Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Thoughts from the McDonald's All-American Game
Two UNC recruits, G J.R. Smith (East team) and F Marvin Williams (West team) took part in the McDonald's All-American game on Wednesday. Williams never really got into the flow of the game (he finished with 3 points), while J.R. Smith was arguably as good as Dwight Howard (who'll probably be the first or second player taken in the June draft) in terms of making big-time plays (they ended up sharing the MVP award). Smith led all scorers with 25 points, was 5 for 10 from behind (way behind) the arc and had 4 nasty dunks.

This led to some speculation that Smith might now consider turning pro (but I think it was just that, speculation). Of course these types of performances must be taken in context -- and with the understanding that these guys are at an all-star game where a premium is placed on offense and defense is just an afterthought. Smith was also described on ESPN as having J.J. Redick range with Vince Carter hops (allegedly, Smith has a 44 inch vertical).

I'm sure Roy Williams watches these kind of games and cringes for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned, there is no defense and there are a lot of ill-advised shots. There also seem to be twice as many turnovers as assists, and one strong performance (and a misguided word) might tempt an player to take a shot at the NBA when college might be their best bet.

Hopefully none of the above will have a lasting effect on UNC's incoming class. In addition to Smith and Williams, UNC will also have point guard Quentin Thomas and perhaps (pending some legal problems) the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school basketball history, JamesOn Curry. The incoming freshman will add much needed depth to a very short bench and don't be surprised if Williams and Smith get a lot of playing time next year. If nothing else, Smith's presence should push Melvin Scott to work on his game and improve on his woeful assist-to-turnover ratio. The addition of Thomas should also take some of the pressure off Felton to carry this team.

If everyone's back, next year will be fun to watch.

A quick note on Livingston
My first thought after seeing Shaun Livingston, the 6'7" point guard slated to attend Duke (he scored 1 point), was that he looked really thin and there would be no way he would go pro. The commentators seem to believe that Livingston will base his decision on how well he plays in the all-star games. Apparently the pro scouts love this guy because he's tall with great vision and a great handle. The one knock on him (besides being skinny) is that he doesn't shoot very well. That said, I'm not sure that your all-star performance should be the determining factor on whether you go pro or not.

Here's a link to the East/West rosters for the game.

Moneyball vs. Academia
All this talk of Moneyball, Billy Beane and the young GMs he has inspired (Epstein, DePodesta, Ricciardi) has been too much for economist Steven Levitt (he received the 2003 John Bates Clark Medal -- given biennially to a person under the age of 40 who has made a "significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge."). This is what he had to say about Billy Beane and the A's in an interview with the Financial Times:
"There has been much hype recently about baseball clubs finding statistics to identify good players. Levitt read Michael Lewis's book Moneyball about the supposed innovators, the Oakland As, and is unimpressed. "If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average! There's very little evidence Billy Beane [the club's general manager] is doing something right."
JC at talks about whether Levitt's claims are grounded in reality (it looks like Levitt's right, although some will probably disagree).

Cowher talks about the upcoming season
The Post Gazette reports some of Cowhers thoughts from the 2003 season and what he's looking for in 2004. Here are some of the highlights:
"There's room for more competition in the Steelers' backfield despite the presence of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley.

..."I'm going in open-minded. I'm going to let them compete," Cowher said. "I like Verron Haynes. He's a guy no one's talked about. Verron, I think, is a pretty good running back. Jerome, I know he's anxious to compete. I know what Duce Staley can do. He's a three-down back, great hands, a player that Philadelphia's always kind of turned to in the playoffs. He's unselfish, a great blocker."
I hope this means that the Steelers are eyeing a RB in the early rounds. If RB Greg Jones (FSU) is available in the second round, let's hope the Steelers take him. He's been described as having Bus-like size, but faster. He has battled injuries in college, which is the main reason he may slip out of the first round.

No one has seen Verron Hayes finish a year without injury. The limited time he has seen, he's been effective, although he needs to minimize turnovers.

"There's no room for former Pro Bowl linebacker Jason Gildon, a starter since 1996 and their all-time sack leader. He will be traded or released...Linebacker Alonzo Jackson, a second-round pick who played only two games, is not a flop.

"He wasn't a disappointment... People say, why didn't you use him as a rusher? I would have if I had the luxury of a roster spot just to have him play on third down.""
This move is good for a couple of reasons. The Steelers can get rid of Gildon's big salary (even if they can't get anything for him) and Jackson will get a chance to quiet all of his critics. He played well in the Dallas preseason game in 2003, causing 2 fumbles, but of course that was against 3rd teamers. Hopefully we'll get to see what Jackson's learned from a year of watching from the sidelines.

"...there's still work to do, starting with the offensive line. He hopes things will settle down because many of the problems were caused by the ill health or injuries to tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons. Cowher wants more depth in the line, perhaps add a tackle, but is preparing to go with Oliver Ross as his starting right tackle."
I don't think that Oliver Ross is the long-term solution at right tackle. The Steelers should probably look to take an OT in the first three rounds, preferably someone that can come in and push for a starting job.

"Cowher gave quarterback Tommy Maddox a vote of confidence, explaining that his statistics suffered because of the problems with the offensive line and the running game, which Cowher promised would be much improved from its No. 31 ranking last season."
This year will tell if the problem is the offensive line or Maddox. I think Maddox will have a good year, and tend to agree that the porous offensive line made both running and passing a chore last season. Some 'experts' have said if the Steelers take a QB early, it will put added pressure on Maddox to perform, but I don't see a rookie QB playing one down next season (and they shouldn't take a QB in the first round unless than can get one of the top two)

""Hopefully he'll be able to get back to where he was," said Cowher [talking about Chad Scott], who expressed delight with the play last year of two other cornerbacks -- Deshea Townsend, who replaced Washington, and rookie Ike Taylor."
This can't be the Steelers answer to solving their cornerback woes -- hope. They still need to take a CB early in the draft and start phasing Scott out. I'm really surprised the Steelers haven't asked Scott to take a paycut.

The draft is 25 days away, and hopefully it will help clear things up.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Rivers with the 11th pick?
I really hope the Steelers are not trying to fool anyone by inviting draft eligible QBs Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman to their facility next week, but conspicuously leaving out Philip Rivers. I prefer to think that they won't take him with the 11th pick because although he's 6'5", he throws side-armed -- effectively making him 6'0", he can't throw the deep ball and the Steelers have more pressing needs at CB and OT. And as I've said many times before, it doesn't always make sense to take a QB in the first round.

The Post Gazette is reporting that the Steelers are doing just that -- using the list of invitees as a smokescreen to outwit other potential Philip Rivers suitors.

There are a couple of ways to approach the draft. I think it's important to address team needs with the best available player. If Manning (and maybe even Roethlisberger) are gone by the 11th pick (and they will be), I think it's in the Steelers longterm interest to get the best CB available (which may be the first CB taken). If OT Robert Gallery is availabe at 11 (which he won't be) the Steelers have to take him. I'm no scout and no one ever asks my opinion, but the Steelers primary need isn't at QB, and I don't think it makes sense to take the third best QB with the 11th pick even though he may be only the 25th best player overall.

I really hope this is just a case of the Steelers not being interested in Rivers, but I have my doubts.

The Post Gazette also reports that other prospects visiting the Steelers' facility starting next week are two likely first-round picks, Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble and Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, both juniors. Andrews had weighed more than 360 pounds but has dropped about 20 pounds. Senior CB Ricardo Colclough of obscure Tusculum, considered a possible second-round pick, also will visit.

Gildon still on the block, Taylor gets a bonus
From the Tribune-Review:
"Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said some teams have expressed an interest in trading for outside linebacker Jason Gildon.

"We are in discussions," he said. "We have had some teams that expressed an interest and they want to do their own further evaluation.""

Bonus for Taylor
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor received a supplemental payment of $68,013 in the second year of the NFL's Performance Based Pay system.

Under the system, which was included in the extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2002, payment is determined based on a comparison of playing time to salary. It is given to players who are perceived to be outperforming their contracts.

Monday, March 29, 2004

And the Duhon lovefest continues
The New York Times has an article today about what an integral part Chris Duhon played in the the Blue Devils 66-63 victory over Xavier yesterday. I've heard more than enough about how Duhon 'does the little things' to help Duke win (since it appears he can't do the big things like score or minimize ill-advised passes).

