The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"
24 Feb 2006
by Ned Macey
All news about the Texans seems to revolve around what they will do with the first pick in the draft. In the endless Bush/Young debate, nobody has taken a look at why the Texans are in the position they are in and how soon they will be able to become a respectable franchise.
The Texans held long-shot playoff hopes before the start of the season only to end up where they were four seasons ago, picking first in the NFL draft. They lost six games by a touchdown or less en route to a 2-14 record, even worse than their inaugural season.
The close losses give some reason for optimism, but DVOA shows them as a team that was, in fact, really bad (DVOA is fully explained here.) They ranked 31st in the league in overall DVOA. Their supposedly dynamic young offense ranked 28th, and that was the bright spot, as the rebuilt defense finished dead last.
The Texans have hired long-time Denver offensive coordinator (and namesake of Football Outsiders' player projection model) Gary Kubiak as head coach. The initial question Kubiak faces is whether to try and build on what was left or to start all over. The decision appears to have been made to try and be competitive as soon as possible.
They faced an immediate evaluation of quarterback David Carr, who was due an $8 million bonus. Carr was coming off his worst season since his rookie campaign, but they decided to make the investment anyway. Choosing to stick with Carr rather than draft Leinart or Young is a clear signal that the team is thinking of competing in the near future.
The decision to keep Carr is debatable. Anyone who has seen the Texans will freely admit that Carr is not the problem. If a team is paying a player $8 million in bonuses and nearly $25 million over the next three years, however, he needs to be part of the solution. Carr has yet to post a positive DVOA in any season as quarterback. He will be 27 years old when next season begins, so he is no longer a â€œyoung quarterback.â€? Kubiak may hope that Carr is similar to Jake Plummer and only needs a new system. Houston fans better hope he is right.
All this focus on the offense obscures the Texans' greatest weakness, their defense. Exacerbating matters is the fact that the team is shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and lacks the players to make the transformation. Dom Capers, as 3-4 guru and inaugural head coach of the Texans, brought every single defensive player to the team with the intention of playing in the 3-4.
That player selection presents numerous challenges to new defensive coordinator Richard Smith. Smith inherits a defense that has no sure middle linebacker or pass-rushing defensive ends.
The Texans will have Seth Payne, Robaire Smith, Gary Walker, and Travis Johnson to man the defensive tackle positions. At defensive end, all that is on the roster are outside linebackers Jason Babin or Antwan Peek. Their linebackers have nearly all spent their entire careers in the 3-4 or as outside linebackers. The one exception is Kailee Wong, who played some middle linebacker for the Vikings. Relying on him -- 30 years old and coming off an injury -- is questionable. Needless to say, Smith will be longing early in the season for the days when he was coaching Zach Thomas.
Of course, the needs do not end on defense. As everybody knows, the Texans have yet to field a competent offensive line in their four years of existence. The investment in Carr makes it imperative that they finally put a line together to block for him. Again, as on defense, no quality internal candidate exists.
The final hole is at receiver, where everyone except for Andre Johnson and return specialist Jerome Mathis is a free agent. Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford are both unrestricted free agents. The two combined for 5.4 points above replacement level in 156 passes directed their way, or 0.1 more points than restricted free agent Derick Armstrong supplied in 12 passes. Armstrong continues to shine in our metrics, but he so rarely sees the field even behind the non-entities that are Gaffney and Bradford that you have to wonder what is wrong with him. He would seem a natural fit to bring back as a third receiver.
So the Texans need help at defensive end, middle linebacker, offensive line, and wide receiver. Assuming that the Texans have committed to Carr and are leaning toward drafting Reggie Bush (an issue we will take up in a future edition of Four Downs), the Texans have a ridiculous number of holes that need to be filled through free agency.
The good news is that they are already under the cap, and after they mercifully cut safety Marcus Coleman and cornerback Phillip Buchanon, the amount of money they have to spend should increase. They still will have too many needs to go after high-end players at all of these positions.
