Part I of our catch radius season finale spotlights the NFC kings of double coverage (Calvin Johnson), the sideline (Jordy Nelson), the drag route (DeSean Jackson) and the red zone (Dez Bryant).
19 Apr 2005
by Ned Macey
Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: NFC East? You'll find it here.
The Texans made an early strike in free agency at an under-the-radar target in Morlon Greenwood. Greenwood at age 26 is just coming into his prime and started at linebacker in Miami the last four seasons. Greenwood is a great athlete who will play inside linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 scheme. His athleticism is the sort of attribute the Texans' defense was certainly missing last season.
To free up plenty of room for Greenwood, the Texans released both starting inside backers, Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman. Sharper has been the Texans' leading tackler in two of their three seasons, and Foreman was second on the team last year. Both are solid players but lack big play ability. The biggest weakness of the Texans' defense, however, was their inability to get to the quarterback. They ranked last in the league in adjusted sack rate. The addition of Greenwood does nothing to improve this.
The Texans have never had a good enough offensive line for David Carr. This fact is ingrained in many people's memories thanks to a clever ad ESPN ran leading up to the 2003 draft that showed Carr playing without any offensive line. Unfortunately, the Texans still have the same need two years later, as evidenced by their flirtation with Orlando Pace and their ranking 30th in the league in adjusted sack rate.
Sitting at the thirteenth spot in the draft, the Texans must be desperately hoping that Alex Barron, the top tackle in this draft, falls to them. Fortunately for them, no team drafting in front of them has its primary need at tackle, so Barron could very well fall. With Barron ranked clearly ahead of Jamaal Brown and Khalif Barnes, somebody (Carolina?) could move up in front of the Texans to grab him.
If Barron is gone, the Texans have other needs they could fill. Thirteenth is likely too high for Brown or Barnes, so if they were to go offense, they would likely go with wide receiver Troy Williamson, who is shooting up draft boards after his fast 40 times. The Texans, however, already have a burner in the re-signed Cory Bradford, so their interest in Williamson (which is reportedly serious) is a little questionable. The Texans could grab one of the top three running backs if one falls, but Dominick Davis is serviceable, and the team has other needs.
On defense, they still have a hole at linebacker, and Aaron Glenn in their secondary is about to become an AARP member. If one of the top linebackers, Derrick Johnson or Shawne Merriman were to be available, they may even consider them over Barron. At cornerback, they would likely go after Adam Jones if he was there, but if they end up taking Carlos Rogers, it is likely because they had nobody else they really wanted.
Later in the draft, they should look to strengthen their depth on the offensive line. They will likely add another receiver, and they need help at safety as well. The Texans are a unique team in that they have slightly above-average talent at almost every position, but they have no real stars. This should allow them to take the best available player with each pick and come out with a very solid draft.
The best thing that can be said about the Texans' three year draft history is that they seem to be getting better. Their initial draft in 2002, where they held the first pick in every round and twelve picks overall, was a near-disaster. David Carr has been a solid but unspectacular choice. In the second round, they added Jabar Gaffney, an average secondary receiver, and Chester Pitts, a serviceable guard. The only player among their nine other picks expected to play a major role with the team this year is DeMarcus Faggins, the nickelback.
In 2003, the Texans landed talented wide receiver Andre Johnson in the first round and added starting tackle Seth Wand and starting running back Dominick Davis later in the draft. Second round pick Bennie Joppru has never played due to injuries, not exactly the fault of the organization. Last season, they nabbed Dunta Robinson with their first pick and moved up into the first round to select Jason Babin. Both had very good rookie seasons and should be key contributors going forward. Again, the back half of the draft appears weak, but they did nab projected starting safety Glenn Earl in the fourth round. Six of their first seven picks last season were on defense after the Texans had used seven of their eight picks in the first four rounds the previous two seasons on offensive players.
The Colts sat out free agency, as they have almost every year this decade. They are the only team that has not signed at least one unrestricted free agent from another team. They do not believe in veteran free agency, preferring to build their team through the draft. The only notable free agents on the team are Monte Reagor, a career back-up in Denver before signing with the Colts, and Brandon Stokley, an undersized third receiver with an injury history. Of the twenty-two starters against New England in the playoffs, only Reagor had ever played a regular season down for another team.
