Sports Outside the Beltway

Trade Deadline Winners and Losers

The MLB trade deadline passed without any “Big” moves other than yesterday’s Teixeira deal. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any winners and losers. Trades were still made. Some were very good trades while others were not so good. Here are my winners and losers of this years trade deadline:


Braves – The Braves got a great hitter in 1B Mark Teixeira. Plus he is a Gold Glover and improves the infield defense right away. He also slots perfectly inbetween Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. The Braves had to give up a lot (Salty and Andrus) but they already have their catcher of the future in McCann and two shortstops that can play in Renteria and Yunel Escobar. They also added lefty reliever Ron Mahay and Octavio Dotel. Dotel is a great addition. Remember how dominate he was as a set-up man in Houston a couple years back? He is going to be very good here. The Braves made themselves the front-runner to take the NL East.

Red Sox – They got what they needed. Eric Gagne. Gagne had to wave his no-trade clause, especially since he won’t be closing and won’t reach incentives in his contract. The Red Sox made it worth his while. They picked up $2.1M in his performance bonuses while Texas picked up $400K. The Sox also traded away incumbent Joel Pineiro to the Cardinals for a player to be named later. They had to send some cash to make up for the salary but they still save. The Sox are also going to get Curt Schilling back soon plus Matt Clement has started rehabbing. The Sox are the favorites to win the AL now. They have the best pitching in either league.

Rangers – Yes they were sellers. Yes they gave up their best hitter and best reliever. But they werent’t going to win this year and Gagne is only signed through this year and Teixeira through next year. They got a catcher in Jarrod Saltalamacchia that can be a 25-30 homer catcher in Arlington. They also got a 19 year old shortstop in Elvis Andrus that has major tools. Don’t be fooled by his minor league numebrs, he’s faced pitchers 3-4 years older at every level. Plus three more minor league pitchers from the Braves: right hander Neftali Feliz, left hander Matt Harrison (who can be a very good #2-4 starter) and left hander Beau Jones. Plus they got pitcher Kason Gabbard and minor league outfielders Engel Beltre (17 years old) and David Murphy. They also got catcher Max Ramirez from Cleveland for Lofton. The Rangers re-stocked their system and are set to be good for years to come. Great job as sellers!

Mets – The Mets have had a hole at 2B since Jose Valentin went down for the season. They filled it with 2B Luis Castillo. Castillo is a Gold Glover, a veteran that has played in the playoffs, and he is a .300 hitter that can steal bases. He will slot nicely into the #2 spot behind Jose Reyes. He can become a free-agent in the offseason and the Mets have talked about signing him. Even if they don’t they will get compensetory draft picks when he signs elsewhere. Great move. The Mets tried to land a reliever and offer Phil Humber for Chad Cordero and were turned down. I thought it was a very fair trade. Good move by not offering more for Cordero.

Rays – You’re thinking “they didn’t do anything big!” That’s a good thing. The Rays have offense, we know that. The even have some decent starters. They need bullpen help badly. They traded Ty Wigginton (and saved $4M on him next year) for Dan Wheeler. Wheeler is now re-united with former pitching coach Jim Hickey who made him into a great reliever. Under Hickey he had a 2.38 ERA in 158 IP with 146 strikeouts and only 46 BB. The Rays also got Brian Shackelford form the Reds and minor-leaguer Calvin Medlock who is fireball reliever with a good change. The Rays also did the right thing by not trading Wheeler and Reyes. The Rays hold an option on Reyes for about $2M next year and that is a bargain. The Rays are making great strides to compete in the very near future.

Phillies – They added 2B Tadahito Iguchi to fill in for injured 2B Chase Utley. They stole reliever Julio Mateo from Seattle. And they added a 5th starter in Kyle Lohse for an organization arm. They also just got Brett Myers and Tom Gordon back and Jose Mesa has been pitching great of late. It’s going to be hard to reach the Mets and Braves but they can make a serious run now. It will be an exciting September once Utley gets back! What a race the NL East will be.

Padres – They got a veteran utility player in Rob Mackowiack for nothing. They got a 3B with patience and power in Morgan Ensberg for nothing. And they got 3 pitchers for reliever Scott Linebrink while his stock was still high. One of those relievers is in the major league pen now! One (Will Inman) can be a #3 starter in the Majors, especially in PETCO. Good moves yet again by Kevin Towers.


White Sox – They did nothing to help them this year or next year or the next. Nothing! They should’ve traded Dye. They will get the draft picks but I’d rather have proven prospects. I thought Kenny Williams would’ve definitely done something.

Yankees – They got a back up infielder in Wilson Betemit but they had to give up a reliever. They needed bullpen help! They needed pitching help! They did nothing to help the pitching staff. They also did nothing to counter the Gagne move the Red Sox made. I do have to say they did the right thing by not trading Phil Hughes ot Joba Chamberlain though. They also should’ve traded Melky Cabrera while his value is at it’s highest. He is a 4th outfielder in my opinion and some teams veiw him as a regular. They should’ve jumped on something for a pitcher.

Indians and Tigers – Each one of these teams needed bullpen help and neither did anything to widen the gap between the two. The Indians got Lofton earlier which is a great but they badly need a reliever. I guess the Tigers figure Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya will be ready soon because they needed bullpen help badly.

Mariners – Not only did they not get any pitching help they traded away a middle reliever with a mid 90′s fastball in Julio Mateo. I’m glad they didn’t trade Adam Jones for a reliever but I would’ve offered Wladimir Balentin for some pitching help. They also need to call Jones up. This team dropped the ball.

Nationals – They signed Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard to extensions. They didn’t trade them for prospects. They balked at Phil Humber for Chad Cordero. Jim Bowden needs to lose his job! The moves he made were not only stupid but they make no sense. This was a team that had no chance of contending and it should’ve been hard for them to make the Loser list but they figured out a way.


