I think we have a good front office, especially considering some of the ones that are out there in other cities (Oakland, Detroit, St. Louis). But the fact remains that they've made some fairly significant errors that has lead to this team being in the state it currently is--an average team with a few talented players, but not enough to be considered an elite group.
Hindsight is 20/20. I'm not disputing that. But A.J. has, over the past few years, appeared to over-value the players already on the team, and not taken any affirmative steps to improve the team beyond the draft. What I'd like to do is take a look back at the 2009 off-season and see what A.J. Smith and the front office could have reasonably, and realistically, done to improve this team. I know it's easier to see things now than several months ago, but I still think it could be a useful and interesting exercise to see what could have been.
By "realistic" and "reasonable", I mean no signings of Albert Haynesworth for $100+ million, no firing Turner or the coaching staff as a whole, no firing A.J. Smith, no replacing half the team and switching to a 4-3. I mean moderate steps that could have translated to significantly improved product on the field.
Feel free to agree or disagree with me. Let's take a look.
The draft is the primary tool A.J. likes to use to build and improve a team, and I largely agree with this approach. I don't really have an issue with many of the choices he made, but I think he made a mistake with his 1st, and by extension 3rd, round picks.
I like Larry English. I think he looks like a good kid and has the potential to be a stand-out outside linebacker. I also realize that we had a problem with rushing the passer last year. But despite what we were told in the off-season about a 3-headed monster of pass-rushers, the reality has been that with Shawne Merriman's return, English hasn't seen the field much, and when he has been out there it's mostly been special teams.
A first round pick that could have made an immediate and SIGNIFICANT impact would have been Michael Oher. Many of us hoped/expected us to take him when our turn came and he was still unselected, and I count myself as stunned as anyone else was when Goodell called out English's name instead of Oher's. The simple truth is that Jeromey Clary has been average. He has his good days, and bad days, but he's never going to light the world on fire. Oher could have stepped in and started immediately and played at a high level, just as he's done in Baltimore. That could have allowed us to shift Clary to guard, where many think he would be better suited.
With Oher at right tackle and Clary at right guard, our 3rd round pick could have been used on any other position of need--safety, defensive line, running back. I'm not well-versed enough in the draft to know who would have been available in the 3rd round for us had we not chosen Vasquez. And that's not to say I don't like Vasquez--I do and think he'll be a great guard. But it probably would have been better for the team overall to have an experienced player starting at right guard and to have used the 3rd round pick on a player that could have filled another position of need.
This is where I, and many others, have the biggest problem with A.J. Smith. It's an interesting problem, too, because in the past he wasn't as averse to free agency as he is now. He brought in multiple free agents in the 2004 off-season, and it was a major reason why the Chargers went from last-to-first in one season's time. I have no idea what happened between then and now that's made him avoid it to the extent he has, but since 2004 he hasn't signed one impact free agent I'm aware of (unless you count Kevin Burnett). If someone knows why, please enlighten me.
When you avoid free agents so completely like A.J. does, you're trying to build/improve a team with one hand tied behind your back, and that's not a productive approach. Like I said before, I'm not advocating the idea that A.J. should have paid through the nose to acquire someone like Albert Haynesworth. But there were multiple mid-tier free agents he could have at least PURSUED to attempt to improve the team.
For the safety position, A.J. did make an offer to Jermaine Phillips. Phillips isn't a bad player, but he's got an extensive injury history, evidenced by him missing the last several games of 2008 with a broken arm, and his being placed on IR already this season with the same injury. Plus at the time, many observers believed Phillips was making the rounds in free agency solely to induce the Buccaneers to increase their offer to him. This is in fact what happened, as Phillips re-signed in Tampa.
What A.J. could have, perhaps should have, done was pursue free agent safeties Brian Dawkins, Darren Sharper, and Sean Jones. Dawkins and Sharper have already proven to be impact players on their new teams. Jones hasn't gotten a lot of playing time and probably isn't as talented as Dawkins or Sharper, but he would definitely have been an improvement over the Hart/Gregory/Ellison platoon. Regardless, any of these three players, especially the first two, could have provided immediate impact in the secondary and significantly improved our defense.
On the defensive line, I've already suggested in a couple other posts that we should have pursued Chris Canty. The point has been made that he was injured, and that is true, but he was injured in practice the Wednesday before the first game of the season. That's the kind of injury that's a freak thing, and could just as easily not have happened had he been in San Diego rather than New York. He would have immediately upgraded our defensive line, especially with Bingham going down and Cesaire spending the entire off-season injured. At the very least, he would have been the second most talented player on the line after Castillo, and could have been a valuable contributor to the rotation on the defensive line.
This section is perhaps not so realistic. It's probably more wishful thinking. I've made it known elsewhere that I'm not impressed with Ron Rivera. He's not a 3-4 coordinator, and it shows. It would have been really, really nice to have hired an ACTUAL 3-4 coordinator this off-season, one who knows how to use its strengths and disguise its weaknesses. It doesn't seem very realistic to have replaced Rivera this off-season, though, given that he seemed like he had things in hand towards the end of the season. Plus the top 3-4 coordinators, Nolan and Capers, were each hired on January 13th and 19th respectively, which were mere days after our season ended.
In the end, this team wasn't as good as we hoped it would be. Merriman has taken weeks to work his way back, LT is clearly not the back he once was, and our offensive line has struggled in both run blocking and pass protection. The steps I've suggested above wouldn't have been a quick fix by any means. But they would have helped. We would have had a better outlook for the remainder of the season, and people like me wouldn't be being accused of needing Prozac (that's for you, 'Tec).
Like I said, I like A.J. But he really needs to recognize this team's shortcomings, and instead of standing mostly pat and depending on rookies, he needs to go out there and take affirmative steps to improve this team in the 2010 off-season.