Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
27 Jul 2005
by Ned Macey
Also check out the previous edition of Four Downs: AFC South.
The Texans are entering year four of existence, and in many ways this is a make or break year for their initial management/coaching group. In the off-season, said group made moves based on the premise that they had an emerging, young offense that would be playoff quality. The entire off-season was spent retooling the defense, making it younger and faster. The offensive line remains largely unchanged and below average. The faith of the team, therefore, must lie in the skill position players.
In the first AFC Four Downs of the off-season, I took a look at David Carr and hypothesized that he is improving but is not ultimately destined for stardom. Basic competency at quarterback was a winning recipe for each Super Bowl winner between 2000 and 2002, so Carr may not be the solution, but he is also not the problem.
Running back Dominick Davis is a current FO favorite, projected for 1429 yards. His top 4 comparables by similarity scores (explained here) include Ricky Williams before his one good season, Thurman Thomas, Tony Dorsett, and Marcus Allen before his best season. He should be among the most productive backs in football.
That leaves us with the wide receivers, who warrant a deeper look today. The threesome of Andre Johnson, Jabar Gaffney, and Derick Armstrong does not evoke images of the Rams' or Colts' receiving corps, but these players are actually very solid. Johnson has developed a reputation as a young star. Gaffney is no Reggie Wayne or even Drew Bennett (to keep with the AFC South theme), but he quietly posted a DVOA (stats are explained here) of 20.9% last season, good for 21st in the league. Armstrong, in his second year out of Arkansas-Monticello via the CFL, was the #4 receiver a year ago, but he lit up DVOA thanks to a remarkable 74% catch percentage while still averaging 14.3 yards per catch. (2004 WR stats here.)
To anticipate where these receivers are headed this year, let us return to similarity scores. With Johnson, you have a player who in his second season caught 79 balls for 1142 yards. Unfortunately, much of that was due to the 137 passes sent his way, which combined with a meager 6 touchdowns gave him a DVOA of only 4.5%, 44th in the league. From his comparables, Johnson appears headed for a repeat season but not a further break-out. Given his big numbers, most of his top comps were older players. Looking at people who were most similar after two seasons, you get a who's who of almost stars. Chris Collinsworth, Andre Rison, Ernest Givens, Bill Brooks (the Colt/Bill), and Darrell Jackson top the list. Of the ten most similar, only Rod Gardner and Brian Blades saw a major drop-off. Surprisingly, given the conventional wisdom about third-year wide receivers as break-out candidates, only Al Toon actually improved on his second year numbers. Based on these comps and his mediocre DVOA, Johnson is unlikely to be the source of major improvement.
Gaffney is entering his fourth season, and like the Texans has improved from dreadful to respectable during that time. His rise in DVOA from -15.7% to 5.5% to 20.9% shows he is clearly improving, but his comps leave a little to be desired. Nobody on the list had what could be termed a "breakout" season the next year, with the best year being turned in by Michael Timpson catching 74 balls for 941 yards for the Patriots in 1993. The highest comparable is Shawn Jefferson through the 1994 season, and this is one I rather like. Going into his fourth year, Jefferson had never topped 400 receiving yards, but over the next seven, he was never under 600 or over 850. Gaffney has the potential for that kind of workmanlike effort, but expecting vast improvement on his 41 catch, 632 yard campaign is wishful thinking.
Finally, we have Armstrong, leader in DPAR among those who saw fewer than 50 passes. That distinction has gone in past years to such luminaries as Charles Lee, Marc Boerigter, Brian Finneran, and a slightly more encouraging name: Ricky Proehl. Armstrong's comparables all posted poor stats the next season except for Dez White who had 656 yards for the 2002 Bears, thus leading some fools to take a flyer on him in fantasy football the next year (not that I'm bitter). Armstrong's third biggest comparable player is Donald Driver through the 2000 season. Driver's big breakout was still two seasons away, but Armstrong in 2004 had a much higher DVOA than Driver in 2000 (-3.2%). The next year Driver's DVOA of 22.7% in limited opportunities presaged his breakout 2002 campaign. With Bradford still on the roster, Armstrong still has to win the third receiver job, but he represents the biggest chance for improvement in the Texans' passing game.
Overall, the offense looks like it will take a small step forward. Whether or not Carr can be protected will be a major issue, but his best protection could come from Dominick Davis's emergence as a star player. The team had an overall DVOA of 0.2%, good for 14th in the league. The pass offense ranked 16th in the league with a 1.4% DVOA, while the rush offense was 17th at -1.0%. That would seem to have them in a good spot. However, since their offense was closer to 25th in the league than tenth, the small improvement provided by Davis may not be enough.
