Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
11 Apr 2005
by Aaron Schatz
Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: AFC East? You'll find it here.
The AFC East went last in the first round of Four Downs but sixth this time, and most free agents were signed by the time I wrote the last one anyway, so there isn't too much to add this month except for a draft outlook. I'm also busy plugging away at Pro Football Prospectus 2005, so I apologize for the fact that this article is a bit shorter than previous Four Downs columns.
The Bills don't have a first round pick this year, as it was traded to Dallas as part of the deal to move up for quarterback J.P. Losman in the last draft. Their most pressing need -- assuming that the L.J. Shelton-for-Travis Henry trade does not actually happen -- is a left tackle to replace Jonas Jennings (or, if Mike Williams switches to the left, a right tackle to replace Williams). They could also use the young quarterback's best friend, a good tight end, as nobody really considers Mark Campbell or Tim Euhus a standout player. After that, it's mostly about depth and grabbing the best players available. Defensive depth should be the priority. Last year, Buffalo didn't really lose any starters to injury other than the two safeties, which was one of the major reasons why their defense had such a strong season. The Bills can't expect to have a year quite that healthy again. In the NFL, winning isn't about being good when if your players can only stay healthy; it is about being prepared when your players inevitably go down.
Buffalo has gotten a lot out of the early rounds of its recent drafts, but absolute bupkis from the later rounds. People questioned the choice of Willis McGahee in the first round of 2003, but he had a good rookie year after recovering from his ACL tear and is likely to improve in 2005. Buffalo had two first-round picks last year; one of them, receiver Lee Evans, had a great rookie year, and the other, J.P. Losman, will be the starting quarterback next season. The top two picks of 2002 have been mild disappointments, but tackle Mike Williams is a capable starter if not a superstar and wideout Josh Reed is a capable slot receiver if not the second coming of Andre Reed.
Meanwhile, last year's defense, ranked first in DVOA, was filled with successful recent draft picks. That defense took its final step towards the top of the NFL at mid-season when 2003 second-rounder Chris Kelsey was put into the starting lineup at defensive end. Starting cornerbacks Nate Clements and Terrence McGee were a 2001 first-rounder and a 2003 fourth-rounder, respectively. On the other hand, nickelback Kevin Thomas (chosen in the sixth round of the 2002 draft) is the only non-2004 Buffalo pick from the fifth round or later who even played for the team last year.
Since Nick Saban is basically tearing this sucker apart and starting over, don't be surprised if the Dolphins take pretty much anything. Everyone seems to agree that the Dolphins will choose a running back with the number two overall selection, probably Ronnie Brown of Auburn. As I argued at ESPN.com last week, it is tough to go wrong with a first-round quality SEC running back, although if any team can screw this up it is the Dolphins. (John Avery and J.J. Johnson, the two biggest SEC running back busts, were both Dolphin selections.)
I would not be shocked to see the Dolphins pass up on a running back, however. Of all the principles that we are used to hammering home at Football Outsiders, the one that smarter NFL front offices seem to understand is the idea that running backs are far more fungible than most fans think, and can often be replaced with 90% of the performance for half the cost. If Saban is truly from the Belichick school of team-building, he's probably wishing he could rub a magic lamp and ask the genie inside to magically create a massive two-gap run-stopping defensive lineman worthy of the number two overall selection. Since we all know that genie lives in a lamp in Foxboro and hates the Dolphins, the clear "taking a running back number two isn't really such a good use of cap resources" choice would be Michigan wideout Braylon Edwards.
Miami will take whoever they think will make the best building blocks for the team Saban hopes to take to Super Bowl XLII, current holes be damned. A third-to-fifth round pick will likely be used on a developmental quarterback who provides hope for the future without costing Aaron Rodgers money in the present. Making the massive rebuilding more difficult is the fact that Miami is without a pick in the second round, having sent that one to Philadelphia for A.J. Feeley. (They also traded their third-rounder to St. Louis for Lamar Gordon, but got Chicago's in the same round in the Ogunleye-Booker deal.)