Yanks salvage last game vs. O’s

Well, Saturday night’s 9th inning near-comeback was a precursor to yesterday’s offensive explosion. All I can say is that at least they weren’t swept.

- Elsewhere, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes pitched great for Triple-A Scranton, and Joba Chamberlain was moved to the pen to get him used to the role before he joins the Bronx bullpen (I wonder who gets sent down…).

I do not like the move – Joba is the second best pitcher in the entire system, and I don’t trust Joe Torre at all to use him correctly. Outside of Mo, he treats relievers in two ways: 1. he severely overuses them, e.g. Scott Proctor and Luis Vizcaino, or 2. he severely underuses them, e.g. Edwar Ramirez. Neither situation is good for pitchers, especially 21-year-olds with outstanding arms (and injury history), and such is Joba.


Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh dead at 75

He is an NFL coaching legend.

SAN FRANCISCO – Bill Walsh, the groundbreaking football coach who won three Super Bowls and perfected the ingenious schemes that became known as the West Coast offense during a Hall of Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers, has died. He was 75.

Walsh died at his Bay Area home early Monday following a long battle with leukemia, according to Stanford University, where he served as coach and athletic director.

Walsh didn’t become an NFL head coach until 47, and he spent just 10 seasons on the San Francisco sideline. But he left an indelible mark on the United States’ most popular sport, building the once-woebegone 49ers into the most successful team of the 1980s with his innovative offensive strategies and teaching techniques.

The soft-spoken native Californian also produced a legion of coaching disciples that’s still growing today. Many of his former assistants went on to lead their own teams, handing down Walsh’s methods and schemes to dozens more coaches in a tree with innumerable branches.

Walsh went 102-63-1 with the 49ers, winning 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles. He was named the NFL’s coach of the year in 1981 and 1984.

I got to see the first of Walsh’s three Super Bowl wins in person. My father knowing Cincinnati Browns owner Paul Brown’s brother-in-law(Ironically Walsh was an assistant under Brown once), who when not able to go to the game, gave the tickets to Dad instead. The game, a 26-20 49er win, was a pretty good one so far as the Super Bowl is concerned.

Walsh also coached at Stanford in addition to supplying the NFL with a large number of head and assistant coaches. Many of whom are still working today. Bill Walsh will still leave his mark on Pro football even after his passing. RIP.


Natalie Gulbis wins her first LPGA Tour title

Golf’s calendar girl won the Evian Masters yesterday.

EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – Natalie Gulbis finally can be known for winning, too. Famous mostly for her looks through five-plus seasons on tour, Gulbis broke through Sunday, winning her first LPGA Tour title at the Evian Masters with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff with Jang Jeong of South Korea on Sunday.

Jang and the 24-year-old American finished the fourth round tied at 4-under 284. Gulbis had a final round 70, and Jang birdied the last hole to finish with a 72.

“Obviously it was meant to be for me,” Gulbis said. “Before the playoff, I was very upset at myself because I felt like I had given away this tournament. I thought I needed to get to 7 under to win and I end up at, what, four? Going in today, I never thought that four under would have won this tournament.”

Jang, the 2005 Women’s British Open champion, birdied three of the last four holes to tie Gulbis.

The tall, blond Gulbis has been one of the best-known players on the LPGA tour. She sells a calendar on her Web site featuring shots of her in athletic apparel and swimwear, has a reality show on The Golf Channel and her digitized likeness appears in Tiger Woods’ eponymous video game.

But until Sunday, she was never a champion.

“What does it mean? How long do you have?” Gulbis said. “I was really close last year when I lost a playoff and coincidentally it was right after the Match Play. It was like deja vu” coming off the HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship last week.

Note Natalie’s two playoff appearances have come against South Korean ladies. One against a player nicknamed ‘Peanut’ and yesterday’s against a player some call ‘The Little Giant’. Both ROK ladies standing barely 5′ tall. Anyone else see a trend?

2005 British Open Champ Jang who has been in the top 15 three of the last five British Opens and no worse than 26th since 2002 has to be among the favorites next weekend at St. Andrews. Write that down Ron Sirak.

At the first extra hole, the 18th, Jang missed the green with her second shot, but Gulbis did not.


Top-ranked Lorena Ochoa was one shot behind and tied for third place with Juli Inkster of the United States and Shin Ji-yai of South Korea. Ochoa had six birdies in her closing 68, but dropped a shot at the last hole. Shin finished with a 72.

Inkster, the leader by two shots after the first three rounds, finished with a 75. She had three bogeys in the last five holes and three-putted the par-5 18th after reaching the green in two. Had she won, Inkster would have become the oldest player to win an LPGA Tour event.


Gulbis started the day four behind Inkster and had birdies at the first, sixth and ninth. Out in 33, she was 5 under and shared the lead with Shin.


Gulbis, who won $450,000, gave part of the credit for her win to a back injury two months ago that forced her to take a month off and make some adjustments.

Congratulations to Natalie on her first LPGA win. Want to bet she makes the cover of Golf World this week? Natalie is still overrated in my humble opinion, mostly because the Golf MSM mistake her looks for talent on the golf course also. That’s not to say Natalie won’t have a productive LPGA career. One thing is certain. We can stop making analogies between Natalie and Anna Kournikova.


Teixeira to Braves is almost a certain

The Atlanta Braves appear to be the winner for the right to acquire first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Texas Rangers.

A preliminary agreement has been reached between the teams for Atlanta to receive Teixeira and left-handed reliever Ron Mahay from Texas for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, minor league shortstop Elvis Andrus and two minor league pitchers.

Baseball America rates Saltalamacchia and Andrus as the Braves’ top two prospects in their organization.

The Fort-Worth Star Telegram, citing a Rangers source, is reporting that the two pitchers Texas will receive are 19-year-old right-hander Nestali Feliz and another pitcher to be determined.

