Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
24 Feb 2009
by Aaron Schatz and Bill Barnwell
Denver may have hired a young offensive mastermind (Josh McDaniels) as its new head coach, but the problem in 2008 was clearly defense. Based on Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA ratings, Denver had the second-worst defense of any team since 1995. (The worst defense also played this year, in Detroit.)
The good news for Denver is that it would be almost impossible for the defense to be that bad for a second year. The natural tendency of all teams is for performance to trend towards the NFL average. For example, take the 25 worst defenses in DVOA prior to 2008. These 25 defenses improved the next year by an average of 11 percentage points worth of DVOA, or seven places in the NFL rankings. Only one team, Cincinnati in 1997-1998, actually got worse.
If we compare the teams that improved significantly to those that improved just slightly, can we find trends that might suggest optimism for the Broncos? It's difficult to find trends that tie the most improved defenses together, and those trends that exist don't suggest a huge turnaround for the Broncos:
Seven guys have already left, as the Broncos cut corner Dre' Bly, defensive tackle DeWayne Robertson, special teams demon Niko Koutovides, linebacker Jamie Winborn, defensive end John Engelberger, tight end Nate Jackson, and safety Marquand Manuel. Robertson's cap hit for the upcoming season was reportedly somewhere around $16 million, so his release should be no surprise.
Their other free agents are depth guys like safety Marlon McCree, halfback Michael Pittman, linebacker Nate Webster, and veteran end Ebenezer Ekuban. With a new regime across the board, most of these guys aren't likely to return.
Denver will have around $35 million in cap room without accounting for unearned bonuses, Bly's release, or the rookie cap. Their shopping list will consist mostly of defensive players.
The Broncos start with huge holes at safety, where neither Herana-Daze Jones or the departing McCree are any great shakes. The problem is that there's simply not a lot of great safeties available in the free agent pool, which leaves the team in the awkward situation of having to overpay for a middling player or coming to love the mediocrity they already know.
That's not the only place the Broncos need help; adding another linebacker or two to play alongside D.J. Williams is also a step Denver needs to take this offseason. The crop of outside linebackers is far superior to that in the middle, so with the Broncos arguably needing both, it makes more sense for them to target someone like the Falcons' Michael Boley. If they choose to go after someone in the middle, they could look at Jonathan Vilma of the cap-strapped Saints, or Eric Barton of the Jets.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the magic 8-ball is stuck on "reply hazy, try again."
In last year's draft, the Chiefs began to rebuild along the lines and in the secondary. To become a winning team again, however, they will need a quarterback. They might have found a diamond in the rough when they picked up former Minnesota seventh-rounder Thigpen. When he entered the starting lineup for good, the Chiefs moved to a primarily spread shotgun scheme, and the two changes combined to improve Kansas City's offense from horrible to mediocre.
Thigpen finished 30th out of 41 quarterbacks (minimum 100 pass attempts) in both of our advanced stats, DYAR and DVOA. When you consider both his lack of experience and the quality of the Chiefs' offensive line, Thigpen's season showed promise. But it was far from a definitive statement that said the Chiefs should build around Thigpen for the next few years.
One issue that should concern the Chiefs front office is that defenses seemed to figure Thigpen out later in games. Thigpen shows a clear, dramatic trend where he played very well in the first quarter, was mediocre in the second and third quarters, and then struggled to complete even short passes in the fourth quarter.
|Tyler Thigpen by Quarter in 2008|
Overall, Thigpen's 2008 performance shouldn't stop the Chiefs from drafting Matt Stafford or Mark Sanchez if they feel one of those quarterbacks is truly worth the third overall selection. But the Chiefs also shouldn't go into the draft thinking of quarterback as a hole on the roster that requires reaching with their first- or second-round pick and passing up a better player at another position. There's nothing wrong with Scott Pioli giving Thigpen another year to prove he's a starting NFL quarterback while he continues to build the rest of the roster. Just don't be too disappointed if he turns out not to be the answer.
