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In the Trenches - Part I
by Fritz Schlottman
July 4, 2003
 
 

AFC EAST

On to Part II >>

Buffalo Bills
Offense 2003 Additions
RB Orlandis Gary-DEN
RB Willis McGahee-1st Round
FB Sam Gash-NE
WR Bobby Shaw-JAX
WR Sam Aiken-4th Round
TE Mark Campbell-CLE
G Ben Sobieski-5th Round

Offensive Line: The Bills stood pat on the offensive line in order to concentrate of the defensive side of the ball. The offensive line will return all five starters (LT Jonas Jennings, LG Ruben Brown, C Trey Teague, RG Marques Sullivan, RT Mike Williams) and all five back-ups from the 2002 roster. The team’s massive 2002 number one pick, RT Mike Williams now has a year under his belt and should only get better and the unit has another camp to work together. Hopefully, the change at TE and year under William’s belt will cut down on the number of sacks given up, but I have my doubts. QB Drew Bledsoe isn’t the most mobile and the Bills are among the league’s leaders in passing attempts.

TE: The only change was bringing in TE Mark Campbell. Campbell replaces Jay Riemersma on the roster and will compete with Dave Moore for the starting spot. This signals a change in the Bills offense. Campbell is much more of a blocker than Riemersma ever was and will not produce great numbers for fantasy owners. On the other hand, having another solid lineman in front of RBs Travis Henry and Orlandis Gary can’t be a bad thing for the Bills rushing production.

RB: Given that fantasy runningbacks will be in short supply this year, watch the Bills’ situation carefully. Team management sent a message to their starting runningback by bringing in Gary and McGahee, and that message is just forget about getting paid. Reports are that Henry is understandably unhappy with the situation and if it affects his on field performance you could see a runningback-by-committee situation develop. My guess is McGahee won’t play this year but Gary may get more snaps then many fantasy owners would like.

WR: With the departure of WR Peerless Price to Atlanta, the Bills went out and signed WR Bobby Shaw and drafted Sam Aiken (4th round). These two will compete with eight other WRs on the roster for the opportunity to line-up opposite Eric Moulds. The team would like to have Josh Reed step-up and take the 2nd spot on the roster and use Shaw on special teams. Charles Johnson also looks to be in the mix as Moulds’ back up.
Defense 2003 Additions
LDT Sam Adams-OAK
SLB Jeff Posey-HOU
WLB Takeo Spikes-CIN
FS Izell Reece-DEN
RCB Dainon Sidney-TEN
LDT Lauvale Sape-6th Round
RDE Chris Kelsay-3rd Round
MLB Mario Haggan-7th Round
SLB Angelo Crowell-3rd Round
LCB Terrence McGee-4th Round

Defense: Talk about going out and addressing your team’s weakness; Bills’ management went the full measure this off-season. Not only did the team bring in three huge studs to start in the front seven, but also followed up by using four draft picks to fill the same needs. This could easily be a Top 5 fantasy defense in 2003.

LDT Sam Adams moves over from the Raiders to play Jabba the Hut in the center of the Bills defensive line. Adams was a block-absorbing stud in Baltimore where he got his championship ring. Last year he moved west and immediately solidified a Raider defense that struggled against the run in 2001, and now he looks to do the same for the 29th ranked rushing defense.

No group could be happier about seeing a huge body up front than linebackers Spikes, Posey, and London Fletcher. Talk about starting three studs at linebacker! Spikes is a big tackling machine that compliments the diminutive (but very productive) Fletcher and the tweener Posey, who (while playing for an expansion team) lead the NFL in sacks at one point in 2002.

Miami Dolphins
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Derrius Thompson-WAS
WR Charlie Rodgers-BUF
WR JR Tolver-5th Round
TE Marco Battaglia-PIT
TE Donald Lee-5th Round
RG Taylor Whitley-3rd Round
RT Tim Provost-6th Round

Offensive Line: Like their rivals from up state New York, the Dolphins do not expect changes to their starting offensive line. The starters: LT Mark Dixon, LG Jamie Nails, C Tim Ruddy, RG Todd Perry, and RT Todd Wade (with the exception of Nails) remained healthy through 2002 and should get better with another camp under their belts.

