The Bills improved their depth at defensive tackle by acquiring veteran Darwin Walker from the Philadelphia Eagles, but did they improve their ability to stop the run?
Especially since the deal involved saying goodbye to former Pro Bowl outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, their seventh leading tackler last season who should be much more productive in 2007 with a year under his belt recovering from Achilles' tendon surgery.
Many insiders are asking that question after general manager Marv Levy and coach Dick Jauron continued their active off-season makeover of a team that improved to 7-9 last year but was far from a serious playoff contender.
Walker, 6-3, 294, is built in the mold of Larry Tripplett, last year's top free agent signing who had a disappointing season with just 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Like Tripplett, he plays the "3 technique" in Buffalo's version of the Tampa 2 Scheme, shading a guard's shoulder.
On third down, the Bills can line up Tripplett and Walker side by side and tell them to rush the quarterback. Each player is built for speed and penetrating the backfield. Walker alone has 27.5 career sacks.
But there can't be an obvious passing down unless the Bills improve stopping the run on first and second down and Walker admitted it.
"Over the course of my career I've been very successful getting to the quarterback, and I look forward to that, but you have to stop them on first and second down to get there, and I don't think that will be an issue," Walker said.
Maybe it won't be, but more likely, it will.
What the Bills still need is a "1-technique" player who can hold his ground over the center. Even last year's first-round pick, John McCargo, is a "3" and Kyle Williams, who replaced Tim Anderson as a starter at the "1", isn't a bruiser.
Walker said he's not afraid to play that run-stuffing role if Buffalo's coaches ask him. The Eagles, a consistent playoff team during Darwin's six seasons, weren't world-beaters against the run. They ranked 26th last year when Walker finished with 36 stops.
"We played two-gap every year I played with the Eagles, but we mostly played one-gap and that's where I thrive," he said. "But I can play the two-gap. A lot of times stopping the run is about attitude as much as it is anything else. You stop the run, then lay your ears down and go get the quarterback."
If Spikes recovers fully from his Achilles' injury and returns to Pro Bowl form, this will prove to be a bad trade for Buffalo, which has now jettisoned its entire starting linebacker trio from a year ago: Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey.
While a tremendous locker room guy and community presence -- he's vice president of an engineering firm when not playing football -- Darwin was never known as a difference maker in Philadelphia and in fact was being phased out after the acquisitions of Brodrick Bunkley and Montae Reagor.
Walker, who soon turns 30, had requested a trade after it was clear a contract extension wasn't coming through. At least he's enthusiastic about making the Bills better.
"This is the best situation for me and I'm looking forward to it," said the 2000 third-round draft pick out of Tennessee. "It's not like I didn't expect it. We asked for the trade and we knew it was probably going to happen. At this point in my career, being able to come into a young team will be beneficial.
"I'm very excited about this opportunity and I'm looking forward to getting (up) there. We have a young team with lots of potential and I'm looking forward to being part of something."
--Takeo Spikes will start for the Eagles, who desperately needed to upgrade their play at linebacker. Spikes showed steady improvement all last season after his Achilles' surgery, so it's a bit of a surprise the Bills would trade him if they are indeed serious about winning. Or perhaps they were just convinced he'd never be the Pro Bowl player he was and at $9.5 million over the next two seasons, represented unwise fiscal planning. "I'm 100 percent and I think the Philadelphia organization realized that just by taking their time to grade me out, comparing from the first game (of 2006) all the way through the last game of the year," Spikes said. "So I feel good and I'm looking forward to this opportunity." Spikes, a nine-year veteran with Cincinnati and Buffalo, has never been to the playoffs. He's played the most games (126) of any current player without seeing the post-season. He's got a good chance to snap that streak this year.
--The Bills will have no compensatory draft picks this year. A total of 32 were handed out based on a formula involving quality of free agents lost and signed.
--The NFL set a paid attendance record for the fifth consecutive season with a total of 22,199,712. Washington, with the league's largest capacity at 91,704, led the league for a seventh consecutive year. The Bills, who annually led the league in attendance during their Super Bowl era, this time led the league in TV blackouts with four, as their final four games did not sell out to beat the deadline or to fill the stadium to capacity by kickoff.