The deal will be finalized once players’ medical records are reviewed. Major League Baseball’s deadline to trade players without securing waivers is Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

Teixeira, a 27-year-old switch-hitting slugger, has won two Gold Gloves at first base. He is batting .297 this season with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs. Since breaking into the majors with Texas in 2003, Teixeira has had seasons of 26, 38, 43 and 33 home runs.

Only Ralph Kiner, Albert Pujols and Eddie Mathews hit more than the 140 homers that Teixeira had in his first four major league seasons. He had at least 33 homers and 110 RBIs in each of the past three.

Teixeira missed 27 games because of a strained left quadriceps muscle sustained running out a ground ball. The Rangers were 16-11 when he was out of the lineup after he played in a team record 507 consecutive games. He will be eligible for salary arbitration after making $9 million this season.

Among the teams that reportedly negotiated with the Rangers for Teixeira were the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox.

The Braves are giving up a lot for 1B Mark Teixeira. This move also makes it seem like the Braves won’t be able to sign Andruw Jones in the off-season unless they don’t give Teixeira a long-term deal. But with what the Braves had to give up in Salty and Andrus it wouldn’t make sense for Teixeira to be a season and a half rental.

But for now the move is a great one for Atlanta. Look for them to make a huge run at the NL East title.

-Jonathan C. Mitchell

Information from ESPN’s Peter Gammons, senior writer Jayson Stark, and The Associated Press was used in this report.


Rays Making Moves Before Deadline

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays made some moves today. They traded 3B Ty Wigginton to the Houston Astros for former Ray right-handed reliever Dan Wheeler and Jorge Cantu to the Reds for Brian Shackelford. They also sent reliever Shawn Camp to AAA.

Wheeler, 30, is 1-4 with a 5.07 ERA in 45 games for the Astros. He took over as the Astros’ closer when Brad Lidge struggled earlier in the season. Wiggington was batting .275 with 16 homers and 49 RBIs. Last year, he had a career-high 24 homers and 79 RBIs.

“We’re going to need a third baseman moving forward, [Mike] Lamb is a free agent,” an Astros official told’s Buster Olney. “He’s a guy who’s hit 25 home runs. He’s played a lot of positions if you need him to do that.”

The Rays also traded infielder Jorge Cantu, minor league OF Shaun Cumberland, and cash to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Brian Shackelford, minor league pitcher Calvin Medlock, and future considerations.

The Reds optioned Cantu to Triple-A Louisville.

The 25-year-old Cantu had played out his welcome in Tampa Bay after setting the Devil Rays’ single-season club record in 2005 with 117 RBIs with 28 home runs while hitting .286. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player that season.

Last season, he hit .249 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs, and he hit .207 in 25 games with the Devil Rays this year. He was sent to the minors on July 19 and said at the time he expected he’d played his last game for Tampa Bay.

Shackelford spent parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Reds. He was 0-5 in 41 relief appearances with Louisville this season. Tampa Bay also received minor league right-hander Calvin Medlock, 24, who was a combined 4-3 in 42 relief appearances with Louisville and Double-A Chattanooga. Medlock also has a career Minor League record of 29-15 and a 3.24 ERA in 164 games (41 starts) since he was drafted by the Reds in the 39th round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft

The Reds also received outfielder Shaun Cumberland, who was hitting .246 with six home runs and 34 RBI for Double-A Montgomery. Cumberland was assigned to Chattanooga.

The Devil Rays have been making wholesale changes to what has been the worst bullpen in baseball. Over its last 30 innings, the bullpen has given up 44 runs.

The team added reliever Grant Balfour in a trade with the Brewers on Friday, and sent down Shawn Camp on Saturday. On Monday, they placed Jay Witasick on the 15-day disabled list, sent J.P. Howell to Triple-A Durham and called up Jason Hammel and Juan Salas from Durham.

The Rays are making some good moves. They absolutely need to improve their bullpen and they are also saving money by doing so.

Ty Wigginton, for all you fantasy leaguers, should thrive over in Houston. He will have a good park to hit in and won’t lose playing time.

Jorge Cantu can hopefully resurect his career with the Reds like former Ray Josh Hamilton.

Josh Wilson looks to get the bulk of the playing time with Wigginton getting traded. But if Baldelli comes back Upton could be moved back to 2B and Wilson will go back to the bench. One scenario I would like to see is the Rays give 3B prospect Evan Longoria a cup of coffee and see if he can be what Ryan Braun has been to the Milwaukee Brewers. That move would push Iwamura to 2B though and might not get too much consideration.

-Jonathan C. Mitchell
Information from the Associated Press and Buster Olney at were used in this column.


No US Formula One race scheduled for 2008

With the Indianapolis race being dropped, this will mark the first time in eight years there has been no race in the United States.

PARIS — Indianapolis was dropped from the Formula One calendar for 2008, with Singapore and Valencia, Spain, added to the schedule. It will be the first time in eight years there will be no F-1 race in the U.S.

The 18-race season will start in Australia on March 16 and finish in Brazil on Nov. 2, world motor sport’s governing body said Thursday.

Valencia will host the European Grand Prix on a street circuit Aug. 24, subject to approval. Singapore will also stage a street race Sept. 28 — possibly at night — subject to circuit approval.

The Canadian GP on June 8 is listed as provisional because of its financial link to the United States GP. Montreal has traditionally held its race after Indianapolis.

Singapore is a very small country that the wife and I had the pleasure of visiting in 1998. The only place there could be a race is within the city area and I’d expect it to take place at night-time. I still remember watching the Monaco Grand Prix, another race taking place within a city, when televised on ABC’s The Wide World of Sports. It could make for an exciting race, if you like this type of racing.