This is a very solid, young unit that should be a force for years to come. The team kept most of the reserves on the roster (lost Spriggs) and drafted two rookies to compete for back-up spots. Rest easy Ricky Williams’ owners, status quo here.

TE: The Dolphins made out like bandits with the emergence of 4th Round pick Randy McMichael. He’s a much better receiver than blocker and should be the Dolphins number two receiving option this year. Given the team’s need for production from the tight end position, Miami signed another receiving tight end Marco Battaglia as insurance. Battaglia came out of Rutgers as a receiving specialist, but was buried in a Bengals/Steelers offense that didn’t feature the position.

RB: As long as RB Ricky Williams keeps his weight down and takes his happy pills, he’s a top three (number one with me) fantasy draft selection.

QB: I would not be surprised if DEN QB Brian Griese is playing in south Florida this season. Not having a solid back up when QB Jay Fiedler went down in the middle of 2002 cost the Dolphins a playoff spot. As the roster stands right now, Sage Rosenfels is a heart beat away from being Miami’s starting quarterback, and I haven’t heard anyone say that he’s ready to lead the team deep into the playoffs. My guess is the Dolphins have learned a hard lesson and will sign Griese after he’s released in June.

WR: The Dolphins have put the Chris Carter comeback fiasco behind them, cut both their 2nd and 3rd receivers and signed Derrius Thompson-WAS to be their second receiving option. If he can’t cut it, James McKnight or Sam Simmons will have to step up.

Not having a proven #2 WR (much less a 3rd, 4th and 5th) certainly raises some questions about the Dolphins passing game. Having a stud at TE somewhat diminishes the need, but the team may be looking for answers deep into camp. Regardless, this team will be the early favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Defense 2003 Additions
LDT Jeff Zgonina-STL
RDT Devern Williams-7th Round
SLB Eddie Moore-2nd Round
WLB Junior Seau-SD
WLB Corey Jenkins-6th Round
SS Sammy Knight-NO
FS Yeremiah Bell-6th Round
CB Terrell Buckley-NE

Defense: You just have to love an all-out NFL arms race. The Bills stepped up brought in a bunch of fantasy studs and the Dolphins one-upped them by getting Junior Seau and Sammy Knight. Mark both of the games between these two squads on your calendar because they’re going to be brutal.

It’s hard to believe that any team is going to game plan to throw the ball consistently against the Dolphins. Just look at the names starting in their secondary: Patrick Surtain, Sam Madison, Sammy Knight, and Brock Marian. As if that’s not bad enough, they can bring in Terrell Buckley (who still has a few good games left in him) to play the slot and Arturo Freeman to play 3rd safety. Knight replaces Freeman as a starter and is an upgrade at that position. Knight has five interceptions each of the past three years while Freeman had one in 2002.

If you can’t throw, then you have to run it, right? Who’s playing linebacker again? Junior Seau and Zach Thomas. Who even cares who the third starter is? The defensive line doesn’t have the names the other units do, but DEs Jason Taylor and Adewale Oguneye can get to the passer and a defensive tackle rotation of Chester, Zgonina, and Bowens should prevent the opposition from pounding the ball into the center of the Miami defense.

I’m not one to take a defense too early, but this squad may be the exception to the rule. The unit may be getting a little long in the tooth, but it has a huge upside. Probably the number one defense drafted in every fantasy league, they shouldn’t disappoint. The Dolphins defense is going to produce plenty of sacks and turnovers this year.

New England
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Bethel Johnson-2nd Round
C Dan Koppen-5th Round
TE Spencer Nead-7th Round
QB Cliff Kingsbury-6th Round
FB Fred McCrary-FA

Offensive Line: The Patriots made no significant changes on the offensive line during the off-season. The starters: LT Todd Light, LG Mike Compton, C Damien Woody, RG Joe Andruzzi, and RT Kenyatta Jones played most of 2002 together and only Andruzzi played with a significant number of games injured. That’s good news and bad news for Patriot fans. It’s good news if they regain their Super Bowl form and bad news if they play soft like they did in 2002. This is not an overpowering bunch, and with both the Bills and the Dolphins stocking up on defense during the off-season, they can no longer afford to take series off like they did last season. The running game will have to come back to Super Bowl form if the Patriots are going to compete in the tough AFC East this year.

