New Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora proclaimed at the NFL Scouting Combine last month that his team, which finished third in the NFC West last season at 4-12, didn’t need to be radically re-made. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s free-agent signing last week added a vital piece for Seattle, but there aren’t many other holes that need to be filled.
Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Gene Smith is of the same mind-set. Although the Jaguars need to address a few more areas than the Seahawks — running back, safety and linebacker — an overhaul isn’t needed for the team to challenge for a playoff berth, despite playing in the rugged AFC South.
The Jaguars and Seahawks are joined by the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers as teams that last season failed to replicate their success of 2007 (the Chargers did win the AFC West but with an 8-8 record). Even so, these teams aren’t in such need of repair that they can’t bounce back in ’09.
Some other teams, such as the Cleveland Browns, fell off last season, but their turnarounds could come with a more drastic facelift than others.
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Seattle and Tampa Bay made coaching changes, but like Jacksonville, Green Bay and San Diego, most of their core players remain intact. The faith in new leadership (where it pertains), changes in schemes and the return of healthy players, such as Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, is why most of these teams have made very few big-name, free-agent signings.
Most of the pieces already are in place.
“The thing that was a strength, running the ball, became a weakness last season because of all the injuries we suffered on the (offensive) line,” Smith said of the Jaguars. “We lost two linemen in the first game — one in pregame, Mo Williams — who was our right guard. Mo had started 96 games. We lost our center, Brad Meester, in training camp. Then we had the situation with Richard Collier (who was shot in an off-the-field incident and suffered career-ending injuries). You never expected something like that to happen.
“Every team has a lot of injuries, but we had 16 players on injured reserve, and a chunk of those were in one area.”
A look at how each of those teams can rebound:
The Jaguars decided not to retain former second-round draft pick Khalif Barnes and instead signed free-agent left tackle Tra Thomas, a durable and effective veteran who could move to right tackle should Jacksonville use the No. 8 overall pick in the draft on a left tackle. Williams and guard Vince Manuwai will be back from injuries to re-join Meester, who returned last season. The battered offensive line could regain its presence and allow the offense — and quarterback David Garrard — to perform as it did two seasons ago.
The Jaguars need to add a running back to pair with Maurice Jones-Drew after letting go of veteran Fred Taylor, who signed with New England. At least one safety and a linebacker are in order. The Jaguars must find a legit No. 1 wide receiver, which has been one of the team’s most problematic shortcomings. The word is that Jacksonville also plans to start grooming a young quarterback, which is why the selection of USC’s Mark Sanchez or Georgia’s Matthew Stafford with the No. 8 pick can’t be discounted.
|Sam Greenwood / Getty Images|
|Packers QB Aaron Rodgers made a solid transition to starter in 2008 amid the distractions surrounding Brett Favre’s trade to the Jets.|
Green Bay Packers
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers did a better-than-adequate job stepping in for Brett Favre amid a tsunami of controversy. Rodgers should be better in his second year as a starter. Right tackle Mark Tauscher, a solid nine-year veteran, is coming off knee surgery and is a free agent. The Packers have to address that situation, either by re-signing Tauscher if he’s healthy or via trade, draft or free agency. Regardless, Green Bay needs to reinforce its offensive-line depth.
The big issue is on defense, where the Packers were gashed on the ground and gave up nearly 24 points per game. Green Bay is switching to a 3-4 defense and has brought in Dom Capers, one of the best at coaching the scheme, to coordinate the transition. End Aaron Kampman is set to move to outside linebacker and be the primary edge rusher, but such a move isn’t always smooth. The Packers have to add some outside linebackers and solidify their secondary, but most of the personnel is in place to make the change.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Though the Buccaneers finished with the same record for two straight seasons, they went from NFC South kings to third place in the improved division in ’08.
Coach Jon Gruden, general manager Bruce Allen and veteran players Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Jeff Garcia and Joey Galloway were cast out, seemingly stripping Tampa Bay of its nucleus. However, a young and talented offensive line, a solid middle linebacker and a fairly strong secondary provide new coach Raheem Morris some pieces with which to work.
The Bucs’ quarterback situation is a huge question mark, as Luke McCown looks to be the heir to Garcia at quarterback. However, adding free-agent running back Derrick Ward to complement Earnest Graham gives Tampa Bay a nice tandem. The team isn’t counting on Cadillac Williams to come back from another knee surgery anytime soon.
The Bucs franchised free-agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant at more than $9 million, with hopes that he will repeat his breakthrough ’08 season. They also signed wide receiver Michael Clayton to a five-year, $26 million contract, hoping he will find himself after failing to consistently deliver under Gruden.
Tampa Bay must fortify its defensive interior. It lost defensive tackle Jovan Haye to free agency (Tennessee), and someone has to protect middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. Passing on Mississippi defensive tackle Peria Jerry or Missouri’s Ziggy Hood with the 20th pick could prompt some head scratching, although adding a cornerback or defensive end could be an option.
San Diego Chargers
2008 finish: 8-8, AFC West champions, Lost To Steelers In Divisional Round
The Chargers won the AFC West the past two seasons, but the drop-off in wins and overall production in ’08 was a step backward.
The loss of running back Michael Turner to free agency and the season-ending knee injury to Merriman opened bigger holes than the team imagined. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson struggled through injuries all season, and now he’s having to deal with a contract restructuring that could have him and backup Darren Sproles in the same tax bracket. Tight end Antonio Gates also fought through a variety of injuries for most of the season.
With Merriman, Gates and Tomlinson back healthy, the Chargers already would be better than any team in their division. Quarterback Philip Rivers is among the best in the NFL and is only improving. Another receiving threat could help in that regard.
If the Chargers can address their issues at every level of the defense, things could only be better. San Diego played better on defense once Ron Rivera took over as coordinator, but it must improve its pass rush, first and foremost. Even so, if USC linebacker Rey Maualuga is there when they pick at No. 16, the Chargers might have to snatch him.
Maybe no team has been as decimated by injuries as Seattle. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck played in just seven games last season, as did former All-Pro defensive end Patrick Kerney. None of the Seahawks’ top wideouts played in 16 games, and the ground game didn’t produce much.
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In addition, the Seahawks were dealing with coach Mike Holmgren’s pre-planned departure and Mora’s pre-set promotion from secondary coach. Though it was said not to be an issue, when things went south, the focus turned more toward the future and Mora than on the current task at hand.
With Hasselbeck healthy and the addition of the productive Houshmandzadeh, Seattle’s offense is immediately upgraded. Running back Julius Jones, who didn’t deliver the expected results after signing as a free agent last season, has the perfect style to succeed in the new one-cut zone scheme that will be implemented under Mora. Defensively, the Seahawks have to get more solid at the tackle spot and have Kerney back at full strength to provide that menacing presence.
Even though the Arizona Cardinals went to the Super Bowl from the NFC West, if Seattle returns to full strength, it could challenge for the division title, which could be tougher to win next season.