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?
31 May 2005
by Ned Macey
Also check out the pre-draft edition of Four Downs: AFC South.
The fact that the Houston Texans did not understand that their offense and defense were roughly equivalent units had been hinted at by the team's off-season free agent moves. Only in their draft, however, did the full extent of their blindness really become clear. Last season, the Texans posted a defensive DVOA of -2.4% and an offensive DVOA of 0.2%, ranking 14th in the league both offensively and defensively. DVOA accounts for opponent adjustment, and playing the Colts twice -- along with the AFC West and the NFC North -- tends to make your offense look better than it is and your defense look worse. Houston's offensive VOA was 4.5% while its defensive VOA was 6.8%, tied for 21st in the league. An NFL team should be able to understand the impact of opponents on the performance of their units but the Texans clearly did not.
All this brings me to the draft, where the Texans were sitting pretty at #13 with every available offensive lineman still on the board. The Saints came up and offered a 2006 third-rounder to move up three places. Now at #16, the Texans still could have drafted Alex Barron, one of the top tackles in the draft, but they instead spent their pick on DT Travis Johnson. Johnson is a fine player, but he was certainly not a steal at that level. Maybe the Texans did not like Barron, but they had the option of taking Jamal Brown with the thirteenth pick. The offensive tackle position has been in disarray since the franchise began.
Before the draft, the Texans sent their second and third round picks to the Raiders for Philip Buchanon. With Aaron Glenn expected to play with a walker next season (now for the Cowboys), this trade made sense. They get Buchanon at a low contract level, and they had an extra third round pick in this year's draft. Completing the trade before the draft, however, makes inexcusable the Texans' failure to upgrade their line in the first round. They knew they only had one other pick in the first 113, yet they ignored a critical area of need in order to add a player who may or may not start.
From there, the Texans finally turned to offense, although still not the offensive line, drafting RB Vernand Morency and WR Jerome Mathis. Both of these picks are intriguing. Morency is a former minor league baseball player who is already 25 years old, but he is a very solid back if lacking in breakaway speed. Speed is not something Mathis lacks, a burner clocked at 4.28 at the combine. He comes from small Hampton College and is a bit of a project. With Corey Bradford already playing the role of speedy third receiver, Mathis will likely have to wait a few years to contribute. The post-draft release of J.J. Moses indicates Mathis will at least be called on to return kickoffs immediately.
The Texans finished their draft with a center and two small-school defensive players that will struggle to make the team. At no point did they feel the need to draft an offensive tackle. Then in training camp, we get this story from the Houston Chronicle that they are concerned about their line. What a shocking development.
In the team's mini-camp, 2003 second round choice Bennie Joppru blew out his knee and is lost for the season. That is three major injuries in as many years for the former University of Michigan tight end. The loss leaves the Texans relying on Billy Miller, Mark Bruener, and Marcellus Rivers, three players who performed below replacement-level last season according to our ratings.
The Texans signed 11 rookie free agents, the most familiar name being Pitts, as in Devin Pitts, younger brother of starting offensive lineman Chester Pitts. The younger Pitts is not a lineman -- he's a wideout from San Diego State -- but of the other ten players, three are tackles. If you were waiting for your chance to make an NFL team as an undrafted free agent, heading to Houston as a tackle is about the best opportunity you can get.
The Colts sure made me look like an idiot. After I said they would not go after cornerbacks early, the Colts used both of their first two picks on cornerbacks. These two picks show that the Colts continue to see the world of football in a different way from everyone else (including us, and we pride ourselves on thinking outside the box). After picking cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden with their first two picks of the draft, Colts president Bill Polian said, "When we came home from Foxboro last year, the thing that gnawed at us most was the tackling in the secondary."
Now, the tackling in the secondary of that game was atrocious, but I seem to remember Corey Dillon plowing through the front seven with just as much ease. While addressing their poor run defense with physical corners, the Colts have elected to let go incumbent starting middle linebacker Rob Morris, to be replaced by the more agile -- but undersized -- Gary Brackett. Corners who specialize in run support and linebackers that are better in coverage: just the way football has always been taught, right?
All jokes aside, the pick of Jackson was sound. He is an aggressive player and immediately becomes the second-most talented player on the Colts' defense. The selection of Hayden, however, seems odd given that the Colts return all of their cornerbacks from last season and added Jackson. They also had the glaring hole at middle linebacker. Finally, and most importantly, Hayden is a raw converted receiver who is likely several years away from competing for a job. With returning second-year player Jason David and Jackson on board, can Hayden hope to ever develop into more than a nickel back?
