Top 15 Best Signings This Offseason
By Evan Benton
Familiar faces in new places.
This seems to characterize the 2011 NFL offseason, exploding right out of the gate as soon as we saw Roger Goodell in a snappy suit shake his thousandth hand and declaring the lockout over.
2011’s signing/trading frenzy is unprecedented, and before Week 1 starts and we forget the many new additions and detractions as faces fuse with franchises, I’ve decided to wrap up a ranked 15 of the offseason’s acquisitions that I was most excited about.
Hope you enjoy!
15. Marc Colombo to MIAMI
One of the unsung heroes of the Dallas Cowboys’ epic 2007 season, Colombo was released from America’s Team in late July and immediately picked up by Miami.
Although pegged with an attitude problem for most of his career, Colombo’s sheer size – 6’8″, 315 pounds – make him one of the most imposing offensive tackles in the NFL, at a position where bigger and taller means better.
And in Miami, he’ll temporarily fill in for former Dolphins first-round pick Jake Long, who is currently on the physically unable to perform list with the reason undisclosed.
Colombo, former 29th pick of the 2002 Draft out of Boston College, adds experience, brute force and a lot of intimidation to an already solid Miami OT lineup.
14. Mike Sims-Walker to ST. LOUIS
MSW, whose total career stats since he was drafted 79th overall in the 2007 Draft by Jacksonville total 1,648 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, is not an elite receiver. He is, however, a receiver who gets things done.
Those 14 touchdowns came in his last two seasons, where he had tallied seven each year. In 2009, he put up 63 receptions and 869 receiving yards to lead all Jaguar receivers. Last year he had a solid 43 and 562, respectively. MSW became David Garrard’s go-to target last season, and his proficiency in being at the right place at the right time allowed him to become their most explosive wideout.
Those who are shaking their heads while reading this right now are probably thinking, “Yeah, and the Jags sucked last year.”
And they’d be right. But on the St. Louis Rams, MSW is a viable option for Sam Bradford. Danny Amendola and Donnie Avery are the small speedsters, while MSW, at 6’2″ and a solid 214 pounds, is the obvious number one guy. Expect his numbers to stay above-average and help out the resurgent Rams.
13. Bruce Gradkowski to CINCINNATI
This is a wildly biased pick, both because I love the Bengals and because I respect the hell out of journeyman Gradkowski, whose nickname from his record-setting college days at Toledo – the Polish Cannon – i just discovered and will be using ad nauseam on this blog.
Drafted by Tampa Bay as the 194th pick of the 2006 Draft, Gradkowski started off his rookie season with great promise, but was pulled after too many interceptions. He spent one more benchwarming year with the Buccaneers and one with the Cleveland Browns before being picked up by Oakland in 2009, where he made a quiet showing as an elite quarterback for the black and silver.
After getting the starting job over JaMarcus Russell halfway through the 2009 season, Gradkowski ignited a fourth-quarter comeback against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13, throwing for 308 yards and three touchdowns in Oakland’s surprise win. For this “B-Grad” (a nickname Browns fans gave him during his brief tenure there) was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week and was tagged as throwing the most come-from-behind touchdowns in the fourth quarter of an NFL game since 1991.
Injuries hampered the rest of that season, and despite starting over Redskins’ refuse Jason Campbell in 2010 for a few games, suffered a shoulder injury in November that effectively ended his season. In the 2011 offseason he was promptly cut by Oakland despite the huge fan base he had gathered there, and was picked up by the Bengals.
Gradkowski brings a little veteran cohesiveness to a team reeling from the departure of Carson Palmer, and will help mold rookie Andy Dalton as the new face of the Bengals franchise.
12. Sidney Rice to SEATTLE
Contrary to the absurd notions going around that Sidney Rice and Tarvaris Jackson (who were signed this offseason by the Seahawks) will start a wholly new franchise in the most northern of NFL teams, Rice is not the saving grace here. If Seattle had taken time to nurture the talents of Golden Tate they’d have a dependable option besides Mike Williams. But now they’re forgoing his development in favor of Rice, a very tall and agile receiver with freakish hands.