I don't deny being a Tarheel fan, and I should be rightly accused of being biased (and maybe jealous), but come on, this guy ain't that good. Make a list of the top point guards in the ACC and Duhon finishes no better than fifth (John Gilcrest, Jarret Jack, Ray Felton and Chris Paul). Has he made some big plays this year? Sure. He beat UNC on a last second layup. But just because you dive into the stands and hurt your ribs, or you're able to jump into the air, catch the ball and call a timeout doesn't mean you're a great player. But don't believe me, take a look at the numbers:

NAME SCHOOL G A/T ratio Stl avg Pts FT%
Duhon DUKE 32 2.1 2.3 9.9 0.726
Jack GTECH 32 1.9 1.9 12.7 0.794
Gilchrist UM 30 1.6 1.8 15.6 0.702
Felton UNC 28 2.1 2.1 11.5 0.806
Paul WAKE 28 2.1 2.8 14.2 0.842
Duhon is tied for first in assists-to-turnover ratio, third in steals, fifth in points and fourth in free throw percentage when compared to the four best point guards in the ACC. Am I missing something? These numbers are good, but they're certainly not great. Duhon has been a solid player for Duke, especially in that system, but why he's winning every award available isn't clear. He's a solid college point guard, but he shouldn't be a first team All-ACC or a third team All-American. Daniel Ewing was the only Duke starter left off the All-ACC teams, but I don't think anyone would argue that they would choose Duhon over Ewing.

Maybe I'm confused, maybe Duhon is terminal and this is an effort to make his last few days on earth pleasurable ones. If that's the case, then count me in -- I'm all for it. But if Duhon is a normal, healthy 21 year old, then I don't have any idea why he keeps winning awards and being named to All-Everything teams. And I admit it, I'm a biased UNC fan, but a quick look at his stats don't exactly offer resounding support either.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Is Sonny Vaccaro good for Basketball?
Sonny Vaccaro, the founder of the Roundball Classic, can't imagine why high school senior All-Americans Shaun Livingston and Marvin Williams (set to attend Duke and UNC, respectively) would choose college over the NBA. In a story reported in the Charlotte Observer last week, this is what Vaccaro had to say:

"...In these days of watered-down drafts and guaranteed contracts, anyone who knows he's a first-round pick is risking more than he's getting out of the college experience."

"...I think it's a no-brainer. They have to do it," said Vaccaro, who also represents a sports shoe company. "It's good that kid is getting an education. But that kid can put $3 million in the bank before he's 21 and still get an education later."

"...I think if you're guaranteed to go anywhere (in the first round), then you've got to go."
Vaccaro is generally acknowledged as a controversial figure in amateur basketball. The NCAA has been trying for years (unsuccessfully, I might add) to invent rules that make it more difficult for Vaccaro to do what he does best -- recruit young stars by providing perks that often appear to skirt the line between ethical and otherwise.

Vaccaro argues that providing benefits to players went on long before he was around and his primary concern is the players best interest -- "You can't find a kid I've hurt," he says.

While he may be a great judge of talent, I'm not convinced that just because a player might go somewhere in the first round they should forego college all together simply for a guaranteed NBA contract. First of all, the contract isn't guaranteed until you're drafted in the first round. And as it stands, there are 29 teams in the NBA and 12 high school seniors who have already declared for the draft. Conceivably, all 12 have every intention of getting drafted in the first round, otherwise it would be pretty risky to come out. And I'm not even considering all the college and international players who will make themselves eligible for the draft. At some point, you have to stop telling kids they should come out (preferably when you realize that there are more players who are worthy of being taken in the first round than there are teams with first round picks) and maybe encourage them to hone their skills in school for a year or two -- or at the very least, be honest with players who are marginal first round picks about their prospects of making it in the NBA.

By the way, what's so wrong with an 18 year old actually going to college? They're eighteen. Is it imperative that they grow up on the end of an NBA bench instead of on a college campus with people their own age? Is that so much more beneficial for their career in the long term? It's been widely reported that Kobe Bryant spent a lot of time alone when he was new to the league and that could have been due in part to the fact that he was a lot younger (and had less in common) than his teammates. Would Bryant have been better served going to college? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least it probably wouldn't have hurt his progress -- both as a player and a young adult. Granted, players like Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James are exceptional talents. But don't forget that players like Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal struggled mightily their first few years in the league and it's not clear that going to college would have slowed their professional growth.

Don't get me wrong, I think players like Lebron James have every right to come out early. He was the best player in amateur basketball last year. But for every James story there are many more stories of players that were convinced they were better than they really were. Junior PF Mario Austin was convinced that he would be taken in the first round in the 2003 draft and left Mississippi State early. He ended up being taken in the second round by the Bulls, told there wasn't any room on the roster for him and not only didn't make it in the NBA, but he lost his last year of NCAA eligibility. Is Austin blameless? Certainly not, but the fact that he was 'guaranteed' to be a first round pick and it didn't materialize underscores how important the decision to come out early really is. And I don't think it can be dismissed cavalierly with a wave of the hand as Vaccaro suggests. And simply uttering, "If you're going anywhere in the first round it doesn't make sense to go to college," doesn't mean it's true.

When talking about Livingston and Williams Vaccaro went on to say:

""I think Shaun Livingston will be a 10-year all-star and a potential top-50 (NBA) player when it's all over. I think he is brilliant,"

..."I think Marvin Williams will be a 10-year all-star. He's so gifted, watching him run and handle.""
Vaccaro might be right, but I think his comments sound more self-serving that prophetic and unless every scout, GM and player personnel guy agrees, I'm not convinced Livingston or Williams should go pro (OK, maybe Livingston should forego college because he's going to Duke). I think it says something when 18-year old Livingston makes the most lucid point:

"It's all about timing. If the timing's not right, then college is probably the best decision."
Should Tommy get a raise?
Here's what ESPN's Len Pasquarelli wrote Friday:
"...Look for Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox or his agent to start making noise again about the player's contract. Maddox was disappointed that Pittsburgh didn't upgrade his deal in 2003, but bit his tongue. That silence won't last much longer."
Here's what Maddox is scheduled to make over the remainder of his contract: $750,000 in 2004 and 2005 and $900,000 in 2006. Looking at list of quarterback salaries in 2002 (the last year I could find data), Maddox ranked 51st out of 103 -- and given that there are only 32 teams in the league, that means 19 backups made more than he did. In 2003 his QB rating ranked 18th out of 30 and his TD/INT differential ranked 17th best (plus 1).

I don't think anyone would argue that Tommy Maddox is overpaid and most people think he deserves a raise -- especially when he replaced a QB in 2002 that was making over $6 million. The question is whether the Steelers promised to rework his contract after they evaluated his 2003 season. And don't forget, Maddox signed with the Steelers in 2001, fresh off his MVP performance in the XFL with absolutely no prospects in the NFL. If he were still a backup, I'm sure his salary would be a nonissue, but given that he's now the starter -- and his backup makes more than he does (at least in base salary) -- he's sure to have a beef with the front office. But does he have a right to complain?

When thinking about what determines a QB's salary, the following are at or near the top of the list: TDs, INTs, QB rating and perhaps most importantly, winning percentage.

I took a look at data from the 2003 seasons to see if there was a relationship between salaray and performance at the QB position. Specifically, was salary a predictor of TD passes, interceptions, QB ratings or winning percentage. The thinking was that the more a QB is paid, the better his numbers should be. Of course there are other things to consider, like did the player improve over time, did the player switch teams (Plummer, for example), did the team overhaul personnel (i.e. rebuild) or did a big part of the offense miss a substantial part of the season (what would happen to the Vikings if Randy Moss went down, for example)?

In general, however, one would think that there should be a relationship between performance and pay, right? Well, when looking at the 2003 season, there was absolutely no correlation between salary and performance for the 32 starting QBs in the NFL. And when I say performance I mean TDs, QB rating, completion percentage, winning percentage and TD/INT differential. Now it could be the case that QBs have improved from one year to the next, and past performance certainly plays a part in salary. Knowing that, I decided to look at the 2002 statistics and compare any improvement/decline to the 2003 season. Again, no relationship between salary and performance.

Initially, I went through this exercise to come up with a model that would give an estimate of what Tommy should be paid based on his performance (and based on how his peers were paid for their performance). But given that there was no discernable relationship between salary and pay, it raises a new (and maybe more interesting) question, are QBs being paid what they are worth? I don't think anyone would argue that Peyton Manning is the most valuble member of the Colts, but why does Drew Bledsoe make over $5 million a year in Buffalo? And even though Mark Brunell enjoyed some success in the late 1990's, why has Joe Gibbs, in the minds of most NFL people, overpaid for his services -- especially when he has a young star-in-the-making, Patrick Ramsey making relatively little in comparison?

So getting back to the question of whether or not Tommy Maddox deserves a raise, I think the answer is probably 'yes.' If for no other reason than he's one of the lowest paid starting QBs in the league -- and he's been an above-average QB for the Steelers. I'm not saying the Steelers should break the bank, but maybe they should give him a contract with more performance incentives (which I think is better than upfront money anyway).

