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?
18 Mar 2009
by Bill Barnwell
This second round of Four Downs will recap free agency and examine the biggest hole remaining on each team.
With the recent release of the much-maligned Roy Williams, the Cowboys are left with a huge gap in their defensive backfield. There was talk that Anthony Henry would move into the slot, but Henry was dealt to Detroit in the Jon Kitna trade. Williams' backups are Patrick Watkins -- who, like Williams, missed virtually the entire season with an injury -- and Keith Davis, who did an adequate job in Williams' place while serving as one of Dallas' best players on special teams.
Davis is an unrestricted free agent, and his role seems to have been filled by former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who has a similar sort of skillset to Davis. Both players would be a borderline starter at safety, so if the Cowboys want to save some money this year, Sensabaugh came relatively cheap and has more upside than Davis.
The Cowboys don't have a first-round pick, but there are a number of safeties they could target with the 51st pick. Oregon's Patrick Chung is a natural leader and solid run defender, but has many of the same issues in pursuit and coverage that Williams did; if they want to confuse the media, they could place Clemson safety Michael Hamlin next to holdover Ken Hamlin (unrelated). The safety class is relatively unimpressive this year, so the Cowboys may very well choose to go with Sensabaugh and wait for a more talented crop of safeties to arrive in 2010.
After all the talk of Ray Lewis heading to Dallas, the Cowboys ended up adding Keith Brooking to play middle linebacker, losing Kevin Burnett to San Diego in the process. Brooking was seriously limited in coverage a year ago, and has not played in a 3-4 scheme as an inside linebacker in several years.
The Cowboys also released Terrell Owens, as you might have heard. Owens is unlikely to return to being an elite receiver, so it wasn't an awful move for a team that desperately needed a change in the locker room. Owens' departure moves Patrick Crayton back into a starting role, with Miles Austin likely to return and serve as the slot man. If Roy Williams can approximate Owens' performance as the No. 1 guy, the Cowboys' offense should be just fine.
The final swap saw defensive end Chris Canty move out and Igor Olshansky take his place with a four-year, $18 million deal. Olshansky had a mediocre season in 2008, but probably would have been regarded as the better end before the season. The difference in price between the two players does not match the difference in quality, so the Cowboys got a bargain on this one, especially considering that Olshansky was the only 3-4 end of that caliber left on the marketplace.
If Domenik Hixon catches that bomb from Eli Manning against the Eagles in Week 14, chances are that this discussion isn't happening.
Hixon dropped the pass, though, that came to signify the struggles of the Giants' offense without mercurial wideout Plaxico Burress in the lineup. With the threat of Burress going over or past defensive backs nullified, teams were able to disguise their coverage, push a safety into the box, and stifle the Giants offensively.
The only problem? The Giants were actually better with Hixon as the primary "X" receiver than they were with Burress. Hixon's statistics are more impressive than Burress', both over the season as a whole and in the games where he was specifically in Burress' role (Week 5 and then Weeks 12 through 17).
|Player||DVOA||Catch Rate||Yards In Air||YAC|
|Domenik Hixon (overall)||11.5%||59%||13.9||3.3|
|Domenik Hixon (w/o Burress)||6.5%||55%||14.4||3.0|
New York's offense was also better with Hixon as the primary receiver than it was with Burress. In the weeks where Hixon was in charge, the team had a pass DVOA of 8.9% and a run DVOA of 20.2%; with Burress as the "X" receiver, those figures were 3.4% and 20.0%, respectively.
The Giants are unlikely to commit another draft pick to the receiver spot after spending picks on Sinorice Moss, Steve Smith, and Mario Manningham in recent years. They could choose to package several of their early picks in a deal for Anquan Boldin, but as the 2008 season showed, Hixon's got the talent to be the Giants' "X" if they give him the opportunity.
