Posted on: July 7, 2008 1:14 am

Tight Ends, the 3-4, Free Agency, and More!

   So it’s the football offseason.  Yup.  I love the summer, I really do, but without football it seems like something is missing.  From a few weeks after the draft to the start of preseason games, this is probably the deadest time in the NFL.   You’ll pick up a few tidbits about players and how they look in OTA’s and Minicamp but they are mostly fluff.  After all, last year’s camp had Bears coaches raving about Rex Grossman’s growth.  We all know how that turned out.

    In order to entertain myself, it’s time for a few random thoughts.

   The rise of the Aerial Circus
There is no doubt that Quarterbacks have always been vital, but with teams shifting to a more passing based approach it is even more apparent.  There were four 30+ TD passers for only the second time in over fifteen years (The most common year has a single or none at all 30+ TD QB’s) and for the first time in NFL history, 7 4000 yard passers.  Matt Hasselbeck was a mere 44 yards away from making it eight.  

The teams that were passing were not bottom feeders doing it out of desperation.  Of the top 8 QB’s in yardage, 5 played for playoff teams.  Out of the top 8 in TD’s, six made the post season.  

 Obviously, someone has to catch those touchdowns, and Eleven WR/TE’s caught over 10 TD’s for the first time since 1995, when (future) Hall of famers Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Michael Irvin were terrorizing cornerbacks.  
No doubt that Spread offenses, versatile running backs, and a great upper tier of quarterbacks have lent itself to this renassaince.  How long it holds up is hard to tell.  Traditionally the passing game will rise for a few years and fall back to normal levels.   Another trend tells us that this might not be the case, one of the most important reasons for the increased passing productivity…..
    Tight Ends, they’re not just for blocking anymore

In years past, a few tight ends would emerge as great pass catchers.  Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe, Ben Coates, Keith Jackson, Tony Gonzales….but suddenly there are a plethora of them.   My personal belief is that the Chargers scooping up Antonio Gates who did not play college football opened the flood gates.   Teams broadened their definition of the position and began looking for big, fast, athletic guys.   Last season, 9 different tight ends were in the top 32 in the league in Receptions, Receiving yards, or Touchdowns.  Gonzales, Gates, Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, Kellen Winslow Jr, Chris Cooley, Heath Miller, Ben Watson, and Donald Lee found themselves having productive seasons.  Add Vernon Davis, Jeremy Shockey, and Owen Daniels who all had 50+ catches and 500+ yards and you have a pretty big cast.  Not to mention the fact that Todd Heap, one of the more productive Tight Ends the last few years, was hurt most of the year.

    The Stud RB – MIA
Those gaudy numbers for QB’s, WR’s, and TE’s have to come from someone and the stud running backs, the Gods of fantasy football, were missing this season for the most part.  LaDainian Tomlinson won the rushing title with a mere 1,474 yards…the lowest season high since 1990.   TD totals were also down.   Tomlinson’s 15 Rushing TD’s were the second lowest high (Shaun Alexander led the league with 14 in 2001) since 1993.  Some of this can be attributed to the increasing popularity of the Running Back By Committee approach but more has to do with the overall direction offenses have been going in.

           And suddenly, the 3-4 is popular again…..
  While the 4-3 is probably the most well known and most traditional set, nine teams went with the 3-4 as a base package and I would not be surprised to see more teams coming in with it.   As offensive players become more versatile, defenses have to adapt.   A team lining up 2 WR’s, 1 TE, a RB, and a FB can be fielding five viable pass catchers.  Having players that can step up and stop the run, blitz, or drop back and help in pass protection is vital.  

These undersized guys have the strength to take on offensive linemen when rushing, and the speed to run down RB’s and running QB’s as they break to the outside.  The Extra Defensive tackle is good for clogging the middle, but outside containment isn’t their strong suit.  
To me, the 3-4 also allows a team to create confusion for the offense.   You can have three different guys showing rush and send None or all of them.  As offensive packages get more complex and versatile, defenses need to follow suit to keep up.

      Free Agency was shallow as teams kept their own

Free Agency was pretty boring this year, especially when talking about offensive players.  The Big scores at the skill positions were….Bernard Berrian and Michael Turner? (I had no illusions about Randy Moss ever actually shopping around).  

Need a quarterback?  I did not see one viable starter outside of Derek Anderson who was restricted and MAYBE Daunte Culpepper…but interest in him has been pretty low even in this late stage of the game.  

Running backs?  You have a few career backup types out there (T.J. Duckett, Mewelde Moore, Julius Jones, and Dominic Rhodes), troubled players (Cedric Benson, Travis Henry), and guys with their best years WAAAAY behind them (Shaun Alexander, Warrick Dunn).  I myself find Kevin Jones, who is only 25 year old, to be a bit interesting.  
Wideouts – Again, we have the troubled like Chris Henry and Javon Walker.  Walker was a big gamble.  He seems to have some serious issues.  He has talent but two big injuries, demanding to get away from two teams, and some rather odd personal habits are too much for me.  Again, we have guys with their best years way behind them (Keenan Mccarddell, Isaac Bruce, Darrell Jackson, Troy Brown, Eric Moulds…).   If your team is still looking…well…looks like Aaron Moorehead is coming your way!  At least his name can be good for a joke or two….

Tight Ends -  The biggest names on the move are Alge Crumpler, Bubba Franks, and Marcus Pollard.  Pollard is old, and Alge and Bubba just look old on the field.   Not a lot left here.  As expected, teams are keeping their Tight Ends.
Offensive Line – Ok, let’s be realistic here.  I’m some schmuck writing a blog, not an NFL analyst with hordes of game tape, and Offensive Linemen are the hardest players to know a lot about.  You don’t get too many good looks at O-Linemen.  From what I have seen, the O-Line FA pool wasn’t that great either.  There are A lot of guys with 10 plus seasons, including probably the biggest name (Alan Faneca).   

Defensive Line – Probably the biggest move of the offseason came in the form of Jared Allen.  He makes the Vikings line pretty scary.  Corey Williams moving to the Browns from the Packers could help out a team with a pretty bad defense.  Javon Kearse COULD be interesting if he is actually healthy and can stay healthy.  It’s been a LONG time since he’s been “The Freak”.  Terrell Suggs and Albert Haynesworth are franchised and don’t appear to be going anywhere.  Justin Smith, a former #4 overall draft pick, isn’t the superstar he was expected to be but he’s a decent enough player.  This position probably had the most interesting players but the Franchise tag kept some bigger names at home.

Linebacker – “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” Lance Briggs finally hit the free agent market after throwing a fit about the Bears franchise tag last season.  He realized in retrospect that the deal they offered was fair and signed with them anyway.  Zach Thomas is now a Cowboy but after 13 seasons with the Dolphins, who knows what he has left?   There were some decent players that moved (Kawika Mitchell, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Boss Bailey) and perhaps some decent but aging (Takeo Spikes, Jeremiah Trotter) still out there.  Not a bad group of free agents compared to the other positions.

Defensive Backs – Asante Samuel was a big acquisition by the Eagles but there isn’t too much more to say here.   If you need a D-Back at this stage in the game you are either look at a 12 year vet like Ty Law, or thinking “It wasn’t Adam Archuleta, it was the Bears and Redskins that were the problem!  Sign this guy now!”  Good luck with that.

That’s all for now!  Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I write up long and boring outlooks for each division.  

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com