Of course, all this talk of more money assumes that the Pittsburgh front office promised to rework his contract at the end of last season. Now if that conversation never took place, the question becomes what would Maddox be doing now if the Steelers never gave him a chance? Or what if Kordell Stewart didn't go in the tank and was still starting in Pittsburgh?

I think the important thing to ask yourself if your Cowher and Company is, "How can we expect a player to go to battle every week (and after battling for the last two seasons) knowing that we don't think enough of his talent to pay him the median QB salary?" Of course if the Steelers don't think enough of Maddox to pay him more, that may be an indication they're willing to go with him one more season (or even go with Charlie Batch in 2004) and draft a QB early this April. Either way, this will be fun to watch.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

How have Steeler opponents done this free agency? -- Part II
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 in less than a month away). Technically, this could be called Part IIa because I'll first look at the Steelers home nondivisonal opponents and later in the week I'll look at the Steelers away nondivisional opponents (Part IIb).

This is part (2) in a series of (4). Part (1) looked at AFC North opponents improvements through free agency, Part (3) will look at AFC North opponents improvements through the draft, and part (4) will consider nondivisional opponents improvements through the draft.

Here's Part II -- The Nondivisional Home Opponents:

New England Patriots
Needs at the end of 2003:
Despite winning the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, the Pats have a very real need at RB. They have since released RB Antowain Smith, last season's leading rusher (even though he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry). New England re-signed third down back Kevin Faulk, but you can rest assured that they will take RB on the first day of the draft to fill that need for the next few years. C/G Damien Woody was a big loss upfront, but with four picks in the first two rounds, the Pats will fill that need as well. DT Ted Washington is now in Oakland and he was a big part of what made New England one of the best defenses in the league last season. Under the heading of 'one man's trash is another man's treasure': When the Steelers released P Josh Miller, it signaled the beginning of the end for Ken Walters. Miller is one of the best punters in the league and will bolster an otherwise pedestrian punting game. The Pats might also look to get more height on the outside. They've signed veteran WR J.J. Stokes, but this draft is very deep in talented receivers.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
OG Russ Hochstein (re-signed)
WR J.J. Stokes (re-signed)
RB Kevin Faulk (re-signed)
LB Don Davis (re-signed)
DE Rodney Bailey (Steelers)
P Josh Miller (Steelers)
RB Patrick Pass (re-signed)
S Je'Rod Cherry (re-signed)

Players lost through Free Agency:
DT Ted Washington (Raiders)
OL Damien Woody (Lions)
S Chris Akins (Dolphins)
OL Mike Compton (Jaguars)
RB Antowain Smith

Even though Ty Law can't quit complaining how he's getting screwed (he'll make over $6 million this season), the Patriots are in an enviable position. They have a young, very competent quarterback, a young (albeit undersized and not including Troy Brown) group of receivers, a strong offensive line and a defense that was the best in the AFC. That said, Coach Bill Belichick will use the glut of draft picks to fill the few remaining holes on this team.

Draft picks in April:
The Patriots have 10 draft picks this April.
1(21), 1(32), 2(56), 2(63), 3(95), 4(112), 4(127), 5(159), 6(191), 7(223)

Likely first round pick:
It's no secret that the Patriots would love to have either RB Steven Jackson or Kevin Jones fall to them with the 21st pick. If it looks like that might not happen they may trade up, or draft RB Chris Perry or RB Greg Jones. The Patriots will probably use their second first round pick on Virginia Tech C Jake Grove (the best center in the draft) to replace Woody, who signed with Detroit this offseason.

Grade (through free agency):
The Pats lost two big parts of their team: C/G Damien Woody and DT Ted Washington, but Belichick has strengthened the punting game -- one of the weakest areas for the Pats last season. It looks like most of the action will take place in the draft. Grade: C -.

New York Jets
Needs at the end of 2003:
After a 6-10 season, the Jets had a lot to address. They released underachieving WR Curtis Conway, CB Aaron Beasley, S Sam Garnes, LB Marvin Jones and LB Mo Lewis. They're defense was porous at best and they should address this on the first day of the draft. Offensively, Chad Pennington will need more dangerous targets on the outside to complement a running game led by Curtis Martin.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
OG Brent Smith (re-signed)
LB Eric Barton (Raiders)
CB David Barrett (Cardinals)
K Doug Brien (re-signed)
LB Quincy Stewart (re-signed)
SS Reggie Tongue (Seahawks)
LB Kenyatta Wright (re-signed)
WR Justin McCareins (traded 2nd round pick)

Players lost through Free Agency:
WR Curtis Conway (released)
OG Dave Szott (retired)
CB Aaron Beasley (released)
LB Mo Lewis (released)
S Sam Garnes (released)
S Tyrone Carter (Vikings)
WR Kevin Swayne (Redskins)
LB Marvin Jones (released)

The Jets gave up a second round pick to get WR Justin McCareins and that may sound steep, but McCareins is a solid receiver with height, speed and great hands. He will make Pennington's job a lot easier next season. There are still a lot of holes on the defensive side of the ball, especially after CB Antoine Winfield and S John Lynch spurned the Jets to go elsewhere (although in my opinion, Winfield going to the Vikings did the Jets a favor). These concerns should be addressed early in the draft, even though New York only has six picks.

Draft picks in April:
The Jets have 6 draft picks this April.
1(12), 3(76), 4(107), 5(138), 6(172), 7(203)

Likely first round pick:
There are some rumors that the Jets will take the best available CB with the 12th pick. Considering how volatile the player ranking have been, that could be DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Chris Gamble, Will Poole, or whoever the flavor of the week is come draft day. They may also want to trade down and get more picks while still being able to get a topflight CB.

Grade (through free agency):
Getting McCareins is big for the Jets offensively, but after losing both Winfield and Lynch they still have a lot of work to do. Grade: B-.

Philadelphia Eagles
Needs at the end of 2003:
After watching the NFC Championship game it became painfully obvious that Donavan McNabb gets absolutely no help from his receivers. As a consequence, the Eagles made getting a high-profile receiver their number one priority. And they did just that when they acquired (although quite circuitously) Terrell Owens from the 49ers via the Ravens. That move alone would make for a great free agency, but Philadelphia addressed the defensive line situation when they signed Jevon Kearse. And while they may have paid too much for 'the freak,' he will certainly improve a defense that faired pretty well last season. RB Duce Staley is now with the Steelers, but Philadelphia is confident that Correll Buckhalter will have no problem picking up the slack.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
DE Jevon Kearse (Titans)
LB Dhani Jones (Giants)
WR Terrell Owens (49ers)

Players lost through Free Agency:
LB Carlos Emmons (Giants)
RB Duce Staley (Steelers)
DE Marco Coleman (Broncos)
CB Troy Vincent (Bills)
CB Bobby Taylor (Seahawks)
OG Bobbie Williams (Bengals)
QB A.J. Feeley
DL Brandon Whiting (49ers)

Draft picks in April:
The Eagles have 6 draft picks this April.
1(28), 2(58), 3(89), 6(179), 6(186), 7(217)

Likely first round pick:
LB Carlos Emmons is now with the Giants, and both CBs (Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent) are gone so look for the Eagles to address these needs on the first day of the draft. Some draft boards have Philly taking a LB in the first round and a CB in the second round. At some point in the draft they will also hope to fortify the offensive line.

Grade (through free agency):
At least on paper, acquiring Terrell Owens will make Donovan McNabb's job a lot easier. Whether that is actually case remains to be seen. And although the Eagles overpaid for Jevon Kearse, he will bolster an already good defense. Replacing the defensive backfield will in part determine how successful the Eagles will be next year. Grade: A.

Washington Redskins
Needs at the end of 2003:
There's not enough space on this weblog to address all the problems the Redskins had at the end of the 2003 season. That said, new/old head coach Joe Gibbs has come in with guns blazing. New faces include QB Mark Brunell, CB Shawn Springs, LB Marcus Washington and RB Clinton Portis. They got rid of LB Jessie Armstead and P Brian Barker and perhaps the most selfish player in the NFL, all-time sack leader Bruce Smith. They still have needs at safety, defensive end and on the offensive line (don't forget QB Patrick Ramsey took more shots last year than Lebron James in the rookie NBA all-star game). Whether bringing in Brunell for veteran leadership was the right thing to do may also be questioned if he falters early and Ramsey doesn't see the field (personally, I think it's a bad idea).

