Season of change


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Jan 22, 2006
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Season of change

Don Banks,

The Super Bowl was three months back, and three months still remain until Hall of Fame weekend. But for the most part, with the bulk of free agency finished and this year's draft in the books, NFL teams by now have assembled the rosters they will carry into the 2006 regular season.

Here's a division-by-division overview of each AFC club's work as the long personnel-acquisition stage of the offseason slows to a crawl.

AFC East


Headline additions: Drafted running back Laurence Maroney and receiver Chad Jackson in the first two rounds. Signed safety Tebucky Jones.

Offseason vibe: The rest of the division is sensing vulnerability in New England after the Patriots had an exodus in free agency, losing Adam Vinatieri, David Givens, Willie McGinest, Tom Ashworth, Christian Fauria and Tim Dwight. And while reports of the Patriots' demise are probably exaggerated, the talent drain was more substantial than at any other time in the Belichick era. Getting Maroney and Jackson in the draft adds a couple of new promising skill-position options, but New England's air of invincibility is no longer enough to ensure it the AFC East title.


Headline additions: Traded for quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Hired Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator. Signed cornerback Will Allen and drafted safety Jason Allen.

Offseason vibe: We can't shake the feeling the Dolphins went with the second-best quarterback option in Culpepper, after not landing free agent Drew Brees. The fate of their 2006 season figures to turn on how quickly Culpepper recovers from last year's season-ending knee surgery and how close he can come to approximating his ultra-productive 2004 performance. Mularkey was a quality hiring, but the Ricky Williams saga took another depressing turn, and there's no indication that the Will Allen-for-Sam Madison "trade'' is really an upgrade.


Headline additions: Hired Dick Jauron as head coach and Marv Levy as general manager. Signed defensive tackle Larry Tripplett and drafted safety Donte Whitner.

Offseason vibe: Between owner Ralph Wilson's CBA rants and relocation talk, coach Mike Mularkey's surprise resignation, Marv Levy's equally surprising return and confusion regarding his job title, and the Bills' debatable first-round decision-making in the draft, it's been a newsy little offseason for the pride of Western New York. Throw in the Eric Moulds trade to Houston and the reacquisition of Peerless Price, and the Bills haven't lacked for subplots. Kind of puts the lingering quarterback question into perspective, doesn't it? Maybe it was all a plot to take the pressure off J.P. Losman.


Headline additions: Hired Eric Mangini as head coach and promoted Mike Tannebaum to general manager. Traded for quarterback Patrick Ramsey and drafted offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the first round.

Offseason vibe: Let's see, what have the Jets accomplished since wrapping up that 4-12 stinker and letting Herman Edwards skedaddle off to Kansas City? New head coach? Check. Front office realignment? Check. Quarterback insurance? Check. Resolution of pesky John Abraham problem? Check. And rebuilding of porous offensive line? Check. New York isn't ready to make any real trouble in the AFC East, but the Jets are headed in the right direction. And we're not talking about their impending move of the team office to New Jersey.

AFC North


Headline additions: Signed defensive tackle Sam Adams and safety Dexter Jackson. Drafted cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the first round.

Offseason vibe: More than anything, what head coach Marvin Lewis has brought to the Bengals in his three-plus years on the job is a sense of stability and adherence to a plan. This offseason has been the perfect illustration. Cincy now concentrates on re-signing its priority free agents, and adds a piece here and there as needed. Adams addresses the club's continued weakness against the run, while Jackson and Joseph upgrade the secondary. Jon Kitna left for Detroit, but Anthony Wright should be able to pinch-hit until Carson Palmer's knee rehab is a wrap.


Headline additions: Traded up in the first round to select Ohio State receiver Santonio Holmes.

Offseason vibe: Unlike some other recent Super Bowl winners in the salary-cap era, the Steelers didn't suffer immediate and mass defections in free agency. Yes, they would have preferred to keep both safety Chris Hope and receiver Antwaan Randle El. But Pittsburgh won't break the bank for anyone (at least until Ben Roethlisberger's next deal), and you can't say that approach has backfired. If Holmes takes up some of the slack that Randle El's departure creates, and Jerome Bettis' leadership isn't dramatically missed, the Steelers look as poised to defend as any champ could be.


