The rule of thumb in NFL player-personnel circles is that it's always better to part ways with a player a year too early than a year too late.
The New England Patriots clearly had that in mind with their decision to trade Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders, but not because they doubt the defensive lineman's ability to be productive beyond 2009. According to multiple NFL talent evaluators, Seymour, despite turning 30 next month, has at least two solid seasons in front of him.
However, with one year remaining on a contract due to pay Seymour roughly $3.7 million this season, and with the Patriots uncomfortably tight against the salary cap, it made better sense to live with the consequences of sending the five-time Pro Bowl selection packing rather than risk getting nothing for him when he becomes a free agent next year. The Patriots would not have been able to keep him while working out a new deal for nose tackle Vince Wilfork, also due to become a free agent after the season, and getting preemptive extensions done for quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss, whose deals run through 2010.
Now the Pats enter the regular season with about $5.5 million in cap space rather than the $1.9 million they had while carrying Seymour. Most clubs prefer a minimum cap cushion of $4 to $5 million in case they have to sign a player or two because of holes that might suddenly crop up due to injuries or other reasons.
The Seymour trade also gives the Patriots a first-round draft pick in 2011, which is far more than they could have ever expected for an aging player entering the final year of his contract. The choice could become even more attractive if the NFL and NFL Players Association agree to any sort of rookie salary cap by then. You could bet that, as a free agent next year, Seymour would have had at least three takers in the Cleveland Browns (whose coach is former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini), the Denver Broncos (coached by former Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels), and the Kansas City Chiefs (whose general manager is Scott Pioli, New England's former vice president of player personnel).
"They trade this guy into the same division (the AFC West) as Pioli's and McDaniels' teams, and the Broncos need defensive line help every bit as much as the Raiders do," one NFL club executive pointed out. "But even those guys wouldn't have been too quick to make a deal for a player they know they'd have a chance at getting next year (in free agency). And I don't think Bill Belichick would have let him go now for a third- or even a second-rounder. When he got the offer for the first (in 2011), Belichick is saying, 'The Raiders aren't going to be good next year and they're not going to be good the year after that, so we have to make this deal.'"
Despite widely being viewed as a Super Bowl contender, the Patriots do face a big challenge in trying to fill the significant void that Seymour leaves behind. Seymour is highly effective at rushing the passer, as he demonstrated by tying a career best with eight sacks last season, but he also does a good job stopping the run. He presents a blocking dilemma for opponents, who often feel the need to double-team him at the risk of paying less attention other members of New England's front seven.
The Pats are right to feel confident that they can get away with replacing Seymour by rotating defensive linemen. They have two solid incumbents in Jarvis Green and Mike Wright, and were highly impressed with the preseason performances of a pair of rookie defensive linemen -- Ron Brace, a second-rounder from Boston College, and Myron Pryor, a sixth-rounder from Kentucky.
» As if firing their offensive coordinator at the end of the preseason wasn't bizarre enough, the Buffalo Bills took another head-scratching step when team owner Ralph Wilson summoned general manager Russ Brandon, coach Dick Jauron, new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, and running game coordinator Eric Studesville to his Detroit home for a meeting on Saturday.
Wilson traditionally meets with his GM and coach after the regular season for a review session (which too often in the last 10 years has been to determine whether or not to retain the coach or certain assistants), but no one can recall a gathering similar to the most recent one. Wilson seemed to be looking for some sort of reassurance that the horrendous preseason showing by the Bills' offense was, in fact, mainly the fault of Turk Schonert, who was abruptly dismissed on Friday. My sense is that he didn't get it.
Van Pelt has been put in an extremely tough spot, because in his former role as quarterbacks coach, he essentially executed what Schonert designed and began putting in place at the start of the offseason. To radically change that now figures to be nearly impossible because there's no time to implement new material. He might be able to tweak and fine-tune some things, but as someone doing a job for the first time, he's got a lot of ground to make up on his own before he can even think of putting players in the same position. A Monday Night Football season-opener in Foxborough, Mass., would seem to require all of the attention Van Pelt has to give to his job.
» Watching how Matthew Stafford handled himself during training camp and the preseason, it's easy to see why Detroit Lions first-year coach Jim Schwartz picked him as his starting quarterback for the regular season. Stafford is exceptionally mature for a 21-year-old, and showed a level of command to which his teammates easily gravitated. Even if he wasn't spectacular during the preseason, he showed enough poise to make the case that he deserved to be the Week 1 starter regardless of Daunte Culpepper's sore toe. Sure, Stafford is going to take his rookie lumps, but Schwartz figures he might as well live with them since both of their careers are linked for the foreseeable future. When you have $41 million in guaranteed money invested in a player and he is the most visible face of change for an organization trying to rid itself of the stench of 0-16, you really don't have much of a choice put to put him out there as soon as possible.
» One former NFL executive told me that the firings of three offensive coordinators (Schonert, Chan Gailey in Kansas City, and Jeff Jagodzinski in Tampa Bay) in the final week of the preseason was a "clear sign of panic" that seems to be growing within the league. He also said that he thinks it sets up the distinct possibility of team owners being quicker than usual when determining the fates of their head coaches this season.
"You could have more guys getting canned within the first month of the season than ever," the former executive said. "A lot of owners are nervous and are feeling the extra pressure that the economy has placed on (selling tickets and sponsorship deals). They've always heard people from the outside (calling for coaching and/or front-office changes), but now they might be listening a lot closer. And that's dangerous."
