Posted: 19 hours ago
The team wants SLB Matt Stewart to return, but it's unlikely it would offer more than $1.5 million in guaranteed money. Stewart probably can earn a signing bonus between $3 million and $4 million elsewhere. Though losing Stewart would affect leadership in the short run, longtime veteran LBs such as Chris Draft and four-time Pro Bowler Keith Brooking would soon fill the void. . . .
Demorrio Williams' rapid ascension eases the potential loss of Stewart. The coaching staff entered camp last year thinking Williams would play almost exclusively on special teams, but the rookie earned his role in nickel schemes and he likely will begin camp this year as the strongside starter. As the third-fastest defensive player behind LCB DeAngelo Hall and Brooking, Williams might seem too short to play the position at 6-0, but at 232 pounds, he weighs as much as Stewart. Williams is a smart, voracious tackler. He gets off blocks quickly and will give coordinator Ed Donatell an option to bring more blitzes from the tight end side. Williams needs to watch his temper and keep from committing too many unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer penalties.
When the offseason arrives, LE Patrick Kerney likes to "shut down" his body, which means he allows himself a month of sleeping late, eating rich food and essentially giving his body a break. It's the first step to revitalization Kerney uses every year before the team begins its offseason conditioning program in late March. Other than Jerry Rice, Jim Mora has never seen a player whose on-the-field drive and off-the-field commitment to strength and conditioning matches Kerney's. In film sessions last offseason with the entire team, Mora paused the tape several times to cite Kerney's work ethic. "If everyone played as hard as smart as No. 97," Mora would say, "we would never lose."
Kerney trained just as relentlessly in 2002-03, but because the team ditched the 3-4 in favor of the 4-3 last year, he didn't wear down as easily, and his body took less time to recover after games. It's hardly a coincidence that Kerney earned his first Pro Bowl selection in '04. Coordinator Ed Donatell's scheme suits him perfectly, but the free-agent acquisition of DT Rod Coleman was just as significant for Kerney. Each of his 13 career-high sacks occurred in games that Coleman played.
Though an overly aggressive nature still occasionally causes him to overrun the ball, Kerney took considerable strides this season to improve this aspect of his game. Regarding technique and tackling skills, Kerney is as consistent and strong as ever.
Special Project:WR Michael Jenkins caught just seven passes during the regular season, a glaringly low total for the first-round draft choice. Jenkins' production, or lack thereof, was a product of several factors. For one, even though he missed the last two regular-season games, TE Alge Crumpler still had a team-high 48 catches. Wideouts occasionally ran poor routes, and QB Michael Vick didn't look for them as much as he could have, but the biggest factor for Jenkins and others at his position was the team's league-best rushing attack. The good news for Jenkins is he became adept at downfield blocking, a big responsibility in the offense, but beginning in late March, coordinator Greg Knapp and receivers coach George Stewart will work closely with him on route-running and getting separation.
Offseason Game Plan:There's almost no chance the team will compete for a top-dollar free agent because G.M. Rich McKay believes he can address the biggest needs, improved speed on defense and depth at end and safety, in the draft. During McKay's 13th-month tenure, the team committed nearly $76 million in guaranteed bonuses to sign Vick, DeAngelo Hall, Coleman, Crumpler and RCB Jason Webster to long-term contracts. Before McKay arrived, the team gave WR Peerless Price, RB Warrick Dunn, Brooking and Kerney $34 million in guaranteed bonuses. LT Kevin Shaffer is the only impending restricted free agent that the team will tender an offer. Along with Stewart, other players expected to become unrestricted free agents are Feely, LG Roberto Garza and CBs Allen Rossum and Kevin Mathis. Re-signing Garza likely will be a priority because line coach Alex Gibbs wants him to return. Without Rossum, the team would use Hall to return punts and Jenkins on kickoffs. Rossum doesn't factor enough in coverage to concern the team with replacing. Feely likely would be replaced through free agency, but despite his inconsistency on field goals, the team likes his upside -- a strong leg for touchbacks, a willingness to make occasional tackles and consistent execution of onside kicks. Feely is not a lock to leave.