Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
20 Feb 2009
by Sean McCormick
Maybe it's the funny monochrome uniforms, maybe it's the sleepy demeanor of Dick Jauron, or maybe it's the low wattage coming from Lake Erie, but the Bills have achieved a remarkable level of blandness in the last three years. Under the steady hand of Dick Jauron, the Bills have achieved a remarkable level of consistency. Three consecutive 7-9 records. Three years with a VOA rating (our advanced Football Outsiders stat, not adjusted for opponent) fluctuating between -9.2% and -7.6%. No matter the quality of the opposition, the Bills looked and played at just about the same uninspiring level of execution. Unfortunately, Buffalo's schedule was one of the easiest in the league last year, so while it may have looked like they were playing as not-that-well as ever, they were actually doing worse. Since 2006, the Bills have changed offensive coordinators, changed quarterbacks and changed feature backs, and yet their offensive DVOA (explained here) has hovered between -8.7% and -6.2% throughout.
In the early 1990s, the Bills were able to field elite skill position talents like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and James Lofton. But the current Bills offense seems to be built more like an auction league unit than anything else. No Bills player was among the top 25 highest-paid players in the league. At a salary of $732,190, starting quarterback Trent Edwards made less money than many backups (including his own, J.P. Losman), and Edwards was able to start 14 games, generating nearly 2,600 yards and 11 touchdowns. Unfortunately, there is no award for production per dollar, and while Edwards outperformed his contract, his 237 DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and -0.2% DVOA were both 24th best in the league. Marshawn Lynch actually earned a Pro Bowl berth while costing the team less than $2 million against the salary cap, but his DYAR and DVOA ranked 23rd and 25th respectively, very much in line with Edwards' production. Edwards and especially Lynch have flashed enough talent to give the team hope they will mature into elite players, but right now they are doing more for the bottom line than for the product on the field.
The biggest name player to depart will be former first-round pick J.P. Losman. Losman came out of Tulane with a big arm and good mobility, but in his five seasons in Buffalo, he never showed enough accuracy or awareness to be an effective starter. Losman’s last meaningful play with the team, where he held the ball too long on a designed rollout and ended up getting stripped by Jets safety Abram Elam and fumbling away a certain win, neatly encapsulates everything that was wrong with Losman’s tenure as a Bill. Another former first-round pick who might hit the streets is defensive tackle John McCargo, who the team has tried unsuccessfully to trade. Angelo Crowell is a quality linebacker, but he might be considered too big of a risk to re-sign after sitting out all of last year, and the team may wait and see what his market value is.
The biggest immediate areas are at defensive end, receiver and at center. Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs are the big names, but now that they’ve been franchised it means the Bills would need to put together a massive trade package to land one of them. Buffalo could target a less expensive option like Bertrand Berry or, more likely, address this need via the draft. James Hardy was supposed to be the big, physical target opposite Lee Evans, but Hardy is coming off major ACL surgery and cannot be counted on to contribute in 2009. T.J. Houshmandzadeh would be a nice fit, although he would require a big contract. The team may want to keep an eye on what happens in Tampa with Antonio Bryant, who has the kind of size to speed ratio they are looking for. At center, the combination of Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston were inadequate, and the team might want to stabilize the interior by adding a veteran presence like Matt Birk.
There is no question that the Dolphins were one of the big surprises of 2008. Under the direction of first-year coach Tony Sparano and castoff quarterback Chad Pennington, the Dolphins leaped from 1-15 to 11-5 and an AFC East title. Since the merger, only four teams have managed to increase their win totals from the previous season by nine or more games -- the 1999 Colts, the 1999 Rams, the 2004 Steelers and the 2008 Dolphins. In each of those first three cases, the surprising first season was followed up by multiple playoff appearances. Wins alone are an imprecise measurement for play, however, which is why we use DVOA. Miami went from a –27.6% DVOA rating in 2007 to a 9.2% in 2008, a 36.8% improvement. That's impressive, but hardly historic. As it turns out, Miami's wasn't even the biggest turnaround this year. That honor goes to the Carolina Panthers, whose win total only jumped by five games, but whose DVOA leaped from –21.1% to 19.8%.
