The Offensive Line
In 2000, the Stillers paid (11) offensive linemen. These players had a combined cap hit of $13.20M. By the arithmetic used previously, an equitable distribution would have been $10.65M. 13.20 is 124% of 10.65; the Stillers paid this unit a premium that was roughly inverse to their outlay for the defensive secondary.
Together, Dawson and Gandy pulled down $7.71M, more than half the unit total. Gandy�s salary is about market for his position; starting LOT don�t come cheap, especially through FA. Dermontti Dawson has been one of the 2 or 3 best centers ever to play the game; he should get paid. But, he has missed a lot games in the past two seasons. Last year, he was paid about $400K per start. If the Bettis deal is not, then Dawson�s situation is the most pressing issue that Stiller HQ faces.
Some seem to think that finding a new center is the Stillers #1 need. Maybe, but it does not follow that the Stillers have to draft an OC early. Let�s look around the League:
State of the Art (drafting on the OL)
1. Vikings: Drafted LOT Steussie 1/94 and ROT Stringer 1/95. ROG Dixon 9/92 has been around for years. Last off-season, the Vikes lost OC Jeff Christy 4/92 and OG Randall McDaniel 1/88 in FA. Both men had been perennial Pro Bowlers with the Vikes; both will be representing the Bucs at the next Pro Bowl. Matt Birk, 6/98 replaced Christy; Birk will join Christy in Honolulu. Corbin Lacina 6/93 replaced McDaniel; Lacina is no star but the Vikes offense still played at a high level last season.
2. Rams: Another high-powered offense. Drafted LOT Pace 1/97 and ROT Tucker 4/97. Guards are Nutten 7/95 and Timmerman 7/95. OC is McCollum, a rookie FA in 94.
3. Colts: Drafted LOT Glenn 1/97 and ROT Meadows 2/97. Guards are McKinney 4/98 and Moore a rookie FA/97. OC is Saturday, FA/98.
4. Broncos: Traded for LOT Jones, a rookie FA/88. ROT Lepsis was a rookie FA/97. Guards are Schlereth 10/89 and Neil 3/97. OC Nalen was drafted 7/94. Though under-sized and unheralded, these men have made Davis, Gary and Anderson each 1000-yard rushers.
5. Jags: Drafted LOT Boselli 1/95 and acquired ROT Searcy 1/92 via FA. Guards are Meester 2/00 and Stai 3/95 with Wade 5/98 in the middle.
Those were five high-powered offenses. 6/10 OT were former first round picks but only 3/10 OG were taken on the first day, let alone in the 1st round. Of the five centers, two are former rookie FA and the others are 5th, 6th and 7th round picks. Obviously, it is possible for an O-line to function effectively with any number of lightly regarded players inside. In the interior O-line, attitude counts more than athleticism.
This year, the Pro Bowl centers are Christy 4/92, Birk 6/98, Nalen 7/94 and Mawae 2/94. Last year, the cast was the same except Mayberry 4/89 was in for Birk. This suggests that the Stillers could get a competent center anywhere in the draft. There are positions with greater overall impact and the Stillers should look first towards these. If it happens that some interior O-linemen is the best player available where the Stillers pick, they should draft him. But, earmarking a premium pick for this position isn�t smart; it is like paying Lexus numbers for some econo-box. You�ll get the vehicle but at a shamefully inflated price.
Beyond the O-line, the Stillers have other roster needs. Within this unit, there are issues beyond center. In no particular order, those latter are:
- By the Numbers shows that 4 of 5 O-line starters have their contracts set to expire following the 2002 season. That is every player except Marvel Smith. Duffy and Mylinski will have their deals up at that time too. That is every center and every guard on the current roster. Perhaps not an immediate problem, but Stiller HQ needs to get ahead of this curve.
- Note that Faneca is third in tenure with the team. Dawson is first; no O-lineman drafted between 1989 and 1997 remains with the squad. Excluding Searcy, none of the first day O-linemen were worth a bucket of spit. Mr. Colbert patched this unit together last winter. Fine work, but not a long-term solution.
- Tylski, Duffy and Mylinski are each journeymen C/OG types. These men can function inside but would be exposed on the flanks. Ideally, only two would be retained. The third, presumably Mylinski, might be let go in favor of some road-grading OG who could be, at least, functional as a 4th or 5th OT. In short, the Stillers need a G/OT type like Justin Strylzcek, who, from �93 through �97, started at (4) positions on the OL.
- This is an elderly unit. Excluding Faneca, Smith and Ross every O-linemen whom the Stillers paid last season will be 30 or older next year. This is a consequence of that stellar drafting record described in #2 above. Turning to the current roster, ordered by tenure:
2000 Stillers: Generally were able to establish the run but had difficulty protecting their QB. In 2000, the league-wide team sack average was 39.5; the Stiller �00 unit allowed 43, a figure just a little short of mediocre.
