There's something about the number seven. It has traditionally been a "lucky" number. In the Bible, seven is God's perfect number. Mickey Mantle wore No. 7. John Elway wore No. 7. Michael Vick is No. 7. My son, Alex, wears No. 7. That's good enough for me.
This week, I have picked seven teams that I believe had the best offseasons in the NFL. Later, I'll review the seven teams that didn't fare so well.
1. Baltimore Ravens. Most Super Bowl teams face immediate crises. Not the Ravens. For a championship team that had a high payroll, there was no real salary-cap fallout. Their coaching staff didn't disintegrate. They kept their defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis. On the player front, they lost a good safety in Kim Herring, but that was about it. They kept linebacker Jamie Sharper, who was projected as a certain loss on the free-agent scorecard. No matter how popular Trent Dilfer was, the Ravens did the courageous thing by signing Elvis Grbac, who was arguably the most physically gifted quarterback on the market. If free agent right tackle Leon Searcy can overcome his quadriceps injury suffered in Jacksonville, the Ravens' offense will have considerably more juice in 2001. We know what the defense can do.
2. St. Louis Rams. Before the Rams even added a player this offseason, they got better on defense when Mike Martz hired an excellent coaching staff, not to mention special teams whiz Bobby April. The Rams also had an impact draft, anchored by the deal that brought them Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams. Herring was a key free-agent signing. Speed has been addressed on defense, though defensive coordinator Lovie Smith must prove he can build chemistry and performance with many new and young faces. The drawback for the Rams: They lost backup quarterback Trent Green in a trade. That means Kurt Warner needs an injury-free year, although new backup Joe Germaine had a terrific mini-camp in June.
3. Seattle Seahawks. The argument against the Seahawks is that most or all of the players Mike Holmgren acquired in the offseason are question marks. Does John Randle still have the fire? Can Chad Eaton stay healthy? Does Levon Kirkland have a handle on his weight? Does Marcus Robertson still have enough giddy-up? Is Matt Hasselbeck ready to play big-time quarterback in the NFL? My gut tells me all those guys will upgrade the team, not to mention an outstanding draft. Yes, the jury will be out on rookie receiver Koren Robinson, but the other first-rounder, guard Steve Hutchinson, has Pro Bowl written all over him. All in all, an excellent reload for Holmgren, who now must ignite his own fire to be as hungry as he was coaching in Green Bay.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Give credit to Bucs GM Rich McKay and coach Tony Dungy for not sticking their head in the sand. Brad Johnson is a serious upgrade at quarterback and will bring a professionalism the Bucs have not seen with Shaun King and will never see with Ryan Leaf. The draft-day trade-up to land Florida's Kenyatta Walker was a brilliant stroke and fixes the other glaring need on offense at left tackle. However, my instincts tell me the offense will have to be better, because the defense may not be as dominating as its reputation.
5. Oakland Raiders. Everybody is focusing on the recent signing of Jerry Rice, but the one that got my attention was the signing of Rice's former 49er teammate, running back Charlie Garner. Raiders coach Jon Gruden will maximize Garner's underrated talent. The other key pickup was defensive end Trace Armstrong. Forget the arguments that he's too old (36 in October); he was too old last year, remember, when he registered 16 sacks with the Dolphins. As for Rice, I still wonder about the chemistry issues, but I'm almost certain that Gruden, Rich Gannon and Tim Brown will make it work.
6. San Diego Chargers. New GM John Butler had an advantage because he had nowhere to go but up as he inherited a 1-15 team. Butler went right to work and upgraded several needs. First and foremost, he did not hesitate to sign ex-Bills QB Doug Flutie. He added a young, improving defensive end in ex-Bill Marcellus Wiley, and improved the corners with Ryan McNeil and Alex Molden. True, Butler likely overpaid for these players, but the bottom line is that the Chargers got better. Then came draft day. Butler opted to deal the No. 1 pick and a shot at Michael Vick. He rolled the dice and appeared to come up big with RB LaDainian Tomlinson and QB Drew Brees. Tomlinson is my early pick for offensive rookie of the year. If Vick becomes a true superstar in Atlanta, as I suspect he will, then the key to the deal will be whether Brees becomes a productive, winning starter in three years. Offensively, the best acquisition may have been hiring Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
7. Denver Broncos. Well, nobody can say Pat Bowlen is keeping his cash in his wallet because the Broncos have signed an unbelievable number of free agents (26). The best pickup was probably ex-Titans cornerback Denard Walker. But a lot of personnel men believe Mike Shanahan mostly picked up everybody's "trash." Is Chester McGlockton really going to play any harder? Now it's time for new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes to try; in fact, Rhodes may have been Shanahan's most critical pickup. There are other issues with the Broncos, mainly concerning the health of QB Brian Griese and RB Terrell Davis, and the retirement of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Shanahan gets the benefit of the doubt because he's still one of the game's great coaches. He's usually smarter than the rest, too.