One interesting note about the Colts is that they have now cleared almost $8 million in salary cap space. Even after they sign all of their draft picks, and picking 29th they should be reasonably affordable, the Colts should have enough money to be a real player after June 1 salary cuts. It is unclear what sort of market will develop at that point, but a fair number of quality defenders should be available, and the Colts' efforts to clear room show that they could be interested in picking up some defensive help.
The Colts are almost certainly going to draft a defensive player with their first round pick. The Colts' defense lacks a middle linebacker and could use an upgrade at defensive end and cornerback. The drubbing they received from Corey Dillon in the playoffs must be still fresh in their minds as they prepare for next season and would indicate the Colts should lean towards beefing up their run defense.
Some people project the Colts to look for a cornerback, but their re-signing of starter Nick Harper last week is a sign that the Colts are looking in another direction. Further evidence that the Colts are unlikely to take a cornerback is Tony Dungy's general feeling about the relative importance of the position in his defensive scheme. During his six years in Tampa Bay, the Bucs only drafted one cornerback higher than the third round, Brian Kelly in the second round of 1998. This draft is deep at cornerback, and a number of talented corners are expected to go late in round one, but I expect the Colts to fill this need with picks later in the draft.
That leaves the glaring hole at middle linebacker, and the perfect person to fill that hole is Channing Crowder. Crowder has questions about his knees and his character, but he is an excellent athlete who should be capable of stepping in immediately as a starter. Also a possibility is Barrett Rudd, but he is thought to be a step slower, and Dungy prefers speedy defenders, particularly at middle linebacker where his scheme requires more coverage responsibilities than a typical defensive scheme. The final linebacker option would be Odell Thurman, but he also has questionable coverage skills.
The other alternative would be to go after defensive line help. A bevy of defensive linemen are expected to go around the early twenties in the draft, and if some of them fall, like Shaun Cody, the Colts may look for an upgrade. Cody, in fact, would be an excellent fit because he could play end on rushing downs and move inside on passing downs, when pass rush specialist Robert Mathis comes in to play end. If he does not fall to the Colts, they may consider Matt Roth, DE out of Iowa. The Colts have shown a propensity to take Big Ten players, picking seven of them in the last two years, including their top three picks last season.
With drafts heavy on defense the last few seasons, the Colts actually have decent defensive depth for the first time. An additional cornerback and a backup safety should be acquired, but the Colts have nine picks. After next season, they may lose Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James to free agency. It will be interesting to see how much this troubles Bill Polian. On the one hand, the offense is set for this year, and they could go for a volume of defenders and hope to unearth a few gems to help them over the top. But if they want to help the long-term health of the team, they could look to acquire a wide receiver or running back as early as the second round.
If you are going to eschew free agency, you better draft well, and nobody drafts better than the Colts. Their offensive core has been built through high draft picks, with Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark all former first round picks. The only dubious first round pick the Colts have made since 1993 was Rob Morris in 2000, and he was a starter for most of his five seasons with the team.
The one part of their offense that is not based on high round picks is their offensive line. Other than Glenn, no starter was taken before the fourth round. The Colts generally spend one mid- to late-round pick on an offensive lineman, and together these picks have combined to form one of the more potent lines in football.
The Colts' defensive problems could stem from a lack of front line talent, with only two first round picks spent on defense since 1995. The Colts' lack of attention to defense in the first round is generally made up for with numerous late-round picks. Since Tony Dungy was hired in 2002, sixteen of the twenty-three players drafted after the first round have been defensive players. In this time, the Colts have landed three starters in their secondary, two starting linebackers, and the aforementioned Mathis, who was a fifth round pick in 2003.
One of the most tragic aspects of the Colts' draft history is their relative success with linebackers, the weakest unit on the team. They landed Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington in 1999 and 2000. They lost Peterson to the Jaguars after the 2002 season and Washington after the 2003 season, leaving them devoid of talent at a position where they had drafted two excellent players. Those two could have teamed with Thornton to form an excellent linebacking corps; instead the Colts have Thornton, a to-be-determined middle linebacker, and converted college safety Cato June. Three linebackers taking over the past two drafts have missed time due to injuries, and the Colts hope that one of them develops the way that Peterson and Washington did.