Headline additions: Signed running back Mike Anderson and defensive end Trevor Pryce. Drafted defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the first round. (Maybe the biggest acquisition is still to come if the Ravens sign quarterback Steve McNair.)

Offseason vibe: The Ravens have been patient, not rushing to fill their veteran quarterback vacancy with just any old arm. And if Steve McNair winds up providing the competition for Kyle Boller, Baltimore's prudence will have paid off in a big way. We already know that McNair to Derrick Mason works. The Ravens deserve a thumbs-up as well for getting Anderson to replace the underrated Chester Taylor and for landing Ngata in the draft, thereby negating the void in the middle of the defensive line created by Maake Kemoeatu's free-agent signing with Carolina.


Headline additions: Signed linebacker Willie McGinest, center LeCharles Bentley and defensive tackle Ted Washington. Drafted linebacker Kamerion Wimbley in the first round.

Offseason vibe: If there was a team other than Washington passing out Monopoly money during free agency this year, it was the last-place Browns, who paid above market for the likes of Bentley, McGinest, offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer, receiver Joe Jurevicius and even punter Dave Zastudil. In some ways, we understand it. The Browns were buying credibility for their program and had to overpay to get players to give them a look. But snapping up free agents as aged as McGinest and nosetackle Ted Washington can be a risky proposition. The payoff might be too slight in the rugged AFC North.

AFC South


Headline additions: Signed kicker Adam Vinatieri and drafted running back Joseph Addai in the first round.

Offseason vibe: You knew the Tony Dungy-led Colts weren't going to overreact in the wake of their demoralizing playoff meltdown against Pittsburgh, taking a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach to personnel. Edgerrin James and Mike Vanderjagt were given their freedom after many years of productive service, with Vinatieri and Addai smoothly acquired to fill those holes. Indy didn't want to lose linebacker David Thornton and defensive tackle Larry Tripplett but made the necessary tough choices. Taking a cue from the Steelers, the Colts wisely are going to get back to work and keep banging on the door.


Headline additions: Signed cornerback Brian Williams. Drafted tight end Marcedes Lewis and running back Maurice Drew.

Offseason vibe: The Jaguars would be wrong to assume they've arrived among the ranks of perennial playoff qualifiers based on last year's 12-4 success story. Jacksonville often won ugly in 2005, and those kind of results can be difficult to duplicate from year to year. But there's not much the Jaguars had to address this offseason, so why tinker? Jacksonville did need more playmakers on offense, and we like the additions of Lewis and Drew in the draft. If new assistant head coach Mike Tice can make something of ex-Bills offensive tackle Mike Williams, all the better.


Headline additions: Drafted quarterback Vince Young and running back LenDale White in the first two rounds. Signed receiver David Givens, safety Chris Hope and linebacker David Thornton.

Offseason vibe: At first glance, things appear a bit messy in Nashville, what with the Steve McNair lockout fiasco and the organization's Young-versus-Matt Leinart debate in the pre-draft period. But in truth, the Titans have helped themselves quite a bit this offseason, signing three young quality free agents in Givens, Hope and Thornton, and replacing departed center Justin Hartwig with veteran Kevin Mawae. If McNair leaves, Billy Volek can handle things until Young is ready. And despite his many dramas, White could end up being one of the better heists of the 2006 draft.


Headline additions: Hired Gary Kubiak as head coach. Drafted defensive end Mario Williams. Traded for receiver Eric Moulds.

Offseason vibe: Until their controversial No. 1 draft pick starts helping win games with some serious pass rush off the edge, nothing is likely to diffuse the fallout from the Texans passing on both hometown hero Vince Young and Heisman winner Reggie Bush in the draft. It's not the easiest way for Kubiak to cut his head coaching teeth in the NFL, but after a 2-14 season there's really nowhere to go but up. In Houston, improvement has to start with the offensive line. That's why the signing of Mike Flanagan and the drafting of tackles Charles Spencer and Eric Winston might end up being the most pivotal moves of all.

