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?
29 Mar 2007
by Ryan Wilson
Football Outsiders continues our look back at free agency and look forward to the NFL draft, today with the NFC East.
Compared to last off-season, Dallas has been relatively quiet in free agency. Twelve months ago, the Cowboys had signed kicker Mike Vanderjagt and wideout Terrell Owens. At the time, much of the focus was on whether Owens and then-head coach Bill Parcells could co-exist. "Then-head coach" foreshadows how that turned out, but surprisingly, it was Vanderjagt who didn't make it through the 2006 season -- he was released on November 27. Still, Owens had his issues: he struggled with dropped passes after breaking a finger, and earlier this month we found out that he's not crazy about studying his playbook.
According to the Dallas Morning News, "T.O.'s lack of familiarity with the playbook wasn't a secret [within in the organization] ... Romo and others had to tell him the plays during practice, on occasion, so it surprised few when he wasn't sure what to do during games." This probably had a lot to do with all the dropped passes. Sure, a broken finger is partly to blame, but running the wrong routes doesn't help things. Owens had a second postseason operation on his broken finger and isn't expected to catch passes until training camp. Owner Jerry Jones says he plans to keep Owens in Dallas, but we'll know for sure if the team pays Owens a $3 million roster bonus due June 1.
In the meantime, wideouts Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin could see more playing time. According to Football Outsiders' advanced statistics (explained here), Crayton was the NFL's best wide receiver among those thrown fewer than 50 passes, in terms of total value. Writing for SportingNews.com, Jean-Jacques Taylor points out that the 6'3", 215-pound Austin isn't particularly shifty but has the long speed to spread the field and could eventually replace 33-year-old Terry Glenn.
There were rumors running back Julius Jones could be traded, but Jerry Jones told the Star-Telegram that he "didn't see that happening" and "unless [the Cowboys] have an opportunity to [draft a running back], we are going to go with the backs we ended the season with." Given the dearth of quality backs available in free agency, and the prohibitive cost of trading up to take a player like Adrian Peterson, this seems like the right choice.
As was releasing veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The former first overall pick insisted he wanted to be a starter, and with the emergence of Tony Romo that wasn't an option in Dallas. Brad Johnson, essentially Bledsoe in four years, signed with the team and will serve as Romo's backup.
In the biggest Cowboys-related free-agent news, offensive lineman Leonard Davis -- that's former Arizona Cardinals chronic underachiever Leonard Davis -- signed a seven-year, $50 million contract, including $18 million in guarantees. Davis can play guard or tackle, and depending on Marco Rivera's health, could see time at right guard, next to recently re-signed Marc Colombo.
Dallas has the 22nd overall pick, and until they signed Ken Hamlin, free safety was a likely first-round target. The team could still go in that direction, but guards Justin Blalock (Texas) or Ben Grubbs (Auburn) could immediately move into the starting lineup. Despite the high hopes for Crayton and Austin, the Cowboys could add depth at wideout since both Glenn and Owens are north of 33. Also, the club will need another quarterback -- it's just Romo and Johnson right now -- and could take a developmental project on the second day of the draft.
Head coach Tom Coughlin signed a shiny new one-year deal earlier this off-season -- which doesn't say much for his long-term job security -- but he will have two new coordinators for 2008. Kevin Gilbride, who replaced offensive coordinator John Hufnagel in Week 16 last season, will keep the job; Eagles linebackers coach Steve Spagnuolo will replace Tim Lewis, now the Panthers secondary coach.
Under Lewis, the Giants finished 21st, 11th, and 13th in defensive DVOA the last three seasons, often with injuries at key positions. In 2006, linebacker LaVar Arrington was lost for the year with an Achilles' tendon injury, and defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora missed time with various ailments. Still, the improvement from bottom third to middle of the pack wasn't enough for Lewis to keep his job. Coughlin hired Spagnuolo without conducting an in-person interview with other candidates. Part of the appeal had to be Spagnuolo's association with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Philadelphia features an aggressive, blitzing scheme, something Lewis didn't emphasize in New York or in a previous stint as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator.
The Giants have been quiet through the first month of free agency. To date their biggest off-season move was trading wide receiver Tim Carter to Cleveland for running back Reuben Droughns. Droughns will spell Brandon Jacobs, who now assumes the starting job with Tiki Barber's retirement. Barber may be gone, but he's not forgotten; on his way out the door, he took some parting shots at Coughlin, who he described as forcing him to "start thinking about what [he] wanted to do next [after football]." Barber's production won't be easily replaced -- since 2004, he finished no lower than seventh in rushing DPAR -- but a head coach already described as a lame duck won't miss the outspoken comments.