As stated before, “Sticky” Rice (another great nickname) comes to Seattle with Jackson and former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who now develops offensive plays for the Seahawks. The problem with thinking that this trifecta invokes success is that the only time Rice ever had Pro Bowl-level stats was with future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, two years ago. With Jackson potentially being the starter in Matt Hasselbeck’s absence (see pick 7) it’s anyone’s guess whether or not that spells success down the road for Rice. But the man individually is a supreme talent, and if the new regime in Seattle can find a way to incorporate him well, there might be another Rice on the west coast we’ll be talking about years from now.
11. Roy E. Williams to CHICAGO
Williams has known football – and the receiver position – all his life, and probably better than anyone. After playing at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas (yes, the Permian, of “Friday Night Lights” fame) and then becoming one of the most decorated and popular Longhorns in Texas history, Williams was drafted seventh overall by the Detroit Lions in 2004 as part of their three-year wide receiver frenzy.
But unlike 2003’s second pick Charles Rogers, and 2005’s 10th pick Mike Williams, Williams was a Lions receiver that performed, in 2006 making it to the Pro Bowl off 1,310 receiving yards – most in the NFC. In 2008, he was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for ultimately four draft picks. There, he underperformed from the start, not able to be a viable option in a Romo-led offense that played with screens (Felix Jones), sudden sparks (Miles Austin) and dependables (Jason Witten). With only 94 regular season catches in less than three seasons with the Cowboys, Williams was released this July, despite the Cowboys losing millions since he was signed on to 2014 with a $54 million dollar contract.
Forget all that. While Williams is not an elite wideout by today’s lofty standards, he is a talent, and will fit right in with Jay Cutler’s offense that runs first with Forte (and now Barber – see number 6 on this list) and then hurls it to Johnny Knox. Knox, the team’s new go-to guy, is a speedster who, gifted with good hands, also can give you the downfield bomb akin to DeSean Jackson. Williams, now in his middle years, is not that guy anymore. But with his 6’4″ frame, he’s many inches taller than both Knox and Devin Hester. And while Cutler will miss giant tight end Greg Olsen, he’ll be satisfied with Williams looking the big target over shorter defensive backs,and drawing away others from their star Knox. Besides, Roy belongs in the NFC North.
10. Johnathan Joseph to HOUSTON
The Houston Texans have been “one guy away” from the postseason for four or five years now. With Johnathan Joseph, the second-best cornerback in the 2011 Free Agent Scramble after Nnamdi Asomugha, the Texans take another step to taking the AFC South for the first time ever.
Joseph, for too long part of the thankless “best tandem in the NFL” with Leon Hall on the Bengals, Joseph in Cincinnati was consistently good (6 interceptions in 2009) while his team’s offense was, unfortunately, consistently bad. In Houston, after signing a five-year, $48 million dollar contract, he has the welcome opportunity to make a defense as good as its offense.
And with the Jaguars stumbling, the Titans arguing fiscal semantics with the best runner in the NFL, and the Colts hurting both physically and in the morale department, Joseph might be to Houston at just the right time.
9. Albert Haynesworth to NEW ENGLAND
New England is often a place where “trouble” players are molded quickly into Bill Belichick’s no-nonsense Patriots’ organization and rebound (see Rodney Harrison, Randy Moss). Haynesworth, the biggest free agent bust ever financially ($100 million dollar contract in 2009 for a seven-year deal with the Washington Redskins, in which he played poorly in the first season, and was then suspended for the second half of 2010) and a problem for Washington as soon as he came into Dulles International, comes to New England after a July trade with the Skins.
The Patriots traded virtually nothing for Haynesworth – a 2013 fifth-round pick – and are in the position to reap hefty rewards from their small purchase. Call me naive about players having a second chance in such a competitive and vicious league, but I love it. And I have seen it happen enough times in the past four years to bet that Haynesworth clings to his new system, embraces his second-chance opportunity, and performs.
