You may have heard that 2009 Free Agency has commenced in the NFL. If not, welcome back to Planet Earth. These are always exciting times; for some franchises, the most thrilling of the year (unfortunately). In recent years, free agency has been more like a free-for-all to the likes of Daniel Snyder, Jerry Jones and our old friend Mike Shanahan. These are happy days, so I will avoid using this space to list all of the big free-agency busts we've seen pass through Denver.
Many fans would love to see Denver again make a huge splash in free agency, by bringing in the likes of Ray Lewis, Derrick Ward, Chris Canty and/or Ronald Bartrell. Such moves may perhaps be on tap, but it is important not to laugh off the smaller, complementary moves that are sure to come as well. The Broncos' Super Bowl run was fueled in part by major acquisitions like Alfred Williams, Neil Smith and Bill Romanowski. But in retrospect, moves that failed to open eyes at the time proved just as crucial - Ed McCaffrey, Howard Griffith and Tyrone Braxton come to mind.
Then-coach Mike Shanahan (doensn't that read strangely?) brought Easy Ed with him from San Francisco after an unimpressive 11-catch season with the Niners. McCaffrey had been unceremoniously dumped by Dan Reeves and the Giants after three seasons before that. Braxton, of course was a 12th-round gem from North Dakota State who spent seven seasons in Denver before heading southeast to Miami. Denver thought he was washed up as a cornerback, but Shanny brought him back to play strong safety. To say that these signings were a success would be quite the understatement today. More after the break...
But how do those acquisitions relate to Denver's current situation? Well, there is a lot to be said for sticking with who and what you know best, especially when entering a new situation. The shock of moving to a new city can be eased by the presence of an old friend or relative, and football is no different. For Josh McDaniels, Brian Xanders and Mike Nolan, the Broncos Organization is that new city (I know, Nolan isn't really new, bear with me). Nothing will make the transition easier for those three men than the presence of a few old friends.
McDaniels of course, was a longtime assistant of Bill Belichick's, who in turn assisted Bill Parcells in several endeavors. Together and separately, the two Bill's have been responsible for 7 Super Bowl appearances, including 5 victories. Much of what they do is obviously quite successful, and among their favorite housewarming gifts have always been their own former players. For Parcells, the list includes players such as Vinny Testaverde, Keyshawn Johnson, Drew Bledsoe, Dave Meggett, Richie Anderson, Terry Glenn, Chad Pennington, Jason Fabini and Jason Ferguson. Belichick has remained loyal to old friends like Otis Smith, Roman Phifer, Anthony Pleasant, Bobby Hamilton, Testaverde, Ray Mickens, Kyle Brady, Joe Morris, Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson.
Certainly, many of the names on those preceding lists are/were stars in their own rights, but most of them were re-acquired by the two Bill's on what was considered to be the downside of their respective careers. Parcells and Belichick have always stuck with the players they know, and for good reason. Even if those players were no longer in their prime, the Bill's were bringing in known quantities, and there is no way to overstate the importance of such moves. Certainly, the Bill's garner quite a bit of respect from their players, but keep in mind that Belichick didn't arrive in New England with a sparkling resume as a head coach. When a new coach arrives at an organization, he surely has a lot on his plate - getting to know how the team has been run, acclimating himself to a new city and more importantly, to a new boss and a new roster. The players' collective confidence in their new coach is quite obviously crucial to his potential success, and who better to lead the way than the players who believe in the coach already, who have seen his schemes, game-planning and play-calling in action?
That said, it makes complete sense for Josh McDaniels, Brian Xanders and Mike Nolan to bring in a bunch of players they're already familiar with. They may not all be the flashiest of names, but they may be no-less important to the Broncos' future successes. Here are a few candidates...
Marques Douglas, Defensive End, BAL - Douglas played for Mike Nolan in Baltimore from 2001-2004, and when Nolan left for San Francisco the following year, he packed Douglas up with him. Douglas played with the Niners for three seasons before heading back to Baltimore in 2008. Over 104 games, Douglas has racked up 371 tackles, 19 sacks and defensed 10 passes.
Roderick Green, Linebacker, SF - Green is another old friend of Mike Nolan's, spending his first two years in Baltimore before heading west with Nolan in 2005. Green is a backup linebacker who has appeared in 54 games, totaling 45 tackles, 12 sacks and 1 pass defensed.
James Sanders, Safety, NE - Sanders has appeared in 55 games for the Patriots over four seasons, starting 36 of them. Chosen by New England in the 4th round of the 2005 Draft, Sanders has accumulated 195 tackles, 1 sack, 8 passes defensed and 5 interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Rodney Harrison, Safety, NE - Harrison certainly requires no introduction to Broncos fans. In fact, we all know and loathe him quite sincerely from Harrison's years of taking cheap-shots at John Elway. In fact, it looked like he was headed to the Broncos after his release from the Chargers, only to be snapped up by Belichick's Patriots instead. Harrison is recovering from a serious knee injury, so health questions would surely dominate. But all that considered, Harrison is unquestionably a fine football player and one of the better leaders in the game. Over 186 games, Harrison has amassed 634 tackles, 30.5 sacks, 42 passes defensed and 34 interceptions which resulted in 2 touchdowns.
Heath Evans, Fullback, NE - Evans has been primarily a blocking fullback with the Pats, getting the occasional carry or reception. Over 9 seasons with three teams, Evans has carried the ball 157 times for 561 yards, along with 40 receptions for 328 yards. Evans has scored 4 touchdowns during his NFL career.
