The Cardinals had tried for four years to draft a pass-rushing end to replace Simeon Rice after he bolted for Tampa Bay.
Kyle Van den Bosch is a nice player, but he's had ACL surgery on each knee already. Calvin Pace was a total bust that had a whopping 1 sack in 16 starts as a rookie. Darnell Dockett played very well inside last season because of injuries, consequently not getting the chance to win a job at end, where many believe he might be even better. Finally, the team signed free agent Bertrand Berry last season and - Presto! - 14.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance. Now they're hoping the signing of Chike Okeafor is similarly effective on the left side. He's coming off back-to-back seasons of 8 and 8.5 sacks in Seattle.
Okeafor, 28, was interested in the Cardinals in 2003, when he became a free agent after four years with San Francisco. They were spooked by a neck injury. "I did my scouting last season watching teams, watching them play," Okeafor said. "You see a lot of another team's heart based on how they play as a unit. I know what I'm dedicating to a team for the next five years of my young life and I wanted that same respect back from my team. It's just in the attitude. There is a different attitude here. One thing over there (Seattle), I felt alone. Not surrounded by enough people who thought like me, felt like me, played like me on a day-to-day basis, and loved the game like me. I've been in search for that in some of my teammates and I found that here."
In Okeafor and Berry, the Cardinals now have pass-rushing skill far superior to anything they've seen since Rice, and they finally have it coming from more than one source. It is a significant upgrade for a team that languished last or nearly last in sacks following Rice's departure. The Cardinals had 38 sacks last season. In the previous three seasons combined, they had 61, fewest in the NFL during that stretch.
--QB Kurt Warner is fighting some negative history of his own, so to that extent he is not as strange a bedfellow with the Cardinals as it might appear. "The biggest thing that's misunderstood is why I'm not in St. Louis," Warner said. "People automatically associate it with the fact that I can't play football. And it's hard to (dispel) those questions. I was a two-time MVP. I went to two Super Bowls with them. It never happens that a guy like that doesn't finish his career, doesn't play longer with a team. It's hard to explain to people that it didn't have anything to do with football." The Rams were going to owe Warner a huge bonus at a time when there was concern about his health and QB Marc Bulger was playing well.
--Does Warner hold the ball too long? Does he still have it? Warner has convinced Green that those are invalid concerns and no reason to shy away. "We watched every game (last season in New York). His agent sent us a CD-Rom of every single throw," Green said. "What was clear is that when you gave him an opportunity to throw, he made some of the most amazing throws in the league. In fact, we should probably put a highlight tape together of it. He still has the touch. He obviously has the courage. The bottom line is you have to have players around him."
--Chike Okeafor, who will play left end, has played outside linebacker and it is said he has the speed to perhaps even play strong safety. That versatility should fit in nicely with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's continuing mix-up of fronts and schemes. "I guess that's why he wears number 56," said Green. "He's a little bit of a linebacker, a little bit of end, a little bit of strong safety, all of those things wrapped into one."
-- Free-agent tackle Oliver Ross will give the team a young offensive line of (left to right) Leonard Davis, Reggie Wells, Alex Stepanovich, Jeremy Bridges and Ross, who at 30, is the oldest. "We're a very young offensive line, but we're frisky," Green said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're making some major changes this winter, and who is surprised by that? Do you think I could stand another year like last year? There's just no way." - Cardinals Coach Dennis Green, on reloading following a 6-10 season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
1. Running back. The starter in 2004, Emmitt Smith retired after just missing a 1,000-yard season. The team rushing leader in 2002-03, Marcel Shipp, is coming off a surgically repaired leg fracture and his status is unknown. So it could be argued that the team needs two backs. It definitely needs at least one. The Cardinals could be tempted by what's left in the draft among Cedric Benson of Texas, Ronnie Brown of Auburn or Cadillac Williams of Auburn. At least two of them likely will be off the board before the Cards pick at No. 8.
2. Cornerback. Duane Starks simply hasn't panned out and was traded, while David Macklin, despite having a junkyard-dog demeanor, is limited. No. 3 corner Renaldo Hill is unrestricted and could land elsewhere. And name a team that would tell you it has enough cover corners. It would be great if the Cardinals could land a starter and make Macklin the nickel back and/or Hill the fourth corner. That turn of events would upgrade the look of a suspect secondary considerably.
