Burning questions (cont.)
6. Which under-publicized player will hit it big in free agency?
Houston's Dunta Robinson may lack the name recognition of lot of other star cornerbacks, but he's not going to lack for attention late this month. The Texans want to re-sign him, and they've got the money to do it, given that they're an estimated $25 million under the salary cap. But Robinson is the kind of quality, young, on-his-way-up player that everybody is on the lookout for in free agency, and he'll cash in big because of it.
The Texans could choose to franchise tag him at $9.96 million in 2009, but if they don't, re-signing him will likely cost them a wad of guaranteed money that will be bested in Houston only by the amount that was included in Mario Williams' deal as the No. 1 pick in 2006. That could scare the Texans off and keep Robinson firmly on the radar screen of a host of teams that could use a starting corner (Baltimore, New England, Cleveland, New Orleans and Detroit among them).
7. Who looks like the riskiest big-money player in this year's free-agent class?
Let's assume Carolina either franchises defensive end Julius Peppers in order to trade him, or bites the bullet and lets the unhappy seven-year veteran go in free agency. The scenario we think has little chance of happening is the Panthers franchising him at $16.7 million in 2009 and making him play the year out against his wishes. We saw in 2007 how Peppers can drop off the radar screen when it comes to impact, and I don't think Carolina will take the chance there's either a protracted holdout coming or any repeat of his 2½-sack output of two years ago.
Peppers is an undeniable talent, but he can be maddeningly streaky, and now he says he wants to play in a 3-4 rather than a 4-3 defense (which some theorize is just posturing aimed at increasing his marketability). And even more puzzling, Peppers is making noise about playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 to best utilize his pass-rush skills. But outside linebackers aren't usually 285-290 pounds, are they?
Plenty of teams will come after Peppers hard -- maybe Denver or Seattle -- but I say buyer beware on this one. Something about Peppers' story just doesn't sit well.
8. What team's transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme bears watching?
After a season in which his Packers significantly regressed in large part due to defensive breakdowns, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy hired Dom Capers as his new defensive coordinator and became the latest convert to a 3-4 approach. Green Bay believes it has the personnel to handle a swift transition to a 3-4, but the Packers wouldn't be the first team to proclaim that and then find out differently.
The most interesting switch in Green Bay will be Aaron Kampman going from defensive end in the 4-3 to outside linebacker in the 3-4. Kampman, who had 37 sacks in the past three seasons, weighs 265 pounds, so he's not too big to handle the linebacker role. He'll still have mostly pass rushing responsibilities in the Packers' base defense, but he'll be asked to also drop into pass coverage against running backs in the flat, and that could prove a challenge.
Green Bay is also shifting 2007 first-round pick Justin Harrell, at 6-4, 320 pounds, from nose tackle to a defensive end in the 3-4. Cullen Jenkins will handle the other end position, with Ryan Pickett presumed to be the top candidate to man the key nose tackle assignment.
9. Now that Matt Cassel has been franchised by New England, who else might be in line for that designation?
Depending on how negotiations go between now and the Feb. 19 deadline, this year's franchise-tag list could wind up looking a lot like last year's list. Among those potential free agents who could draw the label once again and receive a salary at 120 percent of last year's tender are Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha ($11.7 million), though it will take some work by the Raiders, who are just barely under the salary cap, Baltimore linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs ($10.2 million), Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross ($8.95 million), and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby ($9.7 million).
Besides Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson, others who are thought to be potential tag designees are Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant, Miami offensive tackle Vernon Carey, St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday, Seattle linebacker LeRoy Hill and perhaps Houshmandzadeh.
10. What do the Jets need most of all this offseason?
They need Brett Favre to retire. For good. It's the easiest way for New York to restore some semblance of sanity to its salary-cap situation, which by all estimates is the worst in the NFL. The Jets are believed to be anywhere from $7 million to $12 million over the $123 million projected 2009 cap, and Favre's slice of that counts for $13 million this year.
New York will have some serious whacking and restructuring to do if Favre returns, and given that 2009 is the last year for the salary cap in the current collective bargaining agreement, the Jets won't be able to use all the usual tools at their disposal to delay the impact of some of their cap charges (like converting base salary into signing bonuses and then pro-rating those dollars.) Trading receiver Laveranues Coles ($7 million cap number) is a likelihood once he refuses a pay cut, and the team also will need to approach veterans such as Calvin Pace, Kerry Rhodes and Shaun Ellis with either significantly restructured or reduced deals.
11. Which team has had the best offseason already?
It's open for debate, but I couldn't be convinced that anyone has done better than Kansas City, which has swapped out the general manager-head coaching tandem of Carl Peterson and Herman Edwards in favor of Scott Pioli and Todd Haley. Pioli has four more Super Bowls on his resume than Peterson did, and Haley just helped coach the Cardinals to within 35 seconds of one of the most impressive upsets in Super Bowl history. That's a win-win for a franchise that has lost 23 of its last 25 games and plays in the AFC's worst division.
True, the Chiefs, who hold the No. 3 pick in the draft, would be having an even better offseason if Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford or Texas quarterback Colt McCoy would have declared early, giving QB-needy Kansas City two great options, but there's always Georgia's Matthew Stafford. And if the Chiefs can get good value for discontented veterans Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez, who have been trying to get out of Dodge (Kan.) for two years now, it'll be the classic case of addition by subtraction.
12. Which NFL unit could undergo the biggest offseason makeover?
The Broncos have to demolish things on their 29th-ranked defense and start over, and new head coach Josh McDaniels, along with new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, aren't going to be delicate about it. The Broncos haven't made a final decision on whether they intend to transition to a 3-4 defense this year, but Nolan favors a 3-4 scheme, with elements of a 4-3 mixed in, and that means widespread change is coming to the roster.
Among those defensive veterans who could be on their way out are linebacker Nate Webster, linebacker Boss Bailey, safety Marlon McCree, safety Marquand Manuel, end Ebenezer Ekuban and tackle Dewayne Robertson. Other than cornerback Champ Bailey, outside linebacker D.J. Williams, and defensive end Elvis Dumervil, few players on defense seem assured of returning. Fortunately for the Broncos, they have nine picks in April, and there's decent depth on that side of the ball in the draft.