--Former RB Willis McGahee is public enemy No. 1 with Bills fans since his trade to the Baltimore Ravens. During an interview with the Baltimore Sun, McGahee dissed Buffalo's lack of -- in his opinion -- first class nightlife, restaurants and pretty women to date. "You know what I did every day? I came home and played video games," McGahee said. He described his reaction when being told by his agent that he was traded to the Ravens this way: "I was yelling and (stuff), running through the whole house screaming, 'Yes! Yes!' It was such a relief ... I couldn't wait to get out of there." Bills fans find McGahee immature and ungrateful; it was former Bills GM Tom Donahoe who made McGahee, who was recovering from a brutal college knee injury and had no guarantees of ever playing again, a surprise first-round pick in 2003. That move ultimately made McGahee a very rich man.
They Said It:
"I'd like to especially acknowledge the critical role our senator, (Charles) Schumer, played in helping us to gain representation on the committee and to bringing a broader attention to the importance of small-market diversity to America's game. We couldn't have done it without him." -- Bills owner Ralph Wilson complimenting Sen. Schumer after the NFL adopted a new revenue sharing plan.
On paper, it would certainly appear the Dolphins have fallen behind their AFC East rivals after the first month of free agency.
But Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller said he believes it isn't fair to judge how the franchise will ultimately stand entering the 2007 season.
"I would rather win during the season than win on paper during the off-season," Mueller said last week at the NFL owners' meeting in Phoenix. "We think we've made some good, sound football decisions that have started us down a road that we think we'll be successful. I can't really grade the other teams or what they have done because their situations are totally different than ours.
"It's a process that takes time. I don't think we'll know the success of our off-season until next October and November because what we do in free agency is coupled with what we'll be able to do during the draft."
Mueller dismissed the notion of the Dolphins as a rebuilding franchise after the off-season purging of 21 players from last year's team. The Dolphins did make a sprinkling of free-agent signings highlighted by outside linebacker Joey Porter, an eight-year NFL veteran who was signed to a five-year, $32-million deal.
When it comes to such radical roster changes, Mueller referred to it as a "reshuffling."
"We all could choose to pay everybody top dollar and get everybody if we thought they were good business decisions," said Mueller, who was placed in charge of Miami's personnel decisions shortly after Nick Saban left to the University of Alabama. "We think we have made good business decisions and I think that's a plus for the Dolphins, believe it or not. We're going to be fine in a lot of areas come September."
Bowens was one of the longest tenured Dolphins players, joining the franchise midway through the 2001 season. Bowens, who experienced a tumultuous start to his NFL career after being drafted by Denver in 1999, matured with the Dolphins and proved a solid pass-rushing backup and special teams player.
Bowens notched 18 sacks in his past three seasons with the Dolphins.
--Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga admittedly wasn't thrilled to learn a player his team's front office guaranteed $20 million dollar was allegedly part of a group attack of another NFL player.
A Las Vegas police report stated that Miami linebacker Joey Porter instigated a fight against Cincinnati left tackle Levi Jones and punched him in the face at a casino gaming table. Jones was then jumped by what is believed a group of Porter's acquaintances, according to surveillance cameras listed in the report.
Porter was cited for misdemeanor battery, which Las Vegas police say is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine. Porter also faces a fine and possible suspension from the NFL if found guilty.
"Obviously, that's not what we want for the Miami Dolphins," Huizenga said. "We want to have the right players and have to make the right decisions when we're picking. We'll have that discussion with the guys when we get home."
They Said It:
"I'm always going to be respectful to the player. But sometimes, when you let somebody go your team just got better. That's not the perception. One person left so everybody just kind of assumes, 'Well, the team just got worse.' That's not necessarily the case. Where we make decisions, whether we add someone or subtract someone, in our mind that decision is helping us win and we feel like we just got better. It's hard, I know, sometimes for you guys to look at it that way. But that's how we look at it." -- Dolphins coach Cam Cameron when asked about the off-season exodus of offensive players such as tight end Randy McMichael, left tackle Damion McIntosh and left guard Jeno James from the team's 2006 roster.