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
DT Cornelius Griffin (Giants)
DE Phillip Daniels (Bears)
OL Lennie Friedman (re-signed)
LS Ethan Albright (re-signed)
LB Keith Mitchell (re-signed)
LB Marcus Washington (Colts)
TE Walter Rasby (Saints)
P Tom Tupa (Bucs)
C Cory Raymer (Chargers)
S Todd Franz (re-signed)
LB Lemar Marshall (re-signed)
CB Ralph Brown (Giants)
CB Walt Harris (Colts)
DT Joe Salave'a (Chargers)
WR Kevin Swayne (Jets)
QB Mark Brunell (Jaguars)
RB Clinton Portis (Broncos)

Players lost through Free Agency:
DE Bruce Smith (released)
LB Jessie Armstead (Panthers)
DT Lional Dalton (released)
P Bryan Barker (released)
DT Martin Chase (Giants)
WR Patrick Johnson (Bengals)

Draft picks in April:
The Redskins have 2 draft picks this April.
1(5), 5(134)

Likely first round pick:
Pro Football Weekly reports that rumors out of Washington suggest that the team has its sights set on two Miami (Fla.) players -- TE Kellen Winslow and FS Sean Taylor -- with its first-round pick if it chooses not to trade down to gather more picks. At first it appeared that the team would rather keep the pick, seeing as how owner Daniel Snyder likes star power, but the need for a defensive end is great enough that the team would consider trading down, since it doesn't view any DE prospect as being worthy of the No. 5 pick. Despite signing veteran Phillip Daniels, defensive end remains a bigger need than either free safety or tight end, but it will be tough to pass on two players who potentially could redefine the position.

Grade through (free agency):
The Redskins have outdone every other team in free agency, but not without a price. They only have two picks in April and they will feel the full force of their salary cap decisions in 2006. Until then, they will be competitive, but unless they win it all, I'm not sure it will be worth it.
Grade: A +.

Oakland Raiders
Needs at the end of 2003:
Where to start. The Raiders had more problems in 2003 than anyone would care to remember. The players basically gave up halfway through the season on a coach who gave up well before that. Norv Turner is now running the show and he's got a lot of work to do to get this team back to anything close their 2002 form. Gone are three LBs, including steroid-user and all-around nutcase, Bill Romanowski (was it any surprise that he was named in the whole BALCO thing?), DE Trace Armstrong and RB Charlie Garner.

Newcomers include DT Warren Sapp, DT Ted Washington and LBs Dwayne Rudd and Danny Clark. The Raiders still have huge questions at WR and QB if for no other reason than the average age at those positions is 56. RB is also a question after Charlie Garner moved to the Bucs. There has been speculation that malcontent Corey Dillion may end up in Oakland, but I'm not convinced that's a good thing. Unless Sapp can play QB (we know he can play RB), the Raiders might be in for another long season.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
CB Charles Woodson (franchise)
OG Brad Badger (re-signed)
DT Ted Washington (Patriots)
OG Ron Stone (49ers)
CB Ike Charlton (Giants)
LB Danny Clark (Jaguars)
LB Dwayne Rudd (Bucs)
DT Warren Sapp (Bucs)

Players lost through Free Agency:
LB Bill Romanowski (released)
DE Trace Armstrong (released)
OL Matt Stinchcomb (Bucs)
DT Rod Coleman (Falcons)
LB Eric Barton (Jets)
RB Charlie Garner (Bucs)
LB Eric Johnson (Falcons)

Draft picks in April:
The Raiders have 8 draft picks this April.
1(2), 2(45), 3(67), 4(98), 5(129), 6(160), 7(195), 7(213)

Likely first round pick:
Barring any trades, the Raiders will probably take one of two WRs (Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Williams) or maybe a QB for the future (if available, Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger). And if they wanted to address a below average offensive line they could also take Robert Gallery. Basically because they have so many holes, whoever they take will certainly help this team -- if not next year, then in the near future.

Grade through (free agency):
Other than Charlie Garner, the other Raider departees were over the hill. The acquisition of DTs Washington and Sapp will immediately improve a poor defense, but both players have lost a step in the last few years. That said, the Raiders are moving in the right direction, but they still have a very long way to go to be competitive again. Grade: B.

Up next: Free Agent grades for the Steelers 2004 nondivisional away opponents.
*In case you missed Part I, find it here.

1 out of awful
Nice work. I was one for four last night in predicting the winners based on 'the model' (see below). I was wrong about Duke, Kansas and Texas. Note to self: you can do just as well by guessing. The good news is that I have a whole year to work on this model before I'll need to use it again. Now I'm just pulling for whoever plays Duke.

Friday, March 26, 2004

3 out of average
Well, I got three out of four games right last night using my "guaranteed to pick'em right" statistical model for the final 16 teams. Of course, just picking the favorites get's you three out of four too, but that's not the point. Anyway, the real test will come tonight when I have UAB beating Kansas and Illinois beating Duke. If I somehow manage to get those picks (which I even have trouble buying), I'll be in Las Vegas for the rest of the tournament.

Tarheel recruits take part in roundball classic
From Tony's Tarheel page:
"Tar Heel recruits Marvin Williams and J.R. Smith each participated - albeit on opposite sides - at the Roundball Classic in Chicago last night. Smith suited up for the east and earned MVP honors with his 16 point, 4 assist, 2 rebound effort while Williams contributed 15 points and 2 rebounds for the victorious West. Both players will also participate in the prestigious McDonald's All-Star game next Wednesday night as well."
Here's a story in the Charlotte Observer (free registration required) about the Roundball Classic MVP Shaun Livingston (he's going to Duke), Marvin Williams and J.R. Smith. Here's what Smith said about going straight to the NBA:
"I'm not going to say I won't turn pro," he said. "I want to be a college player. I want to play for coach (Roy) Williams. But it would be great to play in the NBA because that's everyone's goal out here.

"You only have so many chances to get there. If that's my chance, I'll take it."
Here's a look at the 2004 Roundball Classic rosters.

Has Pedro lost some juice?
Today's Boston Globe talks about how Pedro Martinez has had trouble hitting 90 mph on the radar gun during spring training. The story does go on to say that Pedro still puts up outrageously good numbers, but the fact that he's throwing in the high 80's does cause some to pause (at least for journalists looking for a story).

This is a prime example of people overvaluing raw velocity. Baseball is full of pitchers who are very successful because of how much movement they have and not how hard they throw (John Tudor when he was with the Cards, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux today). Baseball is also full of guys who throw lasers but when they pitch it often looks like it's snowing because of all the white orbs falling from the sky (my favorite John Rocker, for example).

Pedro makes the point much better than I did here when he says:
"Lost my fastball? . . . 90, 91, nobody lost a fastball. That's a good fastball. And if anybody wants to test it, let the scouts stand there with a bat, I'll beat them at 91 . . . You go to our minor league complex, you'll find a lot of guys at 95, 97 miles an hour and they're still in the minor leagues. Is that a coincidence? Why would that be?"

Thursday, March 25, 2004

85 Years Without a Ring and Still Happily Married
In todays Providence Journal:
"An upcoming documentary about the agony and ecstasy of the 2003 Boston Red Sox season, scheduled to open in Boston on May 7 and go wider in following weeks, chronicles the relationship between the baseball team and its fervent fans. The film follows last season, from spring training to the American League championship series, in which the Sox were five outs away from beating the rival New York Yankees in Game 7."
That's something you'll definitely want to add to the collection. Right next to "The life and times of Bill Buckner," and "The Bucky Dent Story: How I hit a home run with a 20 inch bat and summarily crushed any hopes of the Red Sox going to the World Series, Vol. I."

Williams already gearing up for next season
The Raleigh News & Observer has a story today about what Roy Williams expects for next season. As I mentioned earlier this week, Williams expects all his players to return, but he also is confident that high school All-American Marvin Williams will choose Chapel Hill over the NBA. Here are some of the highlights from his press conference:
Roy Williams is excited about the prospects of Marvin Williams joining the Tarheels because at 6'9" he will provide some much needed support inside, perhaps freeing Sean May to play more as a power forward. The coach went on to say that he's been in contact with JamesOn Curry, but it is still too early to make any decisions about where he will be next season.

Williams mentioned that he's talked to several people about Matt Doherty getting back into coaching, although he didn't want to get too specific. Like Doherty or not, if Larry Eustachy can get another job (apparently Southern Miss will name him head coach today), there's no doubt in my mind that Doherty shouldn't be out of work for too long -- and maybe he's had time to reassess his coaching style during his time off.

Coach Williams says he plans on meeting with all players early next week, and this is what he had to say about players leaving college early to turn pro:
"... I've said many times if a guy can be drafted in the top six to eight picks, than I have zero problem. To hear someone say, 'If he's going to be drafted in the first round [then go],' well that's not very bright.

If a guy is drafted with the last pick [in the first round], that's $2.5 million. Taxes are going to take half of that, so now you've got $1.25 million. And then you're going to buy three cars, two mink coats and six houses and two years later, you're in debt $2 million. Just to say that anybody can be drafted in the first round -- in my opinion, that's not a good thing. Drew Gooden got $10 million. He was the fourth player picked. If they do what they're supposed to, that's enough to take them all the way out."
There is still no consensus, but Raymond Felton probably won't sneak into the top eight -- of course a lot can change between now and the end of June.