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Tribe Acquire OF Kenny Lofton

CLEVELAND — Kenny Lofton returned for his third stint with Cleveland — and another playoff run — on Friday as the Texas Rangers traded the 40-year-old outfielder to the Indians for minor-league catcher Max Ramirez.

Great move by Cleveland! This is a huge boost to their offense and Lofton brings energy to this team. Lofton is said to be playing in either left or right field but doesn’t have the arm for right. He should get most of the playing time in left.

I also think this move will allow the Tribe to possibly send a veteran bat like Trot Nixon to a contender for a reliever. The Tribe need another reliever to sure up the back end of the bullpen.

The Rangers got a good young catcher in Max Ramirez. Ramirez, 22, can be groomed to be the catcher of the future for the Rangers. Ramirez is tearing up high-A ball to the tune of .303/.418/.505 in 77 games with 20 doubles, 12 homers, 62 RBI, 46 runs, a 53/63 BB/K ratio, and one stolen base.

This may be the beginning of a fire sale. Look for others like closer Eric Gagne, 1B/OF Brad Wilkerson, and even 1B Mark Teixeira to be on the trading block. I think Gagne will be gone for sure and Teixeira could be had for the right group of prospects.

*******Other Trade Rumors 7/27/07*******

- Mark Teixeira is almost certain to be traded away from the Rangers, with the Braves considered the most likely destination, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. A likely deal would bring C/1B Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Texas, along with a couple of prospects, perhaps a pitcher and an infielder.

The Angels were the most recent to tweak their offer. The Angels had originally offered 1B Casey Kotchman and a choice of outfield prospects Nathan Haynes or Terry Evans. It is believed they have now added a pitcher to the mix, but the level of pitcher could vary widely from a young prospect with a high ceiling (20-year-old right-hander Nick Adenhart) to an experienced but struggling major leaguer (recently demoted Ervin Santana) to a prospect on the verge of pitching in the majors (lefty Joe Saunders).

The Dodgers, thought to be one of the teams interested in Teixeira, say they intend to go forward with James Loney as their first baseman.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are believed to still be in the hunt for Teixeira, the Boston Globe reports. Teixeira was drafted by the Sox in the ninth round in 1998, but chose to attend Georgia Tech. He then was drafted by the Rangers in 2001 with the fifth overall pick. Currently making $9 million per year and arbitration-eligible next season, he can become a free agent after 2008.

Don’t expect Teixeira to end up in the Bronx. Without giving up Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees have little chance of acquiring Teixeira from the Rangers, The New York Times reports.

Texas wants promising young talent in return for Teixeira, the Dallas Morning News reports.

-Don’t expect the Twins to trade Torii Hunter before the deadline. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there have been indications that the club is prepared to offer him a contract extension after the season.

Larry Reynolds, Hunter’s agent, said Thursday that he hasn’t spoken with GM Terry Ryan lately and is not worried about a possible deadline trade. Hunter, a potential free agent, has a limited no-trade clause that blocks deals to six teams.

“Anything can happen,” Reynolds told the newspaper. “Am I expecting [a trade]? No. Will I be surprised if it happens? Not really.”

Hunter probably could get five to six years and $80 million to $90 million on the open market.

- There are rumblings that the Padres might be interested in Mark Loretta, the San Diego Union Tribune reports. “I haven’t heard anything other than the rumors,” Loretta told the newspaper.

Loretta played three seasons (2003-05) in San Diego, and many believe Loretta would be a perfect fit for the Padres, who have been looking for a right-handed bat to give Adrian Gonzalez an occasional rest at first and help at second.

The Mets, Phillies and Tigers are believed to be interested in Loretta as well.

- Add the Cubs to the list of teams interested in Ty Wigginton, the St. Petersburg Times reports. The Dodgers, Twins, Yankees and Red Sox also have their eye on the utility infielder.

The Devil Rays are looking to improve their beleaguered bullpen, possibly with the addition of several relievers, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports. Talks with the Yankees have included right-hander Scott Proctor, though the deal might have to be expanded. The Red Sox, Dodgers and Twins all have several young pitchers who would be of interest to the Rays.

Wigginton, 29, is open to signing a long-term deal. His salary is expected to exceed $4 million next season through arbitration.

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10 Best NFL Linebacking Corps

Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders ranked the 32 NFL linebacking corps. Here are his top 10.

1. Baltimore Ravens (12)

How talented is this group? So talented that they can lose Adalius Thomas to the Patriots and still finish first in our rankings. Ray Lewis and Bart Scott man the inside. While Lewis’ best days are behind him, he’s still the leader of this unit and the man who keeps everyone in line. You’ll see the occasional superlative moment (and reasonable consistency), but he’s no longer the player who defined his position in the early part of this decade. Scott took his first opportunity as a full-time starter and enjoyed a breakout season. He finished sixth in the NFL in Stop Rate and was the Head Quarterback Terrorizer among Baltimore’s linebackers with 9.5 sacks, 11 hits and 15 hurries.

Left outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ fourth season was very much like his first three: outstanding from a pass rush perspective (he’s never finished a season with less than eight sacks and has averaged 10 per year), with an additional focus on run-stopping. Suggs finished third in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing play at 2.2, although that’s partly because he plays some defensive end in the Ravens’ flexible alignment. Replacing Thomas’ versatility and athleticism will be no easy task, and it’s possible that defensive coordinator Rex Ryan will try to do it by committee. Jarret Johnson is listed as the preseason replacement, but Dan Cody and Antwan Barnes will try to shake up the second tier in training camp.

2. San Diego Chargers (3)

If we were compiling a separate list for outside linebackers, the Chargers would take the top spot in an absolute rout. Shawne Merriman led the league in sacks despite missing four games last season after testing positive for steroids. Merriman claimed the test results came from a tainted supplement, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed in April of this year that Merriman has tested clean in 19 of the 20 drug tests he’s taken. It may be difficult for some to get over the stigma, because at his best, Merriman does things that simply defy belief. When Walter Jones pushes you to the ground on a pass play, and you somehow get up, get past the NFL’s best left tackle and still pick up the sack … well, people are going to wonder.