#63 Dermontti Dawson: One of the greatest at his position but for two seasons has been a part-time player. Last year, Dawson showed he could still play. A hamstring problem is not a joint injury; this should be treatable. If so, the Stillers should re-negotiate some incentive-loaded deal where compensation is based on participation. Dawson has a nice bonus number; it is slightly in excess of $1M/year. If the Stillers cut him, or if he retires, that bonus will count +$2M over the 2001 and 2002 caps.
#62 Roger Duffy: A quality reserve who is, at this stage, only slightly above average as a starter in the League. Susceptible to a bull-rush, seems to blow about (1) assignment per game. Functional in 7 starts but might be over-exposed for 16.
#66 Alan Faneca: No threat to make the Pro Bowl but Faneca is a solid starter. Can blow up defenders when he locks on but doesn�t do so consistently. Struggles in pass protection. Faneca was a reach as a #1 pick. In �98, the Stillers needed a LOT but, drafting near the bottom of the 1st round, none were available. Faneca was selected so that Wolford could move outside.
Moving Justin Strylczek to LOT was an absurd fiction. Justin was a mauler better suited to play either inside or on the strong side. Stephens already had proven to be inept on any side of the ball. Ultimately, this failure to grip reality cost the Stillers their 2001 3rd round selection.
Chris Conrad: was paid in 2000 but that�s all over now.
# 72 Wayne Gandy: Solid starter, roughly equivalent to John Jackson. Emerged as a unit leader this season while playing through a variety of injuries. As noted, Gandy�s deal expires after 2002. At that time, Wayne will have completed his 9th season. John Jackson was a 10-year man when the Stillers let him ride to the Bolts. It is highly likely that Gandy will be gone after 2002; the Stillers need to look for his replacement, though not this spring.
#68 Shar Pourdanesh: A UFA who was routinely humiliated by his coaches during his time with the Stillers, Shar has pledged to leave. Not polished but highly effective, Shar was the sole legit ROT on the Stiller �99 roster. Despite that, he got only two starts. Played effectively early on in 2000 but then, even when recovered from an injury, got no meaningful time. Capable of playing at either OT slot, Shar was an ideal #3 tackle who, at $700 K, came cheap. Adios.
#71 Larry Tharpe: A fine technician who is even less athletic than Shar. A great signing by Mr. Colbert but his age and conditioning suggests that Tharpe is not a long-term solution. Should be an okay #3 OT next season but, with his contract up after 2001, the Stillers will need to find his replacement shortly.
#65 Rich Tylski: Very tough guy who doesn�t make a lot of mistakes, Tylski struggles against the better big DT in the League. Within the division, both Sam Adams and Gary Walker create mismatches in their favor. Both Hamilton and Peters abused Rich in NJ. Tylski is somewhat above average as a starter but his true value resides with his versatility. I believe that Rich played some OC in Jaxville; if so, I�d like to see him get a chance here. If Dawson can�t go, the next option might be Tylski and Duffy at center with some monster road-grader at ROG.
#61 Tom Mylinski: Like Duffy and Tylski, Mylinski is an OC/G type who tries to get by on toughness and savvy rather than overwhelming ability. Unlike those men, Mylinski made no contribution last season. Counted $0.51M against the cap with nearly no signing bonus. If Dawson returns, Mylinski is an ideal candidate to be cut. If Dawson goes, we can anticipate Tom appearing in the new stadium, at least on the sidelines.
#77 Marvel Smith: Abused early and often in his debut and then injured. Came back to play effectively over the second half. Needs to get stronger but has shown ability, toughness and a willingness to learn. It appears that, with Marvel, the Stillers have broken a string of draft failure at OT stretching from Stephens through Farris. Marvel may be Gandy�s replacement at LOT but, with multiple WR sets, the LT/RT distinction has diminished meaning. Increasing, both tackles operate on an island without TE support.
#60 Oliver Ross: Drafted 5/98 by Dallas. Played at Iowa State. Ross is 6�-4" 310. Otherwise, an unknown commodity.
Prospects for improvement: Following the preceding discussion, I intend to ignore the OT prospects in this spring�s draft. The list below will include OG/T prospects, pure guards and centers. My own view is that, as things stand, the Stillers should wait until the second day before selecting any O-linemen.