Part of the problem could be that in order to pay Peyton Manning, the Colts have apparently limited their scouting department to the Midwest, and the Big Ten in particular. For the third straight year, they used their top two picks on Big Ten players, and overall five of their nine picks are Big Ten grads. Add in a player from Kentucky and one from Cincinnati, and seven of the nine are within a five hour drive of Indy. If he had just accepted a Brady-sized contract, maybe the Colts could afford to scout the SEC and Pac-10.
Of the later round picks, three stand out in particular. Vincent Burns is the sort of undersized, athletic defensive tackle Tony Dungy loves, and he will be a major contributor in a couple seasons. Kicker Dave Rayner is being brought in for kickoffs with an eye towards replacing Mike Vanderjagt after this season. Dungy has been openly talking about how he would like to only carry one kicker, rhetoric that seemingly placates Vanderjagt (who is openly lobbying for the right to butcher kickoffs). To me, it says a strong camp from Rayner could mean Vanderjagt is shown the door this season. 35-year-old kickers with declining accuracy, no value on kickoffs, large mouths, and huge contracts are not exactly what you want hanging around the locker room. Finally, Anthony Davis, the oft-injured running back from Wisconsin, was a nice flyer pick in the seventh round.
The Colts signed sixteen rookie free agents. The most interesting story is TE Joey Hawkins out of Texas Tech. He was recommended by Bobby Knight, his basketball coach while at school. Before any Colts' fans conjure up images of Antonio Gates, Hawkins actually played football in school and was nothing to write home about. Other players with a possibility of sticking are LB Chris Laskowski from Florida Atlantic (as a special teamer) and big running back Marcus Williams from Maine. The Colts were appallingly bad at running the ball at the goal line last year, and a bigger back may be the answer.
With June 1 salary cap cuts just a day away, the Colts would seem to be a team that might go hunting. They will have around $5 million to work with and a glaring need for help at the linebacker position. If they are to be believed, the only move they are seriously contemplating is bringing back Rob Morris. Peter Boulware and Kevin Hardy are no longer Pro Bowl caliber players, but adding linebacker depth would seem to be a priority for the Colts. If they pass on those two players and any others made available, remember that the Colts had the cap room to be players in the mid-level free agent market and decided to stand pat.
Matt Jones is very big and very fast. I am not sure what else there is to say about him. Projected as a second round pick, the Jaguars went after the Arkansas quarterback-turned-receiver with the 21st pick of the first round, bypassing the more polished Mark Clayton. Wide receiver was a definite need for the Jaguars, with last year's first round pick Reggie Williams struggling mightily during his rookie year. The Jaguars also have a terrible assortment of tight ends, a position for which some feel Jones is better suited. To me, it was a wasted pick. The Jaguars were 9-7 last year, and while that was a fluky record (they were outscored by their opponents for the season) taking on projects is hardly an advisable way to take the next step.
In defense of the pick, Antwaan Randel El, Ronald Curry, and Drew Bennett have all made successful transitions from college quarterback to pro wide receiver. Hell, Antonio Gates skipped college football altogether and was the best tight end in football last year (although he had at least played the position in high school). Jones is a physical freak with good football sense. Once he develops, I expect him to become a solid NFL receiver. Rookie receivers in general tend to struggle, and the converted quarterbacks have had a very limited impact as rookies. The Jones pick seems an admission that the Jaguars felt they were more than one player away.
Second round pick Khalif Barnes is a good value pick, and with lingering injury issues surrounding tackle Mike Pearson, a solid move. From there, however, the draft went downhill. Third round cornerback Scott Starks is undersized. Fourth rounder Alvin Pearman enters the glut of mediocre running backs behind Fred Taylor in the never-ending search to find his heir apparent. It is the third straight year they have used a pick in the first four rounds to find a running back. LaBrandon Toefield flopped, and Greg Jones has been moved to fullback. The last four rounds were spent getting three players for defensive depth and pint-sized receiver Chad Owens from Hawaii. Owens was an electric return man in college and could upgrade Jacksonville's below-average return units.
