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01 Mar 2005

Four Downs: AFC South

by Ned Macey

Houston Texans

Struggles Up Front

The old adage says that football games are won or lost in the trenches. If so, the Houston Texans were lucky to make it through last season with a 7-9 record. Based on our rankings, the Texans had the 23rd ranked offensive line and the 22nd ranked defensive line according to adjusted line yards, a stat we use to try to separate the offensive line from a back with numerous long runs. In terms of sacks, they were even worse, ranking 30th offensively and 32nd defensively in sack rate, the percentage of sacks per pass play.

With Walter Jones re-signing with the Seahawks and Orlando Pace franchised by the Rams, the Texans do not have a lot of big name options to help protect Carr. The other high profile tackle on the market is Jonas Jennings of Buffalo, but given how many times Drew Bledsoe has gone down the last few seasons, investing heavily in Jennings would be a mistake. The Texans have only played for three seasons, and yet they already have little margin under the salary cap. Along the offensive line, they have acquired Steve McKinney and Todd Wade through free agency, and seen limited improvement. With the weak offensive line options and limited cap space, the Texans will need to address this need in the draft.

On the defensive side of the ball, a 3-4 defense sometimes limits a team's ability to effectively pressure the quarterback. While excellent 3-4 teams are able to apply pressure (see New England and Pittsburgh), the teams with the three lowest sack rates in football were the Raiders, Chargers, and Texans. What do they have in common? They play the 3-4 with a limited number of playmakers. Houston's need to improve its defensive line was supposedly addressed last season with the acquisition of Robaire Smith -- a move which did help the run defense, which improved to 22nd from 31st in adjusted line yards in 2003.

In order to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, however, the Texans need playmaking linebackers. The Patriots, for instance, got more sacks from linebackers than the Texans did from their entire team. The sorry state of the Texans' pass rush is illustrated by Dunta Robinson, a cornerback, finishing third on the team with three sacks.

The free agent market has two linebackers who have been successful in the 3-4. Ed Hartwell will not help with the pass rush, but he could help solidify the run defense. A more intriguing option, if a bit of a gamble, would be Kendrell Bell. Bell has 18 sacks in 44 career starts. If healthy, he would be a serious upgrade. After missing almost the entire season last year, Bell's market is tough to gauge. With limited cap space, the Texans will be outbid if a serious market develops.

Is Carr a Star?

David Carr and Joey Harrington will always be linked by their high draft position in the 2002 draft. Harrington is likely to face veteran competition this off-season, while the Texans are still committed to Carr as their quarterback of the future. When Carr was thrust into the starting position his rookie year, he was surrounded with little talent and clearly not ready for the challenge. He posted a shockingly bad DPAR of -66.8 (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement, explained here.) In 2003, he missed some time due to injury, and while he improved he was still playing no better than a free agent schlub, with a DPAR of only 2.3. Obviously not all of this is Carr's fault -- DPAR is still not able to separate a quarterback from the team around him, and Carr started off an an expansion team with an offensive line that offered no protection whatsoever.

This season, Carr finally showed signs of the promise that made him the # 1 overall pick. His DPAR picked up to 27.5, and his DVOA rated him as about an average quarterback. Consecutive years of improvement should signal a star in the making for the Texans, right?

I am not so sure. Carr is clearly a better player than Harrington, but compare him to the other first round draft picks of the last five seasons who have emerged as starting quarterbacks. The numbers given are each quarterback's DPAR for any season where he attempted at least 100 passes. They do not include rushing totals:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Carson Palmer DNP 34.0 TBD
Byron Leftwich 12.1 30.2 TBD
Kyle Boller -26.7 23.1 TBD
David Carr -66.8 2.3 27.5
Joey Harrington -19.4 -24.6 6.5
Michael Vick -6.0 58.5 -3.2
Chad Pennington DNP DNP 112.8

It seems that Leftwich and Palmer have already passed Carr, and he has yet to show any of the promise exhibited by Vick or Pennington in their first several seasons. Yes, Carr was playing with inferior talent at first, but now Andre Johnson is developing into a star and the rest of the Houston offense has had three years to develop past expansion level. Carr seems likely to develop into a solid quarterback -- he compares favorably with Drew Brees through three seasons, for instance -- but a true superstar would have shown his talents by now. Carr will be good enough to play quarterback for a playoff team, but I am not sure that he will ever be good enough to carry a flawed team to the playoffs by himself.

