A Super Bowl berth could be decided by the Patriots' ability to contain Le'Veon Bell -- and by Pittsburgh's ability to avoid their usual defensive breakdowns against New England.
20 Mar 2009
by Sean McCormick
While the Bills sent a few ripples through the league with their surprise signing of Terrell Owens, that move didn't do anything to address the team's biggest problem -- the pass rush. Buffalo mustered only 24 sacks, and they dropped opposing quarterbacks on only 4.7% of the offensive pass attempts they faced. Aaron Schobel missed 11 games with a foot injury, and while he was not having a productive year, he did at least force offensive coordinators to account for him. While Schobel only tallied a single sack in five games, the rest of the team chipped in with another nine during that span. Once Schobel was sidelined and the defense was forced to rely on Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney to provide the pressure, things went south in a hurry; the defense only managed 14 sacks in their final 11 games.
Even if Schobel returns healthy and plays to form, the Bills would be well served to bring in reinforcements. There's not much left out there on the free agent market, so it seems likely the team will use its first-round selection to add a pass rusher. If Texas' Brian Orakpo falls out of the top ten, he would be the obvious choice. If Orakpo is gone, which seems increasingly likely, the team will have a difficult decision to make, as the second-tier rushers generally project better as 3-4 outside linebackers. Florida State's Everette Brown has arguably the best pass rushing ability of any player in the draft, but he measured under 6-foot-2 at the combine and might not be able to hold up against NFL left tackles. Aaron Maybin has terrific instincts, and Buffalo has had good success with Big Ten defenders. On the other hand, Maybin played at 240 pounds, and he may simply be too small to be an every-down defender in a 4-3 scheme.
Buffalo was off to their typical quiet offseason -- their major move was releasing guard Derrick Dockery two seasons after giving him silly money -- when they suddenly went off the script and signed Terrell Owens to a one-year, $6.5 million contract. It's a strange marriage, and one that is likely to be an unhappy one, as Owens no longer has the playmaking ability to justify his destabilizing presence in the locker room. He's a secondary receiver who needs careful offensive scheming to get him open at this point, and his inconsistent hands (Owens posted a 49 percent catch rate last season) will make Trent Edwards think twice before throwing to Owens in traffic. Plus, we can't see T.O. being happy spending his Saturday nights at the Anchor Bar washing down wings with Molson Ice.
Drayton Florence arrives from Jacksonville and should represent an upgrade at nickelback. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the backup quarterback and, presumably, will provide better conversation for Stanford alum Trent Edwards than J.P. Losman did.
Year one of the Wildcat was a smashing success, but the crushing playoff loss to Baltimore made it clear that the Miami offense will need to rely on playmakers rather than trickery if they hope to contend against top defenses. While there is no question that Chad Pennington's lack of arm strength limits Miami's ability to attack teams with deep and intermediate patterns, the biggest problem at the moment is the lack of playmaking ability at the receiver position. Looking at FO's advanced stats for wide receivers, Miami did not have a receiver crack the top 40 in DYAR, and neither of their starting wideouts posted a positive DVOA. Ted Ginn, Jr., showed terrific improvement in his sophomore season, increasing his catch rate from 48 percent to 60 percent, but he still has a long way to go before he becomes a true number one receiver and justifies his draft status. Greg Camarillo was a pleasant surprise, but he figures to be most effective operating from the slot. The ideal addition would be a big receiver like Rutgers' Kenny Britt, someone who can operate in the space underneath cleared out by the speedy Ginn. North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks has drawn comparisons to Reggie Wayne, and he could be a good fit as well.
At the start of free agency, it seemed likely that Miami would lose at least one of the trio of Channing Crowder, Vernon Carey, and Yeremiah Bell, but general manager Jim Ireland was able to successfully re-sign all three players to acceptable contracts without ever resorting to the franchise tag. For good measure, the team went out and added Raiders castoffs Gibril Wilson and Jake Grove. Wilson was let go by Al Davis just one season after signing a major deal, and while he had a poor season, he is a good second-level defender, and he's not a liability in coverage. Grove won't start, but he can provide quality depth at both guard and center.
Last year there was a lot of speculation that the Patriots would jump-start their pass rush by moving ahead of the Jets to select Vernon Gholston. Instead, Bill Belichick opted to slide down three spots and select linebacker Jerod Mayo, who ratcheted 128 tackles on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year. The move may look brilliant with hindsight, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that New England cannot afford to ignore their need for an edge rusher any longer. Last year the Patriots ranked 27th in defensive DVOA against the pass, the franchise's second-worst performance since 1996. Their DVOA on third-and-long situations was a brutal 44.6%, which resulted in far too many conversions and extended drives. A large part of the problem was the secondary, which was left without a true playmaker after Asante Samuel took his act to Philadelphia, and the team's active pursuit of any free agent cornerback with a pulse suggests that Belichick and company were well aware of the unit's shortcomings. The signings of Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden may not represent a long-term fix, but they should at least stop the bleeding.