Jacksonville's big free agent catch was Reggie Hayward, the top defensive end on the market. The addition of Hayward upgrades a very weak position. Jacksonville had excess cash and flirted with some other free agents, but the only other signings of note were DT Tony Williams and what is left of DE Marcellus Wiley. The combined signings give good depth to the Jaguars' front four, which should be among the best groups in the NFL.
Perhaps the most amusing maneuver of the Jacksonville free agent period was disgruntled safety Donovan Darius's efforts to broker a trade. Rather than working through back channels with an agent, Darius set up interviews with the major papers in Minneapolis and Miami. Darius practically begged to be traded to those teams in conversations with both papers. He apparently hoped to drum up enough interest in the local fan base that the Vikings or Dolphins would be forced to trade for him. The Jaguars, however, never actively pursued a trade. Darius does have value, and he and management have a terrible relationship after three straight off-seasons where he was franchised. A draft day trade remains a possibility.
On a more positive note, the Jaguars locked up their top defensive player, Marcus Stroud, with a five year contract that makes him one of the highest paid defensive tackles in football. Stroud and co-tackle John Henderson anchor one of the top inside duos in football. Swimming in salary cap space this season, the Jags were wise to lock up Stroud now, allowing them to absorb some of his bonus money this season. The task for the next off-season is to lock up Henderson, a free agent after the 2006 season.
Not picking until 21st, their lowest first round selection since 2000 (when they regrettably picked R. Jay Soward), the Jaguars are likely to go with the best available talent at a number of positions. Their biggest question mark heading into the season is at cornerback, where Kiwaukee "The Ming of Beers" Thomas is currently slated to be a starter for the first time in his career. They also could look at wide receiver, where Reggie Williams was a complete bust last year. Besides receiver and cornerback, they might go for an offensive line upgrade or a defensive end to play opposite Hayward. The Jaguars are more likely to go defense, having invested their last two #1 picks on offensive players Byron Leftwich and Reggie Williams.
The Jaguars would be thrilled if Carlos Rogers fell to them, but they are more likely looking at Fabian Washington, Justin Miller, or Marlin Jackson. The uncertain Darius situation makes safety a need, especially after the 2005 season, and could make Jackson (who could play corner or safety) an intriguing pick. The biggest room for improvement would be to go after a wide receiver, such as Mark Clayton. They may be hesitant to invest another first round selection in a wide receiver after picking Williams last season, however.
The most depth at this point in the draft will be at the defensive end position, where they may have their choice between Shaun Cody, Matt Roth, and maybe David Pollack. With the aging Marcellus Wiley currently slated to be the starter, the Jaguars do have a need at this position.
Whatever they do with their first pick, the Jaguars would be well advised to leave the first day with a cornerback and a wide receiver and finish the draft with several additional offensive linemen. New offensive coordinator Carl Smith plans to use a run-heavy offense, so you may see an emphasis on upgrading a mediocre offensive line in the middle rounds. With an off-season decision to move last year's second round pick Greg Jones to fullback, the Jaguars may invest in another running back to back up Fred Taylor. The returns on current back-up LaBrandon Toefield have been limited to this point.
In recent years, the Jaguars may as well have headed home after Day 1 of the draft. Between 2001 and 2003, they landed an impressive eight starters on the draft's first day, but they acquired no major contributors in the fourth round or later. Last season, they saw some improvement on that, picking up promising kicker Josh Scobee, intriguing wideout Ernest Wilford, and fill-in defensive end Bobby McCray.
The Jaguars' best round has been the second round, where each pick in the last five drafts is a projected starter for this season. In the first round, they got their Pro Bowl tackles and Leftwich, but those success are sandwiched by a complete bust in Soward and the underwhelming Williams.
When teams are coming off a disappointing regular season, fans can often look forward to the free agent period for renewed hope. Titans' fans are not so fortunate this year. Their salary cap purge led to the departure of Derrick Mason, Kevin Carter, Samari Rolle, Robert Holcombe, Fred Miller, and Joe Nedney. They also lost Antowain Smith and traded talented-but-underachieving defensive end Carlos Hall to the Chiefs for a fifth round pick. Their other starting cornerback, Andre Dyson, is also an unrestricted free agent, and while he has gotten somewhat surprisingly tepid interest to date, he is still likely to sign elsewhere.
