The Seahawks relinquished their four-year vice grip on the NFC West due to a rash of injuries and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball. With Jim Mora taking the helm, the Seahawks ushered in numerous personnel changes during offseason. Five-time Pro Bowler Julian Peterson was traded to the Lions for Cory Redding. And the team subsequently let Maurice Morris, Rocky Bernard and Floyd Womack leave via free agency.
In return, the team brought on a host of veterans that should shore up the problem areas that plagued the team a season ago. T.J. Houshmandzadeh was signed to fortify a receiving corps that was decimated by injuries. The former Pro Bowler gives Matt Hasselbeck a dependable target over the middle, and serves as the anchor to a passing game that will be bolstered by the return of Deion Branch and Nate Burleson.
With Greg Knapp taking over the offensive controls, the Seahawks’ running game will become an emphasis, so the aggressive draft-day move to trade up for Max Unger was critical. The Oregon standout is a potential starter at guard or center, and is an ideal fit in the team’s new zone-based scheme.
Defensively, the team opted to beef up the interior of the line with the additions of Redding and Colin Cole. Both are capable of commanding double teams, which should free up Patrick Kerney off the edges. The drafting of Aaron Curry coupled with the re-signing of Leroy Hill gives the Seahawks one of the top linebacker corps in the NFC (three-time Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu stars at middle linebacker).
Veteran corner Ken Lucas returns to the Pacific Northwest to give Marcus Trufant a competent cover man on the opposite side. His presence allows Josh Wilson and Kelly Jennings to slide into more comfortable roles as the nickel and dime corners in the team’s sub package.
The Seahawks took an unexpected plunge last season, but are set to soar again after enjoying a stellar offseason.
Since the end of the season, general managers and front office executives have reshuffled coaches and players to assemble the best possible roster for the 2009 season.
Some have used free agency to bolster their lineups, while others have relied on trades or the draft to fortify rosters that needed a little tweaking to maximize their potential. Regardless of the method, some teams have taken full advantage of the offseason to close the gap on title contenders.
Let’s take a look at the five teams that have made terrific strides over the offseason.
After suffering a disappointing loss in the NFC Championship, the Eagles entered the offseason intent on retooling their roster on both sides of the ball. Long-time veterans Brian Dawkins, L.J. Smith, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were allowed to walk away during free agency, and the team shipped disgruntled corner Lito Sheppard to the Jets for two draft picks (a fifth-round pick this year — used on Cornelius Ingram — and a conditional pick in 2010).
In a blockbuster trade just before the draft, the team traded away a first-round pick to obtain two-time Pro Bowl selectee, Jason Peters, from the Bills. The trade gave the Eagles a franchise-caliber left tackle to take Thomas’ place in the lineup, and possible solution to the problems posed by the elite pass rushers in the division (Osi Umenyiora, DeMarcus Ware and Justin Tuck). The team also added versatile talent Stacy Andrews to their offensive line. The five-year pro is the older brother of Eagles’ guard Shawn Andrews, and gives the team three young, athletic linemen in the prime of their careers.
With the front line solidified by those moves, the team added more weaponry to their lineup with the selections of Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy in the draft. Maclin, the Eagles’ first-round pick, joins an Eagles receiving corps that was bolstered by the arrival of DeSean Jackson last year. Like Jackson, Maclin is a dynamic playmaker with return skills, and his presence in the lineup gives Donovan McNabb another home-run hitter capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
McCoy’s arrival could eventually result in a lighter workload for former Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook. The University of Pittsburgh star has a comparable skill set, and will enable Andy Reid to stick to his gameplan without worrying about who is in the game.
While the Eagles’ offensive moves garnered the biggest headlines, it is the subtle moves made on defense that may push them over the top. The draft-day trade to acquire Ellis Hobbs gives the team a veteran corner with starter’s experience in their sub package. He upgrades their dime position, and gives the team an insurance policy against a possible Sheldon Brown holdout.
Sean Jones has the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Dawkins in the back end, but his athleticism will allow defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to unveil more exotic pressures.
The Eagles have been tantalizingly close to winning a title in the Andy Reid era, but their impressive offseason this year may finally result in a championship crown landing in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Giants’ bid for a repeat was foiled by Plaxico Burress‘ legal predicament. Without their best playmaker on the field, the offense lost its identity and sputtered down the stretch. Although the defense played well enough to carry the team into the postseason, the loss of the offense’s potency kept the Giants from making a successful title defense last year.
With the sting of their surprising early playoff exit in mind, general manager Jerry Reese attacked the offseason with a superbly crafted gameplan. While most observers viewed the team’s defense as one with few holes, the Giants added four players (Michael Boley, Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard and C.C. Brown) to an already stingy unit. Not only did the moves reinforce positions of strength, but they grant new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan the flexibility to attack offenses from a variety of exotic looks.
Canty and Bernard join a deep defensive line rotation that features two Pro Bowlers (Tuck and Umenyiora) on the edges, with another talented, athletic rusher (Mathias Kiwanuka) capable of manning multiple positions. With numerous lineup possibilities as his disposal, Sheridan can put together a situational pass-rush package that strikes fear in quarterbacks.
In addition, Boley’s superior speed and athleticism could make him a dangerous playmaker in the team’s aggressive scheme. Boley played near all-star level two seasons ago, and could re-emerge as a budding superstar in the Giants’ defense.
The draft brought a promising linebacker (Clint Sintim) with a versatile skill set. Though Sintim played as a 3-4 edge player at Virginia, he gives Sheridan another pass-rushing option on the roster.
