How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
18 May 2009
by Vince Verhei
Pat Bowlen's offseason to-do list must have read something like this:
The funny thing is, they probably could have limited this list to one three-word item -- "Fix lousy defense" -- and contended for the playoffs again in 2009. They had the second-worst defensive DVOA in the league last season, behind only the historically bad Detroit Lions. But by weighted DVOA, which places added emphasis on the later part of the year, the Broncos were dead last. So they started out Lion-like, and then they got worse.
Actually, it got lost in all the Jay Cutler drama, but Denver did try to fix their defense. They announced a switch to a 3-4 formation, and could have a half-dozen new starters on that side of the ball. Most of the turnover came in the secondary, where only Champ Bailey remains. The Broncos brought in Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins and Miami's Renaldo Hill to play safety, while Andre' Goodman, also formerly of the Dolphins, will man the other corner. What do these four have in common? Mileage; they've played a combined 38 seasons. The mane on their helmets may turn from orange to grey soon.
And then came the draft. With a bevy of defensive players available, the Broncos reached with their first pick, taking Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, who may not have even been the best back available, and could get lost in the shuffle of Broncos runners this year. Then they finally turned to defense, taking Tennessee linebacker Robert Ayers, who could start on Opening Day. And then things got truly nutty, as they traded a first-round pick in 2010 to Seattle to select Alphonso Smith, a 5-foot-9 corner with great ball skills who may get eaten alive by bigger receivers.
If Josh McDaniels' offense won't work without Randy Moss, if Kyle Orton can't match his own 2009 performance -- let alone that of Jay Cutler -- or if the new defense shows its age, then 2010's to-do list may begin "Watch Seattle spend the first pick in the draft. Which they got from us."
The Broncos apparently woke up on Monday, April 27, and said "Hmm. Our roster still kinda sucks." They missed out on the quality, so they went with the quantity, signing seventeen undrafted free agents, including eight defenders. Defensive end Rulon Davis out of California is far and away the sentimental favorite. After high school, he postponed college for a stint in the Marine Corps, including deployment to Iraq, where he serviced helicopters. If that's not enough, he's named after former Broncos great Rulon Jones. Jeff Schweiger split time between end and linebacker in college. The Broncos list him at linebacker. At 6-foot-5, 276 pounds, he's awfully big for a linebacker, but still too small to play a 3-4 end. He started his college career at USC, then transferred to San Jose State for his senior season, likely so he would have a chance to start. And speaking of big defenders, there's also Everette Pedescleaux, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive end out of Northern Iowa, and Chris Baker, a 6-foot-2, 326-pound defensive tackle from Hampton. In the backfield, Jackson State cornerback D.J. Johnson was a second-team All-American last season. Cornerback Tony Carter, though only 5-foot-9, started 50 games at Florida State and returned three interceptions, one fumble, one blocked field goal, and one blocked extra point for scores in his time there.
The Broncos also signed a pair of special teams specialists. Britton Colquitt followed his brother Dustin, cousin Jimmy, and father Craig (who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers) as a Tennessee punter. He can also kick off. Denver's punt unit was bad last season, but according to our data, that had more to do with shoddy coverage than it did with incumbent Brett Kern, so Colquitt could be a longshot. Temple wide receiver Travis Shelton led the nation last season with a 31.3-yard average on kickoff returns.
The most notable offensive signee is wide receiver Nate Swift, who is first in receptions and second in yards and touchdowns in the Nebraska record books.
There's also a new regime in Arrowhead. That's what happens when you go 2-14. Scott Pioli, who won three Super Bowls with New England and lost a fourth, has taken over the Chiefs. One of his first moves was to hire a new coach, Todd Haley, last seen guiding the Arizona Cardinals' offense to the Super Bowl. Haley's offense requires smart decisions and quick, accurate throws from its quarterback, so Tyler Thigpen wasn't going to cut it. Pioli turned back to New England and grabbed Matt Cassel, who stepped in for an injured Tom Brady last season and played well enough to guarantee a starting job somewhere in 2009. It remains to be seen how he'll perform when he's throwing to Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley as opposed to Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Another player Cassel won't be throwing to is Tony Gonzalez. The future Hall of Fame tight end, one of the greatest Chiefs of all time, will finish his career in Atlanta after being traded for a 2010 draft pick.
On defense, Kansas City has gotten very, very young. While there are some obvious exceptions (most notably new linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas), the Chiefs may have eight defensive starters under the age of 25. And that's not even counting the draft picks. Third overall pick Tyson Jackson is a natural 3-4 end, and third-round pick Alex McGee could rotate between end and tackle for Kansas City.
This will be a better team in 2009, but a return to the playoffs is probably too much to ask. Remember this story, though, when they're giving up 10 points a game in 2011.