The first thing they should do is simply re-sign Gaffney. The free agent wide receiver market is thin. Antwaan Randle-El and David Givens would both be solid additions, but due to scarcity in the market, they will probably be overpriced. The Texans also should make due with Wong or one of their other half dozen linebackers in the middle.
The primary areas where they should strike in free agency are at defensive end and the offensive line. The solution to both of these problems may come from the New Orleans Saints. The Saints appear to have chosen the rebuilding path and have let Darren Howard and LeCharles Bentley hit the market. Bentley is one of the best centers in football, and signing him and shifting Steve McKinney to guard will upgrade two spots on the line.
Howard had a very disappointing season, but the truth is that not many quality defensive ends are available. Certainly paying big money to Howard would be a mistake, but if his poor season makes the price right, the Texans should gamble. One other option would be to sign Raheem Brock from the Colts. Brock is a solid defensive end against the run who could combine with Babin to form a potent defensive end rotation.
(Ed. note: This is a good place to remind Colts fans, or other Indiana readers, that Aaron, Will, and Mike Smith will all be at Rock Bottom in Indy Saturday night at 7pm for a BP/FO cross-sports pizza feed. Come hang with your FO buddies.)
The Colts have been keeping their offensive core together for years waiting for it to be their year. The â€œtripletsâ€? have been together since 1999, and the Colts have given big contracts to Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Ryan Diem, and Brandon Stokley. This past season, the stars seemed to align perfectly for the Colts, but they faltered once again in the playoffs.
Both Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James were free agents, so the Colts finally faced the prospect of losing one of their important offensive players. The decision was not a hard one for the Colts, who maintained all season that Wayne was the priority. They turned words into action by inking their leading receiver last season to a six-year contract.
The signing of Wayne and the lack of movement on negotiations with James indicates the end of an era for the Colts. They cannot afford to franchise James because it comes with a 20 percent salary increase that would make his contract for this season over $10 million. The Colts have long hinted that they did not want to give James a long-term contract. Last off-season they franchised him and told his agent he could seek a trade. Without the power to franchise him this year, the only way he would return to the Colts is if he received no offers on the open market, an unlikely scenario.
Team President Bill Polian clearly agrees with Football Outsiders that signing an aging running back to a big contract is a risky proposition. He famously traded away Marshall Faulk in the prime of his career in 1999 only to replace Faulk with James and watch his team start a run of six playoff appearances in seven years.
Choosing Wayne over James is probably the correct decision, but a repeat of 1999 is highly unlikely. Wayne has more value because the Colts are a passing offense. Marvin Harrison is entering his mid-30s, and he no longer is effective against double coverage. With Wayne on the other side, however, Harrison posted his highest rank in DVOA since 2002. The thought of a double-teamed Harrison with only Stokley on the other side of the field had to scare Polian.
Still, the loss of James is a major one for the Colts for a couple of reasons. With the potent passing attack and quality offensive line, they should be able to find a back capable of rushing for 1200 yards. Nonetheless, the little things James does will be missed.
Most importantly, James excels in pass protection. The Colts are leaning toward taking a rookie running back to replace James, and rookies are notoriously poor in protection. If the Colts require a special back for passing plays, it will undermine their no-huddle system. James' flexibility allowed Manning to call any play with him in the backfield. If the replacement is an inferior receiver or blocker, as is likely, the Colts offense becomes more predictable.
One other point that bears mentioning is that unlike in 1999 when the Colts drafted fourth, they have the 30th selection this year. In 1999, they were guaranteed to have a shot at James or Ricky Williams. This year, if they have their heart set on Laurence Maroney, they have to pray that he falls all the way to them.
As a result of their uncertain draft position, they should acquire a stopgap in the free agent market. Their back-up from last season, Dominic Rhodes, has never played well since he filled in admirably for James in 2001. He will likely be released. One solid option would be former Raven Chester Taylor. Taylor should come for a reasonable price, and if DVOA is to be believed, he has been better than Jamal Lewis on a per play basis the last two seasons. Equally important, Taylor is known as a solid pass protector and receiver out of the backfield.