More concerning for next year's prospects is the fact that Miami's raw VOA was 21.1%, but it dropped all the way to 9.2% once adjusted to account for the strength of their opponents. No other team in the league had anywhere near that disparity between unadjusted and adjusted numbers. The Dolphins benefited from a cupcake schedule that made them look much better than they really were. In 2009, Miami's schedule grades out as one of the hardest in the league, with the AFC South and NFC South on tap, plus the Chargers and the Super Bowl champion Steelers. Right now, the odds of a repeat of Sparano's amazing rookie season look long indeed.
Bill Parcells doesn’t figure to overestimate the quality of the last year’s team, so look for as many as 18 current players to be subtracted from the roster. Channing Crowder has been a solid player but the Dolphins won’t break the bank for him, and they may be more inclined to try to upgrade the free agency. Vernon Carey and Yeremiah Bell are also due to hit free agency, and while the team would like to keep them both, don’t expect Parcells and Jeff Ireland to overpay. Vonnie Holiday is a declining player with a big cap number, and unless he’s willing to restructure his contract, he’s probably on the way out.
The Dolphins were exposed along the offensive line and in the front seven when they played Baltimore in the playoffs, and those figure to be areas where they concentrate on getting bigger, younger and stronger. If Carolina doesn’t franchise Jordan Gross, expect the Dolphins to show serious interest. Baltimore’s Jason Brown could provide the kind of long-term upgrade at center that Kevin Mawae did for Parcells’ Jets teams in the late nineties.
On defense, the depth of the linebacker class has thinned out some now that Terrell Suggs and Karlos Dansby have been hit with franchise tags. Baltimore’s Bart Scott would bring more physical play than Channing Crowder, but he seems more likely to head to New York than Miami. Parcells drafted defensive end Chris Canty when he was in Dallas, and Canty would make a nice replacement for the aforementioned Holiday. The other area where Miami may want to upgrade is at cornerback, where they might want to land an up and comer like Pittsburgh’s Bryant McFadden. Alternately, they could try to add depth more cheaply by kicking the tires on someone like Leigh Bodden, hoping that Bodden would benefit from a change in scheme.
When did Bill Belichick turn into Bill Walsh? When not busy crafting elite defenses, Belichick was turning Vinny Testaverde from a laughingstock to a playoff quarterback, then molding a sixth-round draft pick named Tom Brady into a Hall of Famer. Now, in perhaps his greatest feat yet, he has turned Matt Cassel -- the man Football Outsiders affectionately nicknamed "Rusher McFumbles" -- into potentially the most sought-after player this offseason. Cassel, starting for the first time since high school, threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns while guiding the Patriots to an 11-5 record. The Patriots placed their non-exclusive franchise tag on Cassel, and it seems likely that they will set the bidding floor for any quarterback-hungry team desiring Cassel's services at a first-round pick. A 26-year-old quarterback who has already experienced success in the NFL looks to be a much safer bet than a college prospect, but is he worth that high a price?
Cassel's individual numbers might give interested parties a moment's pause. Cassel's 630 DYAR ranked 17th in the NFL, and his 6.4% DVOA places him squarely in the company of guys like Sage Rosenfels and Seneca Wallace. Like Miami, New England's stats from 2008 were juiced by an easy schedule.
A closer look suggests reasons for optimism, however. Cassel posted a negative DVOA in five of his first seven games and averaged only -14.6% per contest. In his final nine games, Cassel posted a negative DVOA in only two outings, and his average performance was an eye-popping 30.6% DVOA. Over the entire year, that would have ranked fifth in the entire NFL. Cassel also started to run more as the season went along, and his rushing DYAR was third-best in the league among quarterbacks. If Cassel's second-half performance is indicative of the kind of player he can be, then teams like Detroit and Minnesota would be well-advised to start working on their trade packages now. Stranger still, New England may want to sit tight and keep Cassel another year, even with a healthy Tom Brady on the roster. Who would have thought that back in September?
The secondary has a lot of players up for free agency, including James Sanders, Rodney Harrison and Lewis Sanders. All three could go, though Harrison figures to receive a one-year show me deal with the Pats. The same goes for Junior Seau, who produced well in limited duty last year. Cornerback Deltha O’ Neal and punter Chris Hanson, in contrast, will almost certainly be gone. New England got good production from reserve players like Lamont Jordan and Larry Izzo, but they might want to clear room out for younger, cheaper prospects.