To counteract these losses, the Titans have added, drum roll please, Kyle Vanden Bosch. Vanden Bosch is a defensive end who has spent the last four seasons in Arizona. Last season he started one game and totaled 11 tackles and no sacks. Needless to say, he is not an impact player. It has not been a fun spring to be a Titans' fan.
With the Titans, it may be easier to list the units where they do not have needs. That would include linebacker, safety, and tight end. Everything else needs at least depth, and in some cases a major influx of talent. The Titans currently have two receivers on their roster. Not two Pro Bowlers or two long time starters, just two receivers. They also are missing both of their starting cornerbacks from the past several seasons. The other largest area of need would be a mediocre offensive line, particularly at the tackle position, where Brad Hopkins turns 142 this season and Jacob Bell, a second year player who played serviceably at guard last season, is expected to replace Fred Miller.
The Titans would presumably love to trade down for more picks, and the way the draft is setting up, they sit in an ideal place to make a move. They are currently set to pick sixth, and in the first five picks, it is likely that Braylon Edwards, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams will be off the board. That leaves Mike Williams as the clear cut # 2 receiver and Cedric Benson as the clear # 3 running back. Picking in front of Minnesota, last seen trading away Randy Moss, anyone who wants a shot at Williams may have to get up to the sixth position. If both Edwards and Williams are off the board, it likely means that Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers is still available, an enticing proposition for any quarterback needy team. That could lead to a trade for the Titans, particularly with each team sitting between pick 8 and 11 having some degree of quarterback uncertainty.
If they stay put, most people think the Titans will go with either Antrel Rolle or one of the top receivers. Edwards would be an intriguing pick because he is often considered the top talent in the draft. Williams would be reunited with his college offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, who is now calling plays for the Titans. Rolle is the most frequently projected target for the Titans and the consensus top cornerback.
Despite Rolle's pedigree, I think the Titans should consider Adam â€œPac-Manâ€? Jones. Jones is a little smaller than Rolle, a major reason he is considered the second-best corner. However, he offers something that Rolle does not: kick returns. The Titans were woefully bad returning kicks last season, ranking ahead of only the Rams in our kick return statistics. Jones can return both kickoffs and punts. Poor Tennessee kick and punt returns last season cost the Titans 25 points compared to NFL average. Jones, by all accounts, is a dynamic return man. Ideally, the Titans would be able to trade down and still acquire Jones, perhaps dealing with the Redskins at #9 who may prefer Rolle or one of the receivers.
Whichever they do not take between corner and wide receiver, they will likely go after in the second round. Picking fifth in the second round, they should land a starting quality starter. Some people have put the Titans in pursuit of Matt Jones, this year's workout star, but if the buzz on Jones is right, he will be gone by the time they pick. The Titans may have a shot at Justin Miller or Fabian Washington, and at receiver they would be looking at someone like Reggie Brown or Roddy Smith, one of whom would likely fall if Matt Jones moves up too far. Each would be a solid second round selection.
The Titans have actually drafted fairly well over the last several seasons, but salary cap problems have left them unable to keep the quality players they find. Last season, they lost Jevon Kearse (1st round), Justin McCareins (4th round), and Robaire Smith (6th round). All are quality players in this league. The above mentioned list of departing players includes fourth round pick Mason and seventh round pick Hall.
One sure sign of the Titans' cap struggles is that despite a solid 2001 draft, not a single player from that draft remains on the roster. The Nashville Tennessean, home to excellent NFL coverage, detailed all of the losses in this article. To sum up, despite trading for Kevin Carter and drafting Justin McCareins and Andre Dyson, they have nothing to show for that draft only five seasons later.
The 2002 and 2004 drafts were almost exclusively devoted to defense. In 2002, the first six picks were on defense. Last season, six of their first seven picks were spent on defense. The 2002 class netted starters Albert Haynsworth, Tank Williams, and Rocky Calmus. The 2004 draft was very disappointing last season when injuries forced them into action, but it is a little early to write off the entire class.
Next week: Four Downs goes back to the NFC West to begin reviews of each team's draft.