Lost in the shadow of Merriman’s “Lights Out” persona was the job turned in by Shaun Phillips on the weak side. Phillips had 11.5 sacks of his own and didn’t miss a beat when Merriman was out of the lineup, with three sacks and 20 tackles in three November games. The questions about San Diego’s linebackers are on the inside. The Chargers lost both of their inside starters: veteran Randall Godfrey was released after the draft, and free agent Donnie Edwards returned to the Chiefs after five seasons in San Diego. Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are in line to replace Godfrey and Edwards, respectively, and that’s a lot of continuity to ask for when the “new kids” have totaled eight starts in eight seasons between them. Third-round pick Anthony Waters from Clemson could find an early place on the inside if he’s recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in his senior season.

3. Chicago Bears (2)

The defending NFC champs have had more than their share of off-season drama, and most of it surrounded the defense that got the Bears back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years. The roster churn in the front four has been the big public story, thanks to Tank Johnson. But the real Sword of Damocles for the best defense of 2006 has been the battle between the team and Lance Briggs. The Bears franchised Briggs, and the elite weak-side linebacker has responded by threatening to sit out the first 10 games of the season. The Bears almost had a pre-draft trade done with the Redskins in which Briggs would be dealt for Washington’s first-round pick, but that fell through. We’re projecting him playing a full season, what with the potential payday and all. Briggs is a force no matter what is coming at him; he finished fifth in Stop Rate against the run and in the top five in Defeats against the run and the pass.

As good as Briggs is (and as improbable as his return to Chicago would be after this season), the defense belongs to Brian Urlacher. Urlacher continues the Chicago tradition of great middle linebackers, and may be the most versatile of the Bill George/Dick Butkus/Mike Singletary line. His closest antecedent of that group is George, the Hall-of Famer who played for the Bears from 1952 to 1965 and is credited by some as the first middle linebacker, a position he may have created when he dropped back from his middle guard spot in the five-man lines of the time and began defending the aerial game. George picked off eighteen passes in his career. Urlacher has long been regarded as one of the best in the modern game against the pass, and he matched his career highs in 2006 with three interceptions and six passes defensed. Though he didn’t record a sack last season, he was credited with 10 quarterback hits, the most of any inside linebacker. Hunter Hillenmeyer fills out the best 4-3 group in the NFL, though Briggs’ situation and uncertainty about the front four could see Chicago’s linebackers give way to …

4. Seattle Seahawks

This was a formidable group on paper after the acquisition of Julian Peterson, but schematic issues and one key injury conspired to provide less than optimal results. Peterson put up a career year in the sack department with 10, but his versatility was the real worth behind the seven-year, $54 million contract Seattle gave him before the 2006 season. Lining him up as a rush end, as the Seahawks did frequently to start the season, overemphasized one aspect of his talent. As the season progressed and the fit began to happen, Peterson’s ability to drop into coverage became a factor. This also helped Leroy Hill, who was negatively affected by Peterson’s initial focus on quarterback pressure. In his 2005 rookie season, Hill posted 7.5 sacks and had the highest Stop Rate against the run of any Seahawks linebacker. Hill does these things well, but he doesn’t have a reverse gear, and this was made very evident from his rookie season when he found himself routinely embarrassed in coverage. Seattle’s defensive coaching staff promises to allow Hill to be less reactive and more aggressive in his third year.

The injury that affected Seattle’s linebackers actually happened to the front four, when defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs missed 11 games with a knee injury. Nobody was more impacted by this than middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, an undersized Tasmanian devil who makes the defense go when he can shoot gaps and make plays. With Tubbs gone, Tatupu proved unable to consistently shed blocks at the line. Still, he continued to develop his ability to read opposing offenses as if they were cereal boxes, and he’s surprisingly adept when retreating into deep coverage. He’s also a textbook tackler, but he’ll need Tubbs (or third-round pick Brandon Mebane of Cal) to man the nose and soak up blockers.

5. Dallas Cowboys (5)

The transition at head coach for the Cowboys from Bill Parcells to Wade Phillips means that more aggressive defensive schemes will be in play. Phillips, who served as San Diego’s defensive coordinator during Shawne Merriman’s development, could have another monster on his hands in DeMarcus Ware. In his second NFL season, Ware not only increased his sack total from eight to 11.5, he also blew away all other linebackers with 25 quarterback hurries (New England’s Rosevelt Colvin was second with 20). Joining Ware this season will be first-round pick Anthony Spencer of Purdue, who will bring his disruptive abilities and self-proclaimed “Fro-hawk” to a linebacker unit already stuffed with pass rushers. Spencer is an ideal outside man in a 3-4; he’s aggressive and on point, racking up 10½ sacks and 26½ tackles for loss in his senior year alone. Optimally, Spencer could play Shaun Phillips to Ware’s Merriman, though those comparisons are a reach at this point.

Ten-year veteran Greg Ellis manned the strong side last year, but concerns about his recovery from a torn Achilles, and past struggles with his role, could have Spencer in the mix sooner than later. On the inside, fellow Purdue alum Akin Ayodele has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, ranking eighth in Stop Rate against the run and 19th in Success Rate against the pass. With Bradie James, Bobby Carpenter and Kevin Burnett available for different personnel packages, the Cowboys match their enviable frontline talent with impressive depth. Whatever the doubts about his ability to maintain overall discipline with a mercurial roster, Phillips’ influence could put this bunch of linebackers over the top.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

We ranked Pittsburgh’s linebackers number one last year for good reason — it could be argued that the Steelers went through the NFL’s four best offensive lines in the postseason on the way to their fifth Super Bowl title. The changes came quickly after the team’s disappointing follow-up year, starting with the hire of new head coach Mike Tomlin. Though Tomlin has a graduate degree in Tampa-2, he’ll defer to Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 professorship.