Next fall, Patriots second-year running back Laurence Maroney is penciled in to be the team's workhorse. Right now, though, the 21st pick in last year's draft is trying to get healthy enough to carry the full rushing load as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, the third different injury he suffered during his rookie campaign.
While the shoulder issue isn't expected to keep Maroney out of action by the time training camp 2007 rolls around in late July -- despite the fact that the Boston Herald reports that doctors found "fairly significant damage" in the joint -- the fact that the former Minnesota star had three injuries during a debut season in which he split carries with veteran Corey Dillon has some wondering if he's ready to take over the bulk of the work on the ground.
Maroney was slowed by a knee injury early in his rookie season then missed two games in December with torn rib cartilage. It's not clear when the shoulder issue -- one that resulted in surgery that left the 5-11, 220-pound back in a sling -- crept into the picture, but Maroney averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in the postseason.
All said, despite the three injuries over the course of the year, Maroney finished his rookie season with 175 carries for 745 yards and six touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 194 yards and another score.
Dillon, who was released by the team earlier this off-season, started 13 of 16 games for the Patriots in 2006 and led the team with 199 carries for 812 yards and 13 touchdowns. With the veteran out of the picture, and only veteran free agent and perennial backup Sammy Morris added to the roster, it's clear the intention in New England moving forward is for Maroney to be the franchise's lead dog in the backfield.
A source close to Maroney indicated that the powerful runner won't be limited by the shoulder issue and is going to be more than ready to take over the bulk of the carries next fall. The Boston Globe even went so far as to track down Maroney's mother, Terri Terrell, to check in on the back's health moving forward.
"I think he's in great spirits," mom said. "He's looking forward to the season. He's fine."
Patriots fans have to be hoping that mother knows best because there could be a lot riding on Maroney's surgically repaired shoulder next fall.
--The Patriots have been awarded four compensatory draft picks for April's draft as a result of the team's net free agent losses last spring. New England received a fifth-round pick (171st overall), two sixth-round picks (208th and 209th overall) and a seventh rounder (247th overall) from the league for a 2006 free agent period that saw the team add just Reche Caldwell and lose Tom Ashworth, Matt Chatham, Andre Davis, Tim Dwight, Christian Fauria, David Givens and Adam Vinatieri. New England now has 10 selections heading into draft weekend.
--According to the Denver Post, the Broncos have offered Patriots free agent punter Todd Sauerbrun an incentive-based contract. The free agent was cut by Denver last October after serving a four-game NFL suspension and didn't land in New England until late in the season. As part of the deal he signed with the Patriots last Dec. 22, the former Pro Bowler agreed to give New England the right of first refusal on any deal he might find in free agency this spring. The Patriots currently have three punters under contract, including returning veteran Josh Miller, who's handled the New England punting duties over the last three seasons until he landed on injured reserve last November.
--Patriots owner Robert Kraft raved at the NFL annual meetings about the team's good fortune this spring in being able to fill one of New England's biggest needs with the addition of free agent Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas.
"Talk about inefficiency in the marketplace. There is a player who normally would be franchised, but because of the unique situation that Baltimore was in, he came free to the market," Kraft said last week in Phoenix. "They had allocated so many dollars to defense, and what have you, and that was our opportunity to move. I think he liked our system, and his agent worked well with Scott (Pioli). I think he really appreciated having Bill Belichick as a coach, and what we're about as an organization and a team. He came off the market fast, but you knew that anyone like that was going to go fast. We adapted to the marketplace rather than wait for things. I think people think we've done things differently this year, but we haven't. Whatever is the right strategy to improve our team, we're going to employ. Sometimes it's better to wait, and sometimes it's better to initiate and act quickly."
--Taking part in the New England Youth Sports Festival at Gillette Stadium last week, Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin emerged from "hibernation" to reveal he's still thinking about the team's AFC title game loss in Indianapolis. Colvin, a Purdue alum and Indianapolis native, battled cramps in the loss and still feels the pain of New England missing out on another trip to the Super Bowl.
"I was very disappointed about how the game ended in Indianapolis," Colvin recalled. "Obviously, with my connection there, going home, not being able to win. The way I ended the game, having to go out ... not being able to come back. It was very disappointing.