Well, let's start with the guys who are free to go. The Chiefs' only unrestricted free agent of note is Pat Thomas, who has potential as a middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 and could end up as a backup somewhere else. Kansas City's most prominent free agents are both restricted: Safety Jarrad Page and center Rudy Niswanger. Both will stay, and Page is a likely candidate for a long-term deal.
Among those rumored to depart through rabblerousery are halfback Larry Johnson and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Johnson's status is a funny look at how people perceive player attitudes; he started off his career as a nuisance, put up great numbers behind the last legs of an elite offensive line, got hurt, and now he's a nuisance again. The cap hit for getting rid of Johnson is $8.8 million, while it would cost $8.2 million to keep Johnson on the roster.
Of course, trading Johnson requires a partner, and when you consider the depth available at running back both in the draft and free agency, there's a paucity of likely candidates for a guy who peaked two years ago and combines a hefty salary with a bad reputation. Marshawn Lynch's legal problems could open up a hole in Buffalo. Cincinnati could need a back if they don't -- or even if they do -- resign Cedric Benson. The Lions need everything, but no way Jim Schwartz commits that much money to a back. Maybe Seattle takes a chance on him. The options are extremely limited, which is why the distinct possibility exists that Johnson will be cut.
Gonzalez is a much more palatable option for teams, as a highly-regarded player looking for a ring at the end of his career. The list of teams that need a tight end and are close to contention is much longer, with possible landing points for Gonzalez including Philadelphia, Todd Haley's old stomping grounds in Arizona, or even Scott Pioli's former employers in New England.
The Chiefs have holes across the board that Pioli will hope to fill; as someone who's worked with Bill Belichick, he's undoubtedly concerned about the quality of his front seven defensively. While there are pieces in place with end Tamba Hali, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, and linebacker Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs could very well be in the running for Albert Haynesworth. If the situation comes down to whoever offers him the most money, it could very well end up being Kansas City.
Unless it's for a star player or an underutilized player who might breakout with a bigger role, the Chiefs won't splash out too much in free agency. Pioli's most familiar with the AFC East, so if you want to operate under the idea that he could go after the teams around him, options include Bills utility lineman Duke Preston, Dolphins Vernon Carey and Channing Crowder, famed Belichick binky and former Jets corner Hank Poteat, or even, yes, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel.
When Oakland drafted JaMarcus Russell first overall in 2007, they expected that the Louisiana State star would require some development time. But things have gone even slower than expected. According to the Football Outsiders advanced DYAR stats, only two quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts had more negative value than Russell in 2008. It was his second straight season below replacement level.
Thirty-five quarterbacks drafted between 1995 and 2007 threw at least 50 passes in each of their first two NFL seasons, and a dozen of those quarterbacks had negative DYAR (i.e. below replacement level) in both seasons. This is the list Tom Cable sees in his nightmares:
|QBs Below Replacement Level In First Two Seasons|
|Player||Team||Year 1||Att Y1||DYAR Y1||Year 2||Att Y2||DYAR Y2|
Is there reason to believe that Russell can become the first successful quarterback off this list? Sure, but nothing we might say about Russell wouldn't also have been said about a number of these other players. Russell has tremendous arm strength, but that was also a signature trait for Boller and Carter. We want to expect that a first overall pick will develop, no matter how slowly, but Couch and Alex Smith also went first overall, and Harrington and Akili Smith both went in the top three. Russell's not responsible for the mess surrounding the Oakland franchise -- but then again, it isn't like Joey Harrington had any control over Matt Millen's constantly blown draft picks.
This cloud does have a silver lining, if we look at Russell's second season in two halves. Russell suffered from knee and ankle injuries during the second half of the season, but improved his performance anyway. Russell completed 49 percent of his passes through Week 9, then 62 percent of his passes the rest of the way. He averaged -44 DYAR over his first eight starts, but 24 DYAR for his last seven. If that second-half improvement carries over into 2009, perhaps Russell can avoid the following in the footsteps of other first overall busts like Couch, Smith, and David Carr.
