Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
27 Mar 2009
by Ned Macey
The Texans' primary problem last season was on defense, and their run defense was particularly weak, 30th in the NFL in Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA ratings. The Texans have spent a great deal of money on their defensive line, including the addition this offseason of free agent defensive end Antonio Smith. But what about the next line of defense?
Two years ago, the Texans drafted DeMeco Ryans, who is a solid middle linebacker. Their two outside linebacker positions, however, are extreme problems. They released veteran Morlon Greenwood, who had been the starter since 2005 before losing his job this season. On the current roster are Kevin Bentley, Xavier Adibi, and Zac Diles.
Adibi was a fourth-round pick last season and is a talented player who should be left alone as the weakside linebacker. Diles, a seventh-round pick in 2007, started the first half of last season before going down with a fractured tibia. Bentley is best left in a reserve role.
Texans rarely gave up big runs but were consistently gashed for positive gains, and a stout, run-stuffing linebacker is desperately needed. The veteran free agent market is not too promising, leaving mostly players who played in the Tampa-2 style, ranging from future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks to part-time Colts starter Tyjuan Hagler. In the draft, the Texans would love for Brian Cushing of USC to fall to them. Cushing has ideal size and speed to pay strongside linebacker. If Cushing is gone, the Texans could take his teammate Clay Matthews, who is riskier because his technique is less developed and he may be better suited for a 3-4 defense.
As noted above, the Texans made one big move this offseason to improve their woeful defense: They signed Antonio Smith away from the Cardinals to play defensive end. Smith played well in the playoffs, which may have raised his price. Still, he is a good player who will provide pass rush from the opposite side of Mario Williams. Anthony Weaver played out of position at defensive end and recorded zero sacks last season.
The only other free agent Houston signed was Dan Orlovsky, hoping to someday be known for more than running out of his own end zone by accident. Orlovsky is actually an interesting signing. He had a league average DVOA that was substantially better than teammates Jon Kitna (-19.9%) or Daunte Culpepper (-32.0%). Matt Schaub has yet to stay healthy as a starter, so Orlovsky could get a chance to get on the field. The space was available because the Texans shipped the erratic Sage Rosenfels to Minnesota for a fourth-round pick.
The Texans are hoping to get younger with the release of Weaver, Greenwood, and Ahman Green. The exception to the veteran exodus was safety Nick Ferguson. The ten-year veteran re-signed and is expected to start at this point.
The Colts are set with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at the ends, but they have had a revolving door at defensive tackle. Through a combination of injuries and (in one case) off-the-field issues, the Colts have gone through Montae Reagor, Booger McFarland, Raheem Brock, Keyunta Dawson, Ed Johnson, and Eric Foster as starting defensive tackles over the past three seasons.
In 2007, McFarland was injured, and the Colts unearthed an undrafted free agent rookie in Ed Johnson to pair with Brock. With Johnson and fellow second-year player Keyunta Dawson, the Colts thought they had a talented tandem going forward. After Week 1 of 2008, however, Johnson was arrested for marijuana possession and subsequently released by the Colts. To replace Johnson, the Colts called on this year's undrafted rookie, Foster.
Foster played admirably for a player of his size and pedigree, but the man weighs only 265 pounds. The Colts' overall run defense was adequate, but according to Football Outsiders' defensive line stats, they ranked 27th against runs up the middle and 30th in power situations.
The Colts do not believe in free agency, so they will have to look to the draft for a solution. In the past, the Colts have been reluctant to invest draft picks on defensive tackles. Dawson and Quinn Pitcock, a 2007 third-round selection who suddenly quit after his rookie season, are the only defensive tackles drafted by the Colts since 2003. However, the Colts are likely to emphasize run defense more under new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. They will retain the Tampa-2 system, but the Colts may not be so averse to a defensive tackle who takes up space.
The dream scenario would be if Peria Jerry of Mississippi fell to them. Jerry has the quickness to be an ideal Tampa-2 defensive tackle, but he is much bigger than Foster. If Jerry is gone, the Colts would have to settle for Evander Hood, who lacks the quickness they would prefer at the position. In that case, the Colts might consider waiting for the second round to grab someone like Auburn's Sen'Derrick Marks.
The easiest job at Football Outsiders is writing the Colts' free agent recap. In an annual ritual, the Colts have signed no free agents of note and have let athletic but undersized linebackers (this year Freddie Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler) reach the market. The Colts did re-sign the talented and still improving cornerback Kevin Hayden, and a late increase in the salary cap allowed them to keep center Jeff Saturday.
Marvin Harrison was released, as expected. Harrison is obviously no longer the player he was and may not be even a league-average receiver. The Colts will be fine with Anthony Gonzalez as the starter but now need a third receiver to replace Gonzalez.
The Jaguars' offensive decline last season was much noticed due to the shocking number of injuries to the offensive line. The team's bigger problem, however, was on defense, where they had the second-worst passing defense in football according to DVOA.