Continued next post....
AFC West


Headline additions: Traded up in the draft to select Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler at No. 11. Traded for receiver Javon Walker.

Offseason vibe: What was a pretty quiet offseason on the personnel front ended when the Broncos got involved in the three-way John Abraham deal with the Jets and the Falcons. Denver then kept right on dealing, moving its second No. 1 pick to San Francisco and moving up from No. 15 to No. 11 to select Cutler, the heir apparent to Jake Plummer. The trade for Walker on the first day of the draft capped off all the maneuvering, and now the Broncos have their own unhappy receiver in Ashley Lelie, who wants a trade and is threatening a holdout in the wake of Walker's acquisition. But you know what? Denver's moves were still worth the trouble.


Headline additions: Hired Herman Edwards as head coach. Promoted Mike Solari to offensive coordinator. Drafted defensive end Tamba Hali in the first round.

Offseason vibe: The Chiefs told everybody they were cap-strapped and wouldn't be active in free agency this year, and boy, were they telling the truth. They retained a couple of their own free agents, but adding Broncos cast-off running back Quentin Griffin does not a splash make. On the flip side, K.C. didn't lose anybody more significant than fullback Tony Richardson. Hali was an interesting choice, given the team's dreary record of drafting defensive linemen of late. But most teams had him projected in the second round. Edwards upgraded his situation in jumping from the Jets, but the Chiefs still have work to do on defense.


Headline additions: Drafted cornerback Antonio Cromartie, guard Marcus McNeil and quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

Offseason vibe: The Chargers' entire offseason has centered on one decision: Opting to let quarterback Drew Brees get to free agency, thereby starting the Philip Rivers era in San Diego. If Rivers is ready for his close-up, the Chargers will be fine, because the roster is loaded with talent. But that's a big if until the third-year veteran proves he won't be a drag on a team that won a combined 21 games and one division title in the past two years under Brees. It's another quarterback gamble for the Chargers, who are hoping they don't regret this move as much as taking Ryan Leaf in 1998.


Headline additions: Hired Art Shell as head coach. Signed quarterback Aaron Brooks. Drafted safety Michael Huff in the first round.

Offseason vibe: The Raiders were the last team to fill their coaching vacancy this offseason, and for a while they couldn't give the job away. Shell got hired based on a 12-year-old rsum, one he compiled the first time he was the Raiders head coach. Was it a move born out of desperation or genius? We haven't seen a lot of the latter coming from Raiders camp in recent years. Oakland got itself an impact player in the first round in Huff, but you have to wonder if its post-Rich Gannon era at quarterback continues to flounder. Aaron Brooks came cheaply, but some would say he's a poor man's Daunte Culpepper, whom Oakland declined to pursue.

NFC East

Headline additions: Signed linebacker LaVar Arrington and cornerback Sam Madison and traded down in the first round to draft Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.

Offseason vibe: The Giants might have been "outcoached'' in losing their first-round home playoff game against Carolina 23-0, but they didn't overreact to the defeat that erased some of the luster of their surprising NFC East title. New York did, however, go to work on its defense, making a major addition to all three segments. The problem? The Giants have a tougher schedule in 2006, and its division opponents improved as well.


Headline additions: Hired Al Saunders as associate head coach/offense and signed receiver Antwaan Randle El and defensive end Andre Carter.

Offseason vibe: Death, taxes and a huge Redskins free-agent signing spree: Those are your three givens in life. Call me crazy, but from all appearances the Redskins had a pretty successful thing going in the second half of last season, and I'm not sure why they felt the need to rip up 25 percent of their roster. Saunders adds another ex-head coach and another layer of management to the top-heavy staff, and Washington's new-look receiving corps has an undeniable redundancy factor.


Headline additions: Signed a certain controversial receiver who goes by the initials T.O. and tends to make news the way Shaun Alexander produces touchdowns -- relentlessly. Oh, and they signed kicker Mike Vanderjagt, too.

