OLD FACES, NEW PLACES
One year after the New England Patriots plumbed the free-agent pool for several key second-tier gems, the rest of the NFL dived back in. A total of 131 veteran free agents switched teams during the four-month signing period, the most since 1995.
That includes a league-high 16 signings by the expansion Houston Texans, but not the two big trades that sent running back Ricky Williams to the Miami Dolphins and quarterback Drew Bledsoe to the Buffalo Bills.
It was an off-season of portentous movement, including seven teams that hired new head coaches. Among those that made bold moves were the Dolphins, Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts.
Here is a look at the projected top 10 moves going into the 2002 season.
Running back, Dolphins
The Dolphins see Williams as the missing piece of their postseason puzzle. Indeed, he changes the way they play the game. Now, quarterback Jay Fiedler's play-action fake must be honored. Now, the Miami defense should get a blow on the sideline and not have to squeeze out every win. Williams is a powerful runner, without breakaway speed, who is also prone to fumble. He's a good receiver out of the backfield. For Williams, traded by New Orleans, this is the year when he sets himself apart -- or becomes just another guy.
This is how little the New England Patriots thought their franchise quarterback had left -- they traded him to a team in their division, where they must face him twice a year. The dates to remember are Nov. 3 in Buffalo and Dec. 8 in Foxboro, Mass. Bledsoe's career could be reborn with the Bills, or it could die with them. He had fallen from the ranks of the elite quarterbacks before his injury and ultimate benching last year. Now he has a chance to reclaim his place and beat the Patriots in the process.
At the end of an awkward search for a coach, the Bucs gave up a king's ransom (two first-round draft picks, a pair of seconds and $8 million) to pry Gruden from Oakland. But he might be the perfect guy for the job. He has a history of resuscitating offenses and a personality people love to follow. He already has revamped the offensive skill positions to go with a stout defense he inherited. Gruden should succeed right away because the NFC South is a soft division he can rule.
Rarely has anyone created as much of a stir coming into the NFL as Spurrier. His reputation for offensive wizardry -- as well as alienating opponents -- appears to be well-earned. His college system at Florida may not have churned out Pro Bowl players, but it did produce wins. That system will win in the NFL eventually. His hands-off approach on defense and in personnel bears watching, but his fingerprints will be all over the offense.
Defensive end, Packers
Green Bay is normally conservative in free agency, but it went hard after Johnson and signed him to a six-year, $33 million deal. He should stabilize a defensive front that was vulnerable against the run (finishing 16th). The seven-year veteran from New Orleans is a major force against the run, and he's a very competent pass rusher with 21 sacks the past two years. He's not Reggie White, but he might have a similar impact on the defense.
Dungy's job in Indianapolis is easily defined. He must fix the 29th-ranked defense to make the Colts a playoff contender again. He inherited a defense that couldn't stop the run or pass and had few playmakers a year ago. Dungy addressed those deficiencies by upgrading the overall speed of the unit and installing his two-deep zone. It will be interesting to see how he treats the offense. In Tampa, he was predictable and dull. That won't fly with this offense.
Middle linebacker, Browns
Cleveland hasn't had an impact player in the middle of its defense since returning to the NFL in 1999, finishing no better than 29th in run defense the past three years. That should change with Holmes, signed as a free agent after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers in tackles. If the Browns are poised to make a playoff run, they'll need to stop the run in a division dominated by big backs.
Wide receiver, Bucs
A valuable possession receiver in Jacksonville, where he teamed with Jimmy Smith, McCardell was sacrificed in the Jaguars' salary cap purge. He should play a crucial role in Tampa, where he will complement Keyshawn Johnson. He should catch a lot of passes and give the Bucs' new offense another dimension.
Defensive tackle, Cowboys
Dallas had the third-best pass defense in the league last year despite a measly 24 sacks. Glover, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, gives the Cowboys an instant pass rush up the middle. He logged 25 sacks the past two years, including 17 in 2000, for the Saints.