He and fellow defensive tackle and Patriot Vince Wilfork are two of the biggest men in the NFL today. People who remember how dominant Haynesworth was in Tennessee after being selected 15th overall by the Titans in 2002 also remember how the man was a veritable concrete wall, with legs that belied his size when he needed to move.
Another great snag for a team that is consistently (and frustratingly) one of the NFL’s best.
8. Jerious Norwood/Carnell “Cadillac” Williams to ST. LOUIS
Three-time Pro Bowler and the Rams’ all-time leading rusher (7,948 and counting) Steven Jackson probably has been telling his team’s ever-changing players and management “I can’t do this all by myself” over the last five years.
Well, Steve. You’re going to have some help now.
Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the former fifth pick of the 2005 Draft, arrived in St. Louis August 3rd, after spending a successful if not slightly disappointing five-year career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He follows Atlanta Falcons’ speedster Jerious Norwood, who arrived the day earlier.
Williams put up 1,178 yards his rookie year, and the year after added 798, but slowed down in ’07 and ’08 because of numerous knee injuries. Never returning to his former prominence, he became a backup to rookie LeGarrette Blount last season and became an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Norwood – the 79th pick of the 2006 Draft – used his 4.32-second 40-yard dash time at that draft’s combine to become the Falcons’ number one kick returner, putting up a career 3,084 yards off of 121 returns. As a back, though, he has accumulated just seven touchdowns and under two thousand yards in his career.
Both Williams and Norwood will fill up the much-anticipated number two spot behind Jackson this season, with Williams slated to be the Robin to S-Jax’s Batman. Norwood will most likely be resigned to returning duties, but his experience in that field may lead to special teams’ success.
Jackson, who has never had a backup that he could consistently count on, hopes – as do all Rams fans – that Williams will be able to avoid injury long enough to take some of the pressure off of the back of the 236-pound Rams’ living legend.
7. Plaxico Burress to NEW YORK (JETS)
Speaking of second chances, no player in the NFL yearns for one more than Plax (except for poor Donté Stallworth) who just got back from two years in prison for shooting himself in the leg at a club with an illegally possessed Glock. Eleven months earlier he had predicted and helped win the New York Giants’ upset win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, personally my favorite Super Bowl.
Well, despite his accolades, there’s no way the Giants and Coughlin wanted him and his bullet-holed leg back in practice, so when Goodell allowed him to be reinstated, the Giants made no bid.
Their neighbors, the Jets, did, however, and signed him late July to a one-year contract worth $3.2 million.
The Jets, even without Braylon Edwards, who was just starting to get his swag on last season, have a premiere wideout in former Super Bowl-MVP Santonio Holmes, who they intelligently resigned for a five-year run. Putting the 6’5″ Burress onto the field at the same time, and mixing new signee, “Old Reliable” Derrick Mason onto the field as a slashing slot receiver, the Jets are potentially stacked at this position.
Burress’ height makes him a huge target for Mark Sanchez, who may be entering his prime this season after their hard loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in last season’s AFC Championship game. This mixed with Burress’ need to make amends and end his career (he just turned 34 August 12th) on a note high enough to outshine his embarrassing stint in prison could generate production on a team that could be the major contender this season.
6. Matt Hasselbeck to TENNESSEE
Hasselbeck, who of all high-caliber quarterback veterans in this league has gone into obscurity fastest, lost amidst the rain-drenched fog of Seattle, has about as many accolades as others in his class. Breaker of just about every Seattle record for quarterbacks, three-time Pro Bowler during his golden years (Top passer rating in 2005, 13-3 record and Super Bowl XL contender the same year), and all this after being taken by the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 Draft as the 184th pick.
Serving as understudy to Brett Favre for three years, Mike Holmgren brought Hasselbeck over with him to Seattle in 2001 and he immediately took over starting duties.