Joey Porter took $20 million in guaranteed money from the Miami Dolphins; now the Steelers will find out whether Porter was the defense’s soul, or just its mouth. Replacing him at right outside linebacker is James Harrison. Harrison has spent most of his time as a backup, though he did enjoy cups of coffee as a starter in 2004 and 2005. He may be good enough against the run and rushing the passer that there won’t be a decline, though Porter was one of the better linebackers against the pass last season. Looking to the future, the Steelers can turn rookies Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley loose on enemy quarterbacks. Timmons, Pittsburgh’s first-round draft pick, seems a natural for his new team — he won Florida State’s “Hines-man Award” for best overall performance.

Opposite Harrison will be Clark Haggans, a savvy and reliable veteran. James Farrior and Larry Foote have been the primary inside men for the last three seasons. Farrior’s 27 Defeats led the team, and Foote ranked 11th in the league with a 75 percent Stop Rate against the run. The concern here is that overall depth could be an issue with two rookies to rely on.

7. Oakland Raiders (26)

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan put together one of the most remarkable coaching jobs in recent memory; the Raiders defense ranked ninth in our DVOA stats even though the offense was pathetic. This defense faced the fewest pass attempts (410) and most rushing attempts (542) in the league. That may make an offensive strategy easier to discern, but the mental wear of playing at that level with nonexistent hope on the other side of the ball must be astonishing.

Middle linebacker Kirk Morrison is the star of this unit, an oft-ignored product of the same 2005 draft that produced Merriman and Tatupu. He ranked sixth with a 67 percent Success Rate against the pass, the highest among inside linebackers. His 33 Defeats tied him for third with Brian Urlacher and Cato June. Rookie Thomas Howard impressed on the weak side, though his run-stopping skills need to improve. Sam Williams and Robert Thomas alternated on the strong side, with Thomas proving to be the better player. Morrison and Howard have a world of talent, excellent coaching and an extremely solid group around them. If they had an offense that wasn’t reminiscent of the 1927 Dayton Triangles (link:, there might be some relief in store.

8. Miami Dolphins

Zach Thomas led the NFL with 174 plays, and had a Stop Rate of 61 percent, one of the best percentages for any inside linebacker whose responsibilities comprised more than just staying at home in a 3-4. Add in nine passes defensed and three sacks and you have an amazing season from a 33-year old who didn’t fade out no matter how often he was targeted.

To complement Thomas’ abilities, the Dolphins threw a great deal of money at Joey Porter. Porter will try to put a somewhat disappointing 2006 behind him, but his seven sacks are still more than the 5.5 that Miami’s entire linebacker corps managed last year. The Dolphins will need continued improvement from strong-side linebacker Channing Crowder. He ranked fifth in Stop Rate against the run, but his Success Rate in pass coverage was just 32 percent, one of the worst of any linebacker.

9. Cleveland Browns (21)

The Browns haven’t posted a winning season since 2002 and suffer from several positional shortfalls, but their linebackers aren’t part of the problem. Cleveland drafted Kamerion Wimbley to get after the quarterback on the weak side, and he did so with abandon, racking up 11 sacks, 16 hits and 19 hurries. On the other side, 14-year veteran Willie McGinest might split time with Antwan Peek this season. Houston’s switch back to a 4-3 left Peek as a man without a position, but he could surprise in Cleveland. On the inside, D’Qwell Jackson and Andra Davis are players who work well in this system and would have much better numbers with better linemen in front of them. Chaun Thompson provides good depth.

10. New England Patriots (13)

The dominant linebacker sets of the recent Super Bowl years are a memory; at this point, Bill Belichick is balancing the value of experience against the effectiveness of pure athleticism. As usual, the Pats come up trumps when presented with such a conundrum. This time, they split the difference between veteran know-how and pure talent by signing free agent Adalius Thomas, formerly of the Ravens. Thomas will be a perfect fit in his new system, because Belichick may have a greater appreciation than any other coach for players who can do many things well. Thomas isn’t just another mid-level “Swiss Army Knife” guy, either. He managed to stand out in Baltimore’s ridiculous 2006 group, and fared better than any teammate when considering all aspects of linebacker play. Thomas’ prominence will increase in New England, because the talent around him is starting to fade a bit.

The names you know — Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau (post-temporary retirement version) — are still here, but there will have to be a serious re-set sooner than later. The Patriots finished eighth in Defensive DVOA last season, but remember what we’ve said about dominant front lines skewing linebacker performance. New England’s improved ranking here is almost all about the new guy. Bruschi and Vrabel are still strong against the run, but suffer in pass coverage. Rosevelt Colvin, the other outside linebacker, is an excellent pass-rusher, with nine sacks, 19 hits and 20 hurries.

Due to a lack of depth, The Patriots can’t be ranked higher. Larry Izzo is mostly a special-teamer, and Eric Alexander’s first start in his three-year NFL career (a good portion of which has been spent on the practice squad) was in the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Dallas Clark has your learning curve right here, Eric.

These comparisons are a little strained given the different ways NFL teams use linebackers. Certainly, it’s easier for linebackers to dominate in a 3-4 than a 4-3, where the main rush comes from defensive ends. Still, if the Cowboys can live up to this #5 ranking, they should be much improved over last year.


10 Best NFL Receiving Units

Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders ranks the NFL receiving units from 1-32 including, rightly I think, tight ends. Here’s the top 10:

1. Dallas (1)

After six weeks of Drew Bledsoe, the Cowboys’ receivers were struggling. While Terry Glenn had a very respectable 16.8 percent DVOA, Terrell Owens was at a woeful -7.7 percent, and Patrick Crayton (the likely third or fourth target on most plays) had only been thrown 12 passes in six weeks because Bledsoe couldn’t stay upright long enough to find him. Even Jason Witten’s 17.0 percent DVOA had him at a mediocre 13th amongst tight ends.