When asked how his players can get better defensively, Williams had a simple solution: " should never guard someone like you want to be guarded." He went on to show exactly how serious he is about this whole 'defense is really important' thing:
"I got mad last year when I came back from camp one night and there had been a pickup game where the old guys had beat the young guys. It made me mad, because I think winning is important. So I went around to every player and said, 'What happened?' They said, 'Well, we took bad shots and didn't guard anybody.' I said, 'Then change.'"
When asked if he needed a break after a very trying season, this is what Coach Williams had to say:
"I'm absolutely worn out, but I also want to start again. I'd like to start next year's team with the feeling that this year's team has right now -- with the knowledge and the experience that this team has right now. I don't want any of that to be lost over the summer."

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

PFW's mock draft
Pro Football Weekly has their most recent mock draft up and there are two encouraging things if you're a Pittsburgh fan (or more precisely, if you're this Pittsburgh fan), (1) The Steelers take a CB with their first pick (Dunta Robinson, South Carolina) and (2) the Steelers don't take Philip Rivers with their first pick (he's taken by Green Bay at 25).

What is surprising in this mock draft however, is that PFW has the Steelers taking another CB in the second round (Joey Thomas, Montana St.). That may be a stretch, especially with needs at offensive line.

A look at linemen in the draft
A primary concern for the Steelers entering this offseason was on the offensive line (particularly at the tackle position), and it looks like they will use the draft to address this concern.'s Pat Kirwan has a story about the available linemen in April's draft and how many scouts around the league rate them.

Here's what Kirwan had to say about the available offensive tackles:
"...The interest in linemen shifts back to tackle after Smiley, and the guys the coaches tell me they like as the second-round picks are Jacob Rogers of USC and Max Starks of Florida. Rogers is described as an athlete with a toughness coaches can see on film. Starks appears to have jumped a few tackles that were ahead of him a few weeks ago.

...The good news if you are hoping your favorite team can rebuild or upgrade their offensive line through the draft the late rounds have produced some pretty good O-linemen in the past. So, I asked my coaching friends for some long-shot candidates that intrigue them, and I got these names. Khiawatha Downey from Indiana (Pa.) who has overcome Multiple Sclerosis, tackle Marko Cavaka from Sacramento State who has measurable numbers to rival Gallery, and center Nick Hardwick from Purdue.

It's a well-known secret around the NFL that many line coaches like to get their players late in the draft and spend two years developing them with no pressure to play them early. Sometimes I think the coaches like to keep their excitement for the linemen down so they don't all get drafted too early."
It will be interesting to see what the Steelers do with their 9 picks in next months draft.

Be like Mike...Logan
Safety Mike Logan re-signed last week with the Steelers and by all accounts it was a good move for both sides. What's more important (and maybe more telling) is the reason Logan decided to stay in Pittsburgh even though he was being heavily recruited by the Green Bay Packers -- his loyalty to the team. And the loyalty Logan felt the Steelers had to him.

Being from Pittsburgh probably didn't hurt either, but there are more instances than not when a hometown boy skips out for the big paycheck somewhere else. In a time when people like Terrell Owens and Ty Law spend more time soapboxing about the injustices they have endured (who can live on $7 million a year, anyway?), it's refreshing to see players like Mike Logan make decisions based on loyalty first.

I haven't even mentioned the fact that Logan will again be a big part of a defensive backfield that is a cornerback away from being very, very good.

Here's what Logan said when he first signed with the Steelers in 2001 and I think it says a lot about who this guy is:
"My agent called and told me the Steelers wanted to talk to me," said Logan. "I was just, let's go, let's go sign. I don't even care what they're offering. I just wanted to get it done."

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

How well can you model the NCAA tournament winner?
I realize I'm not the first dope to use statistics to try and predict who will win the NCAA tournament. That said, I have taken the liberty of at least starting with the field of 16 to hopefully give myself a better chance of getting things right. For this exercise, I use a model that estimates a team's probability of winning based on team FT%, FG%, steals per game, rebounds per game and assist-to-turnover ratio (ATR) (I did a similar study estimating exactly how important FT% was when determining team winning percentage).

I'll break this down by games and see how well I can model (predict) the winners of Thursday's and Friday's games. So here goes (a note about the model -- this is just a quick and dirty attempt to see how well I can predict the winners. I realize there are many variables I left out, but I figure at the very least, it's a start):

*The winner of each game is in bold
Vanderbilt vs. UConn
(Thursday, March 25)

Vanderbilt's chance of winning: 75.8%
UConn's chance of winning: 83.8%

Pittsburgh vs. Oklahoma St.
(Thursday, March 25)

Pittsburgh's chance of winning: 70.9%
Oklahoma St's chance of winning: 79.1%

Alabama vs. Syracuse
(Thursday, March 25)

Alabama's chance of winning: 60.8%
Syracuse's chance of winning: 77.9%

Wake Forest vs. St. Joseph's
(Thursday, March 25)

Wake Forest's chance of winning: 75.9%
St. Joseph's chance of winning: 82.7%

UAB vs. Kansas
(Friday, March 26)

UAB's chance of winning: 76.6%
Kansas's chance of winning: 74.5%

Nevada vs. Ga. Tech
(Friday, March 26)

Nevada's chance of winning: 69.8%
Ga. Tech's chance of winning: 73.4%

Illinois vs. Duke
(Friday, March 26)

Illinois's chance of winning: 74.7%
Duke's chance of winning: 74.2%

Xavier vs. Texas
(Friday, March 26)

Xavier's chance of winning: 62.5%
Texas's chance of winning: 74.5%
So there it is, the final 8 -- UConn, OSU, Syracuse, St. Joe's, UAB, Ga. Tech, Illinois and Texas. The Thursday games are all won by the higher seed, but the Friday games have two upsets: UAB beats Kansas and Illinois beats Duke. Let's hope I do better here than I did in my NCAA pool (I think I have 5 teams left). I'll post the final four and champion tomorrow.

*If anyone is interested (and I doubt they are) in the model I used to get these results, let me know.

Heels reiterate intentions to stay in school
The Washington Post reports (again) that UNC plans on returning all three sophomores for at least one more season. Here are some of the highlights from the article:
"Prior to the season, there was plenty of speculation that this would be the last year in Chapel Hill for [Rashad] McCants, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, and sophomore point guard Raymond Felton. But the year was somewhat disappointing for the Tar Heels, who finished 19-11 overall, 8-8 in the ACC and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and the second round of the NCAAs.

McCants was named first-team all-conference and averaged 20 points and 4.8 rebounds, shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range. But scouts in Denver didn't think he handled the ball well enough to play off guard in the NBA, and he's not tall enough to play small forward.

Felton, the ACC's preseason player of the year, was named to the all-ACC third team and averaged 11.5 points and 7.1 assists, but he shot just 31.2 percent on three-pointers.

"I expect to have all of them back," Coach Roy Williams said. "I really do.""
Let's hope Roy is right.

Alexander released
Free safety Brent Alexander was released by the Steelers yesterday. He would have been 34 when the season started. This now clear the way for Mike Logan to move to free safety (with Chris Hope vying for time) and last year's first round draft pick, Troy Polamalu to start at strong safety. It also gives the Steelers roughly $1 million in additional cap space.

Steelers preseason schedule set...kind of
The Steelers' preseason schedule:
Week 1 (Aug. 12-16) at Detroit Lions TBA
Week 2 (Aug. 19-23) Houston Texans TBA
Week 3 (Thur, Aug. 26) at Philadelphia Eagles 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Week 4 (Sept. 2-5) Carolina Panthers TBA

The regular season schedule has not been set, but the teams are known:
Steelers home games: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New England, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland.
Steelers away games: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Miami, Dallas, New York Giants, Jacksonville.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Have AFC North Teams made Improvements through Free Agency? - Part I
As the offseason progresses, I'll take a look at what improvements the Steeler's opponents for 2004 have made through free agency acquisitions and April draft picks. I'll do this in four parts: (1) AFC North opponents improvements through free agency, (2) Nondivisional opponents improvements through free agency, (3) AFC North opponents improvements through the draft, and (4) Nondivisional opponents improvements through the draft. Here I'll discuss the AFC North free agent signings and next week I'll take a look at the nondivisional opponents free agent signings. Obviously, I can't discuss team draft picks until after April 25. And finally, I'll also take a look at what the Steelers have done to date.