Defensive coordinator, Redskins
The architect of the Ravens' Super Bowl defense has moved south to team up with Spurrier. Under Lewis, the Ravens ranked second in total defense the past three seasons. With the playmakers he inherits and the scheme he takes to Washington, he should achieve similar results.
Other moves to watch
Sam Adams, defensive tackle, Raiders: If he's in shape, he's a force.
Ken Dilger, tight end, Bucs: Should be big in Gruden's system.
Johnnie Morton, wide receiver, Chiefs: Deep threat they've been missing.
Todd Peterson, kicker, Steelers: Can he master Heinz Field's wind tunnel?
Jeremiah Trotter, linebacker, Redskins: Ready to haunt the Eagles.
Staff writer Ken Murray ranks the divisions, with the number of wins for each in 2001.
1. AFC East 35 Wins Three playoff teams, and Bills are much improved.
3. NFC East 31 Wins Redskins, Cowboys closing fast on Eagles.
4. AFC North 36 Wins Browns make a push while Ravens fall back.
5. NFC North 32 Wins Bears play "home" schedule in Champaign, Ill.
7. NFC South 24 Wins Bucs should win division handily.
Old rivalries preserved
Dallas vs. Washington: Steve Spurrier will heighten this rivalry.
Green Bay vs. Chicago: Champaign, Ill., won't be quite the same.
Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland: Start up the caravan.
Pittsburgh vs. Ravens: Steelers once dominated, and may again.
Oakland vs. Denver: Mike Shanahan loves to beat Al Davis.
St. Louis vs. San Francisco: Goes back to Rams' L.A. days.
Miami vs. New York Jets: Jets have owned the Dolphins.
New rivalries created
Houston vs. Tennessee: Titans' Bud Adams abandoned Houston.
Arizona vs. St. Louis: Cardinals' Bill Bidwill fled St. Louis.
Seattle vs. San Francisco: Mike Holmgren grew up a 49er.
Tennessee vs. Indianapolis: Peyton Manning returns to Tennessee.
Seattle vs. St. Louis: Both coaches are offensive innovators.
St. Louis vs. San Francisco: Kurt Warner vs. Jeff Garcia.
Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland: Browns are in a contending position.
Miami vs. New England: Dolphins primed to overthrow Pats.
Tennessee vs. Indianapolis: Classic defense vs. offense matchup.
Philadelphia vs. Washington: Balance of power in NFC East.
Oakland vs. Denver: The Shanahan factor.
NFL BY THE NUMBERS
1 Touchdown catches by Bucs' Keyshawn Johnson.
4 New stadiums opening this season, in Detroit, Houston, New England and Seattle.
5 Top-10 defenses Tony Dungy had in six years coaching Tampa Bay.
8 Interceptions by Vikings' defense, a league low.
15 Touchdown catches by Colts' Marvin Harrison.
16 Career game-winning field goals by the Chiefs' Morten Andersen, tops among active kickers.
17 Regular-season overtime games last year.
19 Sacks recorded by Cardinals' defense.
22 Interceptions thrown by Rams' Kurt Warner.
22.5 Sacks by Giants' Michael Strahan.
24 Interceptions thrown by Chiefs' Trent Green, most in league.
44 Turnovers committed by Rams' offense and special teams.
47 Rams' touchdowns scored on artificial turf surfaces.
61 Career interceptions by Raiders' Rod Woodson.
74 Career 100-yard rushing games by Cowboys' Emmitt Smith.
96 Offensive plays of 20-plus yards from scrimmage by the Rams to lead league.
110 Career touchdowns scored by Rams' Marshall Faulk.
113 Catches by Broncos' Rod Smith to lead league.
186 Career sacks by Redskins' Bruce Smith, 12 behind all-time leader Reggie White.
196 Career touchdowns scored by Raiders' Jerry Rice.
287 Career touchdown passes by Packers' Brett Favre.
386 Consecutive games without being shut out, by 49ers, starting in 1977.
540 Rushing yards Emmitt Smith needs to break Walter Payton's all-time record.
1,555 Rushing yards gained by Chiefs' Priest Holmes to win league title.