The decision to let James go has effectively been made, but the Colts also face major decisions on their improved defense. Four starters and two key reserves are either unrestricted or restricted free agents. The Colts have little cap room right now. Some room has already been made by cutting defensive tackle Josh Williams, and they can clear a good deal of space by signing Dwight Freeney to a contract extension. Even then, they are unlikely to be able to keep everyone.
One advantage the Colts have is that by relying on undersized players, their free agents have more value to them then they would to other teams. Restricted free agents Gary Brackett, Cato June, and Robert Mathis are among the Colts' most valuable defenders, but it is unlikely any other team would break the bank to bring them on board. All three should return for the Colts.
More likely to depart are unrestricted free agents Raheem Brock and David Thornton. Brock is the starting defensive end who can also play tackle on passing downs. He is an integral part of the Colts defensive line rotation, and nobody on the roster can adequately replace him. He is a higher priority for the Colts than Thornton, who is actually the better player. Thornton can hope to join Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington as quality linebackers who left the Colts and made the Pro Bowl playing for other teams. A crowded outside linebacker market is all that is preventing Thornton from securing a hefty contract.
One last likely departure is Larry Tripplett, who played well while Corey Simon worked his way into playing shape. The Colts are deep at defensive tackle with youngster Vincent Burns healthy, and Tripplett will likely be elsewhere next year.
Two disparate views of the Jacksonville Jaguars have taken root following their solid 12-4 campaign. The first says they are a mediocre team that took advantage of a weak schedule and was properly exposed by the Patriots in the playoffs. The other is that the Jaguars are a young, up-and-coming team with enough salary cap space to become an elite team.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Jaguars were not as good as their 12-4 record, but they did finish the year 10th in our DVOA rankings and were closer to fourth than they were to 11th. Their presence in the playoffs was not undeserved. They do have a decent amount of cap room, but the truth is they are not entirely young. Key players Mike Peterson, Jimmy Smith, Donovin Darius, and Fred Taylor will all be at least 30 years old next season.
Ironically, the biggest problem for the Jaguars is that they have no seemingly obvious holes to fill. A year ago, they lacked pass rushing defensive ends and a second receiver. The acquisition of defensive end Reggie Hayward and the improvement of Paul Spicer and Ernest Wilford helped the team improve greatly.
This year's Jaguars team's only one major weakness is one they may not appreciate, their running game. They still have Taylor, who has been their starter since 1998. Taylor, however, is no longer the back he once was. His DVOA ranked 37th in the league. In fact, Taylor has been declining for years:
I think we can safely call that a trend and one unlikely to be reversed at the age of 30. Taylor is in line to make big money this season, and it is hard to think he would be worth it.
Due to their salary cap space, releasing Taylor would be unnecessary if they were simply going to use Greg Jones or Alvin Pearman. If, however, the Jaguars really wanted to upgrade the position, they should consider signing Edgerrin James.
Spending big money on a running back approaching 30 is a dangerous proposition, but Jacksonville should gamble on James. He will only be 28 years old, and given his long held desire to play in Florida, Jacksonville may be an appealing option. One would assume that James would prefer Jacksonville to Arizona or Minnesota, two teams reportedly interested in him. He would be a massive improvement over Taylor, and James' one weakness, short-yardage carries, is less of a factor because of the presence of Greg Jones.
The other reason to take a risk on James is that the Jaguars have the cap space to take a hit if he flops, and the possible upgrade at running back is worth the risk. The Jaguars seem to be focusing on free agent cornerbacks. Both Kenny Wright and Terry Cousin are free agents, and they clearly have visions of adding a second shutdown corner to pair with Rashean Mathis.
That doesn't make sense, however, for two reasons. First, the only great corner on the market is Nate Clements, and the Bills have franchised him. Second, even with seemingly mediocre players like Wright and Cousin, their pass defense was exceptional. They ranked 5th in DVOA in overall pass defense with Wright and Cousin. Do they really think that adding Deshea Townsend will make that much of a difference? If Townsend comes cheap, then by all means sign him, but spending big money to fix a problem that does not really exist is a waste of money.