Indianapolis Colts

Tagging James

The Colts are coming off one of the most impressive offensive seasons in league history. Peyton Manning had a historic season, but even more impressive was the way the Colts offense was balanced between run and pass and between different receivers. Indianapolis receivers ranked 1st, 5th and 12th in DPAR, with Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley ranking 1st and 2nd in DVOA, or value per play. Edgerrin James was 3rd among running backs in DPAR (combining rushing and receiving), and among feature backs, he was first in Success Rate, our statistic that measures a running back's consistent ability to gain yards play after play (explained here). Our offensive line stats have Indianapolis 1st in line yards and 2nd in sack rate. Over the past season, the Colts have given lucrative long-term contracts to Manning, Marvin Harrison, Ryan Diem, and Stokley. Reggie Wayne is a free agent after the 2005 season. With all of this money already tied up in the offense, and with the defense a below-average unit, can they afford to keep James?

On a simple financial level, the answer is yes. The Colts knew that Harrison and James could be free agents after this season, and they planned their cap accordingly. The Colts entered the off-season $15 million under the cap. After signing Diem and franchising James, they still are about $5 million under the cap without releasing any players. James is only 26 years old and one of the top five backs in the NFL when healthy.

The Colts have always maintained publicly that they want James back. At the same time, recent comments from Bill Polian were more cautious about James's future with the team. Further, the team offered a $2 million signing bonus to Dominic Rhodes the same day they placed the franchise tag on James. James has made it no secret that he wants to play in his hometown of Miami. The Dolphins have a huge hole at running back and hold the second pick in the upcoming draft. I imagine that pick would be enough for the Colts to trade the rights to James. Unfortunately for the Colts, it seems unlikely that Nick Saban will part with such a high pick for James. Saban has the luxury of a deep free agent running back pool and several quality runners available in the draft.

Bill Polian is aware of the fungible nature of running backs and their tendency to decline around the age of 30. The boldest move of his tenure with the Colts was the trading of star running back Marshall Faulk in 1999. The best option for the Colts, if James will allow it, is to franchise James but not negotiate a long-term contract. The Colts' cap room will allow them to sign James and hit the mid-market for free agent defensive help. If they decide to go after a big name defensive player, several returning Colts could be cut to open up cap room to bring in a free agent signed to a long-term contract. After the 2005 season, the Colts can reevaluate their situation and let James go if they come up short of the Super Bowl once again.

The third option would be to sign James to a long-term contract. The Colts' front office is clearly banking on a serious increase in the salary cap after the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed. Following next season, Reggie Wayne becomes a free agent, Peyton Manning gets the first of several huge bonuses, and Dwight Freeney begins to receive a $5 million increase in his base salary triggered by his sack totals. The Colts are playing with fire. If the numbers already do not add up for 2007 and beyond, they could set up the next two years as what our friend Bruce Stram would call a "Boom and Bust Team" hoping to get over the hump.

In Defense of the Colts' Defense

Much like the Colts themselves, this edition of Four Downs is paying only cursory attention to defense. Since the rise of the Peyton Manning Colts, they have always been a team dominated by offense. While this is still obviously true, few have remarked the steady improvement of the Colts defense. Here are the Colts' defensive DVOA ratings from 1999-2004.  For 2004, to get a more accurate picture of the defense, I've used the rating through Week 16 that does not include the meaningless Denver game in the final week. Remember that DVOA is better when it is negative (i.e. less scoring) and note that Tony Dungy came aboard as head coach in 2002:

Year IND DEF
DVOA
Rank
1999 12.1% 29
2000 9.0% 24
2001 16.1% 30
2002 7.4% 22
2003 2.2% 20
2004 0.0%* 16
*Not including Week 17 vs. Denver

The defense is still average at best, but it is improving. Indianapolis' weighted defensive DVOA, which includes the Denver game and gives more strength to how the team was playing at the end of the year, is even better at -3.7%. This improvement has come despite only importing Monte Reagor as a "notable" free agent, only drafting two defensive players in the first round since 1995, and allowing Marcus Washington and Mike Peterson to leave via free agency and become crucial components of top 10 defenses.

