Now that the draft is over and minicamps are under way, rosters around the NFL are pretty much set.
On average, teams have 90 players on the roster, a few more than regulation because the draft choices don't count against the 80-man limit until they sign their contracts. Since the conclusion of the draft, teams have added 427 rookie free agents, an average of 13 per team. With more teams bringing in free agents for unpaid tryouts, rosters are constantly being tweaked.
Other than fitting in a veteran or two for need or for injury replacements, coaches can look at their squads during the OTAs (organized team activities) and see what they must do to make their franchises playoff ready. Only little moves can be made, and the days of counting on post-June cap casualties are over. Most of the cap casualties have already been cut.
The Patriots were the big spenders in free agency, dedicating more than $40 million and landing enough players to have forecasters labeling them early Super Bowl favorites over the Colts and Chargers. They made the big moves by signing linebacker Adalius Thomas and picking up four receivers, including Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth. But as everyone knows, owners can't buy a championship in such a team sport. Sometimes, it's the little moves that make the biggest difference.
Here are the five small moves that could pay out big this season.
1. Patriots receiver Wes Welker: The Patriots had to have him even though he's 5-foot-9 and runs a 4.7 40. Though he had a second-round tender as a Miami restricted free agent, that didn't stop the Pats. In fact, New England threw an extra seventh-round pick to the Dolphins to land Welker without putting a poison pill in his restricted deal. Welker could be more important to the Patriots' passing offense than Moss, Stallworth and Kelley Washington. He will play the slot and if he can play it like Brandon Stokley did for the Colts and Wayne Chrebet for the Jets years ago, Welker could open up the offense enough for Tom Brady to have his best statistical season. A great slot receiver draws a safety away from the outside receivers. Ask the Colts. Stokley had his best season in 2004 when he caught 68 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns. His threat in the middle of the field helped in Peyton Manning's record-setting 49 touchdown season. Welker caught 67 passes last year for the Dolphins and the Patriots aren't dumb. Moss, Stallworth and Washington were essentially signed to one-year deals. Welker came with a long-term commitment because they believe he's the sure keeper of the group.
2. Panthers quarterback David Carr: John Fox made it clear to Carr he's not competing for a starting job. Jake Delhomme is the starting quarterback and Carr accepted that. Delhomme and the Panthers are coming off a disappointing season, but the organization still has great faith Delhomme can lead the team to the playoffs and Super Bowl. Still, Carr could be the answer in the future. The Panthers signed him to a two-year, $6.2 million contract and told him they'd do a long-term deal if he starts. Carr's an exceptional insurance policy. If Delhomme gets off to a disappointing start to the season, Carr is young enough and athletic enough to give the offense a spark. At Houston, Carr never played behind a good offensive line and rarely did he have a consistent running game. The Panthers can offer him both. Carr has shown the ability to be a 60 percent passer. He's the team's ace in the hole.
3. Rams defensive end James Hall: Scott Linehan couldn't be happier with this acquisition for a fifth-round pick. Hall can give the team a little bit of a pass rush at defensive end, but the 280-pounder should be sturdier against the run than anything the Rams have had in the past couple of years. With the addition of Adam Carriker at defensive tackle, the Rams now have a couple of players who will play better with their hands at the line of scrimmage and fight off blockers to stop the run. The Rams have been horrible against the run for years. Hall and Carriker change a little bit of the work ethic along the Rams' line. Like so many players who have endured years of losing in Detroit, Hall lost a little fire. He needed a change of scenery and the Rams needed a different type of player for their line.
4. Saints tight end Eric Johnson: Maybe this could be a repeat of the Ernie Conwell experience, but it's worth the chance. The Saints signed Conwell from the Rams years ago to give them an experienced hand at tight end, but Conwell had numerous injuries during his days with the Rams and his body was pretty well shot when he joined New Orleans. Maybe there are similarities between Johnson and Conwell, but this wasn't too costly (a one-year deal worth $2 million) and it could be the gamble of the year. Johnson fought injuries during his 49ers career and missed 19 games over the past two years, but when he's healthy, he has 60- to 80-catch potential. Sean Payton needs to develop some tight end flexibility into his offense and Johnson could be the key.
5. Dolphins tight end David Martin: Listening to opinion from the Dolphins' front office might not be in vogue these days. Dolphins fans are still mad at the team for taking Ted Ginn Jr. over Brady Quinn, and they still haven't figured out whether the John Beck selection in the second round was a good one. The Dolphins say "Trust us," and one of the acquisitions they trust will make an impact is tight end David Martin, who came from the Packers. The Dolphins grew tired of talented TE Randy McMichael, who was high maintenance for the coaches and organization. Martin has some deep speed and he's a big target. Cam Cameron loved what he did at the recent minicamp. After having Antonio Gates in San Diego, Cameron wanted a tight end who could get downfield and be a factor in the red zone in Miami. Martin never caught more than 27 passes as a Packer, but Bubba Franks was the starter. Martin gets a new team and a new start and could open up things for the offense.