The one other area where the Jaguars would be well served to shop in the free agent market is on the offensive line. A move for Bentley would be wise here as well, and the Jaguars should also consider upgrading at the guard position. With Steve Hutchinson receiving the transition tag, however, the pickings at guard are slim.
The Jaguars had one other possible decision this off-season with regard to back-up quarterback David Garrard. The four-year veteran played well while filling in for an injured Byron Leftwich. DVOA shows Leftwich was the better player, but Garrard ranked an impressive 12th. As always, other teams are desperate for quarterback help, and Garrard -- who has a reasonable contract -- would likely be a hot commodity.
In fact, when salary, injuries, and age are factored in, Garrard may be the most attractive quarterback that could come available. Established stars like Drew Brees and Daunte Culpepper have injury questions and will warrant higher salaries. Nobody else available has the promise that Garrard has shown.
The Jaguars appear hesitant to trade him despite his likely value in the market. They are rightly concerned about the health of Leftwich, who missed five games last year and re-injured his ankle in the playoffs. Leftwich also missed two games in 2004. Having a quality backup like Garrard is certainly appealing, but you have to wonder if a potential first round pick from the Dolphins, or a second and fifth from the Lions, is worth more than an insurance policy on your quarterback. The Jaguars would be better off signing a Jon Kitna-type backup and trying to maximize Garrard's value while it is highest.
Before the Titans can determine what other moves they want to make, they have to decide whether or not to keep Steve McNair. The long-time franchise stalwart is due a $50 million roster bonus, so a renegotiation is imperative. Keeping McNair can only be justified in two ways. First, they could decide that they have the young talent to compete next season. That seems highly unlikely.
The more likely reason is that McNair has long been the franchise's most recognizable player, and the team may hope to see him retire as a Titan. McNair clearly still has skills. He ranked ninth in DPAR among quarterbacks last season despite about as suspect a receiving corps as one could imagine. He is better for 2006 than anyone else they could acquire. The truth is, however, that he is 33 years old and has a history of injuries. The odds of his still being productive in a couple seasons when Tennessee's multiple young players have matured seem long.
McNair as a short-term solution in Miami seems like an obvious move for all parties. If McNair so desires, the Titans should happily let him move on, thank him for his service, and wish him well. If McNair wants to sign a reasonable contract for two years, they should keep McNair, draft his heir apparent, and be happy that he makes them more competitive than the workmanlike Billy Volek.
If McNair does leave, and the team does draft a young quarterback, it makes little sense for the Titans to be players in the veteran free agent market. A year ago, Tennessee was in salary cap jail and forced to cut a number of their best players. The situation is not nearly so dire this year, but they are not exactly swimming in cap space. The money that they did have was already spent taking care of their top priority, re-signing the surprising Kyle Vanden Bosch to a reasonable five-year contract.
The major area of focus for the Titans is the offensive line. Center Justin Hartwig is a free agent, and veterans Brad Hopkins and Benji Olson have bloated salary cap numbers. Olson should probably be released, and the Titans will likely encourage the veteran Hopkins to retire.
The Titans' other weaknesses a season ago were on the outside, as they had the worst pair of starting cornerbacks and only one competent wide receiver, Drew Bennett. Bennett was actually nagged by injuries and had a pretty bad season.
Of course, despite their struggles the past two seasons the Titans are not a stupid organization. In last year's draft, they used nine of their 11 picks on wide receivers, defensive backs, and offensive linemen. With so much young talent at these positions of need and not a great chance of competing, the Titans will likely wisely spend another year developing and evaluating the talent with an eye toward the 2007 off-season to really make a move.
The Titans will have two defensive starters that are free agents. Neither is a superstar, but they would be wise to retain both. Safety Tank Williams struggled this year after suffering a torn ACL in 2004, but with the extra year to heal, he is worth retaining. Linebacker Brad Kassell plays a solid middle linebacker, and while numerous competent outside linebackers are on the market, the pickings at middle linebacker are slim.
Monday: NFC South by Darrel Michaud
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