TE: The team wants Daniel Graham to step up and win the starting tight end job. Graham was a rookie disappointment in ’02 and never seemed to challenge starter Christian Fauria. Fauria isn’t skilled enough to make Patriot fans forget Ben Coats, so Graham will have every opportunity to win the starting job in camp.

RB: Unhappy with the running game last year, the Patriots are looking to fill a void at fullback. Fred McCray and converted runningback Patrick Pass will be competing for the roster spot. I have no sense that either is the kind of dominating lead blocker this team needs to kick start the running game. Expect another so-so season from Antowain Smith this year.

WR: David Patton, Troy Brown, and Deion Branch return at the wide out positions. Branch has flashes of brilliance in 2002 and more will be expected of the 2002 2nd round pick this season. Brown was injured for a good portion of last season and is probably more physically suited to playing in the slot, but then again, so is Patton. Because neither are a physical presence, Branch may get his shot at being the number one sometime during camp.
Defense 2003 Additions
NT-Ty Warren-1st Round
NT-Dan Klecko-4th Round
NT-Ethan Kelly-7th Round
LOLB-Rosevelt Colvin-CHI
LOLB-Tully Banta-Cain-7th Round
ROLB-Don Davis-STL
SS-Aric Morris-FA
FS-Rodney Harrison-SD
FS-Chris Atkins-CLE
CB-Asante Samuel-4th Round
CB-Tyrone Poole-DEN
CB-Eugene Wilson-2nd Round

Defense: Keeping with the AFC East theme of loading up on defense, the Patriots made a number of off-season moves to patch some holes-most notably a poor run defense. Enter Rodney Harrison who moves from the west coast to join the Patriots and prized free agent Roselvet Colvin who joins the team from Chicago.

The Pat’s are going back to a 3-4 defensive front joining the Steelers, Falcons, Ravens (kind of) and the Texans as the only teams to use this package. They brought in three draft picks to compete for the nose tackle job. While interesting in the way that watching NASCAR for the wrecks is entertaining, don’t expect the competition’s winner to suddenly become a fantasy stud-a nose tackle is out there to stand his ground and absorb blocks not rush the passer. The 3-4 should benefit OLB Colvin and RDEs Anthony Pleasant and Willie McGinest who will be expected to pressure the quarterback more this year.

FS Rodney Harrison may not have the cover skills he once had, but he wasn’t brought in to chase flankers around the field anyway. Harrison has made career by stopping opposing runningbacks in their tracks, and there is a need for that in New England. The Patriots are going to play a lot of zone this year and come up and tackle hard, hoping to force more turnovers. A starting secondary of Ty Law, Harrison, Lawyer Milloy, and Otis Smith may not be they youngest in the league, but they should be able to hit with the best of them.

New York Jets
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Curtis Conway-SD
LT Brent Smith-MIA
LG Dave Yovanovits-7th Round
RG Tom Nutten-STL
QB Brooks Bolinger-6th Round
FB BJ Askew-3rd Round

Offensive Line: In a division where all the other teams went out and made themselves better ball clubs, the Jets were ravaged by free agency. Their best off-season move was the signing of RG Tom Nutten. A Western Michigan graduate, Nutten anchored the right side of the Rams offensive line during the recent glory years. He will be expected to have an instant impact on the Jets running game that struggled at times last year. LG Szott is nearing the end of his effective days and C Mawae hasn’t gotten any younger either. Both (particularly Mawae) are crafty veterans, but the wear and tear of playing in the NFL’s trenches is beginning to take its toll on both players.

RB: In one of draft day’s more interesting moves, the Jets selected Michigan runningback BJ Askew in the third round to compete for the starting fullback job. Askew is one of those unselfish players who elected to put aside his own dreams of being the starting runningback for the Wolverines and played lead back for much of the season. For this selfless act, he was elected team captain. No doubt character played a role in his selection by the Jets in the third round.