The Jaguars signed some intriguing defensive players after the draft, including Virginia Tech DE James Davis. Unfortunately, they have filled their depth chart with aging veterans, having acquired through free agency defensive linemen Marcellus Wiley and Tony Williams, linebacker Nate Wayne, and cornerback Terry Cousin. Of those four, only Wiley is a possible starter, and if he does start, last year's opening game starter Paul Spicer will be on the bench. Eleven starters plus four veteran free-agent reserves plus four drafted defensive players does not leave much room for the undrafted free agent.
Offensively, the Jaguars added RB Derrick Wimbush from Valdosta State. With a bevy of backs already behind Fred Taylor, his odds of making the team are long, but he dominated competition at the DII level and has decent size and speed. If Taylor's latest injury limits him in training camp, Wimbush could have a chance to prove himself capable of competing against the tough competition in the NFL.
When a team has as many holes as the Titans, it makes drafting easier, and I really liked what the Titans did in their draft. As you read in the last edition of Four Downs: AFC South (which also guaranteed the Colts would not take a corner in the first round and the Texans would go offensive tackle), Pac-Man Jones is a perfect fit for the Titans because of his ability to return punts, a category where they were woefully bad last season. The first defensive player taken off the board, Jones will be thrown into the fire as a starter, and he may already be the team's #1 cornerback.
In the second round, the Titans solidified their offensive line by going with Michael Roos, a tackle out of Eastern Washington. They then spent three picks in rounds three and four on wide receivers Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones, and Roydell Williams. Given the Titans recent success in developing mid to late round receivers (Derrick Mason, Justin McCareins, and Drew Bennett were all drafted in the fourth round or later), odds are that one of these three will emerge. Roby is something of a workout wonder piggybacking a ridiculously fast 40 time into the third round. Williams is an intriguing player out of Tulane with a knack for catching touchdowns. He is unpolished, however, and has a bit of an injury history. Jones could be an immediately effective slot receiver with the speed to develop into a reliable deep threat. He is somewhat akin to Keary Colbert a season ago, overshadowed by a more heralded teammate but very polished and likely able to contribute immediately.
The other picks in the draft were spent reinforcing the areas of particularly weak depth. Vincent Fuller, a defensive back out of Virginia Tech, was taken in the fourth round and could be an indication that Lance Schulters will be cut on June 1. Fuller is versatile enough to play corner, and he could be the nickel back, over one of the shockingly bad backup corners who were torched on a weekly basis after Samari Rolle got hurt last season. Running back Damien Nash, a fifth round pick, is already second on the depth chart. Second behind Chris Brown means he will get some starts this year. The Titans also added two more late-round offensive linemen, David Stewart and Daniel Loper, an acknowledgement of the relative age of that unit.
With the salary cap purge the Titans underwent this off-season, Nashville was an attractive place for undrafted rookie free agents. With the mini-camps over, several remain definite possibilities to make the roster. The most likely is Syracuse running back Walter Reyes. Chris Brown was injured again in mini-camp, breaking his hand. With the departure of Antowain Smith, and only Nash ahead of him on the depth chart, Reyes could make the team and even contribute. If anyone is likely to repeat the Dominic Rhodes's 2001 feat of going from undrafted free agent to 1000-yard rusher as a rookie, it is Reyes.
The running back depth issue is a big concern, particularly reinforced by Brown going down with another injury. Rumors of an Eddie George reunion seemed to have died off, but even so, would anyone really want George as more than a buddy of Steve McNair? A rumored trade with Buffalo for Travis Henry never developed. If the Titans really think they could be competitive this year, a longshot at best, look for them to find somebody in the next couple of weeks to backup Brown. If they are punting the season, then Nash and Reyes will battle for the backup position.
The Titans also like defensive tackle Marcus White out of Murray State and center Joel Rodriguez from Miami. The biggest name rookie free agent is former Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, who unlike Gino Torretta was not even able to squeeze into the late rounds of the draft.
As mentioned above, Lance Schulters is a likely salary cap casualty. He is refusing to lower his salary cap figure, and the Titans have a solid replacement in Lamont Thompson, who filled in last year when both starting safeties had extensive injuries. Maybe the Titans feel the key to winning back-to-back Super Bowls is to cut talented safeties who will not lower their cap number. More likely is that they want no veteran backups at any position, instead relying on youth to fill in the holes and develop for future seasons when the Titans are again competitive.
Next week: NFC West by Mike Tanier.
1 comment, Last at 14 Jun 2005, 6:39pm by ChicagoScott