Miami's recent drafts have not produced many players, which is one of the reasons why the team suddenly collapsed last season. Players from the 2003 and 2004 drafts started a total of 37 games last season, only six of which were on defense (three each by linebackers Eddie Moore and Derrick Pope). In fact, only 12 players from the 2001-2003 drafts played at all for last year's Dolphins. Part of the problem is that the team keeps dealing away its first round pick. Since 1997, the Dolphins have had only four first-round picks and only one of those players, rookie guard Vernon Carey, played with the team last season. Yatil Green (1997) and John Avery (1998) are out of the league and Jamar Fletcher (2001) was traded to the Chargers for David Boston. Heck, in the last five seasons the team has had only three second round picks -- Moore in 2003, Chris Chambers in 2001, and tackle Todd Wade in 2000 -- and Wade played in Houston last year.
The Patriots are the one AFC East team that has signed a major free agent since we last visited this division for Four Downs. Once we New Englanders all got over the delicious irony of David Terrell coming to the Patriots, years after so many local writers had castigated Bill Belichick for not choosing him over Richard Seymour in the 2001 draft, we were stuck asking ourselves if this guy was going to really help the Patriots. Yes, Tom Brady sure likes him from their Michigan days, but he's never been able to put his great talent to use and has constantly been plagued by undisciplined penalties.
Look at similar players over the past 25 years, though, and the idea that Terrell might turn into a useful second or third receiver isn't so absurd. Using our similarity scores system, here are the ten most similar receivers to Terrell over a two-year stretch, along with their stats from the following year:
|Player||Years||Team||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3|
Perriman had a very good career after leaving New Orleans in 1991. Jefferson had four good years opposite Terry Glenn in New England from 1996 to 1999. Smith had a nice 1981, fought injuries for a few years, and then was a 1000-yard receiver for the St. Louis Cardinals for a couple years.
On the other hand, Timpson had the one nice year in New England in 1994, then went to Chicago and didn't do so well. Jones had 10 more catches before his career ended, Porter had none, and while Dez White is still around he's nobody's idea of a great receiver. It's a mixed bag, but that's better than a steaming bag of puppy waste.
New England fans have gotten used to giving a general response of "In Belichick we Trust" any time the Patriots make a personnel move that seems at all questionable. That certainly has been the response to the Terrell signing. But the other free agent signing in New England should raise some eyebrows from more knowledgeable NFL fans.
Monty Beisel was signed to a two-year contract and will try to help make up for the loss of Roman Phifer as well as the likely loss of Tedy Bruschi. Beisel was always considered a strong special teams player, but after he moved into the starting lineup last year he became one of the major problems with Kansas City's run defense. Any time a running back could get past the defensive line and into the second level, it was party time. Go back and check out my comments about DeShaun Foster's big game against the Chiefs last year in Week 2. All of the local coverage has emphasized Beisel's pass coverage ability, so perhaps the Patriots plan to use him in a situational role. Either that, or this is a case of high demand and low supply on the linebacker market.
Even before Bruschi's medical problems, it was clear that linebacker would likely be New England's primary focus in the 2005 draft. Other than running back, which isn't really a problem right now, linebacker is the only position on the team where the players are primarily over 27. Beisel doesn't change the fact that the Patriots need to get younger at linebacker, and the draft is the place to do it. Even if New England should take something else with their first round pick -- perhaps a cornerback to help make up for the loss of Ty Law -- they are going to probably take a linebacker in round two or three.
The other place where the Patriots need some help is the offensive line. They got some nice play last year from a set of undrafted or late drafted linemen, but there's nothing wrong with adding a significant prospect at guard or tackle. Many "draft experts" seem to believe that the Patriots will also be looking to add a wide receiver, but while they would never shy away from taking someone they felt was the best player available at a certain pick, I don't see this as a huge priority. They got their 2005 rookie receiver a year early when they took P.K. Sam from Florida State at the end of the fifth round last year. The general reaction to this pick was that Sam had come out of college too soon but would have been a second or third round selection in 2005, and the Patriots would not have carried him on the roster all season if they weren't planning on eventually using him. In fact, the Patriots will effectively add two rookies to their lineup without needing to use 2005 draft choices -- remember that last year's 32nd pick, tight end Ben Watson, missed basically the entire season after an injury in Week 1.
The Patriots have built their dynasty on strong drafting, particularly in the later rounds. The standard New England starting lineup features five players chosen on the draft's second day since the Belichick/Pioli Era began in 2000: QB Tom Brady (6th, 2000), FB Patrick Pass (7th, 2000), WR David Givens (7th, 2002), CB Asante Samuel (4th, 2003), and C Dan Koppen (5th, 2003). Numerous other late-round players contribute on special teams or play important roles as backups. The defensive line consists of three first round picks under the age of 27.