29,434 yards and 174 passing touchdowns later, he went into the offseason after bringing the Seahawks to yet another – albeit improbable – playoff run. Head coach Pete Carroll in his first year as coach in Seattle went on the record saying that re-signing Hasselbeck, whose contract has just expired, making him an unrestricted free agent – was the team’s top priority. But after being offered just a one-year deal, Hasselbeck continued to court offers from both West Coast rival San Francisco and Tennessee.
It turned out to be the Titans who won Hasselbeck over, signing him to a three-year, $21 million deal on July 29th.
Rather than going to the quarterback-eating monster that is San Fran, Hasselbeck goes to a team that is looking to start over at the quarterback position. 16-year vet Kerry Collins led the Titans to an incredible 13-3 record after Vince Young was injured the first week, then in the next season his injuries put Young back in the spotlight – a place he could not handle.
Now Collins is retired and Young is in Philadelphia. The Titans unexpectedly signed Washington quarterback Jake Locker as their first pick in this year’s Draft, and with Hasselbeck the presumable starter through the season Locker is in a great position to learn from the 13-year vet.
Hasselbeck is slated to revitalize the Titans’ passing game with his Holmgren-schooled West Coast offensive mind. His smarts and accuracy will undoubtedly bring more cohesion and organization to the team, and when star runner Chris Johnson inevitably is sated with the money he wants, he’ll open up the passing game that much wider.
In the next three years Hasselbeck will also be in the same position that future Hall of Famer Brett Favre was to him in in 1999, showing a young rookie the ropes.
5. Marion Barber III to CHICAGO
A true power runner, Barber competed for the starter position his first couple years in Dallas before 2007’s explosive offense gave him the opportunity to show his stuff. Ten rushing touchdowns and a 4.8 rushing average made him one of the most effective running backs, especially in the red zone, in the NFL.
But it’s Barber’s fearlessness that Cowboys fans loved. “Hit or get hit” being his running mantra, Barber attacks linebackers and defensive backs headfirst in his rush for every down, earning him the title of Marion the Barbarian. He is also as tenacious as he is unstoppable, and will fight as hard for a 60-yard run as a two-yard one.
After five solid years with the ‘Boys (they drafted him 109th overall in the 2005 Draft), Barber was released by Dallas on July 28th. The speed of Felix Jones and Tashard Jones had become more needed than Barber’s crushing third-and-short runs, necessitating the decision. Two days later Barber was signed by the Chicago Bears to a two-year, $5 million contract.
In the Windy City Barber will initially compete for the mantle of second-string back with Chester Taylor as Matt Forté remains the established starter, but I am convinced his explosiveness will come out as he competes for the job.
Another intriguing aspect of his addition to the Bears is his role as receiver. In the previously mentioned 2007 season Tony Romo threw for 4,211 passing yards and tossed 36 touchdown passes. 282 of those yards went to Barber, whose good hands make him as reliable a receiving option as anyone. Jay Cutler’s rocket arm is starting to work out its kinks, and Barber’s ability to get extra yards whether through the air or on the ground should make him a great addition to Mike Martz’s offense.
4. Donovan McNabb to MINNESOTA / Kevin Kolb to ARIZONA
It’s a funny thing that two former Eagles’ quarterbacks with incredibly different professional pedigrees would become some of this year’s most-desired free agents.
McNabb is not a man who needs an introduction. The greatest ever of Philadelphia’s few luminary quarterbacks, and, among his many records, holds the third-highest winning percentage among active quarterbacks – behind only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
His brief and disappointing (to Eagles’ fans whose organization booted him out, to Redskins’ fans who expected a new franchise quarterback, and to McNabb himself who was relegated to third-string following a now-infamous loss to his former Eagles Nov. 15) stint with the Redskins is now behind him, where I believe he would want it. On July 27th the Redskins traded McNabb to Minnesota for sixth-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
Kolb, who was pick 37 for the Eagles in the 2007 Draft, sat behind McNabb as an Eagle for most of his career until McNabb’s ankle injury in September 2009 allowed Kolb to get into the starter role he had always craved. He played well, even claiming an NFL record for most yards thrown in a quarterback’s first two starts. Following McNabb’s departure to Washington in the offseason, Kolb was tagged as the starter for the 2010 season. A concussion forced Michael Vick to take the spotlight, and the rest is history.