This off-season, the Colts will have the money to keep their restricted free agents, notably David Thornton. They do have unrestricted free agent starters in MLB Rob Morris, S Idrees Bashir, and CB Nick Harper. The best thing that can be said about Morris is that 2004 was his best season. Bashir will be replaced by Bob Sanders, and Nick Harper is an undrafted free agent who turns 31 next season. The Colts need another linebacker, a cornerback, and a defensive tackle. One intriguing option is to move pass rush specialist Robert Mathis to linebacker, where his athleticism would be an upgrade for the Colts' mediocre linebacking corps.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Sitting Pretty

The Jaguars entered the free agent period in as good a shape as any team in the league. They had only one major free agent of their own, Donovan Darius, and they had over $18 million in cap space. They were 9-7 last year and are developing a young quarterback. A couple of aggressive moves, and they would be right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. The Jaguars could be one of the most active teams of the offseason, so long as they do not sit out free agency and use their cap space to increase the size of owner Wayne Weaver's bank account.

The Jaguars' primary area of interest is defensive end. Following the debacle of the Hugh Douglass signing, the Jaguars sent out a combination of no-name defensive ends including Bobby McCray and Greg Favors. Those two were their top pass rushing ends, but they combined for only nine sacks on the season. (The Jaguars were 12th in the league in sack rate, but much of that came from outside the defensive line, players like Darius and middle linebacker Mike Peterson.) With Charles Howard and John Abraham getting franchised by their respective clubs, the Jaguars' options are limited. The best available defensive end is Reggie Hayward of the Broncos. Following Bertrand Berry's success in Arizona, another Denver line refugee could be an impact move. With Hayward as the best pass rusher on the market, however, he may command a contract higher than the sometimes stingy Jaguars are willing to offer.

What about the free agency of Darius? Darius has been a starting safety for the Jaguars for seven seasons. The past two seasons, the Jaguars have franchised Darius rather than allowing him to hit free agency. This year, from published accounts, the Jaguars had no real desire to franchise him again. They believed that paying $5 million to a safety was an irresponsible move. However, since they had bundles of money under the cap, and Darius was coming off one of his best seasons, they felt compelled to franchise Darius again.

At Least He's Better than Bobby Wade

The 2004 NFL draft may come to be remembered as one of the great wide receiver drafts in recent history. Seven receivers were taken in the first round, including five of the first fifteen picks. Those first five picks were Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, and Michael Clayton. Fitzgerald and Roy Williams were asked to come in as primary receivers. They held their own, both catching eight touchdown passes. Lee Evans was dominant whenever the Bills threw him the ball, ranking third among wide receivers in DVOA. Clayton had quite simply one of the best seasons ever by a rookie wide receiver. He was the #4 receiver in football according to DPAR.

And then there is Reggie Williams. To say he struggled during his rookie season is to say that Oliver Stone's Alexander was disappointing. Williams started 15 games and caught 27 balls for 268 yards. He had a DPAR of -7.7 and a DVOA of -34.1%. This latter figure was the second worst in all of football last season among wide receivers thrown at least 50 passes (beating out only Bobby Wade). Rookie receivers generally have difficult seasons, so the Jaguars should not give up on Williams. But compared to some of the other rookies, he was playing in an ideal situation with an above-average quarterback and opposite a star receiver in Jimmy Smith.

Smith is turning 36, so unless Williams develops quickly the Jaguars will need a second starting receiver. They are rightly skeptical about whether this year's free agent wideouts have number one receiver quality, but then again the Jaguars already have a number one. It makes sense to me that the Jaguars should pursue T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Plaxico Burress. They are both only 27 years old and each has proven his ability to play second fiddle to a star receiver. Over the next couple of seasons, the Jaguars can decrease the role of Smith and see if their free agent pick-up or Williams is ready to emerge as a #1 wideout. The Jaguars have also reportedly expressed interest in Derrick Mason, by far the best receiver on the market (see below). By signing Mason, the Jaguars would be signaling their intention to become immediate contenders in the AFC.