Compared to teams like the Redskins and Eagles, the AFC North has been conspicuously quiet this free agency. Some of this may be intentional (Pittsburgh -- although some would vehemently disagree) while some may be the result of questionable judgment on the part of the free agents (Cincinnati and Warren Sapp, Troy Vincent), questionable judgement on the part of the front office (Cleveland and Tim Couch) or both (Baltimore with Terrell Owens).

I'll take a look at how each team did during free agency based on their needs at the end of the 2003 season and whether they have addressed any of those needs to date (with the understanding that some needs can be addressed during the draft). Let's get going with Part I -- The AFC North Division:

Baltimore Ravens
Needs at the end of 2003:
Defensively, the Ravens finished second in the league -- so relatively speaking, they are solid there. And they put the franchise tag on All-Pro CB Chris McAlister, so they have him for at least one more year. 'One-dimensional' does not even begin to describe the Ravens offensively, however. Head coach Brian Billick made clear on more than one occasion that the offense was built around 2,000 yard rusher, Jamal Lewis (He accounted for 42 percent of the offense and scored 14 of the team's 34 offensive touchdowns). Billick has been insistent this offseason that the Ravens are not looking to find a replacement for Lewis in the event his legal woes prevent him from playing next season (Currently they have capable backups Musa Smith and Chester Taylor).

That said, the Ravens still have glaring weaknesses at WR and to a lesser extent at QB. As I mention below, All-Pro TE Todd Heap led the team in receptions and QBs Todd Boller and Anthony Wright didn't have a consistent go-to target on the outside all season (WR Marcus Robinson, who did become Wright's primary target towards the end of the season will play in Minnesota next season). Of course, the Ravens did everything by the book to acquire Terrell Owens, and were summarily told to take a hike. As a result they got a fifth round pick for their troubles and the pleasure of trying to fill the WR void with the likes of Dez White, James McKnight, Curtis Conway, Bill Schroeder and Antonio Freeman -- the remaining free agent WRs. They chose (wisely) to do nothing.

Which leads me to the Ravens next area of concern -- QB. It's hard to tell if Boller progressed enough last season to be a reliable starter coming into 2004. He struggled for most of the season (which certainly isn't unexpected for a rookie) but a strong case could easily be made that he was better than both Anthony Wright (a perpetual NFL backup) and Chris Redman (who had one of the worst performances I've seen recently when he came in for the injured Boller against St. Louis). Given that Boller is entering his second year in the league, I'm sure Billick has no intentions of using either free agency or the draft to address the QB position. He'll get a few more years to prove he's not Trent Dilfer/Tony Banks/Elvis Grbac (and I mean that in a good way).

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Orlando Brown, T
Matt Stover, K
Adalius Thomas, LB
Anthony Wright, QB
Chris McAlister, CB (franchise)
Mike Flynn, C

Players lost through Free Agency:
Marcus Robinson, WR (to Vikings)
Tom Knight, CB (to Tampa Bay)

Orlando Brown, although known for his anger management issues, does provide some level of stability at the tackle position. Matt Stover is one of the most consistent, clutch kickers in the NFL and would have not been easily replaced. It looks like Adalius Thomas will continue to backup both Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs and serve as the special teams guru (after making the Pro Bowl for special teams last season). Anthony Wright, as we all know by now, had a serviceable season last year and helped the Ravens get to the playoffs (at least in the sense that he minimized mistakes at the QB position). He'll certainly be adequate as a backup to Boller. And of course Chris McAlister, when not letting Plaxico Burress or Hines Ward take him out of his game, can be an impact player.

Draft picks in April:
The Ravens have 7 draft picks this April.
2(51), 3(88), 4(119), 5(150), 5(155), 6(181), 7(212)

Likely first round pick:
The Ravens do not have a first round pick in the 2004 draft because they traded it to the New England Patriots last year for the right to draft QB Kyle Boller (taken with the 19th pick). There is some speculation that the Ravens will take a WR in the second round because their leading receiver last season was a TE (granted, Todd Heap is an All-Pro TE, but a TE nonetheless). Heap led the team with 57 catches (693 yds) and the next closer receiver was Travis Taylor who had 39 catches (632 yds). Fourth on the list: Jamal Lewis with 26 catches (205 yds). Wide receivers mentioned include Washington State's Devard Darling, Virginia Tech's Ernest Wilford and Wisconsin's Lee Evans, who all may be available in the second round.

Grade (through free agency):
Because TO's antics prevented the Ravens from addressing WR position, and because the remaining WRs were not impact players, the Ravens garner a C -. With TO the Ravens get an A.

Cincinnati Bengals
Needs at the end of 2003:
Even with Marvin Lewis as head coach, Cincinnati had an insufferable defensive backfield. They released CB Artrell Hawkins (who has since signed with the Panthers) and Jeff Burris. Tory James was surprisingly consistent, but he can't cover both WRs at the same time. The Bengals were spurned by Warren Sapp in favor of the Raiders and Troy Vincent chose to sign with the Bills. There are reports that Bobby Taylor is still on the radar screen after the Bengals made a more amenable offer. Marvin Lewis has made it clear however, that his goal is to build a consistently winning team without sacrificing the future by back-loading contracts. So this may indicate slow-going in free agency with the plan to stock the team through the draft.

The good news is that the Bengals plan to start second year QB, Carson Palmer and will have a solid backup in Jon Kitna (although there are reports that Dennis Erickson will be looking to get Kitna in San Francisco if he's available).

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Rich Braham, C
Shayne Graham, K
Reggie Myles, CB
Kim Herring, S (from the Rams)
Patrick Johnson, WR (from Washington)
Nate Webster, LB (from Tampa Bay)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Mike Goff, OL (to San Diego)
Matt O'Dwyer, OL (to Tampa Bay)
Brandon Bennett, RB (to Tampa Bay)

As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer the players who have signed and re-signed are keys to the team's fortunes in 2004: Kim Herring will be a starting safety. Nate Webster will start at middle linebacker and should make a difference in the run defense. Center Rich Braham will be invaluable to first-year starting quarterback Carson Palmer, and kicker Shayne Graham has added to the special teams' stability.

Draft picks in April:
The Bengals have 7 draft picks this April.
1(17), 2(49), 3(80), 4(113), 5(144), 6(177), 7(208)

Likely first round pick:
Since the Bengals lost out on Warren Sapp and have yet to sign Bobby Taylor, they will be looking to address those needs via the draft. Don't be surprised if they take a CB with the 17th pick. Who might that be? It's too early to tell for no other reason than as Pro Day's continue, players will move up and down the board as scouts adjust and re-adjust their player rankings. There could be anywhere from two to five CBs selected before the 17th pick, depending on which draft board you believe. Of course losing out on Sapp means that if DT Vince Wilfork (Miami) is available at 17 (which seems pretty doubtful right now), you can be pretty sure that the Bengals will take him.

Grade (through free agency):
If the Bengals had signed Sapp and Vincent or Taylor they would have gotten an A. Having yet to sign anyone that addresses their immediate needs, I'll give them a D. Of course, come April 24, if the Bengals are somehow able to get Wilfork at 17 and a CB in the second round, it'll be an entirely different story.

Cleveland Browns
Needs at the end of 2003:
Apparently Coach Butch Davis felt that the Browns had a need at QB because they now have Jeff Garcia penciled in as the starter and Tim Couch on the way out. Cleveland also has some concerns on the offensive line (a matter they had hoped to address through free agency). There are also rumors that Davis might used their first round pick on TE Kellen Winslow Jr.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Brant Boyer, LB
Frisman Jackson, WR
Michael Myers, DL
Terrelle Smith, FB
Ebenezer Ekuban, DE (from Dallas)
Jeff Garcia, QB (from San Francisco)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Chris Gardocki, P (to Pittsburgh)
Lewis Sanders, CB (to Jacksonville)
Jamel White, RB (to Tampa Bay)
Shaun O'Hara, OL (to Giants)
Barry Stokes, OL (to Giants)

Jeff Garcia should be an impact player and is undoubtedly an improvement over the Couch/Holcombe combo. Tracy Morgan and Andre Davis will need to have productive seasons to help the Browns improve a lackluster offense. Additionally, it looks like Lee Suggs will be the starter since White has signed with the Bucs and Green will probably be traded or released. The Plain Dealer reported today that the Browns are considering two players at the tackle position: Orlando Pace and Robert Gallery. If neither is acquired, Ross Verba would return to left tackle if healthy. There is no Plan C as yet. It looks like the 29-year old Pace wants too much money and to get Robert Gallery the Browns would have to give up some picks to move up in the draft.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports this morning that the Browns have signed guard Kelvin Garmon, who started 16 games last season for the Chargers (He was part of the blocking effort that paved the way for LaDainian Tomlinson to rush for 200 yards against the Browns in a 26-20 San Diego victory on Oct. 19).

