Having taken another big step forward with the hiring of Haley (and overlooking the fact that he still needs to assemble a staff), I wanted to guage the general feeling of the fans regarding personnel. This is a pretty rich free agency class and with $30+M to spend, I hope and expect us to be very involved in predraft activity for a change. The staff that is assembled will alter the strategy a bit, but as we have a couple of weeks for fa season to start, there should be plenty of time remaining to fill our staff and establish a team direction. So without, further adieu, here's my wishlist by priority...
1) Julius Peppers
Peppers is a proven commodity coming from a team founded on defense. He is in the prime of his career and wants out of Carolina. He has the versatility to fit in any defensive system and be a force off of the edge. I know that there are a few promising prospects that could be drafted in the 1st or 2nd round, but the fact is, we need somebody that is seasoned and ready to make an impact NOW. Rookie D-lineman never make an immediate impact. Remember Mario Williams for the Texans? Coming out of college, he was such a freakish athlete with size and speed that he HAD to make waves the moment he stepped on the field... didn't happen. However, a year later and definitely this year, he has shown that the Texans actually were pretty shrewd in taking him over Reggie Bush. (on a related note: don't be so quick to dismiss our boy Glenn Dorsey who came into the league with similar fanfare; his numbers look very similar to those of Williams and he did it from the interior of the line)
2) Jordan Gross
It's not that I'm specifically targeting the Panthers, they just have very good players dangling. Gross is a near elite level OT and, at 28 yrs of age, he should provide an anchor on the line for many years to come. He earned a starting position his rookie season and hasn't missed a game since. As you all should recall, lack of durability on the O-line is a fatal flaw for sustained success. Not a problem here. Paired with Alberts, the Chiefs would have the bookends on their line shored up for the new era. The main problem, I see is that there's no way Carolina lets BOTH of these guys go. I'm hoping that if we get a shot at only one, it ends up being Peppers as this draft class is again, tackle rich (rich in O-line in general). And as I previously stated, drafting D-linemen to make an impact rarely works with the immediacy that we require. O-line on the other hand, seem to work out pretty well (with last years draft class providing evidence).
3) Linebackers: 3a) Terrel Suggs
3b) Karlos Dansby
3c) Jonathan Vilma
3d) Bart Scott
Linebackers are a glaring need with this defense. We may be able to target and aquire an elite prospect in the 1st (that's where I'd like to see us go), however, currently we only have one guy that can play at this level in DJ and adding a first year player into the mix without veteran help is just asking for trouble... witness last season. Suggs is the most dominating and if the Peppers plan doesn't work out, he's equally suited to lining up at DE. Dansby is a very solid, if slightly underappreciated, LB in this league. He is extremely versatile (as evidenced by his playing each LB position effectively at some point) and has a great understanding of the game. His physical ability is impressive, but his true strength lies in his football accumen. He'd be a great player to have on a very young defense. Vilma is a tackling machine. His speed and recognition skills put him everywhere on the field. Only missed time during one season due to injury. Also excellent in coverage when asked to do so, which can only help our young safeties. Fits a definite need in the middle of the field. Bart Scott is another quality, physical linebacker. The main reason that he's fourth here is that I'm not sure that he'll be able to be effective in a 4-3 system on the outside or the inside... he is a good football player though and the possibility of us going to a 3-4 or even a hybrid of the two is intriguing.
4) Jason Brown, C
Another Baltimore FA, seems with a lot of these players' contracts expiring in the same season, we ought to be able to pry a few of them away. Brown will be entering into his 5th season this year and has started every game for the Ravens since he earned the spot early in his sophomore season. I think Niswanger was decent at center last year, but I think he would be much better served in sliding over to guard and competing for a spot with a young draftee. Experience at center is a must, and with Brown facing off against the Steelers and Dick Lebeau's defense twice a year (not to mention battling Casey Hampton), there is virtually nothing that he hasn't seen at this point.
5) Quarterback... maybe...
I find myself torn on the QB situation. I like Thigpen, but I'm not convice that he's a franchise QB. That being said, he showed enough promise last season that I wouldn't bet against his development. He seems to have the skill set to be successful, at least moderately. At this point, I have no idea where his ceiling is. Does it make sense to try and trade for Cassel? Not for the two 1st rd picks they're asking for (if recent reports are correct). I appreciate that he had a terrific year, but the Pats do an excellent job at minimizing players deficiencies. How many players have signed big FA deals to go to another team and actually produced? No very many, and Cassel had great tools surrounding him so it's hard to figure if he'd really be much of an improvement or if he'd be the next Rob Johnson. Is the draft the way to go? Not this year, imo. Stafford is a physical specimen, but he never played well against top competition. In fact, from what I remember, he rarely made any plays in the clutch portion of games... got a Grbac quality to him that makes me want to run away screaming. Sanchez? No way... he's injury prone and the product of the USC hype machine. Even his coach stated publicly (you stay classy, Pete Carroll) that he was not ready. Freeman? Maybe, but no sooner than the 3rd-4th round. If we end up going this direction, we will have to make a vet QB aquisition to groom him for a season or two... Warner anyone?
If we really want to get a franchise QB in the draft, I would wait 'til next year. Many quality prospects in that class. I mean, if any of those underclassmen came out this year, Stafford drops to #4 at best. Now I'm not suggesting we tank the season or anything like that. In fact, if we go this route, the aquisition of a vet (like to get at least a 2yr guarantee) once again becomes a priority. In order to get the best chance for an early pick next year, we deal some picks and players (Larry, TG) and try to angle for another 1st rounder next year. If Thiggy doesn't develop, we know that it's a need and can package a 2 for 1 (or something similar) in order to try and position ourselves for one of the QBs. Kind of risky and maybe not workable, but I have no confidence in this year's class of qbs.
Wow, that got a little longer than I planned. Let me know what your thoughts are on the pre-draft aquisitions.