The Colts' off-season has filled headlines, keeping Indianapolis beat reporters and your trusty AFC South Four Downs writer fairly busy. In the end, almost nothing has changed. The Colts entered the off-season with the prospect of losing Edgerrin James (or at least facing a protracted holdout), guard Rick DeMulling, tight end Marcus Pollard, and three defensive starters. As they enter camp, James is franchised and indicated he intends to report. DeMulling and Pollard have moved north to Detroit, but of the anticipated defensive defections, only Idres Bashir did not re-sign. Every Colt who had a rushing attempt and everyone who had a reception except for Pollard is in camp. Every player who made a tackle in the playoff loss to New England except Bashir is in camp. Certain spots are up for grabs, the battle for middle linebacker between Gary Brackett and incumbent Rob Morris bears watching, but the rest of the team is the same.
Also filling headlines were legal troubles suffered by the Colts' secondary. In the same week, safety Mike Doss was arrested for firing a gun in public, while cornerback Nick Harper was picked up for domestic abuse. An organization does not want its players in trouble with the law, but the on-field impact will be minimal. Doss was suspended for two games, but as the first two opponents on the Colts' schedule are Baltimore and Jacksonville, the impact of losing a safety will be limited. The move could actually help by forcing the Colts to address their lack of safety depth early in camp, sliding Joseph Jefferson to the position from day one. Harper's arrest falls in the category of Extraordinarily Stupid Career Move given he attracted no interest on the free agent market and watched the Colts spend their first two picks on cornerbacks. If second round project Kelvin Hayden shows the potential to contribute this season, Harper, a starter last season, may be shown the door before the season starts.
With all these news headlines helping Colts' fans pass the time, the single biggest event that likely has no long-term impact on the team is the agreement reached between the team and the city for a massive handout ... I mean a new stadium. I am no expert on NFL finances, and I do not even play one on the Internet, but publicly funded stadiums strike me as an absolute scam. The vacant market in Los Angeles is used to scare every small-market team into believing that their team, unable to 'compete' in current conditions, is on the verge of moving. The owner always says he is committed to the current city but acknowledges that the current conditions are tough. The league offers Super Bowls to teams that build new stadiums. Inevitably the city caves and builds for an owner infinitely richer than Peyton Manning a spanking new revenue-generating machine.
The Colts do not need the stadium to compete. They have gone 63-33 since 1999. They gave Peyton Manning a record signing bonus before any plans were finalized on the stadium. They play in the NFL, the league where billionaires suddenly believe in socialism. Bob Kravitz, columnist for the Indianapolis Star, wrote an apology a couple weeks ago for not having argued against the stadium when it was still in doubt. It is worth reading to see the choices that were made to guarantee a continued cash cow for the Irsay family and two weeks of jokes about "India-no-place" by overweight football columnists upset they are spending two weeks of winter in Indianapolis instead of San Diego.
The Jaguars enter camp this season with a major question: running back Fred Taylor's health. Our own injury expert Will Carroll wrote that Taylor: "should be ready for the start of training camp ... There's little chance he'll make it through the season intact." I'll leave the injury analysis to Will, but such a prognosis provides a serious problem for the Jaguars. They flirted with Travis Henry of the Bills before he was shipped to the Titans. With no outside help likely to arrive, what sort of running game can we expect from the Jaguars?
Taylor's increasing age led the Jaguars to invest a fourth round pick in 2002, a second round pick in 2003, and another fourth round pick this season on running backs. These picks have added LaBrandon Toefield, Greg Jones, and Alvin Pearman. Despite Taylor's reputation, he has only missed two games in the last three years, so we have a limited sample to see the success of these players. So far, the returns on Toefield and Jones have been mixed at best. According to scouts, Pearman's future is not as an every-down back.
Toefield comes from an SEC school, often a good indicator of future success, and after his rookie season he appeared to be another data point in our SEC RB theory. In limited time, he posted a solid 3.7% DVOA, and as a receiver, he had a 55.1% DVOA in the 16 passes directed at him. Last year, in roughly the same number of carries, he declined to -11.5%. With more focus on him in the passing game, his DVOA as a receiver was 1.3%. In Toefield's defense, the Jaguars played without tackle Mike Pearson last year, and their team rushing DVOA declined from 0.1% to -8.4%. With Pearson back and the addition of Khalif Barnes, Toefield could recapture the promise he exhibited in his rookie season.
Jones was added to be a short yardage specialist, but during a difficult rookie season he was basically converted to a fullback. Jones was dreadful when he did carry the ball, posting a DVOA of -24.2%. Not much coming out of Jacksonville indicates that he is likely to be considered as a feature back, and his struggles last year make that probably a sound decision.
Pearman is an undersized rookie out of Virginia who is more shifty than fast. He seems better suited to be a third-down back.
Add it all up, and what do you get? A gigantic question mark at the running back position. In this situation, many people have criticized them for not closing the deal with Henry, but if you read down to the Titans' section, you see that they avoided acquiring a below-average back. I'm guessing that Toefield, even coming off last year's disappointing season, is capable of providing basically what Henry offers.