Jabar Gaffney, Wide Receiver, NE - Gaffney spent 3 years in New England with McDaniels, during which he caught 85 passes for 1,059 yards and 8 touchdowns. Over his 7-year career, he has accumulated 256 receptions for 3,068 yards and 15 touchdowns. Gaffney is expected to visit Dove Valley in the coming days. Update - Gaffney has reportedly signed a 4-year, $10-million deal with Denver, including $3 million in guarantees. Here's what Scouts Inc has to say...
"Gaffney is coming off his seventh season in the league and continues to be a solid No. 3 receiver for the Patriots. He is a solid athlete, but is not an explosive route-runner. He is a crafty veteran who is instinctive finding voids. He can set defenders up well by changing speeds and he understands the little nuances of the position. He doesn't have great strength to break tackles or as a stalk-blocker, but gives good effort on the perimeter. He tracks the deep ball well and has courage and concentration in traffic. Gaffney is a solid route-runner with good quickness in and out of break points, but doesn't have great speed to stretch deep zones."
Mike Wright, Defensive End, NE - Over four seasons with New England, Wright has appeared in 54 games, racking up 83 tackles and 4 sacks. He may be just the sort of no-glory 3-4 defensive end McDaniels and Nolan will require to instill their new scheme.
Ronald Fields, Defensive Tackle, SF - Drafted in 2005 by Nolan's Niners, Fields has suited up 49 times in his career, totaling 75 tackles, 1 sack and 1 pass defensed. Listed at 6'2" 315 pounds, Mike Lombardi of NFP predicted Fields would be one of the most impactful signings of 2009 free agency, expecting him to land in Denver.
Allen Rossum, Cornerback, SF - Primarily a kick returner, Rossum was brought to San Francisco by Nolan before last season. In 147 games, Rossum has made 86 tackles in limited cornerback duty, while returning 506 kicks for a 23.3-yard average and 5 touchdowns. Rossum has also returned 295 punts for an average of 10.1 yards and 3 touchdowns. Update - Rossum has reportedly been re-signed by the Niners.
Takeo Spikes, Linebacker, SF - Also signed by Mike Nolan a year ago, Spikes made 96 tackles, 1 sack and knocked down 6 passes, forcing 2 fumbles and intercepting 3 passes. Over 11 seasons, Spikes has amassed 1,055 tackles and 23.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 15 interceptions and 55 passes defensed. Update - San Francisco re-signed Spikes to the tune of a 2-year deal, according to Adam Schefter.
Damane Duckett, Defensive Tackle, SF - Duckett was hampered by a knee injury last year. He has seen very limited action, dressing for 20 games over 4 seasons and accumulating zero statistics.
Keith Lewis, Safety, SF - Lewis is a backup free safety who spent his first 5 seasons with the Niners, dressing for 76 games and racking up 114 tackles, 1 sack, 5 passes defensed and 3 interceptions.
Donald Strickland, Cornerback, SF - Nolan brought Strickland to San Fran in 2006. Over 6 seasons, Strickland has dressed for 49 games, accumulating 118 tackles, 14 passes defensed and 2 interceptions as a nickel- and dime-back.
Tyson Clabo, Offensive Tackle, ATL - Clabo is familiar to Brian Xanders and Rick Dennison - he spent the 2004 season on Denver's roster before heading to Atlanta, where he started 37 games over 3 years. As Atlants's starting right tackle, he is unlikely to return to Denver as a backup, especially since Clabo is a restricted FA.
Michael Jenkins, Wide Receiver, ATL - The Falcons' 2004 1st-round choice out of Ohio State, Jenkins has caught 185 passes for 2,372 yards and 17 touchdowns over 5 seasons.
Lawyer Milloy, Safety, ATL - Milloy has spent 13 seasons in the NFL, first with New England, then Buffalo and Atlanta. In 202 games, Milloy has tallied 1,309 tackles, 17 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 81 passes defensed and 25 interceptions for 1 touchdown. Still an effective player and leader, Milloy was credited with 93 tackles in 2008, with 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 5 passes defensed.
Yes, it is a lengthy list, and certainly the Broncos will not be interested in all of them. But keep in mind that while we may not all be very familiar with some of these players, Josh McDaniels, Brian Xanders and Mike Nolan know them all quite well - Nolan liked several of them enough to truck them cross-country with him to San Francisco from Baltimore. McDaniels has brought with him an entirely new offensive playbook, while Nolan will be shifting the defense over to a 3-4 scheme as quickly as the personnel will allow. These coaches will require players familiar with how they do business, whether it be practicing, game-planning or making the proper decisions on the field come Sunday. The incumbent players on Denver's roster will require some translating, not to mention some confidence that what the coaches are preaching can actually work. Not all of them would fit in Denver's plans, but keep an eye on these players. We may soon be getting to know a few of them, much in the way McDaniels, Xanders and Nolan already do.
After I finished this story, the Broncos signed LS Lonie Paxton from New England, giving him a 5-year deal worth $5.3 million and a $1-million signing bonus. Here's what Scouts Inc. has to say about Paxton...
"Comment: Paxton is an eight-year veteran who has had a solid career as a long snapper. He is listed as a center. But he is undersized for the position. His only value is on special teams. He is very consistent with his accuracy as both a long and short snapper. Paxton has a very small hitch in his delivery, but gets it back quickly. He does a nice job to snap and step to cover his gap responsibility as a blocker. He has decent speed to cover in his lane and can be effective to make a tackle in the open field. He does a nice job changing his timing to keep the defense from getting a jump on his snap. He is a tough, competitive player who is good at his craft. It's likely Paxton will be back with the Patriots unless he tries to get an unreasonable payday."