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?
31 Mar 2009
by Vince Verhei
Assuming Josh McDaniels and Jay Cutler can work together like, I don't know, grown men or something, there will be nothing wrong with the Denver offense in 2009. Broncos show up all over the leaderboard of almost all our offensive statistics, include the league's best run-blocking offensive line. As universally effective as they were when attacking, they were just as universally useless on the other side of the ball, ranking 31st overall (ahead of only the lowly Lions), 31st against the pass and 27th against the run. They've already tweaked the back end of their defense, bringing in safety Brian Dawkins from Philadelphia. That should help them in coverage, and also help fix the biggest weakness in their run defense: the damage done by big plays. According to our numbers, no other defense gave up a higher percentage of rushing yards on big plays (10 or more yards) last season.
With Dawkins on board, it's time to address the front end of the defense. The starters on the Broncos' depth chart on the defensive line currently include Tim Crowder (who has played in only 15 games in his first two seasons in the league) and Carlton Powell (a fifth-round pick in 2008 who missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles tendon). Unfortunately for Denver, the top three front-seven guys -- Aaron Curry, Brian Orakpo, and B.J. Raji -- all figure to be gone when the Broncos pick at number 12. They could take end/linebacker Everette Brown, but they already have an all-pass-rush/no-run-defense end in Elvis Dumervil. A better option would be to go with LSU's Tyson Jackson or Tennessee's Robert Ayers. Alternatively, they could take a linebacker like Brian Cushing or Rey Maualuga in Round One, then address the line in Round Two with someone like Michael Johnson out of Georgia Tech.
And if Cutler gets traded, this whole story will be null and void.
The Broncos released four defensive starters: safety Marquand Manuel, end John Engelberger, cornerback Dre' Bly, and linebacker Jamie Winborn. Brought in to replace them were Dawkins, linebacker Andra Davis from the Browns, and cornerback Andre' Goodman from Miami. (Apparently, Denver must have at least one defensive back whose first name ends with a superfluous apostrophe.) The Broncos weren't satisfied on offense either, signing Jabar Gaffney away from New England to be the third wide receiver. They also signed J.J. Arrington from the Cardinals and Correll Buckhalter from the Eagles to play Denver's running back, the NFL equivalent to Spinal Tap's drummer.
Some times our advanced stats pick out strengths and weaknesses in teams that basic stats miss. Other times, basic stats tell the whole story. To wit: The Chiefs had ten sacks last year, as a team. Twelve individual players had ten or more sacks last season; DeMarcus Ware, by himself, doubled the Chiefs' total. And six of Kansas City's sacks came in Weeks 16 and 17 last year, when their season was already lost. Tamba Hali led the team with three sacks, a total that ranked 106th in the league. Well, actually, it tied him for 106th in the league with several other players, including five defensive backs.
The good news is that the Chiefs finished with the third overall pick in the draft, and there are is an elite pass rusher available: end/linebacker Brian Orakpo out of Texas, who had 10 1/2 sacks (yes, more than the Chiefs) last season. On the other hand, Kansas City could go with linebacker Aaron Curry out of Wake Forest, likely a better overall player, but not a pure pass rusher. If that's the case, they'll need to address this hole in the top of the second round. (And even if they do take Orakpo in the first, doubling up on pass rushers would not be a horrible plan.) Top candidates at that point will be end/backer Larry English from Northern Illinois, end Lawrence Sidbury from Richmond, or end/backer Cody Brown from Connecticut.
When you only win two games, teams will not line up to raid your roster. The Chiefs lost only two players of note: backup quarterback Damon Huard (made expendable when the Matt Cassel trade demoted Tyler Thigpen to top clipboard holder) moved on to San Francisco, while linebacker Pat Thomas (who was collecting a ton of tackles last year before an injury ruined the second half of his season) has joined the Bills. Coming onto the team are Cassell his partner-in-trade, Mike Vrabel, plus wide receiver Bobby Engram and guard Mike Goff. Engram might contend with Mark Bradley for the number-two receiver position, though his end is near; he just turned 36, and his 10.4 yards per reception last year were his lowest over a full season since 1997. Goff should step right into a starting position. Between himself, Brian Waters, and Branden Albert, it could be the best line in Kansas City since the heydays of Willie Roaf and Will Shields.
Javon Walker missed eight games for the Broncos in 2007. Everyone knew he had bad knees, and after his acrimonious departure from Green Bay in 2005, they knew he was a bit of a headcase as well. So of course, Oakland swooped in and handed Walker $27 million. He promptly missed eight games again, and saw his reception total drop by nearly half, from 26 to 15. You know who Oakland's top two wideouts were in 2008? Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens. Seriously. When you invest $61 million in a quarterback, as the Raiders did with JaMarcus Russell, you'd better give him somebody to catch the ball.
There's an obvious answer for the Raiders at number seven in the draft, and he's used to wearing black: Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree. Disappointing Combine aside, his numbers last season -- 134 catches, 1,962 yards, 22 touchdowns -- are impossible to ignore.
Crabtree should fall to the Raiders, but if Seattle or Cleveland think he's too irresistible to let go, there are plenty of other options. Top alternatives in this receiver-rich draft include Jeremy Maclin of Missouri or Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland. There's also Percy Harvin from Florida, a raw talent with blazing speed, the kind of player who pierces Al Davis' dreams.
The Raiders made one of the biggest signings in free agency without adding anyone to their roster: Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha's $15 million per year deal made him the NFL's highest-paid defender. If you've been reading Football Outsiders for any length of time, you know we're big, big fans of the guy. And the rest of the league knows how good he is too. Asomugha was targeted just 1.7 times per game last season, and that was covering guys like Steve Smith and Randy Moss. The Raiders also made punter Shane Lechler the highest-paid player at his position. The Raiders released four starters: alleged tackle Kwame Harris, safety Gibril Wilson, fullback Justin Griffith, and defensive end Kalimba Edwards. Center Jake Grove signed with Miami as a free agent, so Oakland traded a draft pick to Miami for their center, Samson Satele. They also signed Khalif Barnes from Jacksonville and Erik Pears to contend for Harris' spot at tackle; either should be a significant upgrade. Yes, things have been busy in Oakland.
It's hard to find a weakness on this team, one of the better 8-8 teams you'll ever find. Their biggest problems last year came in defending outside runs and rushing the passer, which might make outside linebacker seem like a need -- until you remember that Shawne Merriman is coming back from injury. After that, you look at losses in free agency, and the Chargers lost only one defensive starter: defensive end Igor Olshansky, who signed with the Cowboys.
The Chargers' use of a 3-4 defense makes this somewhat of a tricky spot to fill, however; they need a player with bulk, not an undersized pass rusher like Brian Orakpo (who won't be available when they pick 16th anyway). A perfect fit could fall to them in LSU's Tyson Jackson, all 6-foot-5, 291 pounds of him. If not, they could go with Robert Ayers out of Tennessee, though he may be on the small side at just 273 pounds. Another option may be to take Peria Jerry out of Ole Miss, and try to convert the 290-pound tackle into a 3-4 end.
As busy as things have been in Oakland, they've been wabbit-season qwiet in San Diego. Besides Olshansky,the Chargers lost just one other starter: Mike Goff, who signed with Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Chargers added just one player: Former Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett. The Chargers know they had a good team that suffered from some bad luck last season, and they did little to mess it up.
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