New York showed interest in Tatum Bell and Travis Henry, but opted to promote Jacobs and use Droughns in Jacobs' previous specialized role. According to Football Outsiders advanced statistics, this was the right move: in part-time duty, Jacobs ranked 22nd in rushing DPAR and eighth in DVOA. Bell ranked 31st and 30th, and Henry ranked 29th and 32nd. Droughns is a different story, however. After back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons in 2004 (with the Broncos) and 2005 (with the Browns), Droughns managed only 758 yards on 3.4 yards per carry, lost his job to Jason Wright, and ended the season on the special teams unit. Droughns finished last in the league in rushing DPAR. Obviously, much of his success in Denver and his struggles in Cleveland can be attributed to the offensive lines. In 2004, the Broncos finished eighth in Adjusted Line Yards; last season, the Browns finished 31st. The good news is that the Giants offensive line ranked fourth last season, so Droughns, who restructured his contract after coming to New York, is a cheap alternative who could succeed in a limited role...
... if the Giants can somehow rustle up five starting linemen. The Giants lost Luke Petitgout to the Buccaneers, and while it's easy to remember him as "the guy who seemed very fond of the false-start penalty," he was a dependable lineman who protected Eli Manning's blind side for three seasons. His absence leaves a gaping hole on the left side. Right now, the club plans to move left guard David Diehl to left tackle and right guard Rich Seubert to left guard.
It took 24 days, but New York finally signed a free agent: former Chiefs linebacker Kawika Mitchell. The club expressed interest in Broncos linebacker Al Wilson, but settled on Mitchell after nothing materialized.
New York re-signed center Shaun O'Hara, but let backup tight end Visanthe Shiancoe walk. The club is also in the market for a place kicker after choosing not to re-sign Jay Feely, who landed in Miami.
If the Giants plan to play more aggressively on defense, they will need to find outside linebackers who can consistently get to the quarterback. LaVar Arrington was released after only one season, and although Reggie Torbor was re-signed, he hasn't done much to prove he can be effective on a regular basis. Because of the team's lethargy in free agency, cornerback is still a liability. Corey Webster suffered through a sophomore slump, but some of that may have had to do with Tim Lewis trying to fit players to his scheme instead of fitting his scheme to the players. Sam Madison was a frequent target of opposing quarterbacks, and finding his replacement will be a Day-1 priority.
With Shiancoe now in Minnesota, New York is looking for tight end depth, though the team could turn to practice squadder Darcy Jackson. Strahan's future is in doubt -- rumors have him asking for a trade, holding out, asking for a raise, and preparing for life after football -- so a pass-rushing specialist could be a need, maybe on Day 2.
Following a leave of absence to be with his family, Andy Reid returned to his head-coaching duties last week. Reid was away for five weeks but it was like he never left; the Eagles, as is usually the case this time of year, weren't very active in free agency. Some in the media criticized the organization for not making more of an effort to re-sign wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, but acquiring free agent Kevin Curtis could turn out to be the underrated move of the off-season.
The knock on Stallworth is that he's injury prone. In 2006, he missed four games because of a balky hamstring, and he ended the season with just 38 receptions. In his five-year career, he's never caught more than 70 balls or cracked 1,000 receiving yards.
Curtis, who is virtually unknown outside of St. Louis, has quietly become a solid pass catcher. Curtis ranked 29th in receiving DPAR last season; Stallworth was 39th. Because DPAR is a cumulative statistic, playing time is a factor ... but that's the point. Curtis ranks sixth in DVOA and Stallworth was 35th. Also, Curtis' catch rate was 70 percent while Stallworth sported a catch rate of 49 percent.
It's important to note that Stallworth was Philadelphia's No. 1 receiver last season; Curtis was St. Louis' third option behind Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Basically, he was the Rams' version of Brandon Stokley, but better. Still, it's an important distinction, and as Curtis' role changes with the Eagles, so too might his production. Especially since Curtis signed a six-year, $30 million contract that includes $9.5 million in guaranteed money.
After signing Curtis, the next biggest off-season move happened earlier this week: the Eagles traded defensive tackle Darwin Walker and a conditional 2008 draft pick for Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes and quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Philadelphia was thin at linebacker and Spikes could be an impact player. The problem, however, is that he is coming off a 2005 Achilles' tendon injury. He played in 12 games last season, but (understandably) didn't show the form that made him one of the league's best linebackers earlier this decade. Still, for the price, he's worth the risk, and the Eagles definitely need an upgrade over Dhani Jones. Holcomb is a solid backup who serves as the affordable alternative to the suddenly popular Jeff Garcia.