He better get used to being unselfish because the Jets have no intention of giving him the ball. He’s there to be a dominating lead blocker for the end of Curtis Martin’s career and he better be good at his new trade if the Jets are going to the payoffs this year.

WR: I hope Redskins owner Dan Snyder had a cigarette then sent flowers and candy to the Jets front office after screwing them hard in free agency. He took New York’s most promising wide receiver (Laveranues Coles), their dynamic kick returner (Chad Morton), and their place kicker (John Hall).

To cover the loss of Coles, the Jets signed former Charger WR Curtis Conway. Conway gives them the size at WR they’ve lacked in the past. However, he lacks Cole’s speed and ability to force cover men off the line of scrimmage: very hard to see this as an upgrade. The remaining two wideouts, Wayne Chrebet and Santana Moss, lack the size to be number ones and should play in the slot. The back-ups don’t look to challenge the starters any time soon.

I’m not sure the Jets know what they plan to do with the kick returner job. Moss would be the logical choice, but do you take a chance with his knees? If Moss gets the job, the team doesn’t lose that much. If not, you have to downgrade the New York defense.
Defense 2003 Additions
LDE Matt Walters-5th Round
LDT Dwayne Robertson-1st Round
MLB Victor Hobson-2nd Round
SS Derek Pagel-5th Round
RCB Tyrone Carter-FA

Defense: The Jets moved up in the first round to select Dwayne Robertson and immediately project him into the rotation at RDT. He’ll share time with Josh Evans and Jason Ferguson. Robertson fills a big team need- the Jets were horrible against the rush early last year and never pressured the quarterback the entire season. Even so, very few defensive tackles end up being fantasy stud material. The linebackers (Sam Cowart, Mo Lewis, and Marvin Jones) may benefit the most from his selection, fantasy wise.

The other rookies have limited fantasy potential. MLB Victor Hobson, another Michigan product, is a football player, not an athlete. He doesn’t have the world’s fastest 40 time, but he’s tough and makes plays. He projects behind Mo Lewis on the depth chart and will not have a fantasy impact unless forced into the starting line up. Pagel will play behind Sam Garnes and Walters looks like a project.

If this team wasn’t playing in the NFL’s best division, they might have a better shot at the playoffs. But after free agency, this team will have to get some breaks not to finish last in the division this year.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Frank Sanders-ARI
WR Marcus Robinson-CHI
C Mike Mabry-7th Round
RT Orlando Brown-CLE
RT Tony Pashos-5th Round
TE Trent Smith-7th Round
QB Kyle Boller-1st Round
FB Harold Marrow-FA
FB Ovie Mughelli-4th Round
RB Musa Smith-3rd Round

Offensive Line: I know that Brian Billick is supposed to be a freaking offensive genius, but I just can’t figure out some of his moves this past off season. The Ravens finished 2002 with a number of questions on offense; some of those questions have been answered and some still remain.

Orlando Brown, a free agent pick-up from the Cleveland Browns, has been penciled in as the starting RT. Even if he’s the best thing since sliced bread, Baltimore’s interior line still starts RG Edwin Mulitalo, C Mike Flynn, and RG Bennie Anderson. If you’ve never heard of these guys, join the crowd. All three are grunts- short, stocky guys that get more out of the desire to play than their natural talent. Flynn is the best of the bunch and he’s a journeyman who’s been banged up for most of his career. Ogden is the prototypical left tackle, tall and rangy but not much of a drive blocker. I just can’t see the Ravens being able to pound the ball behind this bunch consistently over a 16 game season.

TE: Todd Heap, and all the other tight ends are there to fill out the special teams’ roster.

WR: Help me with this one; exactly what team is going to stay up night diagramming coverages to shut down WRs Travis Taylor, Frank Sanders, and Marcus Robinson? Taylor is a marginal #1 who’s never had a thousand yard season; Sanders is an aging veteran who was no more than a possession receiver who couldn’t find the end zone in his best years with the Cardinals and who spent the last few seasons on the bench with injuries; and Robinson may as well have been the Bears mascot with all the time he’s spent on the sidelines or in the trainer’s room. The Ravens must be hoping that one of their 2002 rookies (Ron Johnson or Javin Hunter) are going to step-up and take Sanders starting spot. If not, the passing game may struggle again this year.