"It was a great opportunity for us and we just didn't take advantage of it."
But with New England recently kicking off its off-season program, Colvin knows its time to turn the page to 2007 and is looking forward to the team's new mix of talent.
"Definitely excited about the acquisitions that they've made," he observed. "Once (the new players) get an opportunity to perform on the field ... hopefully those guys will fit in well.
"It's like getting new furniture in the whole house. You get a new couch, get a new bed, get some new sheets ... dress it up a little bit, and you're excited to see how it's going to feel."
They Said It:
"I don't know of another player you could put quite in his category. I can see why coach (Bill) Belichick would covet Adalius. New England is clearly a team that will use him well." -- Ravens head coach Brian Billick on former Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas, the prize catch of the Patriots 2007 free agent class.
Help wanted: Successful NFL team seeking defensive lineman, particularly defensive ends. Experience a necessity, but recent experience not a must. Returnees to the NFL welcomed. Apply in person to New York Jets, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.
A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking the Jets have placed such an ad, considering their recent run in signing defensive linemen, especially retreads such as 1998 first-round pick Andre Wadsworth, who hasn't played a down in the NFL since 2000.
Not only have they signed Wadsworth and fellow first-round flop Michael Haynes, drafted by Chicago in 2003, but the Jets also grabbed unrestricted free agent David Bowens, who played for Miami the last six seasons.
Bowens has 18 sacks over the past three seasons and is expected to be a pass-rushing specialist for the Jets, who would like to get more heat on the quarterback without having to blitz so much. While those blitzes by the likes of strong safety Kerry Rhodes often worked, they also left the Jets vulnerable in the secondary, particularly in their loss to New England in the playoffs.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Bowens had five sacks for Miami last season and played well for former Miami defensive line coach Dan Quinn, who now is coaching the Jets' defensive line. Bowens' contract is for $6.1 million over three years, with escalators and incentives that could push the total value up to $8.1 million.
Earlier in March, the Jets signed defensive end Kenyon Coleman of Dallas. Coleman likely will be a starter and has the versatility to move inside in third-and-long situations in which Bowens likely will be on the field.
The Jets obviously aren't expecting Wadsworth and Haynes to be starters, and if they could get some help from even one of them they likely would consider it gravy. Eric Mangini and his staff certainly demonstrated an ability to "coach up" players last season, and Quinn has that ability as well.
The run on defensive ends also makes it obvious that the Jets won't be looking for D-line help when they select the 25th overall pick in the first round of the draft. The likeliest option at this point seems to be Pittsburgh cornerback Darrelle Revis, although to put it in Mangini-speak, that's a fluid situation.
--Andre Wadsworth, the third overall pick in the 1998 draft, was signed by the Jets. The 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end started 30 games over three seasons with Arizona from 1998-2000, but was plagued by knee injuries. He hasn't played in an NFL game since then.
"Andre came in for a workout," coach Eric Mangini told the New York Daily News. "He had a really good workout, but spending time with him after the workout was extremely impressive and he looked for an opportunity. In meeting with him, and seeing where he is physically, we thought it would be a good chance for us to give him that opportunity."
Wadsworth was drafted right after San Diego selected Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick. Who knows? Maybe the Jets will sign Leaf to compete with Marques Tuiasosopo and Kellen Clemens to be Chad Pennington's backup. Then again, probably not.
--The NFL hasn't released its full 2007 schedule yet, but did throw out some nuggets recently, including the fact that the Jets will visit Dallas on Thanksgiving for the Cowboys' traditional later-afternoon Turkey Day game.
"We're excited to play on Thanksgiving for the first time since 1985," owner Woody Johnson said in a statement, "and take part in what has become a great American tradition."
The Jets lost at Detroit in 1985 in the Pontiac Silverdome and also lost to the Lions in 1972 at Tiger Stadium. Those had been their only Thanksgiving games since the 1970 merger.
They Said It:
"He's an impressive, fun guy." -- Jets coach Eric Mangini to the New York Daily News about free-agent signee Andre Wadsworth, who has been out of the NFL since 2000.