The Jaguars have only a decent pass rush, but their coverage was abysmal. Top cornerback Rashean Mathis is overrated by some but is certainly not the problem. Drayton Florence was a disaster and was eventually demoted to the nickel, with Brian Williams moving back from safety into a starting cornerback spot. Florence was released, leaving Mathis, Williams, and veterans Scott Starks and William James.
If Williams is returned to safety, as he should be, the Jaguars have a serious shortage. James and Starks should only be providing depth at this point in their careers. The Jaguars need to strengthen the position with a long-term investment and a first- or second-round pick. Mathis will be 29 years old before the season starts, and the Jaguars will likely want him to be their second cornerback in the coming years. The only cornerback worthy of a top-ten pick is Malcolm Jenkins, who unfortunately may be more of a safety. His skills seem similar to Reggie Nelson, the Jaguars' current starting free safety.
The Jaguars could try and trade down for Vontae Davis of Illinois, who has outstanding physical skills. Trading out of the top ten is difficult, and the Jaguars are likely going to have to take Jenkins or wait until the second round for a cornerback. Perhaps the availability of Mark Sanchez can get a team to take the plunge and make a trade with the Jaguars. Certainly, Jacksonville is one team where quarterback is not a hole on the roster.
After a disappointing season, the Jaguars were not hesitant to say goodbye to a number of veterans on their team. They cut long-time stalwarts Fred Taylor and Mike Peterson. Last year's foray into free agency netted Florence and Joey Porter. A year later, both were released. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh signed with the Cowboys (and has been replaced by former Eagle Sean Considine). Underachieving wide receivers Reggie Williams and Matt Jones both will likely play for new teams next year (Jones team potentially being in the California Penal League).
Most of these departures were players past their peak or who never developed. The most interesting move made by the Jaguars was the decision not to re-sign left tackle Khalif Barnes and to replace him with long-time Eagles'tackle Tra Thomas. Over the past five seasons, Thomas has certainly been a better player than the inconsistent Barnes. Still, Barnes has flashed potential and will only be 27 years old next season. Thomas, meanwhile, turns 35 during the season and is obviously on the downside of his career.
The addition of Thomas runs contrary to the wave of veterans that left and is an odd move. Basically, Thomas may give the Jaguars one or two good seasons. That's even in doubt, as Thomas is shifting from a pass-happy scheme to a run-heavy offense.
The Titans released Derrick Mason in a cap savings move following the 2004 season. Mason had just posted his fourth straight 1,000-yard season, and since moving to Baltimore, he has three 1,000-yard seasons in four years. Mason ranked in the top 20 in Football Outsiders' DYAR stats every season from 2000 through 2004. Since he left, the Titans have had only one wide receiver ranked in the top 40 in DYAR, Justin Gage in 2007.
Following Mason's departure, the most yards gained in a season by a Tennessee receiver are the 750 gained by Gage in 2007. This past season, Gage led the team with 651 yards, while Brandon Jones had the most receptions by a receiver with 41. The two players with the most receptions were tight end Bo Scaife and running back Chris Johnson. Quite simply, the Titans cannot have an explosive offense with such limited playmakers.
The Titans' big foray into the free agent market was to sign the Steelers' third receiver, Nate Washington. Washington has big-play ability, but he has never caught more than 40 balls in a season. Short of bringing in one of the two past-his-prime Pro Bowlers, Marvin Harrison or Torry Holt, the free agent market is thin.
The Titans, with a good defense, good offensive line, and good running backs, simply have to draft a wide receiver in one of the first two rounds. It is hard to project what receivers will be available late in the first round. Of the prospects around that area, perhaps the best fit is Brian Robiskie from Ohio State. Washington and Gage can both make plays down the field, leaving room underneath for Robiskie to develop into a valuable possession receiver.
Since Tennessee blew up the Steve McNair Titans following the 2004 season, they have been raiding other teams in free agency while mostly keeping their own players. Now, however, the Titans are again a very good team, and their players are suddenly desired.
The big name is obviously Albert Haynesworth. The best free agent on the market, he simply got more money from Washington than the Titans were willing to pay. Haynesworth was the Titans' best player, but the defense will remain strong without him. Internally, Jason Jones played well backing up Haynesworth. Also, the Titans added Jovan Haye from Tampa Bay. Haye, still in his prime at age 26, was a great signing at $4 million per season.
While Haynesworth is the big name, he was not the only Titans player to leave. Solid but unspectacular receiver Brandon Jones was signed by the 49ers. Nickel cornerback Chris Carr was signed by the Ravens. Cornerback Eric King followed defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to Detroit. Third quarterback Chris Simms was signed by the Broncos.
Cornerbacks Reynaldo Hill and Tyrone Poole remain free agents. With the age of starter Nick Harper, the Titans will likely need to hit the leftover free agents or draft heavily to get depth in their secondary.
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