» There are some fairly obvious reasons the Jacksonville Jaguars face the very real prospect of a full season of non-sellouts at home, and, consequently, having all of those games blacked out on local television. It's a perfect storm that combines last year's poor record, a general lack of star power, a soft economy, and the fact there's only one Fortune 500 company in Jacksonville. However, the disconnect between the Jaguars and many potential customers goes back 10 years, to when the team was good and thought it was a good idea to require people to make a three-year commitment on season-ticket purchases. Many businesses that signed up wound up overextending themselves. Then, the Jags started losing and missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons (2000-04). Replacing quarterback Mark Brunell with Byron Leftwich proved unpopular, and the season-ticket decline continued. Here's another factor: Unlike other small-market teams like the Bills and Green Bay Packers that have season-ticket holders who live 100 or more miles away, the Jaguars' season-ticket base is predominantly within a 45-mile radius of the stadium.
They've got answers …
» The San Francisco 49ers, because, even with first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree still unsigned, they legitimately have a big-time playmaking wide receiver in Josh Morgan. After having his 2008 rookie season wrecked by staph infection that caused him to lose 15 pounds, the sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech has managed to regain the physical form that allowed him to turn heads last year with great speed, jumping ability, and blocking. If Shaun Hill proves to be the real deal at quarterback, Morgan is likely to make plenty of noise this season.
» The Houston Texans, because they patiently waited for disgruntled cornerback Dunta Robinson, whose presence is crucial to their defensive success, to sign a one-year franchise tender and report to the team. Now, Robinson is more determined than ever to prove that he is one of the top players at his position.
» The Arizona Cardinals, because even though they went 0-4 in the preseason, were flagged for too many penalties, burned for too many big plays and stalled too often in the red zone, they didn't fire any coordinators -- or even remotely threaten to do so. Coach Ken Whisenhunt kept the focus where it was supposed to be: on the progress he saw in practices and the overall feel for how well his players progressed through the summer. And guess what? He's happy with what he's taking into the season, which is the way it should be for a Super Bowl team that retains one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
» The Atlanta Falcons, because they enter the season with their starting offensive line intact, a major change from a year ago when they were figuring out the best way to piece the unit together. With a greater sense of cohesion and better communication (some of which is non-verbal), center Todd McClure, guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl and tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo should once again open plenty of holes for running back Michael Turner and keep quarterback Matt Ryan mostly upright.
They've got questions …
» The Cleveland Browns, because Mangini actually thinks he can gain a competitive advantage over the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday's season-opener by keeping the identity of his starting quarterback a secret even though it doesn't seem as if there would be major strategic differences between either Brady Quinn (who figures to get the nod) or Derek Anderson. The fact he refuses to publicly embrace one as the starter does not send a good message to the rest of the team.
» The Kansas City Chiefs, because as much as they'd like to have Matt Cassel start in Sunday's opener at Baltimore, they would be taking a huge risk putting a quarterback recovering from an MCL sprain on the field against one of the most relentless pass rushes in the NFL.
» The Washington Redskins, because if, as coach Jim Zorn said, they think that signing former New York Giants quarterback Andre Woodson is going to provide helpful information to their defense (such as the Giants' snap counts), they're showing clear desperation going into Sunday's season-opener at the Meadowlands.
» The Green Bay Packers, because for all they've done right to assemble what has the makings of a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they caused quite a bit of head-scratching when they kept three fullbacks on their final 53-man roster: veterans Korey Hall and John Kuhn, and rookie Quinn Johnson. Although special-teams contributions influenced the decision, it's hard to comprehend any team keeping three players at a position to which some clubs devote only a single roster spot because of its declining value throughout the league.
Top Five Teams
- New England: Even without Seymour, the Patriots have more than enough talent, especially on offense, to go on another Super Bowl run.
- Pittsburgh: The Steelers are too strong and too focused to suffer another Super Bowl hangover.
- San Diego: Shawne Merriman's arrest is a concern, although the Chargers still have the makings of an elite club.
- Philadelphia: Donovan McNabb is surrounded by a lot of new faces on offense, but with his experience and the Eagles' superb coaching, this is a serious contender.
- Indianapolis: With an offense that remains as dominant as any in the league, the Colts aren't going to miss a beat without Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison.
Top Five Offensive Players
- Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota: His combination of speed and power allow him to take over a game at any time.
- Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: Once again, he'll be the main cog in one of the NFL's foremost yards- and points-producing machines.
- Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: Unlike last season, he won't need the first few weeks of the schedule to knock off the rust caused by a preseason knee surgery.
- Tom Brady, QB, New England: He seems to have plenty of confidence in his surgically repaired knee, but only time will tell if it can stand up to the rigors of a full season.
- Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego: He is at the very top of his game, and it will continue to show in his productivity.
Top Five Defensive Players
- James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh: Until he proves otherwise or someone else emerges, the league's reigning defensive player of the year stays on top.
- Albert Haynesworth, DT, Washington: He remains one of the most dominant forces in the NFL.
- Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego: His latest off-field incident bears watching, of course, but the fact he is back healthy restores his status as one of the league's best defenders.
- Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Oakland: No one wants to challenge this guy, which is why he is the NFL's best at his position and someone whose mere presence impacts game plans.
- Mario Williams, DE, Houston: With each season, he has managed to take his game to a higher level, and this year should be no exception.
Top Five Coaches
- Bill Belichick, Patriots: It will be hard to knock him off the throne on which he has been sitting since 2001.
- Tom Coughlin, Giants: He'll have a tougher time trying to keep the Giants on top, but he's up to the challenge.
- Andy Reid, Eagles: He faces a big chore in trying to put a lot of new pieces together, but he can handle it.
- Mike Smith, Falcons: He should be able to push the right buttons once again to make the Falcons a contender.
- Tony Sparano, Dolphins: He achieved the very difficult chore of getting his players to buy into his hard-nosed approach, and their record should again reflect as much.