RB: RB Musa Smith may be one of the more interesting rookie runningbacks this year. With Jamal Lewis always a play away from another catastrophic knee injury, the Ravens went out and got some insurance at runningback. Smith is currently fourth on the depth chart, but if the Ravens thought that either Chester Taylor or Dameon Hunter was an adequate back up, they wouldn’t have used a third round pick on Smith.

QB: Speaking of insurance, getting strong-armed QB Kyle Boller in the first round says volumes about what the team thinks of starting QB Chris Redman’s back and or his ability to play with pain. If his back is a serious issue, Baltimore needs to get another prospect into the system ASAP. If it’s a matter of playing with pain, the message is clear: starting is a matter of availability, not ability. Redmond has all the tools to be a starting quarterback, but he has to stay on the football field.
Defense 2003 Additions
NT Aubrayo Franklin-5th Round
RDE Jarret Johnson-4th Round
LOLB Terrell Suggs-1st Round
LCB Corey Fuller-FA
SS Jerome Sapp-6th Round
FS Antwoine Sanders-7th Round

Defense: And the Ravens defense just seems to get better, even after being dismantled by the salary cap last year. Getting Suggs in the first round was a steal. The first defensive end in the draft, Suggs is already penciled in as the starting weak side linebacker. This is a misclassification as Suggs will be on the line of scrimmage with his hand down much of the time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Suggs, LB Peter Boulware and DE Adalius Thomas weren’t interchangeable in the Ravens (ahem) 3-4 defensive scheme. Watch this battle carefully during camp to see where everyone lines up because Suggs could have some fantasy value if used in a pass rushing scheme.

Does this team have enough on defense to make up for its shortcomings on offense? Probably not, but time will tell. With the AFC East’s strength, Baltimore will probably have to win their division just to make the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals
Offense 2003 Additions
WR Kelly Washington-3rd Round
LG Eric Steinbach-2nd Round
RT Scott Kooistra-7th Round
TE Reggie Kelly-ATL
QB Carson Palmer-1st Round
FB Mark Green-TEN
FB Jeremi Johnson-4th Round

Offensive Line: If the Bengals didn’t have holes to fill, they wouldn’t have drafted first this year. However, if you think the Bengals’ cupboard is as empty as a eunuch’s underpants, you might want to take another look because there is some talent on this team.

G Eric Steinbach gets penciled in as the starting left guard right out of the box. He’ll play next to 2002’s number one pick, LT Levi Jones. The rest of the starting cast remains unchanged with Mike Goff moved from guard to center, Matt O’Dwyer switching sides to RG, and Willie (flipper) Anderson holding down the right tackle spot. The offensive line really wasn’t that bad last year (the Bengals defense and QB situation were terrible) but Steinbach is one of those gritty characters that may add a little something to a veteran offensive line.

WR: With as many high draft picks as the Bengals have thrown at the position over the past few years you can’t say this squad lacks talent at the receiver positions. Chad Johnson emerged as a fantasy stud last year after Cincinnati’s quarterback situation finally solidified, and young guns like Peter Warrick, Ron Duggans, Danny Farmer, TJ Houshmandzadeh, and rookie Kelly Washington have enough raw talent to make this unit one of the league’s best sometime down the road. New Head Coach Marvin Lewis doesn’t strike me as the kind of coach that’s going to put up with their BS, so this unit may have to quit being underachievers and live up to talent this year.

RB: Corey Dillon and the men that carry his strap.

QB: Here’s hoping Marvin Lewis can keep Owner/GM Mike Brown locked in the basement for a bit longer. QB Jon Kitna finally brought some stability to the Bengals’ quarterback position and there’s no reason to make a change until Carson Palmer’s good and ready. My greatest fear is that the Bengals will struggle out of the gate and Brown with over-ride his head coach and put Palmer on the field before he’s ready. This could be a good, young football team if they can learn to win…and they will win some football games with Kitna. Palmer is the quarterback of the future, but not this season. Before he gets handed the keys to offense, this team has to believe it can win football games or it won’t be strong enough to withstand another quarterback change.
Defense 2003 Additions
LDE Carl Powell-WAS
LDE Elton Patterson-7th Round
LDT John Thornton-TEN
LDT Langston Moore-6th Round
LDE Duane Clemons-FA
MLB Kevin Hardy-DAL
ROLB Khalid Abdullah-5th Round
LCB Dennis Weathersby-4th Round
RCB Tory James-FA

