (Patriots)
OT John St. Clair (Rams)
RB Sammy Morris (Bills)
P Matt Turk (re-signed)
OT Damion McIntosh (Chargers)
WR Terrence Wilkins (Colts)
LS/TE Ed Perry (re-signed)
TE John Jones (Ravens)

Acquired via trade
QB A.J. Feeley (Eagles)
WR David Boston (Chargers)

Players lost through Free Agency:
S Brock Marion (Lions)
QB Brian Griese (Bucs)
C Tim Ruddy (released)
G Todd Perry (released)
WR James McKnight (released)
OT Mark Dixon (released)
S Trent Gamble (released)
LS Jeff Grau (released)
RT Todd Wade (Texans)
FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo (Cardinals)

Players traded
2005 2nd round draft pick
CB Jamar Fletcher, 2005 conditional 6th round draft pick

(From ProFootballWeekly) Though Norv Turner was unable to establish a consistent passing game in his two years as offensive coordinator, the Dolphins now feel they have the pieces in place -- RB Ricky Williams, WRs Chris Chambers and David Boston, TE Randy McMichael -- to have their most explosive offense since the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Draft picks in April:
The Dolphins have 6 draft picks this April.
1(20), 3(87), 4(119), 6(186), 7(219), 7(221)

Likely first round pick:
If 380 lb OT Shane Andrews is still around with the 20th pick, the Dolphins will probably take him. There have been some reports that he battles his weight, but this guy could come in and make an immediate impact. The Dolphins will also be looking to shore up the OG and S positions.

Grade (through free agency):
David Boston looks fantastic on paper, but we'll have to wait and see if he can return to form. Feeley is probably underrated, but again, he'll have to prove himself against veteran Fiedler, who just seems to always hang around. Grade: B +.

New York Giants
Needs at the end of 2003:
When you finish 4-10 it's probably indicative of a lot of needs that should be addressed. The effectiveness of the defensive line will be determined by how well second year players DT William Joseph and DE Osi Umenyiora perform. There are needs on the OL and rumors have been surfacing that the Giants are eyeing one of the top two QBs.

And perhaps most importantly, Fassel is out and Coughlin is in. And expect an improved defense as Coughlin has named Tim Lewis his D-Coordinator.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
DE Keith Washington (re-signed)
LB Carlos Emmons (Eagles)
OL Shaun O'Hara (Browns)
DT Fred Robbins (Vikings)
LB Barrett Green (Lions)
OL Barry Stokes (Browns)
DT Martin Chase (Redskins)
S Jack Brewer (Vikings)
CB Terry Cousin (Panthers)

Players lost through Free Agency:
RB Brian Mitchell (released)
RB Dorsey Levens (released)
DT Cornelius Griffin (Redskins)
LB Dhani Jones (Eagles)
LB Michael Barrow (released)
CB Ike Charlton (Raiders)
QB Jason Garrett (Bucs)
OL Jeff Hatch (released)
CB Ralph Brown (Redskins)
K Mike Hollis (released)
LB Brandon Short (Panthers)

The Giants released Barrow and Short signed with the Panthers, but they did sign Carlos Emmons. The main question about Emmons is his durability.

Draft picks in April:
The Giants have 8 draft picks this April.
1(4), 2(34), 3(65), 4(97), 5(136), 6(168), 7(203), 7(253)

Likely first round pick:
While the Giants may have a real need for OL Robert Gallery, he may not be around with the 4th pick. Some draft boards have them taking Ben Roethlisberger, which would be an enviable second choice, especially since Collins seems on the way out of New York.

Grade (through free agency):
The Giants made a lot of moves, but none brought in impact players. They have eight draft picks and will use them to address a lot of their deficiencies -- and none may be more important to the future of the Giants than their first round pick. Grade: C.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Needs at the end of 2003:
Byron Leftwich had a solid rookie season in the league, but he's going to need a true scoring threat on the outside in order for the Jags to improve. Fred Taylor is still dangerous, but he can't carry the entire load. The WR need should be addressed on day one of the draft.