3. Offensive line. If Kurt Warner does indeed start next season, the Cardinals are going to need to improve their pass blocking. Josh McCown was on the run much of last season, and at 33, Warner is one of the slower-moving quarterbacks in the league. Oliver Ross was the first step.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Renaldo Hill; TE Freddie Jones; MLB Ron McKinnon; WR Nate Poole (not tendered as RFA); OG Cameron Spikes; CB Michael Stone; CB Robert Tate; DE Kyle Vanden Bosch.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Quentin Harris; DT Ross Kolodziej; QB Josh McCown.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: OT Jeremy Bridges.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: RB Damien Anderson; RB Troy Hambrick; DE Peppi Zellner.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Robert Griffith; DE Chike Okeafor; OT Oliver Ross; QB Kurt Warner.
PLAYERS LOST: QB Shaun King; RB Emmitt Smith; CB Duane Starks; WR Karl Williams.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The days dwindle down to a precious few. That's the story once again as the Rams race the clock in an effort to sign left tackle Orlando Pace to a long-term contract. The Rams placed the franchise tag on Pace Feb. 22, the third year in a row the team had done that. This year's franchise tender is $8.425 million. The club has until Tuesday (March 15) to sign Pace. If that date passes without an agreement, there will be no negotiating until July 15. A team that negotiates or signs a contract with a franchise player after March 15 but before July 15 loses the future use of the franchise tag for the life of the player's contract.
The fact Pace hired agents Kennard McGuire and Fletcher Smith invoked some hope into the mix, considering the stone wall the Rams faced when Carl Poston was Pace's agent. Pace fired Poston last September, but didn't hire his new agents until the end of February. However, the hope was fading, with apparently little progress made toward a new deal. "We're conferring, and we'll continue to talk, but that's all I want to say at this point," Rams president of football operations Jay Zygmunt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Said coach Mike Martz of signing Pace, "It would just provide so much more money to continue to plug in a significant player on defense to help."
But Martz was being cautious in talking too much about the situation. "You always try to be positive about these things and hope that the right thing's going to happen, but we'll see," Martz said. There are those that figured once Seattle tackle Walter Jones signed, that would provide the framework of a deal for Pace. Jones's overall is worth $52.5 million over seven years and included a $16 million signing bonus. Most important, Jones is scheduled to receive $27 million in the first three years of the contract. When the Rams have signed their high-profile players in the past, the bonus was never larger than $12.5 million and the early years of the deals had low base salaries. The Rams would likely balk at proposals that included as much money as Jones got in the early years of the contract.
--With just one experienced safety under contract, the Rams signed Michael Stone to upgrade the position and contribute on special teams. Stone has been with the Arizona Cardinals the last four seasons, although he missed 2003 with a torn pectoral muscle. Prior to Stone's signing, Adam Archuleta was the only safety on the Rams roster that has ever played a game at the position. And Archuleta is being switched from strong safety to free safety. The Rams also plan to experiment this offseason by moving linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa to strong safety. Joe Vitt, the team's assistant head coach and linebackers coach said, "This was the No. 1 special teams guy (available) in our evaluations. (And) as people see, you can't have enough safeties. We went through a lot of them last year. This kid can run. He can tackle. He's physical. He understands the game. We still think he has ascending skills."
Stone had 17 special teams tackle for the Cardinals, second-most on the team, last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Last year was frustrating for a lot of guys. I don't think any safety played particularly well last year. I think it had a lot to do with a lot of different things." - Former Rams safety Rich Coady on problems during the 2004 season.
1. Safety. Even with the switch of Pisa Tinoisamoa to strong safety and Adam Archuleta to free safety, the team can't assume it will work. Nor is it a slam-dunk that Archuleta will overcome the back woes that seriously affected his 2004 performance. Depth at the position is needed. Some if it came with the signing of Michael Stone, but that should be just the start.
2. Defensive end. This position appears in good shape, but that could change quickly. Bryce Fisher is an unrestricted free agent, and Leonard Little is scheduled to go to trial March 28 on drunk driving charges. The Rams like the potential of Anthony Hargrove, who was starting at the end of the season, but they have to ensure that there is quality depth there.
3. Tackle. Blaine Saipaia held his own at right tackle down at the end of the season, but coaches believe he will be better as a guard. Free agency has been pricey for tackles, and the Rams don't want to wade in those expensive waters. They looked closely at the tackles at the scouting combine.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: OT Orlando Pace.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Zack Bronson; TE Cam Cleeland; OG Chris Dishman; S Antuan Edwards; DE Bryce Fisher; DE Erik Flowers; QB Jamie Martin; OG Tom Nutten; LB Tommy Polley; S Aeneas Williams.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: FB Joey Goodspeed; WR Dane Looker; LS Chris Massey.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: OT Blaine Saipaia.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OG Darnell Alford; CB Dwight Anderson; LB Trev Faulk; WR Mike Furrey; RB Arlen Harris; LB Jeremy Loyd; O Kevin Stemke; OG Scott Tercero; LB Drew Wahlroos.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Chris Claiborne; LB Dexter Coakley; TE Roland Williams.