Kolb’s professional experience as a starting quarterback, while piecemeal, has been impressive. He threw for 741 yards in just two games in 2009, and surprised the NFL by looking as serene and calm as he did for a longtime benched quarterback finally given a chance to shine.
A serious competitor, Kolb encouraged the Eagles to look for trade offers following the cementing of Vick as the preeminent Eagles’ gunslinger. In mid July he stated that “Arizona would be a great place” and nine days later the Cardinals traded cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick for him.
McNabb enters his 13th year in the NFL as he dons the Vikings’ uniform. He has established himself as one of the decade’s greatest, but has a lot to prove following last year’s disappointments and the embarrassment of being benched for half of the season.
Kolb has just as much to prove, finally getting a chance to announce himself as a franchise quarterback by taking over the starting job in Arizona. Drafted behind busts like JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn in 2007, Kolb has shown his poise in the pocket better than most with more opportunities.
Both will have great weapons (Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe in Minnesota and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona) to throw to, and McNabb in particular will feel a lot more comfortable with Adrian “All Day” Peterson – the best running back in the league – ready behind him.
One man has to prove what he’s already proven before. Another has to earn his stripes. Go to it, men.
3. Reggie Bush to MIAMI
Heisman Trophy scandal aside, Reggie Bush has been a divisive player ever since his entry into the NFL, via the second pick of the 2006 Draft by the New Orleans Saints.
His credibility as an NFL player and his worth as an NFL starter has been a topic of near-constant scrutiny. The numerous injuries in his five seasons as a professional have not helped.
These five seasons – all with New Orleans – have been up and down. Bush didn’t immediately take over in Louisiana, as everyone seemed to think he would; the Saints organization finding it better for them to have then-power back Deuce McCallister. His sporadic starts were as sudden and unexpected as his speedy, elusive runs and grabs that would result in 29 rushing/receiving touchdowns in his career.
Even with the incredible expectation attached to his name in 2006, Bush cannot be called a bust, or even a disappointment. He helped New Orleans to a Super Bowl win in 2010, and, when healthy, has shown himself to be one of the most effective double-threat running backs in the league.
But these days every team wants a bone-crushing wrecking ball back to unleash as a starter. At 203 pounds, Bush does not have the third-down back proficiency as a Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, or even Cedric Benson. Knowing this, most of his plays in New Orleans had been shovel screens or outside pitches. Or end-a-rounds: (Check out the awesome block by Brees!)
His star dimming in New Orleans, especially with the fallout from his Heisman Trophy relinquishing, Bush had his worst year of his career last season. Although his contract had not yet run out with the Saints, the unspoken feeling during the offseason was that the Saints were courting offers. Their decision to trade up in this year’s draft for another Heisman winner – Alabama star Mark Ingram, Jr. – showed what they had planned for the immediate future.
“It’s been fun New Orleans”, Bush tweeted following the pick. On July 27th, Bush was traded to the Miami Dolphins for safety Jonathon Amaya and some undisclosed picks that were most likely quite high.
With Ronnie Brown’s departure to the Eagles and Ricky Williams’ to the Baltimore Ravens, the starting job in Miami is suddenly wide open. With only recently signed Larry Johnson, who has spent the last three seasons fading into obscurity, and 62nd pick in this year’s Draft Daniel Thomas as viable contenders, Bush is the clear starter.
Weighing more than twenty pounds less than both Brown and Williams, the running scheme in Miami will be different; but it is expected that their offense will be shifted to suit the elusive Bush.