CB Fernando Bryant has since moved to the Lions, but he will be replaced by the likes of DeWayne Washington, Lewis Sanders and Juran Bolden. S. Deon Grant should also bolster an already strong defense.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
S Donovin Darius (franchise)
P Chris Hanson (re-signed)
TE Joe Zelenka (re-signed)
TE Todd Yoder (Bucs)
CB Dewayne Washington (Steelers)
CB Lewis Sanders (Browns)
OL Mike Compton (Patriots)
S Deon Grant (Panthers)
DT Matt Leonard (re-signed)
LB Greg Favors (Panthers)
CB Juran Bolden (Falcons)
OL Ephraim Salaam (Broncos)

Acquired via trade
3rd round draft pick (Redskins)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Player lost
CB Fernando Bryant (Lions)
OL Leander Jordan (Chargers)
DE Tony Brackens (released)
LB Danny Clark (Raiders)
Ol Jamar Nesbit (Saints)

Players traded
QB Mark Brunell

Trading Mark Brunell was both the easiest and smartest move the Jags may make all offseason. Redskins owner Dan Snyder's impulsivity worked out well for Jacksonville. The Jags were very busy strengthening the defensive side of the ball and they also added a couple of OL to help protect young QB Leftwich.

Draft picks in April:
The Jaguars have 9 draft picks this April.
1(9), 2(39), 3(70), 3(72), 4(102), 5(137), 6(175), 7(210), 7(249)

Likely first round pick:
The first order of business should be getting a big-play WR target for Leftwich. In a draft full of big-time players, this shouldn't be a problem. Some have WR Mike Williams slipping because of slow 40 times, but 40-times aside, this guy is going to be great. If he's there, the Jags would be wise to take him. They will also address the DE position early in the draft, especially since Tony Brackens was released.

Grade through (free agency):
The Jags have made a lot of little moves, but they have all improved the team. They also unloaded Brunell and got a draft pick in return. All in all, a solid offseason so far.
Grade: A.

Dallas Cowboys
Needs at the end of 2003:
If anybody can get the most out of a player, it's got to be Bill Parcells. And that was the case with QB Quincy Carter and OL Larry Allen. The Cowboys defense kept them in a lot of games in 2003 and acquiring DE Marcellus Wiley certainly will only help them next season. I'm not sure if Keyshawn Johnson is an upgrade over Joey Galloway, especially given all the trouble he gave John Gruden in Tampa Bay. There have also been some grumblings that Carter isn't the long-term answer at QB so the Cowboys acquired baseball player and former Michigan standout, Drew Henson. Parcells will again have to be at his best to ensure that Henson isn't another Chad Hutchinson.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
DE Marcellus Wiley (Chargers)

Acquired via trade
QB Drew Henson (Texans)
WR Keyshawn Johnson (Bucs)

Players lost through Free Agency:
OL Ryan Young (released)
P Toby Gowin (Jets)
DE Ebenezer Ekuban (Browns)

Players traded
2005 3rd round draft pick
WR Joey Galloway

Wiley will replace the hole left by Ebenezer Ekuban, who signed with the Browns this offseason, and Johnson was traded for Galloway. A recurring theme in Dallas is that Parcells uses his power of persuasion to get the most out of players and he'll definitely be put to the test this season. Of course, this is the guy who got the most productive season to date out of WR Terry Glenn. The Henson trade is risky, but a third round pick and a backloaded contract were all wise decisions by the front office.

Draft picks in April:
The Cowboys have 5 draft picks this April.
1(22), 2(52), 3(83), 4(121), 5(156)

Likely first round pick:
If RB Kevin Jones falls to them with the 22nd pick, the Cowboys will probably snatch him up. There has also been mention of RB Greg Jones out of FSU or maybe even another defensive player to bolster an already solid unit.

Grade through (free agency):
The acquisition of Wiley and Johnson improve this team in the short-term, especially if Johnson behaves and can return to form. In the long run, the Henson trade is also a good one, because it didn't cost the Cowboys anything more than a third round pick. Grade: B.

Up next: Draft grades for the Steelers 2004 AFC North opponents.
*If you missed Part I, find it here; and find Part II here.