Defense: Stopping the run was the Bengals highest priority on defense; that and not giving up a quick score on a change of possession. Cincinnati lost starters LB Takeo Spikes and Vaughn Booker of last year’s front seven and that squad wasn’t very good. They couldn’t stop the run and they couldn’t pressure the quarterback last season.

To address the defense’s inadequacies, Head Coach Marvin Lewis made a number of major personnel moves. He brought Powell with him from Washington and immediately penciled him in as the starting LDE-he must have liked what he saw in D.C. John Thornton was signed from the Titans to work next to him. Cincinnati used two late round draft picks on the left side of the defensive line to provide some depth at the positions. None of these guys are stud pass rushers, but they have the ability to stand their ground on the line of scrimmage and keep opposing guards off newly acquired LB Kevin Hardy, who has the speed to run down the line and make tackles. DE Justin Smith must be the dominating pass rusher the team thought they were getting when they drafted him in the first round in 2001. If not, then the Bengals secondary will be under a lot of pressure all season.

Cleveland Browns
Offense 2003 Additions
C Jeff Faine-1st Round
C Ryan Pointbraind-5th Round
RB Lee Suggs-4th Round

Offensive Line: Cap problems limited the Browns free agency activity this off-season. The team was forced to use two draft picks to fill the hole created by the departure of starting C Dave Wohlabaugh. Faine and Pointbraind will challenge back-up C Melvin Fowler for the starting job. The winner joins LT Ross Verba, LG Barry Stokes, RG Shaun O’Hara, and RT Ryan Tucker on a very average unit that struggled to open holes for the running game in 2002.

WR: No changes, same cast as a year ago.

RB: Not to rag on the Browns, but don’t they have enough questionable runningbacks? Last year they spent a number one pick on William Green and got Jamel White in a trade with Indianapolis before that. James Jackson was a third round draft pick in 2003 and now Lee Suggs (and his trick knee) joins the team as a 4th round pick this year. Green came on last year late but still is no lock.

QB: Couch or Holcomb in 2003? That is the big question to be answered sometime in August. Benching Couch means the team admits to screwing up with the number one pick in the ’99 draft. Ok, they didn’t screw up as badly as the Bears and the Bengals did, but Couch hasn’t panned out as a Pro Bowl regular either (see Donovan McNabb). In my estimation, Holcomb outplayed Couch last year and the rest of the team responded to him better than they responded to Couch. That said, he’s going to have to be the clear winner this summer for management to swallow their pride and name him as the starter.
Defense 2003 Additions
RDT Antonio Garay-6th Round
MLB Barry Gardner-PHI
WLB Chaun Thompson-2nd Round
LCB Chris Crocker-3rd Round
CB Michael Lehan-5th Round

Defense: The Browns were more or less spraying draft picks at their defensive problems. RDE Courtney Brown looks like another first round bust. He shared time with back-up Mark Word for much of last season. DT Gerald Warren was the first round choice in 2001 but hasn’t been a dominating player. The Brown best defensive linemen have been Orpheus Roye and Kenard Lang and neither were originally drafted by the franchise. Being 27th against the rush and 28th rushing the quarterback tells you all you need to know about the Browns defensive line.

The linebacking corps will have a new look this year. Starting MLB Earl Holmes has moved on to Detroit and Dwayne Rudd will call Tampa home this year. Barry Gardner gets a chance to be a regular starter in Cleveland and is both younger and more mobile than the departed Holmes. Kevin Bentley and Ben Taylor are the other two starting linebackers and are unknown quantities at this time.