Offseason vibe: A deal with the devil. A roll of the dice. A one-year go-for-broke (and the Super Bowl) move. The Cowboys can't deny that signing Terrell Owens is all of that. But with the clock ticking on head coach Bill Parcells' next (and final?) retirement, Dallas is taking the gamble on the game's most enigmatic talent with its eyes wide open. And here's an indisputable observation: The Cowboys are a much more explosive offense having swapped Keyshawn Johnson for Owens.


Headline additions: Signed defensive end Darren Howard and drafted defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley in the first round.

Offseason vibe: The Eagles bottomed out in the T.O.-induced quagmire that was 2005, but it's foolhardy to assume their window of playoff contention in the NFC East has been shut and bolted. Coach Andy Reid went back to work rebuilding his offensive and defensive lines this offseason, and strength up front was the foundation on which Philly made the postseason for five consecutive years from 2000 to '04. If Donovan McNabb is healthy, Philly looks like a team bent on a comeback.

NFC North

Headline additions: Signed quarterback Brian Griese and cornerback Ricky Manning.

Offseason vibe: The Bears had an oh-so-quiet free-agency season, and flew under the radar in the draft, as well, dealing out of the first round. They remain stacked defensively but curiously didn't acquire the impact receiver most expected them to prioritize. Perhaps they know that no one in the division is loaded on offense, unless Detroit awakens. With Cedric Benson ready for his shot, Chicago looks intent on shopping running back Thomas Jones, and maybe that will provide the pass-catcher it needs.


Headline additions: Hired Brad Childress as head coach and traded Daunte Culpepper to Miami. Signed guard Steve Hutchinson and running back Chester Taylor.

Offseason vibe: It's never boring in the Land of 10,000 Controversies. The sudden dismissal this week of personnel executive Fran Foley is only the latest mini-drama to engulf the Vikings. Minnesota is far better off without Mike Tice and Culpepper, but you get the feeling it may take Childress at least a year to truly bring a much-needed sense of stability to Team Turmoil. On the field, the offense acquired solid pieces to the puzzle in Hutchinson, Taylor and fullback Tony Richardson.


Headline additions: Hired Rod Marinelli as head coach and signed quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. Drafted linebacker Ernie Sims in the first round.

Offseason vibe: I've got a mixed opinion on Marinelli's spit-and-polish drill-sergeant routine, which has gotten plenty of press in the past three-plus months. The Lions desperately needed someone to instill some discipline in their locker room, but it's easy to overdo things for effect. Detroit has to finally end its long, drawn-out Joey Harrington saga and move on under the know-what-you-got leadership of Kitna or the unfulfilled potential of McCown. This is a team that's going to get some chic-pick momentum behind it in the coming months, but I see a transition year ahead.


Headline additions: Hired Mike McCarthy as head coach, signed cornerback Charles Woodson and drafted linebacker A.J. Hawk in the first round.

Offseason vibe: Now that the Brett Favre purgatory stage of their offseason is finally over, the Packers know what they'll be playing with in 2006: a slightly upgraded (maybe) version of the roster that nosedived to a Favre-era low of 4-12 last season. Favre is coming back for a 16th NFL season, but Green Bay would have ended this season better off and further along in its rebuilding if he hadn't. The Packers may win a few more games with Favre than they would have with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, but not enough to make a real difference in the standings.

NFC South

Headline additions: You tell me. The biggest "names'' the Bucs added were guard Toniu Fonoti, linebacker Jamie Winborn, offensive tackle Torrin Tucker and, via the first round in the draft, guard Davin Joseph.

Offseason vibe: Other than their attempt to buttress the weak link that the offensive line has been in recent years, the Bucs pretty much have been bystanders on the personnel front this offseason, choosing mostly to re-sign their own free agents. And since when is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it'' a bad philosophy? Tampa Bay won with a decent formula of running game, defense and just enough passing last season, and that was good enough to garner the Bucs 11 wins and a division title. Only one other NFC team (Seattle) won more in the '05 regular season.


Headline additions: Signed receiver Keyshawn Johnson and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, and drafted running back DeAngelo Williams in the first round.