Tennessee Titans

Blowing Up the Team

If you put a quality team on the field for an extended period of time that continues to just miss Super Bowl glory, it is almost inevitable that you will eventually find yourself in salary cap jail. Most teams play at a high level because of the quality of their talent. To keep that talent requires a great deal of money. The Titans made the AFC Championship Game or were ranked in the top three in DVOA in four of the five seasons from 1999-2003. All this time, salaries were building up and the Titans were walking the fine line of staying under the cap and remaining a quality team.

The Titans have delayed the inevitable for several seasons by constantly restructuring contracts, but following a 5-11 campaign, and finding themselves $28 million over the cap, they took drastic measures. The Titans released six players, including Samari Rolle, Kevin Carter, Fred Miller, and Derrick Mason. Carter might re-sign with the Titans at a lower salary, but the other players will be changing teams. None of these players are household names, but they have been a major part of the Titans for the past several seasons and will be sorely missed.

Mason is perhaps the most interesting of the released Titans because his performance and his fame have come at such different levels. Playing in a run-heavy offense until 2003 and without a star receiver on the other side of the ball, Mason has still been one of the top receivers of this decade. How good has he been? If we turn to DPAR and add up the total value over replacement of wide receivers over the past five seasons, Mason's value may surprise you. Here are the top five receivers in total DPAR from 2000-2004:

Name DPAR
Torry Holt 191.2
Marvin Harrison 190.0
Derrick Mason 163.5
Randy Moss 160.6
Terrell Owens 156.1

Mason does not frequently get mentioned in the same sentence with these receivers, but his performance over the past five seasons clearly shows him to be in their class. Mason is 31 years old, so he may be past his prime, but not by much. He led the NFL in receptions last season playing with Billy Volek as his primary quarterback. No team is going to give him the sort of contract that Owens, Moss, and Harrison have signed, but some team is going to sign one of the most underrated players in football -- and likely a major bargain.

The departure of these veterans and Mason in particular clouds the future of the other former MVP quarterback contemplating retirement. Steve McNair was one of the five best quarterbacks in football between 2001 and 2003, but a sternum injury this year led to a terrible performance. In terms of DVOA, after ranking third and finding himself right behind Peyton Manning in 2003, he ranked 32nd and found himself just ahead of A.J. Feeley in 2004.

Thanks to Aaron's similarity scores, we can compare McNair's last two seasons against historical quarterbacks. The results are not encouraging. The list features Gary Danielson 1984-1985, Danny White 1985-1986, Jim Plunkett 1983-1984, and Troy Aikman 1999-2000. The circumstances were different with each player, but effectively the sharp decline each saw in his second year presaged the end of his career as an effective quarterback. McNair just turned 33, and you have to wonder how well he can come back. The man is a physical marvel in terms of his pain threshold, but part of his effectiveness stems from his ability to take hits both inside and outside the pocket. As he ages, the injuries will come more often and be more painful. McNair has been a Titan since they were Oilers, and he is the face of the franchise. But due to the other salary cap cuts, it is unlikely that he will still be contributing when the Titans are ready to compete again. It would be a bold move, but letting McNair go and seeing what they have in Billy Volek might be the best thing for the Titans.

Chow Time

When your team enters the off-season more than $25 million over the cap, it is hard to make a high profile signing, but the Titans did just that by luring Norm Chow away from USC to be their offensive coordinator. Chow is universally considered one of the top offensive minds in college football. Amazingly, his teams have finished in the top 10 in college offenses in 15 of the last 21 years. With the Titans shifting to younger players, Chow's college experience was an added bonus. His first task is to clean up a play book that has been over-complicated by three consecutive offensive coordinators adding their nuances to the same system.

The last great offensive mind to enter the NFL from college was Steve Spurrier, but he had a disastrous stint as head coach in Washington. Chow's situation is different for three main reasons. First, he is only the offensive coordinator, while Spurrier was in charge (in theory) of the entire team. Second, Chow does not believe in imposing his system on whatever players he has. Instead, he adapts to fit the strength of his players. Finally, as Joe Gibbs can certainly attest, even with the salary cap cuts Chow has much greater talent on offense. If Steve McNair opts against retirement, Chow will have McNair, Drew Bennett, Tyrone Calico, and Chris Brown at his disposal. They may not be the second coming of the Colts, but they are certainly superior to the weapons enjoyed by Spurrier.

Later this week: NFC East by Al Bogdan

Posted by: Ned Macey on 01 Mar 2005

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