By Scott M. Johnson
Moving day started March 2. On the eve of NFL free agency, the Seattle Seahawks acquired quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from Green Bay, then followed that up by signing perennial Pro Bowl defensive lineman John Randle the next day.
The gauntlet had been laid. And by the time free agency was over, the other four teams in the AFC West had followed suit. When all was said and done, each of the five AFC West teams had brought in at least four new veterans.
Some of the new players, like Randle, Jerry Rice, Leon Lett and Doug Flutie, are big names who have one or two seasons remaining. Others, like Hasselbeck, Trent Green, Keith Washington and Priest Holmes, have had moderate success elsewhere but were looking for more featured roles.
In all, 29 veterans that should see significant playing time were signed by AFC West teams, with the subsequent contracts totaling more than $400 million.
As a result, the final season of the five-team AFC West might have a different look than the most recent ones.
Here is a look at how the division might stack up:
The Broncos feature one of the top offenses in the league, and the return of running back Terrell Davis won’t hurt.
Denver also shored up its defense with the addition of veteran defensive linemen Lett and Chester McGlockton as well as the signing of former Tennessee Titans cornerback Denard Walker.
“It’s going to make them a better team,” Seahawks fullback Mack Strong said. “(Lett and McGlockton) are big, physical inside guys. Denver has some good athletes, and it’s going to definitely make them better. They’re going to be a formidable opponent.”
The Raiders lost just two starters, but more than made up for them with the additions of free agents Charlie Garner, Jerry Rice and Trace Armstrong. The thinking on Rice and Armstrong was that a little veteran leadership on either side of the ball may push the returning AFC West champions over the top and into the Super Bowl.
The big question will be whether or not Rich Gannon can pull a repeat performance of his 2000 season.
The Chiefs’ most important acquisition came when president Carl Peterson lured former St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil out of retirement. Vermeil brought in his own quarterback when he acquired Green from the Rams on draft day, and also has a new feature back in Holmes.
Still, Seahawks linebacker Chad Brown expects another defensive-minded, grind-it-out Kansas City team.
“Despite Dick Vermeil’s success with the Rams,” Brown said, “I don’t think they’re going to be throwing the ball 50 times over there.”
The Seahawks have the most new starters. Eight players expected to be in the starting lineup for Sunday’s regular-season opener at Cleveland were not with the team last season. Four others – safety Reggie Tongue, cornerback Paul Miranda and offensive linemen Chris Gray and Robbie Tobeck – have new roles.
Of course, the biggest changes came on defense, where the Seahawks signed about $47 million worth of contracts to shore up the league’s lowest-rated unit.
“I think our defensive team is a different defensive team,” coach Mike Holmgren said. “There are a lot of new faces out there.”
” … I didn’t think we could have been the last team in defense in football (last season) – by a lot. It had never happened to me before. I had never been there, and I trust we’ll never be there again.”
The Chargers will feature at least six new starters in addition to new kicker Wade Richey and return man Tim Dwight. Their prized free agent was defensive end Marcellus Wiley, whom San Diego handed a six-year, $40 million contract to help provide a consistent pass rush. Because of Wiley’s age (26) and potential, he was viewed by many as the top prize of the 2001 free agent class.
Quarterback Doug Flutie and rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson are expected to help turn around the NFL’s 28th-ranked offense.
“Offensively, they shored up some needs,” Strong said. “But defensively, they’ve always been in the top of the league, even last year when they were 1-15.”
Strong knows the AFC West about as well as anyone. His nine years in Seattle are the second-most on the team, trailing only 11-year veteran Michael Sinclair.
“The AFC West for a long time has been considered one of the toughest divisions in football, and this year is no different,” Strong said. “This year I think it’s the toughest. “The AFC West is going to be a good division this year, and I think it’s going to come down to who stays healthy and who makes the fewest mistakes week in and week out. That’s who’s going to win this division.”