One possibility intrigues me. The Stillers need a stud interior O-linemen and a top CB. Above all, they need a couple D-linemen. It is likely that the DL pass rush types will be gone at #16. There will be plenty of NT types but, like the CB and OG/C players, these men should cluster between the mid-first and late second rounds. In contrast, several RB would be values at #16 overall; LB Morgan and Polley would be values there too. Given the Stillers strength (and cap commitment) at both positions, those players may be more valuable to some other team. If so, trading down may be an option. By doing so, the Stillers might get a late 1st and 2nd to go with their remaining mid-second pick. Naturally, any trade requires a willing partner; if the Stillers find one, they could get value at all three positions.
Returning to the prospects here:
Late 1st, early 2nd rounds: As things stand, it will be first round or not at all for these men.
OG/T Steve Hutchinson, 6�-4" 305, University of Michigan. Top drive blocker, Michigan OL generally do very well in the NFL. Coach Cowher coached this man in the N/S game and seemed to like him.
OC Dominic Raiola, 6�-2" 295, University of Nebraska. Top athlete at the position. Reportedly, could play guard. Nebraska O-linemen have frequently disappointed in the NFL.
Mid 2nd, early 3rd rounds: As things stand, it will be 2nd round or not at all for these men.
OG/T Matt Light, 6�-4" 301, Purdue. I like Big 10 O-linemen.
OG/T Jeff Backus, 6�-6" 305, Michigan. As above, played LOT in college but projects on the right side in the NFL.
OC/G Bernard Robertson, 6�-2" 297, Tulane. A poor man�s Raiola.
Solid 3rd: Could fall to the 4th but probably won�t.
OG/T Chad Ward, 6�-4" 338, University of Washington. Runs a 5.09 40, exceptional for his size. Best athlete, but stock is slipping. Does project as a road-grader at ROG.
Other players with similar ratings include Mike Gandy (Notre Dame), Paul Zukauskas (BC), Jonas Jennings (Georgia) and Bill Ferrario (Wisconsin). It is hard to believe that all of these men will be off the board after three rounds.
Second Day: In descending order:
OC Robert Garza, 6�-2" 292, Texas A&M Kingsville. Said to be a very good athlete. 4th round rating.
OC Casey Raybach, 6�-4" 295, Wisconsin. Played OG this season but future is at OC. 4th to 5th round rating, once-upon-a-time the Stillers had success with a 5th round OC out of Wisconsin.
OC Jeff McCurley, 6�-4" 278, University of Pittsburgh. 5th to 6th round rating.
OG/T Ryan Diem, 6�-6" 336, Northern Illinois. Another N/S all-star prospect. Huge with 5.13 speed. 6th round rating now but probably will move up. A project.
OG Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, 6�-3" 332, Mississippi State. Generally carries a 6th round rating but Great Blue North has him as a top 40 type. Monster drive blocker with injury issues.
OC Ben Hamilton, 6�-4" 275, Minnesota. Big name, modest 6th round rating.
OG/T Scott Kempenich, 6�-4" 291, Oklahoma. Led the O-line unit for the national champs. Great attitude but 7th round to FA rating.
OC Bruce Wiggins, 6�-2"281, University of Arizona. Was a top prospect at the position but is headed towards FA status. Injured last season.
Draft Summary: The Stillers could draft the 3rd best OC prospect in the 4th round. They could get a top road-grading ROG prospect in the 3rd round, if they had a 3rd. Looking around the League, it seems clear that plenty of late second day or FA interior OL players have had successful pro careers. This is less often true on the D-line and (almost) never is true at CB. The percentage play is to draft defense early and OL later on.
Free Agents: Following is a short list of players who have completed their initial professional contract. Unlike the general run of FA in Stillertown, these men are relatively young players.
ROG Jeff Hastings, Detroit Lions. Not huge but a good football player. Big ticket.
LOG Pete Kendall, Seattle. As above.
OG/T Ross Verba, Green Bay Packers. Former 1st round pick who formerly started at OT. Hasn�t developed especially well.
ROG Jermane Mayberry Eagles. Immense, blind in one eye and plays that way.
OC Jeff Mitchell Ravens. Solid player, hard to imagine that he would want to play against the Raven Front 4.
OT Marcus Sprigs, Bills. Jumbo-sized OT but probably wouldn�t start here until Gandy leaves town and Smith moves over.
FA Summary: The Stillers have some serious money invested in their O-line. If Dawson can�t play, there may be room to bring in a premium FA. If Dawson returns, there will be neither the need nor the cash.
Conclusion: With Shar�s departure and the possibility that either Dawson or Mylinski will be let go, the Stillers may have two OL openings. The Stillers must get younger, and stronger, inside. The best case may be to trade down in the 1st and get OG/T Hutchinson, Light or Ward along with a CB and NT within the first two rounds. I like OC Garza or Raybach on the second day. If the Stillers can�t do a deal, I�d hope for Ward in the 4th or settle for Diem later on.
(Next Time: Skill players on the O-side).
The Steel Phantom