NFL's smoothest moves

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

In a few years, Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders will take a back seat, Derrick Mason joining the Baltimore Ravens will be a side note, and the Minnesota Vikings' defensive retooling will be an afterthought.

Instead, the lasting impression of this offseason will be the moves in Miami, where total control of the Dolphins was handed over to Nick Saban.

That's hard to believe now, with No. 18 Moss jerseys getting snatched off racks as if they were $100 dollar bills dangling from neighborhood trees. Surely, we'll always remember this as the offseason when Randy went west.

But as intriguing as Moss's relocation is, it doesn't carry nearly the same potential impact as Saban's landing in Miami. Indeed, nobody in the NFL grabbed more power this offseason. And if there is any doubt about that, one only needed to corner Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga a few weeks ago at the owners' meetings in Washington D.C.

Huizenga's popular retort to almost every football-operation question was to defer to his new head coach. Whether it was Ricky Williams, the character issues with some of the team's draft picks or free agents, or the future of the general manager position, Huizenga's party line was singular: "Whatever Nick does is good with me."

The Dolphins owner has done what he vowed never to do again and turned over complete organizational control to one man. The roster? The front office? The janitorial schedule? It's all run through Saban. If only for that, Saban's hire would be the most important move in the NFL this offseason, but there are other factors to consider, too.

Despite having only limited NFL experience – his highest rank was defensive coordinator with the Bill Belichick-coached Cleveland Browns in the 1990s – Saban is already garnering a healthy amount of respect around the league. Several scouts were impressed by Saban's pre-draft work, when he made appearances at seemingly every key workout in the country. And he was crafty in leaving the door open for Williams, a position that was contrary to Huizenga's hard-line approach. Then came his hiring of general manager Randy Mueller this week, a sign Saban isn't afraid to have another strong viewpoint in the front office.

Mueller, who was the NFL's executive of the year in 2000, won't have final decision-making power in the organization. But it's not a stretch to assume he'll help shape the roster in a capacity similar to New England Patriots personnel director Scott Pioli, who influences Belichick's decisions.

While nobody is expecting a miracle from Saban next season, it wouldn't be a total shock to see him whip Miami into playoff contention from the outset. He was a top-notch coordinator with the Browns, then flaunted his ability to patiently turn around flagging college programs without resorting to gimmicks. And lest anyone forget, Saban isn't taking over a Dolphins team completely devoid of talent. Miami still has a strong defensive core that's complemented by a very good draft class. If he can get Williams back into the fold, and institute the focus and motivation former coach Dave Wannstedt couldn't, Saban could immediately make his mark as this offseason's best move.

The other top offseason maneuvers, in no particular order …

Ever since his days as offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, when he guided Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, coach Norv Turner has been searching for a comparable duo. And while Kerry Collins has Aikman's arm strength, it's Moss who holds the key to changing the offense. The only question is what happens when Moss has to cope with Collins' erratic play and a fellow receiver – Jerry Porter – who still envisions himself as the team's No. 1 option.

Moss isn't a bigger acquisition than Saban, primarily because he doesn't wield power over an entire franchise. Yet he holds nearly as many careers in his hands. Turner's job security and the Raiders' season are strapped to the success or failure of the offense. And no player is more important to the Oakland offense than Moss. In turn, the careers of several veteran starters (Collins, Warren Sapp, etc.) are leashed to Turner.

If Moss becomes a malcontent and the Raiders sputter, the guillotine of owner Al Davis promises to get very, very messy.

In five of their seven losses last season, Baltimore scored 10 points or less. And with tight end Todd Heap struggling with injuries, the Ravens had almost no legitimate receiving threats for developing quarterback Kyle Boller. Mason is a good route runner and immediately fills Baltimore's need for a No. 1 receiver. Paired with Heap and rookie receiver Mark Clayton, Mason will not only give Boller more options, but he'll also stop teams from stacking up against running back Jamal Lewis.

While Baltimore's defensive needs weren't nearly as pressing, the spine of the unit is beginning to age. Adding Rolle gives the Ravens a young cornerstone to help make the transition as the defense is retooled over the next few years. And pairing Rolle with cornerback Chris McAlister and safety Ed Reed will allow Baltimore to be as aggressive as ever with its blitz packages.

  • The Browns hire general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel.

It's too early to know what kind of impact Crennel can make as a head coach, but as someone who has learned from Belichick and Bill Parcells, he has the right pedigree. Crennel has the knowledge to put the right schemes in place. Now it's a matter of whether he can bring a team in disarray together and move it in the right direction.

Savage was expected to be shrewd and he hasn't disappointed, already peeling away several rotten layers from the roster – including such dead weight as Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Courtney Brown. Savage brings a resume steeped in scouting victories, and that's precisely what the Browns need after a decade of draft failures.

Next to Kansas City, perhaps no other team suffered more inopportune defensive failures in 2004. No blunders were more embarrassing than when the Vikings surrendered 99 points in three consecutive losses after a 5-1 start. It's hard to imagine a repeat collapse, unless Minnesota's offseason haul of defensive talent simply can't fit together.

Not only did the Vikings sign several upper-tier defensive free agents, but they also picked up players that should be tremendous complements to the existing talent. Placing Pat Williams next to Kevin Williams will give the Vikings a massive cog in the middle of the defensive line and make them an imposing front against the run. Plugging Smoot and Sharper in with safety Corey Chavous and cornerback Antoine Winfield will allow the Vikings to play more man-to-man in the secondary and get aggressive with their front seven.

The one area that still needs to be upgraded is linebacker, but the starting group of Sam Cowart, Napoleon Harris and Dontarrious Thomas should benefit from the surrounding talent.

  • The Patriots load up on depth.

It certainly wasn't the sexiest group of players picked up this offseason: cornerbacks Chad Scott and Duane Starks, wide receiver David Terrell and linebacker Chad Brown. But with the Patriots' track record, don't be shocked if it ends up being the most important.

New England needed secondary depth and did plenty to address the need with Starks and Scott. Neither is the star that Ty Law was for the Patriots, but both are experienced and should slide into New England's defensive rotation perfectly. Starks could win a starting cornerback job and be the defensive version of Corey Dillon – another talented player who simply bottomed out with a losing team. Chad Brown is getting old and has been beset by injuries, but nobody knows how to use linebackers better than Belichick.

Terrell is a fascinating pickup and might be more talented than any receiver on New England's roster. But while Patriots wideout Deion Branch has done more with less, Terrell's reputation has been the precise opposite. Then again, he's never had a quarterback the caliber of Tom Brady throwing to him.

No single unit in the NFL needed a talent infusion more badly than the Chiefs' 31st-ranked defense, which also finished last in the league against the pass last season. Things will certainly get better with the addition of linebackers Kendrell Bell and Derrick Johnson, cornerback Patrick Surtain and safety Sammy Knight.

Surtain and Knight come over from a Miami secondary that finished sixth in the NFL against the pass. Surtain still has Pro Bowl ability and finally gives defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham a legitimate No. 1 cornerback. Knight is no longer at his peak, but he is a healthy upgrade.

The Chiefs' defensive front seven has been both slow and underachieving, but Bell and Johnson should be a big boost. Bell missed all but three games with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season because of injuries and the rookie Johnson has some tackling concerns, but the Chiefs can't afford to be picky. With an offense that is aging, the time to win is now with whatever defensive talent Kansas City can scrape together.