Offseason vibe: With apologies to the Seahawks, who ended the Panthers' Super Bowl dreams in a barrage of first-half points in the NFC title game, Carolina has "team to beat" written all over it. The Panthers got the run-stuffer their defense craved in the unheralded Kemoeatu, the backfield option they needed in Williams and a reliable, move-the-chains receiving option in Johnson, who will drawn some of the triple coverage away from all-world threat Steve Smith. Look out, NFC. The Cats are loaded. No other team in the conference had a better offseason.


Headline additions: Traded for defensive end John Abraham, signed safety Lawyer Milloy and hired Bill Musgrave as quarterback coach.

Offseason vibe: By losing four of their last five in '05, the Falcons were unable to record back-to-back winning seasons, something they've never done in the franchise's 40-year history. And that disappointment seems to have loomed over Team Enigma this offseason, making Atlanta fight to regain the momentum won in Jim Mora's first season as head coach. The Falcons, in essence, drafted John Abraham in the first round, and that's hard to quibble with. But the key to everything will be if Musgrave can get quarterback Michael Vick to make magic again.


Headline additions: Drafted Reggie Bush in the first round, hired Sean Payton as head coach and signed quarterback Drew Brees.

Offseason vibe: The Saints have nowhere to go but up after the travails of 2005, and there's an awful lot to like about their chances to improve dramatically. Hope arrived with Payton, it intensified with the coming of Brees and the exit of Aaron Brooks, and it surged to new heights with the availability of Bush in the draft, which was the kind of fortuity that could only be karmic payback for the misery New Orleans endured during its storm-ravaged season of last year. Nowhere is there more anticipation for 2006 than in the Big Easy, and it's not difficult to understand why.

NFC West

Headline additions: Signed linebacker Julian Peterson and receiver Nate Burleson.

Offseason vibe: We love Seattle's approach. For the second consecutive year the Seahawks kept most of their free agents, locking up MVP running back Shaun Alexander before he hit the market and not letting defensive tackle Rocky Bernard get out of town either. True, guard Steve Hutchinson and receiver Joe Jurevicius slipped away, but both are replaceable. Seattle may have lost the Super Bowl, but the Seahawks aren't anywhere near done with their playoff run yet. Mike Holmgren is still around, and so is the talent to win it all.


Headline additions: Hired Scott Linehan as head coach, signed linebacker Will Witherspoon and drafted cornerback Tye Hill in the first round.

Offseason vibe: Anything after the tumultuous Mike Martz era has to seem calmer by comparison, and St. Louis has indeed quieted down this offseason, landing just one major free-agent acquisition in the highly sought-after Witherspoon. But the Rams' roster doesn't inspire much confidence for a big first-year renaissance under Linehan. It's a mixture of older, on-the-way-down veterans, with some new, younger talent that hasn't fully blossomed. Until the Rams start hitting on more of their draft picks, it's hard to imagine St. Louis approaching the glory days of 1999-2001.


Headline additions: Signed running back Edgerrin James and drafted quarterback Matt Leinart in the first round.

Offseason vibe: Stop us if you've heard this one before: The Cardinals are better and should be one of the surprise teams in the NFC in 2006. Sounds a lot like last offseason, doesn't it? Guilty as charged. Last year Arizona regressed on defense, had the league's worst running game and a horrible offensive line and couldn't score in the red zone by any other method than Neil Rackers' right leg. This time around, James will help the running game if he gets any blocking at all, and the young defensive talent will be better off for last year's lessons. James and Leinart at least have stoked fan enthusiasm as the team's new stadium in Glendale prepares to open.


Headline additions: Hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and drafted tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Manny Lawson in the first round.

Offseason vibe: The draft brought two potential playmakers, one on each side of the ball. For a team that at one point last season looked destined to triumph in the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes and then squandered that opportunity by winning its last two games, the Niners got more than a satisfactory consolation prize in Davis and Lawson. We're not expecting Turner's hiring to make second-year quarterback Alex Smith into Troy Aikman, but Turner's track record for developing young passers at least gives Smith a better chance to succeed.
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