The Browns secondary is uninspiring. SS Robert Griffith was suspect against the pass in Minnesota and didn’t flash that much last year. FS Earl Little was with the Saints before landing with the Browns, and that speaks volumes about his ability. CBs Anthony Henry and Daylon McCutchen are solid, but not spectacular. Nevertheless, these guys play beyond their abilities and were responsible for making a number of plays that stopped opposing drives and kept the Browns in football games they had no right to be in.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Offense 2003 Additions
G/C Calvin Collins
WR Chris Doering
OT Todd Fordham
TE Jay Riemersma
QB Brian St. Pierre - 5th Round
FB J.T. Wall - 7th Round

Offensive Line: The Steelers took a major hit in free agency when starting LT Wayne Gandy went off to New Orleans. In turn, Pittsburg went out and signed Todd Fordham from the Jaguars. This is not an upgrade. Gandy could be a force on the right side of the offensive line while Fordham played more like a journeyman in Jacksonville. Fordham will play along side former number one pick RG Kendall Simmons who is a physical presence, but remains a work in progress. The Steelers are settled with RT Marvel Smith, LG Alan Faneca, and C Jeff Hartings as fixtures.

TE: Something odd here. Having the tight end catch the ball has never been part of the Steelers offense and yet they go and get a veteran receiving tight end (Riesmersma) that can’t help them on special teams. This may signal a change in the Steelers offensive philosophy.

WR: With QB Kordell Stewart gone to Chicago, the pecking order among Steelers receivers changes once again. Hines Ward was Stewart’s first read and Plaxico Burress was QB Tommy Maddox’s go to guy. Both guys ended 2002 with nearly identical yardage numbers. Now that Stewart’s out of the picture, Burress should be the clear number one and worth a high fantasy selection.

RB: How long can Jerome Bettis hang on to the starting job? As the bus gets older and those nagging injuries mount you have to wonder if this is the year that someone takes the starting runningback job from him. The most likely successors are Amos Zeroue, the combination receiver/runningback (see Priest Holmes) offensive coordinators crave and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, the big bulldozer type the team’s favored in the past.

The Steelers offense may have been stodgy, but that may change this year. Pittsburgh has borrowed against the cap and it’s getting to be now or never time again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out and sprayed the ball around this year. They have enough good wide receivers to play three and four receiver sets and they brought in a tight end (Riemersma) that can’t block a lick, but is as sure handed as they come. That may signal that Head Coach Bill Cowher’s going to throw caution to the wind and spray the ball all over the field. If that scenario plays out, Zeroue could be a huge fantasy sleeper. If the team sticks to cold weather, pound the ball tactics, then Bettis and or Fu are better bets.
Defense 2003 Additions
ILB Clint Kriewaldt-DET
OLB Alonzo Jackson-2nd Round
SS Troy Polamalu-1st Round
CB Ike Taylor-4th Round

Defense: The Steelers got eaten up by spread offense formations in 2002 (see the Raiders game) and they went out and got the best SS in the draft to fix the problem. Time will tell if they found a solution.

Pittsburgh is an oddity. In a time when linebackers aren’t getting paid because you have to take them off the field in passing downs, the Steelers best and highest paid defensive players (Bell, Farrior, Gildon, and Porter) all play linebacker. Further, their safeties are much more suited to playing run support and rushing the passer than they are adept at covering wide receivers. When teams spread them out and make those linebackers either play man up on a slot receiver or tight end, play zone, or get off the field the opposing offense can dictate the Steelers calls and personnel on defense.

Drafting Polamalu is an attempt to fix this problem. The former Trojan is undersized for a safety, but being small he has the speed to cover wide receivers and yet he has enough pop to bring down runningbacks, making him more or less the perfect 3rd safety in passing situations.

So, who benefits fantasy-wise? It all depends, I guess. In one scenario, Mark Logan gains the most. Quarterbacks picked on Logan, who’s a run-stopper, last year. Specifically, he was a liability in coverage when he played outside the box. If the plan is to bring Polamalu in on passing downs and take (my guess is) Farrior out, then Logan is free to do his thing while Polamalu plays coverage. You don’t lose that much by having Logan play a robber safety position/linebacker and you gain a lot more by having another cover guy on the field. If Polamalu subs in for Logan on passing downs, then the Steelers will play more man or zone blitz this year, and that should benefit the linebackers. Watch the preseason carefully to see which way the team goes on this.

  On to Part II >>