Draft picks in April:
The Browns have 8 draft picks this April.
1(7), 2(37), 3(68), 4(105), 5(136), 6(167), 6(170), 7(198)

Likely first round pick:
If Cleveland holds on to the seventh pick, it is still not clear who they will take. Davis came from the University of Miami and there have been reports that he's very high on TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. There are also some draft boards that have QB Ben Roethlisberger falling to the Browns. Even though Tim Couch is on the trading blocks (and soon to be on the waiver wire), Kelly Holcombe has been demoted to second string and 34-year old Jeff Garcia is the new starter, don't be surprised if the Browns take Roethlisberger. Garcia could start for two or three more years, and Roethlisberger could step in as the franchise QB for the next 10 years. Of course, the Browns have a glaring weakness on the offensive line and were unable to address this problem through free agency. There are reports that they are in love with LT Robert Gallery and might be interested in moving up to get him. Good luck with that.

Grade (through free agency):
So far, the Browns have done nothing to improve the OT position, but made a marked improvement in the QB position with the signing of Jeff Garcia. Grade: B.
Of course, if Garcia has no one to block for him it won't matter (see Tommy Maddox).

With the signing of G Kelvin Garmon, the Browns have addressed (at least in the short term) one of their major concerns. As a result, I'll now give them an A -.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Needs at the end of 2003:
It was pretty obvious that the Steelers still had some serious concerns in the defensive backfield (even though Deshea Townsend, Mike Logan and to a lesser extent Ike Taylor were all pleasant surprises), the offensive line, running back and to a smaller degree, linebacker and quarterback.

Needs addressed through Free Agency or Resigning:
Matt Cushing, TE
Chris Doering, WR
Clark Haggans, LB
Chris Hoke, DL
Dan Kreider, RB
Chukky Okobi, C
Mike Logan, S
Jeff Reed, K
Chris Gardocki, P (from Cleveland)
Travis Kirschke, RB (from San Francisco)
Duce Staley, RB (from Philadelphia)
Terry Fair, CB (formerly from Detroit)

Players lost through Free Agency:
Rodney Bailey, DE (to New England)
Mark Bruener, TE (to Houston)
Josh Miller, P (to New England)
Dwayne Washington, CB (to Jacksonville)

Duce Staley is the only marquee signing for the Steelers, and that may be by design. He's a tough RB who can catch coming out of the backfield and it looks like the Steelers plan on returning to the run for 2004. In all likelihood, Doering will serve as the 4th WR after one of his best seasons in 2003. It looks like Haggans will take over for Gildon (who will probably be released and will free up some cap room) and maybe last year's second round pick, OLB Alonzo Jackson will get some playing time in 2004. Kreider is a solid blocking FB who Staley will quickly come to appreciate. The safety position is solidified with the resigning of Mike Logan, who will probably start at free safety with second year player Troy Polamalu slated to be the strong safety. Jeff Reed needs to quit missing field goals from 25 yards and in (which may explain why Cowher has signed another kicker to compete with Reed during camp) and while Gardocki has never had a punt blocked, I'm not sure he'll be a marked improvement over Josh Miller. Kirschke will be a backup, but his signing actually saved the Steelers some cash and got them a sixth round pick as compensation for the loss of DT Rodney Bailey (signed by the Pats).

Draft picks in April:
The Steelers have 9 draft picks this April.
1(11), 2(44), 3(75), 4(106), 5(140), 6(171), 6(188), 6(from the Pats), 7(202)

Likely first round pick:
There certainly is no consensus on who the Steelers should take in the first round. Most boards have the Steelers taking a CB in the first round (with which I agree). The top CBs to date are Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall, South Carolina's Dunta Robinson, USC's Will Poole and Ohio State's Chris Gamble. Others however, have the Steelers taking QB Philip Rivers with the eleventh pick, which to me seems like a stretch. If Pittsburgh is dead set on taking Rivers then they should trade down, land some more picks and get him later in the first round. There are also some rumors swirling that QB Ben Roethlisberger might fall to 11, but I think the chances of that happening are very, very slim -- and if there's even a remote possibility he is available at 11, sit back and watch a bevy of teams make offers to trade up and nab Roethlisberger before the Steelers ever get a chance to pick.

Grade through (free agency):
It seems like the Steelers plan from the outset was to be cautious in free agency and try to stockpile picks and address needs in April. If that's the case, the Steelers seem to be on course. They signed Duce Staley, perhaps indicating they'll use the first round pick for either CB or OL help. That being said, they could draft a RB for the future with second pick (if Greg Jones is available, there's a good chance that the Steelers might take him) and address OL needs in the third round. Things should become clearer in the next few weeks.
Grade: B -.

Next week: Free Agent grades for the Steelers 2004 nondivisional opponents.

Steeler Draft News
Here's the Tribune-Review's weekly NFL Draft Q & A with Chris Kucharski. Some good stuff here.

PFW profiles RB Chris Perry
According to Pro Football Weekly, in one year Michigan RB Chris Perry has gone from "Good system player. Average speed. Good hands. Picks up the blitz well. Decent leader but perhaps a little self-absorbed. Not a gamebreaker. Tough. Big heart." to "Great production. Good speed. Great hands. Great blocker, especially on the blitz. Can turn the corner. Extremely tough." Couple that with a pretty solid Pro Day (his 40-time was in the 4.5's) and Kevin Jones's pretty lackluster Pro Day (three 40-times in the 4.6's) and some think Perry might now be the second running back taken after Oregon State's Steven Jackson. I'm still not convinced that he's better than Kevin or Greg Jones and there is also the concern that his heavy workload at Michigan might be a problem as his professional career progresses.

I'm still pushing for the Steelers to nab RB Greg Jones of Florida State in the second round.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Already thinking about next year
The Longhorns defeated the Tarheels last night 78-75, and while that loss provided a bitter end to a season filled with ups and downs, what transpires over the next few months could shape the course of the Tarheel program over the next few years.

In particular, guards Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants and F/C Sean May could all forego their last two years of college eligibility and turn pro. There is also the possibility that two Tarheel recruits may not make it to Chapel Hill. Marvin Williams, a 6'9" forward from Washington state is still entertaining the idea of going pro (29 ppg, 16 rpg). JamesOn Curry, who holds the NC state scoring record, was arrested in February on 6 drug-related felony charges (37 ppg, 7 rpg, and 5.5 apg). Roy Williams has yet to decide on whether he will still offer Curry a scholarship. The two other players comprising the class of 2004 include 6'5" swingman J.R. Smith (25 ppg, 7 rpg), and point guard Quentin Thomas (18 ppg, 9 apg).

Some good news however, is that Rashad McCants and Sean May have made it known recently that they have no intentions of leaving this year. In fact McCants has gone so far as to say that he wants to be a Tarheel for four years. That coupled with the fact that his sister will be playing at UNC next year should allow Roy Williams to sleep a little easier. Sean May described as "a lie" the rumor that he planned on turning pro after this season.
"I hope -- I hope -- that no one makes that decision and tries to go early, because no one on this team is ready for that next level...I would say the same thing for almost everybody in this league; this league is really young, and guys [have] got a lot to learn. I think that's the problem with the NBA is that everyone's trying to go so early just because everyone's trying to make the money so fast."
Ray Felton might be a different story however. He has said on more than one occasion that if he's a top ten pick he'll seriously consider leaving college for the NBA. There are some that believe he'll be back because although he started the season strong, he seemed to slump the last 15 games or so and that may have been due to the number of minutes he played and the responsibility he felt to carry this team. This could be an indication that at least physically Felton may need another year in college.

There had also been some talk at the beginning of the season that Jawad Williams might declare for the draft, but after a solid (but not spectacular) junior season, I'd be hard-pressed to believe that Williams would be a first round pick and could only strengthen his draft position by coming back for his senior season.

If by chance, everyone returns for next season and all incoming freshman make it to campus unscathed (by the draft or the law), the Tarheels will undoubtedly be a top ten team, with both experienced leaders and young talent coming off the bench. There is however, still the question of a big man in the middle that would allow Sean May to move to his more comfortable position of power forward. As of yet, Roy Williams has no true center coming in, but depending on what happens over the next few months (and if anyone decides to declare for the draft), some scholarships may be available and a center may be signed. Until then, I'll keep my fingers crossed in the hopes that everyone makes it back for at least one more season.

Monday's Raleigh News & Observer has a story on what (and who) Roy Williams expects from his team going into next year. Apparently Roy expects everyone back, and for the most part, so do the players.