Offensively, the Giants needed to find a No. 1 receiver after Plaxico Burress’ release. While the team flirted with the notion of trading for Braylon Edwards, it opted to find its guys in the draft. Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden were drafted to replace some of the playmaking lost by Burress’ departure. Both are imposing, athletic receivers with outstanding hands and ball skills. While neither ranks as a burner, they are polished route runners who understand how to get open.
If one of the young receivers can emerge as a viable option in the passing game, the Giants’ potent running attack will no longer see the host of eight-man fronts that seemingly posed problems at the end of the season.
The Giants dominated the NFC for most of last season, but were undone by an offense that couldn’t get on track when it mattered most. However, after strengthening a defense that already stood among the league’s elite, the Giants may roll to a title behind a one-sided approach.
The Bills’ decade-long absence from the playoffs has fueled discontent from the Western New York faithful, and put the pressure squarely on Dick Jauron to deliver a postseason bid in his fourth year with the team. After failing to ride the momentum of a 5-1 start into their first winning season since 2004, the Bills made sweeping changes during the offseason to build a roster that has the potential to compete for AFC East title.
After watching their passing game generate only 14 touchdowns last season, the team signed temperamental superstar Terrell Owens. The mercurial pass catcher has scored 139 receiving touchdowns in his career, which ranks second all-time, and has tallied double-digit scores in each of the past three seasons. While history suggests that Owens will eventually divide the locker room, it is undeniable that he raises the big-play potential of the passing game with his presence on the opposite side of Lee Evans.
Evans, who has averaged 16.0 yards per catch throughout his career, had faced constant double coverage, and was limited to only three touchdowns last season. However, that number should skyrocket as defensive coordinators are forced to play the Bills’ aerial attack straight up due to the presence of two talented receivers.
The Bills’ offensive woes also permeated their running game as their offensive line underachieved in key moments. Derrick Dockery, who was signed to a seven-year, $49 million deal in 2007, never provided the push that team officials expected along the interior, and was released early in the offseason. Two-time Pro Bowl selectee Jason Peters was jettisoned via trade after the team tired of his incessant contract demands.
Though the duo had the potential to form one of the top guard-tackle tandems in the league, their inability to get it done consistently forced the team to reshuffle the lineup. Langston Walker will move to left tackle and the team is banking on a host of newcomers to shore up the remaining spots. Free-agent signee Geoff Hangartner will man the pivot, and two rookies (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) will occupy the guard spots.
While the unit will need to develop chemistry instantly, the team believes the moves will result in bigger running lanes for Marshawn Lynch.
Defensively, the Bills entered the offseason with a desperate need for a pass rusher after watching the team record only 24 sacks, which ranked 28th in the league last season. The team addressed their weakness by using the 11th overall pick on Aaron Maybin. The Penn State standout tallied 12 sacks during his final season in Happy Valley, and gives the Bills an explosive rusher off the edge. If he can give them any semblance of a rush, it should open up the field for Aaron Schobel.
The Bills have pulled out all of the stops in hopes of ending their playoff drought, but they will need significant contributions from all of their new guys to make the gambles result in a rare postseason appearance.
The Bears have lost a bit of their bite since going to the Super Bowl in 2006. The team’s defense has fallen back to the middle of the pack, and is not nearly as ferocious as the unit that led the league in takeaways during that season. In addition, the Bears offense has struggled to put points on the board consistently due to erratic play from the offensive line and quarterback positions.
With Lovie Smith feeling the heat from back-to-back playoff absences, the Bears made a host of moves to change the direction of the franchise.
Smith, who served as defensive coordinator for the Rams prior to his appointment with the Bears, made the rare decision to act as the team’s defensive play caller. While Smith won’t handle the day-to-day duties that typically fall to the coordinator, he will serve as the point person on game day. Smith directed a Rams’ defense that led the league in takeaways and finished fourth in sacks during his final season as coordinator (2003). With a reputation for producing aggressive, ball-hawking defense, the decision to take over the Bears’ defense could restore some of their lost luster.
After getting the defense on track with his appointment, Smith and Bears’ general manager Jerry Angelo made a blockbuster move to obtain a franchise quarterback. The Bears’ brain trust sent the Broncos two first-round picks and Kyle Orton for Pro Bowler Jay Cutler.
Cutler, who has compiled a 87.1 passer rating in his career, gives the team its first franchise-caliber quarterback since Jim McMahon. Though he has been derided for his 17-21 record as a starter, Cutler’s big arm and show-stopping talent is the ideal complement to the Bears’ smash-mouth ground attack led by Matt Forte.
With Cutler under center, defenses will scale back on some of their eight-man fronts for fear of giving up big plays on the outside. The reduction in eight-man fronts will create more room for Forte, and allow the Bears to play the grind-it-out style that suits their personnel.
That personnel was bolstered by the additions of two veterans starters to their offensive line. Perennial Pro Bowler, Orlando Pace, was signed to shore up the left side of the line, and he joins Kevin Schaffer to remedy the team’s tackle woes. With the pair of cagey veterans serving as bookends, the Bears are not only capable of moving the pile in the running game, but are able to protect Cutler in pass protection when he wants to throw deep off play-action.
Even though some would suggest that the Bears still need to find a receiver to steady their passing game, the addition of a big-time quarterback and a pair of quality tackles has given the offense a much-needed facelift.
With big improvements on both sides of the ball, the Monsters of the Midway are poised to reclaim the NFC North this season.