The Colts are not the only ones following the NFL trend of squeezing millions of dollars from local government. The Jaguars -- sitting comfortably in a relatively new stadium -- have decided to start asking for more money. Owner Wayne Weaver, a notorious cheapskate, is starting to make rumblings about being unable to compete in the Jacksonville market. The Florida Times-Union went in-depth into the Jaguars financial situation, and while their direct comparison to Green Bay is probably not exactly correct, I imagine it is in the ballpark. What they found is that if the Jaguars are losing money, it is not much.
Everybody agrees that the Jaguars were extremely profitable from the team's inception in 1993 through 1999. After that, the team started to make less money before claiming they lost money the last several seasons. Much of this is because of a decline in ticket sales, from second in 1999 to 27th in 2003. Weaver is blaming this on the market, and Jacksonville is the second-smallest market in the NFL. I think the reason might be that the Jaguars are 33-47 over the past five seasons, only exceeding .500 last season. Weaver, who got a free stadium in 1993, somehow believes that he should be guaranteed to make money even if he is fielding a sub-standard team. It must be tough to have an investment that makes you bundles of money when your product is good but causes you minor losses when your product is poor.
The Titans from all appearances are in a rebuilding mode, but they made the most aggressive move of the post-draft period, sending a 2006 3rd round pick to the Bills for Travis Henry. Aaron discussed at length Travis Henry's inadequacies before the trade, but I cannot leave it at that. I have nothing against Henry or any member of his family, but the way this trade has been discussed in the mainstream media as a boon for the Titans has driven me to desperate measures.
Our position on Henry is summed up in our player comment for him in Pro Football Prospectus 2005 (now shipping ... hint, hint) written obviously before his recent trade to the Titans: "The Bills' brass said they couldn't figure out why no team would offer them a high draft pick for Henry. Here's a clue, fellas: He's no good. For three years all we heard was that if Henry could start to hang onto the ball he'd be a very good runner. Then in 2004 he held onto the ball and still stunk. No one wants to pay high NFL currency for your backup, Buffalo."
Well, we were wrong about one part, as Tennessee is willing to pay what is likely one of the top 75 picks in the draft for Henry. The Titans have not seemed to grasp one of our core tenets: the fungible nature of the mid-level running back. Their image of Eddie George as a "warrior" has somehow blinded them to the fact that running backs are allowed to actually provide value above average. Take a look at Tennessee's rushing DVOA over the past five seasons. These numbers are for a team that has won 48 games during this period.
The 2002 numbers were greatly aided by Steve McNair's rushing from the quarterback position, where he posted a 42.3% DVOA in his rushing attempts. Looking at the Titans' feature backs the past five seasons, only once have any of the backs been even slightly above average, with George in 2002 posting a whopping 0.2% DVOA.
Travis Henry fits in perfectly with the above line. Stealing a chart posted by Aaron in his AFC East Four Downs:
Even Henry's conventional statistics are nothing to write home about. He was a full-time starter for two seasons, topping out at 1438 yards and 4.4 yards per carry in 2002. The raw totals were good for fifth in the league that season, a seemingly impressive total. But over the past three seasons, fifteen separate backs have rushed for more than 1438 yards in at least one season, and all except Rudi Johnson last year averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry. If Henry is a top 10 back, what does that make these other 13 backs? Is Henry a top 10 back because he was so impressive last season, struggling to 326 yards on 3.5 yards per carry? It is certainly not because of his versatility, as Henry's career high receiving DPAR is only 2.8, or just below what Patrick Pass contributed to the Patriots last year.
Still, the major media continues to fawn over Henry, including some of the best writers around. The venerable Dr. Z calls him "a terrific runner" and says he would give up more than a third rounder. Peter King spent the off-season touting Henry and following the deal wrote: "I'm amazed, and I do not use that word lightly, that someone with a running back need didn't gladly pay a second-rounder for the guy." Len Pasquarelli called the acquisition "a terrific one for the Titans," questioning only the backfield by committee approach, not Henry's talent.
Travis Henry is not a useless player by any stretch of the imagination, and one can imagine a committee with him and Chris Brown being productive from a yardage standpoint (if extremely fumble-prone). We support running back by committee as a way to save wear and tear on backs, and early reports from the Titans seem to indicate they agree. The Titans also locked him up for the next several years at a not exorbitant salary. Thanks in large part to supplemental picks, the Titans have drafted 24 players the past two seasons, including nine in the first three rounds. I assume that they think they have enough young players going forward making next year's third round pick less valuable to them. Still, Henry is not worth the price they paid. He's a mediocre back who the major media seems to think is something special. A third round pick is not the end of the world, but it was too much for Henry.
Four Downs will return for one more round in late August, for a look at things you may have missed in training camp.
22 comments, Last at 08 Aug 2005, 8:37am by Mr Shush