PLAYERS LOST: QB Chris Chandler; S Rich Coady; OG Matt Lehr.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers lost their top wide receiver from last season, but coach Mike Nolan made it clear he did not expect Cedrick Wilson to be the top receiver again this season. With Wilson having signed a four-year contract with the Steelers, the 49ers turned their attention to free-agent David Boston, whom the Dolphins recently released. Boston is known to want to play for the 49ers, but the club was holding off on signing him until he passes a physical and Nolan does more checking into Boston's background. Boston has the backing of Jerry Sullivan, the 49ers' no-nonsense receivers coach who helped turn the embattled player into a star with the Cardinals. "The think you need to know about David's situation is David has had his issues, but the best years he's ever had, he was coached by Jerry Sullivan," Nolan said. "It's certainly an interesting thing. If for no other reason, that makes it exciting."
The 49ers struggled in the passing game last season. Their offensive line and pass protection yielded 52 sacks, they got spotty play from quarterbacks Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey, and the receivers had a difficult time getting open on a consistent basis. The club already gave free-agent left tackle Jonas Jennings a $12 million signing bonus to solidify that spot. That move enables the 49ers to move Kwame Harris to his more natural right tackle spot. The 49ers figure to take a quarterback (Aaron Rodgers or Alex Smith) or wide receiver (Braylon Edwards) in the draft to provide an upgrade at the other spots that can help the passing attack.
--Coach Mike Nolan did not sound too upset about losing receiver Cedrick Wilson to free agency. After all, the Steelers wanted him a lot more. "Pittsburgh sees him as being a little bit more of an integral part of what they are trying to build," Nolan said. "You have to put a value on everybody that you have on your football team and I think Pittsburgh just thought or saw him a little more valuable to them than we did."
--The 49ers have given right tackle Scott Gragg permission to seek a trade from other teams, which is a way for the club to allow Gragg to begin seeing who might want to sign him after he is released in June.
--The 49ers signed veteran kicker Joe Nedney to take over for Todd Peterson, who signed recently with the Falcons. Nedney has not kicked since the 2003 season opener because of a torn right ACL and a torn left hamstring. Nedney is a left-footed kicker.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My job right now is to basically dispel all the rumors that I'm an injury-prone player" - K Joe Nedney, who has played in just one game since 2003 due to knee and hamstring injuries.
1. Quarterback. Is Tim Rattay the answer at this spot? Can he remain healthy for an entire season? Coach Mike Nolan said there will be competition for the starting QB job this year. The 49ers might use the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Aaron Rodgers or Alex Smith.
2. Defensive back. The 49ers expect CB Mike Rumph, who missed most of last season with a broken forearm, to return at full strength. They can't be too sure of CB Ahmed Plummer, who missed 10 games with a bulging disc in his neck. If the 49ers acquire a good corner, it might allow them to move Rumph to FS, where they have a need.
3. Wide receiver. The 49ers did not have any big-play threats from this position last season. Their roster is filled with mediocre NFL receivers, and they need to find somebody who can consistently get open and make plays down the field.
4. Running back. Halfback Kevan Barlow was a disappointment last season, and it remains to be seen how he reacts to a new coaching staff. Regardless, the 49ers need to find a backup halfback who can take some of the pressure off him.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: LB Julian Peterson.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE Steve Bush; WR Curtis Conway; OT Jerome Davis (not tendered as ERFA); QB Brandon Doman (not tendered as ERFA); C Brock Gutierrez; FS Ronnie Heard; FB Jasen Isom (not tendered as ERFA); DT Daleroy Stewart (not tendered as RFA); CB Jimmy Williams.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: OG Eric Heitmann; OT Kyle Kosier; LB Brandon Moore; LB Saleem Rasheed.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: DL Tony Brown; S Dwaine Carpenter; CB Ray Wells; LB Rayshun Reed.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: DT Chris Cooper; RB Terry Jackson.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: OT Jonas Jennings; PK Joe Nedney.
PLAYERS LOST: PK Todd Peterson; DE Brandon Whiting; WR Cedrick Wilson.