The 2003 draft class may be one of the best one-year hauls by any team in the history of the NFL. 8 of the 10 players from this draft are still on the New England roster and these players have never known a season where they did not end up as Super Bowl champions. Four of them -- Samuel, Koppen, DT Ty Warren, and S Eugene Wilson -- are starters. LB Tully Banta-Cain and WR Bethel Johnson are top performers on special teams, Dan Klecko played defensive line, linebacker, and fullback before getting injured during his second season, and NT Ethan Kelley has primarily spent two years on the practice squad. Only sixth-round QB Kliff Kingsbury and seventh-round TE Spencer Nead are out of the league.
Oddly enough, Belichick's worst draft, 2000, also produced his best draft choice, Brady. The Pats gave up that year's first round pick for the rights to get Belichick from the Jets, second round pick OL Adrian Klemm was constantly injured, and players like Dave Stachelski and Jeff Marriott were total busts. On New England's roster, only Brady and Pass remain from that draft. Last year's draft is still a question after first pick NT Vince Wilfork, as most players struggled with injuries (including both Watson and Sam, mentioned above) and S Dexter Reid looked terrible in the Super Bowl as Wilson's backup.
1) Only two running backs in the history of the NFL have ever run for over 1500 yards in a season after the age of 30. Name them.
2) Only two running backs in the history of the NFL have ever carried the ball over 325 times in a season after the age of 30. Name them.
3) Name the last running back to lead the NFL in carries and then carry the ball at least 200 times the following year without losing at least half a yard per carry off his rushing average.
This draft is pretty important if the Jets want to compete with the Patriots and Bills for this year's AFC East title. Free agency opened up some huge holes on this team and the Jets have really only filled one of them, signing Derrick Blaylock from the Chiefs to provide insurance against the effects of Guaranteed RB Decline. The Jets could use a run-stuffing defensive tackle to replace Jason Ferguson, a tight end to replace Anthony Becht, and an offensive tackle to replace Kareem McKenzie.
But the biggest issue for the Jets is a position where the hole wasn't created by the departure of a free agent. Instead, the hole in the secondary was a problem all season long, since neither Donnie Abraham nor David Barrett could be described as a "shut down" corner. Most draft experts forecast five or six cornerbacks as first round picks, and most mock drafts have the Jets taking one of those cornerbacks. The two most likely to be around when the draft hits the Jets at number 26 are Marlin Jackson of Michigan and Fabian Washington of Nebraska. Jackson has the size to cover bigger wideouts but doesn't have top speed; Washington is quick and agile with good instincts but gets pushed around by larger receivers.
If the Jets do choose a cornerback, fans can feel good that first round cornerbacks are rarely busts in the NFL. Unfortunately, as Green Bay and Dallas learned this year with Ahmad Carroll and Terrance Newman, it often takes these players a couple of years to learn the NFL game.
The Jets have been one of the better drafting teams in the NFL except for the gigantic black hole that is their 2002 draft. The Jets had only five picks that year and not a single player has become a starter for the team (though tight end Chris Baker might finally start in his fourth season if the Jets don't take a tight end early). But a draft like that every so often can be forgiven when a team is otherwise adding quality players year after year. It would be even better if those players would actually stay with the Jets -- the top players from the class of 2001 are all now with other teams: WR Santana Moss (Redskins), RB LaMont Jordan (Raiders), and OT Kareem McKenzie (Giants).
The most famous Jets draft class is the one from 2000, when the Jets had four first round picks and got four useful players: DE Shaun Ellis, DE/Whiny Bitch John Abraham, QB Chad Pennington, and TE Anthony Becht. An even better value was that year's third round pick, Laveranues Coles, who returns to the Jets this year ready to battle AFC East defensive backs as well as spelling-conscious football writers. As for the 2004 draft, linebacker Jonathan Vilma was defensive rookie of the year, of course, but safety Erik Coleman (fifth round) may have enjoyed the best rookie year of any 2004 second-day draft choice.
1) Curtis Martin and Walter Payton.
2) Curtis Martin and John Riggins.
3) Ricky Watters led the league with 353 carries in 1996 and ran for 4.0 yards per carry. He carried the ball 285 times the following year and ran for 3.9 yards per carry.
Later this week: NFC East by Al Bogdan.