Fixing the back four was a must, but the team must now turn its attention to the pass rush. Football Outsiders measures the pass rush with adjusted sack rate: sacks and intentional groundings per pass play adjusted for situation and opponent. The Patriots were second in the NFL with 8.4 percent ASR in 2007, but they dropped to 6.1 percent ASR (18th) last year. So far this offseason, they've traded away Mike Vrabel to Kansas City without adding anyone to replace him. If the season started today, Belichick would have to find a way to get production out of the combination of backup Pierre Woods, last year's third-rounder pick Shawn Crable, and prodigal son Tully Banta-Cain (returning after a two-year furlough in San Francisco), with the injury-prone Adalius Thomas occupying the other opposite side.
New England could use to the draft to upgrade, in which case they would probably be looking at someone like Cincinnati's Connor Barwin or Northern Illinois' Larry English at the end of the first round or early in the second. Alternately, if recent rumors are to be believed, they could go for the home run by putting a trade package together for Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers may be the only 280-pound defensive end in the league to possess the athleticism needed to play outside linebacker, and he has been public about his desire to go to a team that plays a 3-4. Stay tuned.
The Patriots have become the new 49ers, a destination for aging veterans who are willing to play at a discount to play for a championship contender, and this offseason has been no exception. In 1999, adding Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway would be huge acquisitions; in 2009, they are depth players who will likely see the field for a few snaps a game. The team also made a curious trade for Philadelphia's Greg Lewis, who would seem to have no role beyond running Wes Welker's routes in practice.
The higher impact acquisitions were on defense, where New England inked veteran cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden in an attempt to fix the 27th ranked pass defense. Bodden is an FO favorite, but he hasn't played well in two seasons, and he was out of his depths in Detroit's zone coverage schemes. He should be a better fit for New England's scheme, so he's in good position to bounce back. Springs is still playing at a high level, but 34-year-old corners have a nasty tendency to fall off in a hurry.
The Jets will field new starters at wide receiver, tight end, linebacker, cornerback, and safety, but the biggest question by far is who will replace Brett Favre at quarterback. New coach Rex Ryan insists that the opening day starter is already on the roster, and the team has made no attempt to bring in a veteran to compete with the young trio of Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff, and Erik Ainge. Clemens was highly regarded by Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge when he came out of Oregon, but he struggled mightily in half a season's worth of work on his way to posting a –18.9% DVOA in 2007, and his failure to step up and win the starting job was a major factor in the team's decision to trade for Brett Favre.
Clemens barely hung onto the number two spot, as he had to fend off a strong challenge from Brett Ratliff, who built on a strong training camp by posting a 68.1% completion percentage and a 122.6 quarterback rating in four preseason appearances. Our own David Lewin discovered that you can predict the performance of top quarterback prospects by looking at two statistics: career starts and completion percentage. The more starts a top prospect has under his belt, the more likely that scouts have correctly assessed the player's ability. One of the corollaries of the Lewin Forecast is that while there is a strong correlation between career starts and success for quarterback prospects at the top of the draft, teams may be more likely to hit on a gem in the late rounds or in the UDFA market by concentrating on players who have the necessary size and arm strength but who did not get much playing time for scouts to evaluate. (Matt Cassel would be Exhibit A.) At 6-4 and 235 pounds, but with only 13 starts at Utah after transferring from Butte College, Ratliff very much fits the profile. He has a lot of support within the organization and is probably the odds-on favorite to win the job. Ainge is the polar opposite of Ratliff, as scouts saw enough of him during his 35 starts at Tennessee to be concerned about his arm. He is unlikely to emerge as the winner of the quarterback derby.
The Jets have scheduled a private workout with USC's Mark Sanchez, and they figure to do the same with Kansas State's Josh Freeman, but it's unclear if either player would represent much of an upgrade over what is already on the roster. More likely, the Jets will go with what they have on the roster and will look at adding a playmaker like Florida's Percy Harvin or North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks.
The Jets came into free agency as one of the most cap-strapped teams in the league, but through a combination of Brett Favre's retirement, selective contract restructures, and the release of longtime starters like Laveranues Coles and Chris Baker, the team created enough space to make a splash -- a $48 million splash, to be precise. There is no way to get around the fact that the team overpaid to pry linebacker Bart Scott away from Baltimore, but they did add a physical inside presence who is thoroughly familiar with Rex Ryan's defense. Given the alternative of overpaying Ray Lewis, it was probably the right move. Also coming over from Baltimore was safety Jim Leonhard, who will compete with Abram Elam for the safety spot opposite Kerry Rhodes, as well as upgrade the punt return unit. The Jets also swung a trade with Philadelphia for disgruntled cornerback Lito Sheppard. Sheppard was a disaster last year, but he has experience playing ballhawk in a pressure defense.
46 comments, Last at 30 Mar 2009, 5:33pm by Rich Conley