After two-plus years of cheerleading, QB Trent Dilfer is eager to jump back into a starting job. The Browns were more than eager - they were desperate - and so a trade was born. The Seahawks sent Dilfer to the Browns for the fourth-round pick Cleveland acquired from Denver in the Gerard Warren trade. Dilfer, 33, contributed more than an 8-4 starting record during four seasons in Seattle. He became a team leader and willing mentor for starting QB Matt Hasselbeck. Coaches even tapped Dilfer's experience and knowledge in preparing game plans; they credited his input for helping Hasselbeck toss five TD passes against Baltimore in 2003. Dilfer knew the Ravens' defense well from his Super Bowl season in Baltimore.
All the while, Dilfer seemed to have at least an outside shot of retaking the starting job. That changed dramatically when Hasselbeck signed a six-year, $48 million contract in February. Dilfer started looking harder at starting opportunities elsewhere. The Seahawks gave him permission to explore trade scenarios. "I miss that feeling of being alive when you're the starter," Dilfer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "I like having the ball in my hands, the burden of winning when everyone's out to stop you."
Given permission to seek a trade, Dilfer contacted Miami, Cleveland and San Francisco. The Browns and 49ers showed the most interest. Dilfer's time with the Ravens produced friendships with personnel man Phil Savage and defensive coach Mike Nolan. Savage is now GM in Cleveland. Nolan is the 49ers' head coach. Cleveland came up with the right package, and the Seahawks jumped.
Seattle will miss Dilfer's leadership, but the Seahawks can probably do better from an on-the-field standpoint. Free agent Doug Flutie (recently released by the San Diego Chargers) could now make sense for Seattle.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a different attitude here. One thing over there, on a day-to-day basis, I felt alone - not surrounded by enough people who thought like me, felt like me, played like me on a day-to-day basis and loved the game like me." -- DE Chike Okeafor, after leaving Seattle to sign with Arizona.
--The release of LB Anthony Simmons left Seattle even thinner at the position. The team subsequently signed former Browns LB Kevin Bentley, but he's probably best suited for a backup role. At this rate, free agency has left the Seahawks weaker.
--Seattle lost DE Chike Okeafor to the division-rival Cardinals, a significant blow given the dearth of top pass rushers on the market. The Seahawks are one of the teams interested in Saints DE Darren Howard, but Dallas might have the inside track. Seattle's negotiations with Okeafor were made tougher by the $14 million signing bonus the team paid to DE Grant Wistrom a year ago. Wistrom had 12 sacks and 107 tackles in the two seasons before signing his six-year, $33 million deal with Seattle. Okeafor has 16 1/2 sacks and 100 tackles over the last two years.
--The Seahawks have visited with CB Andre Dyson, QB Jeff Garcia, DE Bryce Fisher, DE Derrick Burgess and RB Anthony Thomas. The plan to visit with CB Kelly Herndon and WR Travis Taylor. Garcia signed with Detroit and Burgess signed with Oakland.
--The Seahawks have brought back Phil Neri to assist with college scouting. Neri worked previously for Seattle from 1984 to 1996. He was most recently with Cleveland.
1. Linebacker. Teams generally don't reach too high for linebackers in the draft, but Seattle will have to consider the position early and often. OLB Anthony Simmons was released and Chad Brown is coming off injury-shortened seasons, and Seattle is light in the middle. The signing of former Cleveland Brown Kevin Bentley will more than likely fill a backup need at best.
2. Defensive line. The departure of Chike Okeafor leaves Grant Wistrom without a bookend - and the Seahawks with a major hole in their defensive line. Seattle recently had St. Louis DE Bryce Fisher come to town, but did not offer him a contract. With options diminishing on the defensive side when it comes to free agency, the Seahawks still appear to be in shopping mode.
3. Wide receiver. The off-field troubles of 2001 first-round WR Koren Robinson have turned this position into a potential liability. Seattle needs someone to challenge WR Darrell Jackson as the No. 1 wideout, although running back could become the greater concern if Shaun Alexander doesn't return.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Shaun Alexander.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Alex Bannister; FB Heath Evans; LG Chris Gray; QB Brock Huard; MLB Orlando Huff; DE Brandon Mitchell; LB Curtis Randall (not tendered as ERFA); P Tom Rouen; C Robbie Tobeck; P Ken Walter.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DT Rocky Bernard; SS Terreal Bierria; TE Ryan Hannam; S Marquand Manuel; CB Kris Richard.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: Currently unavailable.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: RB Kerry Carter; QB Matt Hasselbeck; LT Walter Jones; TE Itula Mili; DE Ron Smith; WR Jerheme Urban; WR Jason Willis; G/T Floyd Womack.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Kevin Bentley.
PLAYERS LOST: CB Ken Lucas; DE Chike Okeafor; WR Jerry Rice; S Damien Robinson; LB Anthony Simmons.