By the end of the year, Glenn’s DVOA had improved to 20.4 percent, while Owens got all the way up to 12.2 percent. Crayton got 36 more attempts in the final 10 games and was the best third receiver in football. Witten’s DVOA went up to 19.1 percent, seventh amongst all tight ends. The point: Having an even competent quarterback can be the difference between a group of receivers struggling, or being amongst the league’s elite. While Owens and Glenn are getting up there in age, both have yet to show an appreciable level of decline in their metrics, and Owens will likely see an improved catch rate after healing his finger injury. Crayton remains one of the unsung threats in the league, and Witten, the best tight end in a division full of them. A team’s top four receivers will see 65-70 percent of all the throws made by a quarterback over the course of a season; one through four, no one’s better than the Cowboys.

2. Indianapolis (3)

On one hand, it would be incredibly interesting to see what would happen if Marvin Harrison ended up playing with Charlie Frye, or someone of that ilk. How much of his performance would he lose? On the other hand, breaking up Manning and Harrison just seems wrong, like sticking Tennille with Tom Jones, Chuck D with Prince Markie D.

What makes Indianapolis so dangerous, though, is their depth. In Harrison and Reggie Wayne (No. 1 and No. 2 in wide receiver DPAR last season), they have a one-two punch to match any in football; when you add Dallas Clark to the equation, you may have the three best pure receivers in the game. What makes this team even scarier in 2007 is the addition of Anthony Gonzalez in the first round; while it’s impossible to forecast certain success for the young man, take a gander at the other skill-position players the Colts have used first-round picks on under Bill Polian: Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne. These guys could make Jim Sorgi look good. While Gonzalez will undoubtedly struggle some with the complex Colts playbook, his 3.6 GPA while at Ohio State offers some encouragement that he might be a quick study.

3. Cincinnati (4)

As good as Indianapolis’ starting wide receivers were, Cincinnati’s star combo of Chad Johnson (5th in DPAR) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (4th) were right behind them. In fact, it’s easy to construct a pretty convincing argument that by the time Carson Palmer had come all the way back from his knee injury, the combination were approaching the performance of Wayne and Harrison. Before the Bengals bye in Week 5, the Colts’ duo were averaging 5.5 DPAR per game combined, while the Bengals’ top two had a measly 2.3 DPAR per game between them. Over the rest of the year, while the Colts’ stars kept their numbers up at 5.69 DPAR per game, the Bengals got up to 4.46 DPAR per game; still not at the Colts’ level, but approaching it.

What separates the Colts’ offense from the Bengals, though, is depth. The Bengals offense does not enjoy a threat at tight end the level of Dallas Clark, although Reggie Kelly has proven to be an effective receiver (17.8 percent DVOA in 2006) when used. While Chris Henry was an excellent third wide receiver, a full season of Anthony Gonzalez will be better than the maximum eight games Henry will be allowed to suit up for in 2007. While they’re not the Colts’ set of receivers — very few teams in NFL history have been — Johnson and Houshmandzadeh are an elite duo, and they are likely to continue to be for at least two more seasons.

4. Baltimore

A great group of receivers hidden by a quarterback losing his arm strength and pocket dexterity. While neither Derrick Mason nor Mark Clayton had spectacular statistics last season, the offensive scheme they played in, and Steve McNair’s quickness to check down caused some deflation in their numbers as opposed to their actual talent level. Mason remains one of the more reliable No. 1 receivers in football, a steady target who runs excellent routes and frees up space underneath while being double-covered. Clayton, on the other hand, is a star waiting to happen, a deep threat in the vein of Chicago’s Bernard Berrian with an upside not dissimilar to Carolina’s Steve Smith. He gained confidence as the year went along, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, was receiver No. 1A. He may have as good a chance to enjoy a breakout 2007 as anyone in pro football.

While third wideout Demetrius Williams is a step down from those two, he was a serviceable deep threat in his first season of playing time on offense, and is likely to see more action out of the slot as the Ravens open up their offense some in 2007. The real third option, though, is tight end Todd Heap, who’s ready to assume the mantle of best non-Gates tight end in football from Tony Gonzalez as he enters his peak and Gonzalez leaves his. Heap remains an excellent end zone option and requires safeties to help out on him, creating space for Clayton behind them.

The Football Outsiders say Anquan Boldin hasn’t been as great as his numbers would suggest in Arizona. (Brian Bahr / Getty Images)

5. Arizona (6)

Oh, if they only had a tight end. Last year, we panned former first-round pick and Cardinals’ third receiver Bryant Johnson as a bust, and the player holding the Cardinals’ wideouts back; Johnson responded with an excellent campaign, ranking 13th in DVOA and 27th in DPAR despite not being a starter. This year, we turn our scornful gaze, surprisingly, toward Anquan Boldin; while he’s been a workhorse at wide receiver (his 18.8 points of DPAR were 21st in the league last year), he’s yet to post a DVOA above 5 percent in his career, which points somewhat to the source of his success being a significant level of usage as opposed to spectacular performance. Expect that to improve some as the Cardinals’ offensive line does. The scary thing is that this threesome is already among the top two or three in football on their own merits, and they’re just now getting a good quarterback and slowly developing an offensive line. Oh, and they haven’t even hit their peak yet.