Friday, March 19, 2004

DeAngelo Hall's Pro Day a success
I hope the Steelers were at CB DeAngelo Hall's Pro Day. The only thing that makes me think Pittsburgh might be hesitant to take him in the first round is that he's also a punt returner -- currently the job of Antwaan Randle El. But that certaintly shouldn't be the determining factor in whether or not they take perhaps the best CB in the draft. Here's ESPN's report on Hall's Pro Day:
"The junior defender, who bypassed his final year of eligibility to enter the draft, had a 39-inch vertical jump and a long jump of 10 feet, 9 inches. But the clincher was an amazing time of 3.68 seconds in the "short shuttle," a drill that displays change-of-direction skills, and one that had scouts double-checking their stopwatches.

About the only negative scouts cite when discussing Hall is his lack of height. He was 5-feet-10 at the combine and weighed in at 202 pounds. On Thursday, his weight was down to 197 pounds, about where he played in college. This is a draft, though, in which few of the cornerbacks possess prototype physical dimensions, and scouts acknowledge Hall's vertical skills and innate aggressiveness will help him compensate.

While there is still more than a month remaining in the draft assessment process, the consensus seems to be that Hall and Dunta Robinson of South Carolina have distanced themselves from the pack. That doesn't mean that other players - like Chris Gamble of Ohio State, Southern California's Will Poole, Oklahoma's Derrick Strait and Ahmad Carroll of Arkansas - won't make a move on the top spot. Certainly each of those prospects has first-round potential. But at this juncture of the process, with scouts starting to narrow their focus, there is little doubt Hall helped himself immeasurably Thursday afternoon."
Other than Robert Gallery (and the Steelers would only get him if they trade up), I can think of no other pick that would immediately upgrade the team -- substantially.

Free Agent QBs finding it free agency
John Clayton writes that free agent QBs are having trouble finding work because (1) many teams are investing long-term in their quarterbacks -- and therefore don't need immediate free agent help and (2) free agent QBs are looking for big paydays -- and in the day of the salary cap, most teams (with the obvious exception of the Redskins) are tight with the purse strings.

Here's how Clayton described the Steelers QB situation:
"The Steelers have said "no" to every quarterback opportunity that cropped up -- Brunell, Ramsey, Henson, Couch, Garcia, etc. Anyone doubting the organization's faith in Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch aren't in tune with what the Steelers are thinking. Maddox is the starter. Batch will compete from the backup job.

The Steelers offense is undergoing a change now that coordinator Mike Mularkey is in Buffalo as head coach of the Bills. The Steelers ranked 22nd offensively averaging only 299.5 yards a game, two thirds of it through the air. Bill Cowher plays power football, so the signing of Duce Staley and the retention of Jerome Bettis signifies a move back to the ground game. The Steelers averaged only 93 yards a game on the ground. No more. The Steelers will pound it next year and that means more handoffs by the quarterback.

Maddox is a good decision maker. He gets rid of the ball quickly and he's got a great group of possession receivers to make plays once they catch the football. It's not out of the question for the Steelers to draft a quarterback, but it's not a lock they would take Rivers with their first-round pick. For now, the Steelers aren't looking for their quarterback of the future. They want to concentrate on the present."
If Clayton is remotely on the mark here, then the encouraging news is that the Steelers aren't guaranteed to take a QB in the first round -- in which case they can address other needs (like OT or CB). I think he also makes the very good point that if the Steelers return to running the ball on a consistent and successful basis, it will make the passing game that much more effective. Let's hope the Steeler front office is on the same page as John Clayton (or at least with what he writes here).

What does Pro Day really mean?
I know this whole Pro Day thing is a big deal, but I'm not sure having a bunch of NFL coaches watching prospective draftees run sprints and partake in the long jump is a good measure of NFL success. I know it's important to get an idea of a player's physical strengths and weaknesses, but it seems like both players and coaches would be better served if other measures of future success were used (and to be fair, I've never been to a pro day so I don't know exactly what they do there -- it could very well be the case that they do much more than recreate the third grade field day experience).

Anyway, Kevin Jones, thought by many to be one of the first two RBs taken -- primarily because of his combination of speed and strength, ran a 4.61, 4.63 and a 4.65 40. I don't know if this means he will slip in his draft position, but maybe it does mean that he'll have to rely more on strength than speed as the strength of his game.

Daubach is planning to stick around
There's an article in the Providence Journal (free sign-up required) about Brian Daubach's second tour of duty with the Red Sox. And while he's a non-roster invitee with no guarantee of being in the big leagues on opening day, between him and Lou Merloni you've got two players that seem to somehow always find their way back to Boston (no matter how good or bad they play).

Welcome to our planet
The Globe has a good article on what "Manny's just being Manny" is all about. Here's what Grady Little had to say:
"Except for a few times when you have to keep him on the right track, this guy is no problem at all...I would manage Manny Ramirez again and be proud to do it. He's a superior talent who just loves to play baseball and have fun playing baseball. There's nothing wrong with that."
I think it's the "few times keeping him on track" comment that worries people. That said, I'm glad he's still in a Red Sox uniform.

UNC's back in the saddle
*box score
*tarheel insiders

Apparently Melvin Scott and Rashad McCants were the brains behind UNC shaving their heads prior to the Air Force game. I just hope the reserves have enough time to regrow their hair before they have to go on job interviews.
After a a two year absence, the Tarheels won their first round NCAA tournament game against Air Force and will now play Texas (3) tomorrow at 8pm. The final score was 63-52, but as the cliche goes, it was much closer than that. In fact Air Force led throughout much of the first 25 minutes with a combination of good defense and a motion offense that primarily produced three pointers or easy layups off of backdoor cuts.

UNC shot only 41% from the field, but that was more a function of Air Force's style of play. With no player taller than 6'8" and a coach from the Princeton school of "slow the game down," the Tarheels struggled early, but seemed to make adjustments at halftime that righted the ship.

Sean Mays led all UNC scorers with 14 points, and Jackie Manuel added 10 points and his usual strong defensive showing. Next up is Texas, and this game should be a complete 180 in terms of pace of play. It will also be a chance for the Heels stick it to Rick Barnes one more time for his anti-Dean Smith sentiments (from the perspective of a Heels fan, don't forget).

One other thing -- was it just me or did Costanza's long-time nemesis, Lloyd Braun, coach Air Force last night under the alias, Joe Scott?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Mike Logan comes back for 3 more years
I think this is a good thing -- and now it looks like Logan will move to FS and start alongside last year's first round pick, SS Troy Polamalu. This is from
"On March 18, they reached a three-year agreement with safety Mike Logan for more than $1 million a season. Logan had been talking to the Green Bay Packers, but his desire all along was to stay in Pittsburgh. By Logan staying, though, free safety Brent Alexander becomes expendable. A similar move was made a few weeks ago when the Steelers re-signed outside linebacker Clark Haggans. This week, the Steelers gave starting outside linebacker Jason Gildon permission to seek a trade. Something similar may happen with Alexander."
To be fair, Alexander has been servicable, but he'll be 32 when the season starts and he's slow. Logan runs a 4.5 (before a couple of knee surgerys) and Polamalu runs a 4.4. I think it's time to see what a defensive backfield looks like that has speed, can stuff the run, and more importantly, can bolster the pass coverage (while it remains to be seen if Polamalu can cover effectively, I suspect he can do no worse than Alexander -- I guess the real question is, can he catch?).

From the world of the insane...
Terrell Owens is a great receiver -- no doubt about it -- but he is also misguided, has his priorities out of whack, and is generally considered an enigma. has a story detailing all the adjectives commonly used to describe TO -- and one that is rarely used: loyal. The article is referring the loyalty TO has to David Joseph, his woebegone agent, widely blamed for TO not becoming a free agent and subsequently becoming a Raven (when of course, he really wanted to become an Eagle). This is what TO had to say:
"It's been frustrating...I think the most important thing was for me to have my agent's back. I think he's really taken a big hit and he's probably been the most tarnished one. I had to call him a couple of times to keep his spirits up. I was pretty confident in the case that I had."
Here's the thing, since when did TO have anybody's back? And why is it the one time he does have someone's back, it's his agent -- who just screwed him out of a couple million? Why not have Steve Mariucci's back or Jeff Garcia's back? It seems to me that sticking up for these guys can be just as lucrative as having a competent agent to negotiate your contract. The funny thing is, TO neither stuck up for his coach/teammates nor had a competent agent. It's obvious he lost a few bucks because of his agent's latest gaffe, and antagonizing his former organization probably hurt him more than it helped him (maybe other teams would have been interested in his services if he wasn't considered such a pain in the arse).

And I don't buy the "NFL didn't have a leg to stand on" argument as to why David Joseph shouldn't be the scapegoat. This guy has one job and that is to do what's best for his client. It shouldn't be the other way around -- unless of course, you're in the bizarro world of Terrell Owens.

And another thing
I mentioned a few days ago that I thought the Ravens got the better end of the TO deal, but there is a strong argument for why they got the shaft (other than the obvious reason of not having TO).