Teams still trying to fill holes
[size=18px]Teams still trying to fill holes[/size]
By Len Pasquarelli
Over the past two weeks, even as the NFL's player movement spigot has been turned toward the off position, deals have continued to trickle in.
The Atlanta Falcons acquired left offensive tackle Wayne Gandy from New Orleans in a trade. The New York Jets signed unrestricted free agent center Trey Teague of Buffalo and the Giants persuaded punter Jeff Feagles to delay his retirement for another year.
Oakland added a proven pass rusher, Lance Johnstone, to provide some help for Derrick Burgess, the league's sack leader in 2005. New England brought back one-time first-round flop Tebucky Jones to bolster the safety position and signed Martin Gramatica, who hasn't attempted a field goal since November of 2004, to get a kicker onto the roster. Carolina added free agent Keith Adams to compete for a job at outside linebacker, where the Panthers are without both starters from a year ago.
None of those were headline or big-money deals, for sure, but all were important to the respective teams involved and for a variety of reasons. Why? Because they filled needs, some much bigger than others, that the clubs won't necessarily be forced to address in the draft in two weeks.
"If you can, you like to give yourself a little flexibility in the draft, so you're not backed into a corner," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "You like to have options. And, sometimes, a little roster tweaking here or there in the week or two leading up to the draft [provides] that for you."
The Bucs, for example, still figure to choose an offensive tackle with a high-round selection, perhaps with their first-round pick. But the absolute urgency to do so may have been alleviated by the acquisition of restricted free agent Torrin Tucker of Dallas and the contract extension to which the club signed exclusive-rights free agent Anthony Davis last week. Tampa Bay may not be so desperate now to reach for a tackle out of need.
Indeed, if these are the times that try the souls of veteran players who are still unemployed, then it is also a time during which many teams try to address obvious needs, or to build depth, before the draft. Even as general managers and scouts hunker down in their draft bunkers, with interminable evaluation meetings over the next couple of weeks, some minor deals will continue to be completed as franchises attempt to tie up whatever loose ends they can before draft weekend.
Even a seemingly incidental addition to the roster now can affect a team's overall draft plans.
Take the Jets, for example, and their acquisition of Teague, a quality center who, for whatever reason, lasted far longer in the free agent market than he should have. By signing the eight-year veteran to a modest two-year contract, the Jets aren't forced to move left guard Pete Kendall, who played center earlier in his career, to the hub spot. It also means New York, which could grab left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the University of Virginia with the fourth overall selection in the draft, might not have to take, say, Ohio State center Nick Mangold, the draft's highest-rated prospect at his position, in the second round.
Getting the 12-year veteran Gandy, who should be able to provide Atlanta a couple of good seasons even at age 33, means the Falcons won't be as pressed to invest a high-round choice on a left tackle. And it allows the coaching staff time to patiently develop second-year veteran Frank Omiyale, a promising but raw fifth-round pick in 2005, who didn't register a single regular-season snap as a rookie.
Said Falcons coach Jim Mora: "The last thing you want to be in a draft is locked into having to get a player at a certain position. That's when mistakes get made. If you can give yourself some leeway, even in terms of adding depth [before the draft], it's really helpful."
One general manager likened the late, predraft maneuvering to a trip to the corner convenience store. "Not like when you go to the super market, with your big shopping list, to buy all the groceries for the week," he said. "More like those times when you just need one or two [items] and you want to get in and get out."
With that in mind, there figures to be some more minor roster tinkering before the draft, as teams attempt to create options for themselves. Most of the free agency deals or trades, though, will be minor in nature. And that means some clubs will go into the draft with voids to fill.
Here's a look at some holes that have yet to be addressed, lingering vacancies for which teams might have to expend a draft choice:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Backup quarterbacks: Daunte Culpepper of Miami and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer are both coming off knee surgeries to repair torn ligaments and there is no guarantee yet that either will be completely rehabilitated for the season opener. Both franchises are pursuing Joey Harrington, the Detroit Lions' former first-round choice, but have been unable to complete a trade agreement. Harrington could be dealt during the draft, but there is only one of him to go around, and the club that doesn't land the four-year veteran will have to find an insurance policy elsewhere, perhaps with a draft choice.
Baltimore is also seeking another quarterback, one to push Kyle Boller, and would prefer to sign a veteran, like Kerry Collins. But if the Ravens can't accomplish that, and one of the top-rated passers somehow slips to the their first-round slot, No. 13, they would seriously consider grabbing him.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ The hidden "Edge": The Indianapolis Colts retained backup tailback Dominic Rhodes by paying him a March roster bonus. But even though Rhodes rushed for 1,000 yards as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001, when Edgerrin James went down with a knee injury, few really believe he can supplant the departed Colts' star as a full-time starter now. Colts president/general manager Bill Polian is a resourceful guy, one of the best roster architects in the business, and he knows he needs a big-time talent at tailback. There are no such players remaining in free agency. So it will be a stunner if Indianapolis doesn't use a high pick on a tailback.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ 'Back(ers) to the future: The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants both entertained unrestricted free agent LaVar Arrington, but neither has signed the former Washington Redskins star and three-time Pro Bowl performer. The other thing the two clubs have in common is a perilously thin linebacker depth chart. Both teams are going to land a linebacker, maybe even more than one, on draft weekend.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Free (safety) fallin': Whether or not the Dallas Cowboys match the restricted free agent offer sheet that incumbent free safety Keith Davis signed with the New Orleans Saints -- and the deadline for a decision is next Monday -- they want to upgrade in the interior secondary. Davis is a more natural strong safety, a guy who is most effective when playing close to the line of scrimmage, and the Cowboys already have Pro Bowl performer Roy Williams to fill that role. What the Cowboys covet is a ball hawking free safety, a midfield defender with range and ball skills. They'll use the draft to find such a player.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Corner market: Kansas City made a band-aid move by signing free agent Lenny Walls. San Francisco essentially did the same, acquiring former first-rounder Sammy Davis from San Diego in a trade this week. But both teams need more fixin' than either of those two players will provide. Expect each to spend a high-round choice on a cover guy. Look for Seattle, unless it signs free agent cornerback Ty Law before the draft, to look hard at the position in the draft, too.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Steelers wide receiver: The defending Super Bowl champions are the organization equivalent of Alfred E. "What, we worry?" Newman. When veteran wide receiver Antwaan Randle El bolted to Washington for the inflated contract Redskins owner Daniel Snyder awarded him, the Steelers didn't yawn, but they didn't overreact either. Because they never do. That said, Pittsburgh coaches are looking for an outside receiver with long speed, someone who will allow them to move Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward into the slot more often in 2006, and they'll almost certainly use the draft on such a player.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Vikings vacancy: For all of the good things Minnesota accomplished in free agency, the Vikings still might not have a true "Tampa-2" style middle linebacker on their roster. The scheme being implemented by new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin demands speed and the ability to get deep down the field from its middle linebacker. There aren't many players that fill such a profile in the draft, but the Vikings may try to unearth one nonetheless.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Teams still trying to fill holes