6. Denver (14)

It’s not often that a team’s Hall of Fame receiver suffers a steep decline and yet the receiving corps gets better, but that’s exactly what’s happened in Denver. Despite the controversy at quarterback, Javon Walker emerged as roughly the same receiver he was in Green Bay before his 2005 ACL tear; he was eighth in DPAR and 22nd in DVOA in 2004, 16th and 30th, respectively, in 2006. The effects of having to adjust to Jay Cutler’s development and Jake Plummer’s regression peg those as sufficiently similar performances. Of course, to speak of regression would require discussing Rod Smith, who absolutely fell off the cliff in 2006, 78th in DPAR and 77th in DVOA; toast got offended when you mistook it for the far-more-burnt Smith. With Smith still struggling to return from hip surgery, Denver will likely give more playing time to free agent Brandon Stokley and promising second-year player Brandon Marshall, who came on at season’s end and looks to be a real player.

The other advantage to Denver’s attack are their tight ends, who may be the deepest group in the game. Former Patriots first-round pick Daniel Graham is primarily known as a mauler, but he’s also a reliable pair of hands and good underneath option; meanwhile, backup Tony Scheffler posted an 8.7 percent DVOA last year, good enough for 14th in the league. He runs deeper routes than Graham, and the two will serve as solid complements to each other. Last year’s starter, Stephen Alexander, will likely remain as a blocker and decoy receiver. All in all, Cutler will be spoiled for choice in his first full season at the helm.

7. New England (10)

Speaking of spoiled for choice, New England had a hole at receiver, and instead of sticking a finger in to plug it, they just threw in the whole hand. Five new receivers come to the Patriots to supplement Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Ben Watson, but each of them has flaws. Donte’ Stallworth has had one healthy year in five; health is a skill, and it’s the one thing Stallworth lacks that keeps him from being an elite wideout. Randy Moss hasn’t been Randy Moss in three seasons, and for a player who’s 30 and has always relied on his physical skills, it’s unlikely that he’ll return to being Randy Moss as a Patriot.

Randy Moss struggled in Oakland. Will he be able to return to glory in New England? ( Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)

Wes Welker is an excellent third receiver and return man, but has very little upside and has likely already peaked. Kelley Washington was squeezed out in Cincinnati because of a loaded wideout group, but he’s also injury-prone and his aptitude for playing special teams (which is what he’ll need to do to grab a roster spot) has been questioned. Finally, Kyle Brady is likely to fulfill most of the blocking requirements Daniel Graham served in previous years, but he’s no threat in the air and the Patriots will need David Thomas to serve as the second tight end in the receiving game. While the Patriots have certainly improved their group of receivers, the improvements might not be as dramatic as first glance would have it.

8. San Diego (5)

This discussion begins with Antonio Gates because the passing attack is all based around him. At this point, Gates is one of the five best free talent acquisitions in NFL history; at 27, and with a body a little bit healthier than most tight ends because of his lack of a college football career, we can even expect that Gates might turn it up another notch as Philip Rivers matures.

Outside of Gates, the Chargers have a group of talented wide receivers with something to prove. Eric Parker is a first-down machine, and one of the most underrated players in football; his DVOA rankings over the last three years are 26th, 3rd, and 7th. While the departed Keenan McCardell had clearly lost a step across from Parker, he was booted from the starting lineup by injury and the emergence of 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson as a viable starter. Jackson still has a ways to go before he’s of McCardell’s caliber, but he creates dramatic matchup problems for every defensive coordinator the Chargers face: how do you defend against two guys who are 6-foot-4-plus and run like the wind? If Norv Turner actually does finally live up to his offensive guru reputation, it could be a scary time for safeties league-wide. When you throw in first-round selection, and former LSU speed demon Craig Davis, this is another batch of receivers who are already good and will only get better. San Diego suffers from this analysis not including the receiving benefits of LaDainian Tomlinson, but either way, this is a promising group.

9. Seattle

If this list was purely looking at wide receivers, Seattle would be in the top-five. That’s what happens when you have Football Outsiders favorite and emerging star D.J. Hackett pushing his way into a lineup that already features fellow Outsiders poster boy Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson and a now-settled Deion Branch. Hackett’s DVOA answered only to Devery Henderson’s last year, as he caught 67 percent of the passes thrown to him, and averaged nearly 14 yards per completion.

The problem, though, is that the Seahawks have neglected to acquire any tight ends to suit up for them this year; while Marcus Pollard, Will Heller and Bennie Joppru may answer to that title, none of them are players anyone would want to rely on as a championship-caliber tight end. While Engram and Hackett may do the underneath work that tight ends normally do in the West Coast offense, expect Seattle’s blocking effectiveness to decrease.

10. Detroit (27)

Well, they have to be above-average at something. The Lions’ bugaboo became the position they could hang their hat on last year, as Roy Williams’ development within Mike Martz’s pass-happy attack pushed him into the upper-echelon of NFL wide receivers; his 29 DPAR were good for sixth in the league, although at a 14.1 percent DVOA, he was only 21st. Mike Furrey’s conversion to wideout became one of the better stories of that nature in recent memory, as he caught 98 passes and put up a solid DPAR and DVOA. In addition, the selection of Calvin Johnson gives the Lions what appears to be — caution now — a sure thing across from Williams. In addition, tight end Dan Campbell posted a whopping 44.2 percent DVOA on 32 attempts last year, the best for any tight end in football.

The problem is that some of these successes are obviously schematic; Campbell’s never been that level of receiver and isn’t likely to be again, while Furrey’s skills are also overstated by his usage pattern. Even if Johnson’s the real deal, Detroit’s still a step behind the elite receiving corps in football.

Click the link for teams 11-32 and an explanation for all the acronyms.

It’s interesting that they rank the Cowboys #1, given the lack of depth behind their two geriatric starters at wideout. Patrick Crayton is generally underrated, I think, but I never would have guessed he was the best #3 in the game. And the tight end production should increase substantially this year under the new offense.

Of course, there are several other teams in contention for this title and most have more established quarterbacks. If Tony Romo doesn’t return to mid-2006 form, his receivers won’t be the best in the League.


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