There is no cap space to go after premiere free agents, particularly while Cassel’s $14.65 million remains on the books, so the Patriots will have to try addressing their defensive needs with second and third-tier options. Bryant McFadden would be a nice addition at cornerback if he doesn’t re-sign with Pittsburgh. Leigh Bodden was very successful under Romeo Crennel, and he is the kind of veteran that New England has been able to plug into their defense and get production out of. After a disastrous one-year outing in Detroit, Bodden would likely come cheap. Chris McAllister is a formerly productive veteran who has been breaking down the last few years due to injury; he’s the kind of winning player the Patriots have utilized well in the past.
In 2007, Brett Favre was one of the top quarterbacks in football and led the Packers to the NFC Championship game. That, no doubt, was the Favre that general manager Mike Tannenbaum and then-head coach Eric Mangini thought they were acquiring, and that's the Favre that the media talked up during New York's 8-3 start. So when Favre tossed two touchdowns and eight interceptions down the stretch, it seemed like the grizzled veteran suddenly crashed down to earth, taking the entire team with him.
But Favre's season wasn't a strong start followed by an epic collapse -- it was a mediocre showing from beginning to end, interrupted by a small spike of quality play in the middle of the season. Favre put together a dominant three-game run in weeks 10-12, putting up a gaudy 46.5% DVOA, but the rest of the year he hovered between average and below average. He posted negative DVOAs in four of his first six games, and his advanced stat line in December looks every bit as bad as his conventional one. A smattering of big plays like his game-deciding Hail Mary to Chansi Stuckey against Miami in Week 1 provided a screen that shielded Favre from criticism and obscured the fact that his low-percentage approach on first and second downs wasted one of the most efficient ground games in the league. When the big plays dried up down the stretch, the bad decisions and the interceptions did not. To add insult to injury, Favre's rushing numbers were the worst of any quarterback in the league, thanks to his fumbling three times. Opponents recovered all three.
Favre's history of waffling aside, his recent decision to retire figures to be a permanent one, and there's no question that without him the Jets' current quarterback roster of Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff, and Erik Ainge looks extremely thin on experience. But new coach Rex Ryan has seen firsthand how successful a young quarterback can be if supported by a solid defense and consistent ground game, and he should be happy not to have to deal with the daily soap opera that a second Favre season in New York would likely have descended into. Clemens was highly regarded by many draft observers and figures to be the nominal starter heading into training camp. Ratliff has a lot of buzz, however, after following up a strong training camp with a 32-for-47 for 499 yards and four touchdown performance in the preseason. If the new Brett can keep developing, it might make Jet fans quickly forget the old Brett's only season in New York.
Eric Barton has been a solid player in New York, but he’s a little undersized for the 3-4 and doesn’t play with the kind of violence Rex Ryan would like. He could be headed elsewhere. David Barrett has already been released, and Drew Coleman and Ahmad Carroll may soon join him as the secondary figures to get a substantial makeover. Both Mike Nugent and Jay Feeley are unrestricted free agents. Feeley kicked very well for the Jets down the stretch, but they’ll probably concentrate on re-signing Nugent, who is six years younger. Veterans like Bubba Franks and Ty Law who were brought in for one-year auditions will not be retained.
Now that the Favre saga has played itself out, Tannenbaum and Ryan will probably turn their attention to modifying the personnel on defense to fit Ryan’s scheme. Last year’s free agent spending spree will limit just how much can be done, but expect Ryan to try and lure either Ray Lewis or Bart Scott to New York, with Scott being the best fit. Jim Leonhard was a nice surprise last year at safety for Baltimore, and he would make for an upgrade in coverage over current starter Abram Elam without costing an arm and a leg. There is no money to go after an elite corner to pair with Darrelle Revis, but the team might be able to afford someone like Andre Goodman or Bryant McFadden. Chris McAllister would be a natural fit assuming he checked out medically. Ryan might also try targeting a speed receiver like Nate Washington to complement Jerricho Cotchery.
30 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2009, 4:51pm by Jetspete