A very good front seven got downright devastating. On the line, the Giants added two tackles: Chris Canty comes over from Dallas, where he'll go from being a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle, while Rocky Bernard leaves Seattle. The pair will rotate with Fred Robbins and Jay Alford. Canty, in particular, is a good pass rusher who could easily post seven to ten sacks against overmatched guards this year. They also added Michael Boley at linebacker; Boley was an FO Favorite in 2007, but fell out of favor with the new coaching staff in Atlanta this year. Boley's presence allows the Giants to keep Mathias Kiwanuka at defensive end if so inclined.
The only prominent loss was that of Derrick Ward, who left for Tampa Bay. The Giants will likely increase Ahmad Bradshaw's playing time while attempting to find a second back in the draft. Safety James Butler also departed for St. Louis.
With the departure of Tra Thomas to Jacksonville and the uncertain status of Jon Runyan, it's extremely likely that the Eagles will be counting on two new offensive tackles come September. That's a frightening thought for a team that ran Runyan and Thomas out there for nine consecutive seasons.
The team filled their gap at right tackle by signing Stacy Andrews (brother of Eagles right guard Shaun) away from the Bengals; Andrews can play on the left side in a pinch, but he's a much better fit at right tackle. The team's depth chart lists Winston Justice as the starting left tackle, a gambit which resulted in six sacks for Osi Umenyiora the last time it was attempted. Starting him at left tackle would result in the entire Eagles organization getting fired for illicit comments on social networking sites. The team could also choose to move Shaun Andrews to left tackle, but that just opens up a hole at guard in the process.
The likeliest solution is in the draft, where the Eagles have the 21st and 28th picks in the first round. They could choose to move up and try and grab either Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe, or take a chance on Michael Oher or the rapidly-falling Andre Smith. Of the four, Monroe is the best pass protector and projects as the best fit for what the Eagles do offensively; if the Eagles are ever going to trade up to a high pick, they'd do it for an elite pass blocker.
The Eagles showed little interest in retaining either Brian Dawkins or Tra Thomas, who left for Denver and Jacksonville, respectively. Dawkins had little left in the tank and won't be missed, with Quintin Demps competing with new acquisitions Sean Jones and Rashad Baker as the likely replacement. Sean Considine followed Thomas to Jacksonville, while Correll Buckhalter departed to Denver, where he could play the Sammy Morris role in Josh McDaniels' offense.
The arrival of Albert Haynesworth in Washington helped hasten the end of Jason Taylor's Redskins career; for a second-round pick, the Redskins got 3.5 sacks, helping them to a total of 24, fourth-worst in the NFL. Then again, that's more than they got out of Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, or Fred Davis.
Taylor's departure leaves the Redskins with a huge hole across from Andre Carter and next to Haynesworth; while Haynesworth will improve the pass rush by occupying blockers, the Redskins have only roster filler in Chris Wilson and Rob Jackson to offer. They need to improve their situation on the edge before training camp.
They could go about that task in one of two ways. With the 13th overall pick, the Redskins will be in the range of Penn State's Aaron Maybin and Florida State's Everette Brown. They could draft one of those two players and hope they emerge as a impact pass rusher in their rookie campaigns, but that's a bad bet; no defensive end selected in the first round has mustered double-digit sacks since Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney in 2002, and that was 17 players ago.
The wiser idea: Attack the idea on the cheap, and trade down for more picks. The Redskins need depth, and compiling a platoon of Kevin Carter, Bertrand Berry, and Vonnie Holliday would allow them to rotate players in and out depending on the down and situation, all the while feeding the team's veteran fetish.
The Redskins were the first team to make a peep in free agency, securing DeAngelo Hall's services with a six-year, $55 million contract that suggests that the Redskins have never actually heard of the Oakland Raiders or are performing an exemplary, expensive parody of their existence. They released Shawn Springs in the process, costing them the better player.
The Redskins also added Derrick Dockery following his release by the Bills; he'll fill the left guard slot that Pete Kendall occupied. Kendall remains unsigned.
131 comments, Last at 21 Mar 2009, 4:32pm by Dales