The Eagles also signed former Patriots second-rounder Bethel Johnson. Johnson was an electrifying return man in New England, but he hardly saw the field as a receiver because of his problems learning routes. He was traded to New Orleans and then waived and picked up by Minnesota, where he caught just nine passes in 11 games and only three from Week 12 on. There is no reason to think Johnson will fare any better in Philadelphia.
Former Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor signed a three-year, $8.3 million contract last week, giving the Eagles depth at the position. Last year's first-round pick, Brodrick Bunkley, had what can kindly be described as an awful rookie season. Adding Reagor made it easier for the club to package Walker in the Spikes-Holcomb trade.
Defensive end Trent Cole has emerged as a pass-rushing end, but both Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard will be 31 next season and the Eagles could draft an eventual replacement with their 26th-overall selection. Juqua Thomas -- who filled in nicely for Kearse in 2006 -- was re-signed, but he seems best suited for strictly pass-rushing situations. Jerome McDougle has suffered through an injury-plagued four-year career and was shot in the abdomen during a robbery prior to the 2005 season. There is no reason to think the 2003 first-rounder will turn things around in 2007.
Philadelphia re-signed Correll Buckhalter to spell Brian Westbrook, but the team could be in the market for a bruising short-yardage back. The Eagles also lost safety Michael Lewis to free agency, and Brian Dawkins, though still one of the league's best, will be 34 next season. Quintin Mikell and Sean Considine are both reliable, but a player like Miami's Brandon Meriweather or Virginia Tech's Aaron Rouse could be an attractive selection after the first round.
The Redskins have taken a decidedly different approach to free agency this off-season, but much of that can be attributed to their tight salary-cap situation. Instead of rehashing Washington's history of overpaying other teams' free agents, refusing to re-sign their own, and squandering draft picks, let's look at what the organization has gotten right since Joe Gibbs came out of retirement three years ago:
The team needed a linebacker, identified Buffalo's London Fletcher-Baker as THE GUY and promptly signed him to five-year, $25 million deal. Washington has been looking for a linebacker since letting Antonio Pierce go to the Giants in 2005, and though Fletcher-Baker will be 32 next season, he certainly upgrades the unit.
Another player the Redskins opted not to re-sign that same off-season was cornerback Fred Smoot. Smoot inked a nice deal with the Vikings, bumbled through two seasons -- not to mention one off-season of sex-boat scandals -- before earning his release. It took two years, but Washington finally re-signed Smoot, who will probably start the season as the nickel back.
Undoubtedly, this off-season's biggest loss is left guard Derrick Dockery. The Bills signed Dockery to a seven-year deal worth $49 million. Unlike with Pierce and Smoot, Washington couldn't make Dockery a competitive offer because of salary cap restraints. The Redskins re-upped Todd Wade, a solid backup at both the guard and tackle positions, but he could end up succeeding Dockery if a suitable replacement isn't found.
Last year at this time, the Redskins had put the finishing touches on another free-agent shopping spree. Wideouts Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd, defensive end Andre Carter, and safety Adam Archuleta headlined the class. Washington has already pulled the plug on the Archuleta experiment, sending him to Chicago for a conditional sixth-round pick. After losing his job midway through last season to Vernon Fox, Archuleta was used primarily on special teams. It is curious that a player who excelled in Lovie Smith's version of the Tampa-2 in St. Louis floundered in Williams' Cover-2 scheme in Washington.
Most mock drafts have Washington taking a defensive tackle with their sixth overall pick. That, of course, assumes they don't trade that pick to Chicago for linebacker Lance Briggs (the Redskins would acquire the Bears' 31st-overall pick as part of the deal). According to the Chicago Sun Times Washington is prepared "to pay Briggs $20 million in guaranteed money as part of a multi-year deal that will average $7.5 million per season." If this is true -- that the team has this kind of money available -- one has to wonder why more of an effort wasn't made to keep Dockery. Or, why Washington signed Fletcher-Baker to a substantial deal given his age.
With Archuleta gone, Washington needs a safety. They had that player in Ryan Clark, but chose to let him sign a modest contract with the Steelers as they pursued Archuleta. And they could also need a cornerback; after refusing to restructure his deal, Springs' future in Washington is uncertain. Former first-round pick Carlos Rogers has been uneven during his two-year career, and while Smoot provides depth, he's not an adequate replacement for Springs. Unfortunately, Washington prefers to build its roster through free agency, eschewing the draft as something of an off-season nuisance. Assuming, for now, that the Briggs deal doesn't happen, and also assuming that the Redskins wanted to use the draft to add depth to a depleted roster, they have just four selections, and only a single Day-1 pick.
Next week: AFC West
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