Actually, except for Shane Lechler and Nnamdi Asomugha, it seems like everybody is already gone. The Raiders handed Lechler the highest contract ever given to a punter and then handed Asomugha the highest contract ever given to a defensive player. Then they went and un-did pretty much everything they did during the summer of 2008 -- both the good decisions and the bad ones. Big-money safety Gibril Wilson, the man with the absurd number of run tackles? Gone. Kwame Harris, the Human Hold? Adios. Justin Griffith, Kalimba Edwards, see you later. Javon Walker... for some reason, still around, but probably gone sometime before a March 3 roster bonus comes due.
It wasn't just recent additions on the chopping block, either. Ronald Curry, who had a poor year after being the Raiders' top wide receiver in recent years, was also cut.
Absolutely no idea. After re-signing Asomugha and Lechler, and taking cap penalties on all the veterans they cut, there's not a lot of space here.
When the NFL picks its team of this decade, LaDainian Tomlinson will probably earn honors at the running back spot. But the decade is nearly over and Tomlinson's career may be as well. L.T. struggled with injuries in 2008, with a career-low 1,110 yards and just 3.8 yards per carry, the lowest average since his rookie season. Talk around the league now suggests the Chargers are considering trading or even releasing the former MVP.
Do Football Outsiders similarity scores (explained here) tell us anything about the odds of a Tomlinson comeback?
There's actually only one running back who is similar to Tomlinson over all three seasons in a three-year span: Emmitt Smith from 1995-1997. Like Tomlinson, Smith set the all-time NFL touchdown mark during a stellar sixth season (1995) but then came back to earth over the next two years. As bad as Tomlinson's touchdown drop has been over the past three seasons (28 to 15 to 11), Smith's was worse (25 to 12 to 4).
While Smith never again reached that same level of performance from when the Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, his career was definitely not done. He bounced back with two Pro Bowl seasons in 1998 and 1999. His 4.2 yards per carry average from those seasons looks a lot better when you realize that overall NFL rushing numbers are higher now than they were then. The league averaged less than four yards per carry in each of those years, and has averaged at least four yards per carry in every season since.
Similarity scores aren't so optimistic about Tomlinson if we look at his last two years instead of his last three. There are many more similar running backs over a two-year span, and while most of these backs stuck around the league for a few more years, they were generally part-time players. Only Curtis Martin (for one season) and Walter Payton really returned to their previously high level of play, while Tony Dorsett and Ricky Watters stuck around for a couple years as average starters. Dorsett was the only one to average more than 4.1 yards per carry the next season.
If there is one bright spot on Tomlinson's record, it is that he continued to be useful as a receiver in 2008. The end of a good running back's career is often foreshadowed by a big drop in receptions one or two years prior, but Tomlinson has had between 50 and 60 receptions for five straight years. Nonetheless, the Chargers should go into 2009 with the expectation that Tomlinson will be just one part of a running back committee. Franchising Darren Sproles showed they are moving in that direction.
|RBs Most Similar To LaDainian Tomlinson, 2006-07|
|Name||Years||Team||Run Yr1||Rec Yr1||Run Yr2||Rec Yr2||Age Yr3||Yd/At Yr3||Yrs Left||1000-Yd
|*1982 stats pro-rated for strike|
Guard Mike Goff is likely to leave; the Chargers will probably resign Kynan Forney and give him a chance to fight with a draft pick for the job. On the defensive side, end Igor Olshansky will likely opt out of his contract and become a free agent; Olshansky struggles for consistency and didn't have a great 2008 season. The problem is that there's not really a ready-made candidate to replace Olshansky on the line, both in free agency and on the roster. Swapping him out for the Cowboys' Chris Canty, the other notable 3-4 end available in free agency, would be a slight loss. In the long run, it makes more sense for the Chargers to resign Olshansky.
San Diego has $15 million in cap space and will likely gain some more room by restructuring Tomlinson's deal. They'll need to reserve a hefty amount of space for Philip Rivers' next contract, so don't expect them to be huge players in free agency.
32 comments, Last at 27 Feb 2009, 3:54pm by cjfarls