His detractors – of which there are many nowadays – will point to how he has more receiving yards than rushing yards and say he can’t be a successful starting tailback. I say that a man with a lot to prove is more dangerous when his doubters multiply. Bush, when he’s in peak physical condition, is a sight to behold, and him getting another chance to prove that he’s starter quality fits this offseason’s “second-chance” theme.
And it’s time to put that Heisman disgrace sideshow back in the shadows where it belongs.
2. Nnamdi Asomugha to PHILADELPHIA
Much has been made of this, the most talked signing about and definitive example of how this free agency madness can recreate the identity of entire teams. Your humble writer has also piggy-backed on the Asomugha trade , and he explained things much better in this previous example.
Asomugha was the most sought-after defensive player, if not free agent full-stop, this summer. His once-in-a-generation skills are obvious, his talents legion, and his ability to complete shutdown the passing game on his side of the field are inimitable. Put simply, he’s a game-changer.
Philadelphia adds the best cornerback in the league to their defensive arsenal, and even without the other big moves that Andy Reid and the Eagles have made (see above link – come on, read it!) this would still be considered the best free agent signing of 2011 and a decision that will have notoriously fickle Philly fans dancing and rioting and shouting cheerful drunk obscenities for seasons to come.
1. Chad Ochocinco to NEW ENGLAND
Yes, THIS my top choice; my most favorite of them all. Larger-than-life, jabbering, name-changing absurd Chad Ochocinco coming into the most clean-cut, straight-edged organization in the NFL.
His impressive career stats – 10,783 receiving yards, 66 touchdown receptions – have often been overshadowed by his antics.
Ochocinco, previously known as Chad Johnson, was drafted 36th overall in the 2001 Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, and for almost a decade he caught balls while wearing the orange and black, accumulating six Pro Bowls and numerous franchise receiving records at the same time.
Now in 2011, Ochocinco was taken by the Patriots late in the summer after trading just a fifth round pick in 2012, and sixth round pick in 2013.
Like Albert Haynesworth, the Patriots are taking little financial risk one of the NFL’s most notorious bad boys. The possibility of reward in this case is even greater than Haynesworth. Ochocinco has a rapport with Tom Brady, and the fusion of these two future legends could spell success. In 2006, future Hall of Famer Randy Moss was fermenting in Oakland when Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick set up a deal that would eventually lead to the Raiders trading Moss for just a fourth round selection in the next draft.
That season Moss broke Jerry Rice’s record of most touchdown receptions in a single season, helped Tom Brady break Peyton Manning’s record of most passing touchdowns in a single season, and scored the most points collectively as a team ever. They were the greatest offensive show in NFL history.
Ochocinco is no Randy Moss, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Ochocinco is a great addition to an ever-changing Patriots offense that last year relied on quick slants and screens to young players like Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. Ochocinco can catch the bomb as well as any other wideout in the league – and has been doing it longer than most – and is a great deep-field threat along with Deion Branch.
Ochocinco’s bravado, what was his eventual demise in Cincinnati and has become a sideshow as his numbers have slumped, may transfer into veteran leadership and addictive positivity under Belichick and Brady.
This is one exciting player on one exciting team. This trade – like the gold-veined Randy Moss one years ago – has a massive reward potential for both sides. Ochocinco, just getting out of Cincinnati at the right time – Palmer “retiring”, Mike Brown acting crazy, Marvin Lewis’ verbal miscues – is finally on a team where his personal best can parallel collective greatness. And the Patriots could score big signing yet another great receiver whose mouth actually matches his mettle.
It’s a future that remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: no one is going to want to miss how it develops.
Posted on August 25, 2011, in Lists and tagged 2011 free agency, 2011 nfl offseason, albert haynesworth, bruce gradkowski, cadillac williams, chad ochocinco, donovan mcnabb vikings, jerious norwood, johnathan joseph, kevin kolb, marc colombo, marion barber, matt hasselbeck, mike sims-walker, nnamdi asomugha, plaxico burress, reggie bush, reggie bush heisman, roy e. williams, sidney rice. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.