The Chiefs had enough young, untested players on their team last year; they don't need to bring in any more off the street. The only undrafted free agent on the roster is Tanner Purdum, a long snapper from Baker University, whose page on the Chiefs' Web site includes a horrible Photoshop. Baker University is a liberal arts school in Baldwin City, Kan., founded by United Methodist ministers. Their football team, the Baker Wildcats, plays in the NAIA's Heart of America Athletic Conference. Purdum last played there in 2007, spending 2008 as a graduate assistant, working with wide receivers like Tyrell Spain and Austin DeGraeve. Here ends the only mention of Baker University you will ever see on this site.
Everything seemed set going into the Draft. The Raiders had rebuilt their offensive line, bringing in Khalif Barnes from Jacksonville and Samson Satele from Miami. The defense, which was not half-bad overall in 2008, was returning virtually intact. With JaMarcus Russell showing flashes of brilliance last season (10-of-11 for 156 yards against Denver, 18-of-25 for 236 yards against Houston) and Darren McFadden always a threat to score on the ground, the Raiders needed only to upgrade their receiving corps. Oakland's top three wideouts -- Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins, and Javon Walker's mummified remains -- combined for just 52 catches last season.
Fortunately for the Raiders, there was a savior on the horizon: Michael Crabtree, the receiver out of Texas Tech, the consensus top wideout in the draft, and considered by some as the best player in the draft. Loaded with superstar long-term potential and NFL-ready, he seemed like the answer to the Raiders' prayers. Instead, the Raiders picked Darius Heyward-Bey, surprising everyone except Mike Mayock. Why Heyward-Bey? He may be raw, he may have suspect hands, but darnit, he can run fast -- his 4.3 40-yard dash was the fastest by a receiver at the Combine. Not content with that, in the second round they chose a complete unknown, safety Michael Mitchell out of Ohio. The pick caused quite a to-do around the FO offices.
While neither of these picks is likely to make an impact this season, the fact remains that with their weak division, even a slight improvement on offense could lead to a playoff run, the first in Oakland in years.
The Raiders signed eight rookies after the draft. The most promising youngster might be Jonathan Compas, formerly a very big fish in a very small pond. The 300-pound guard started 40 games at UC-Davis, and was a three-time first-team all-Great West Football Conference selection. There's also linebacker Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic's all-time leading tackler, who was named to the watch lists for the Lombardi and Butkus awards. The signing of Nick Miller, who set game, season, and career records at Southern Utah for kickoff return yardage, confirms that Al Davis likes fast guys.
When you're the best team in your division, even though your best defensive player is out for most of the season, you don't need to make a lot of changes. While there were rumblings that former MVP LaDainian Tomlinson would be moving on, when all was said and done, all the big names -- Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson -- are back. In fact, all the names are back, period. The Chargers will have only three new starters next season: linebacker Shawne Merriman, returning from injury; defensive end Jacques Cesaire, stepping into Igor Olshansky's old spot; and Kynan Forney, filling in for a departed Mike Goff. The biggest question mark here is Forney, who was on the Chargers' roster last year but did not appear in a game. He was a starter for several years in Atlanta when they were the league's top rushing team, so if he can play near that level, the Chargers will be fine.
With no obvious needs to fill, the Chargers were content to go best player available in the draft, and they loaded up with linemen. Top pick Larry English is 274 pounds, which may be small for a 3-4 end, but he'll offer depth as a pass-rushing linebacker and step in when Merriman or Shaun Phillips depart. A pair of monsters came in the third and fourth rounds: 333-pound guard Louis Vasquez out of Texas Tech, and 331-pound defensive tackle Vaughn Martin out of Western Ontario (Canada). Later in the fourth, they took Tyronne Green, a 309-pound guard out of Auburn. That's nearly half of a ton of beef they added, just in case of emergency.
Last year, San Diego relied on tiebreakers to beat Denver for the division crown. No tiebreakers were needed in the I-Can-Sign-More-Undrafted-Guys-Than-You-Can-Department -- the Chargers are currently carrying 19 such players on the roster. While a handful of Denver's guys are likely to make the team, San Diego's candidates face much tougher competition. Take North Dakota State's Jerimiah Wurzbacher and Colorado's Kory Sperry. Those guys play tight end, a job the Chargers have pretty much covered, thank you very much (albeit by a player who arrived as an undrafted free agent). Still, there may be some diamonds in the rough. Linebacker Darry Beckwith started 34 games for LSU and was two-time second-team all-SEC. Wide receiver Greg Carr caught 29 touchdowns at Florida State, tied for second-most in the school's history. California linebacker Anthony Felder was one of the strongest linebackers at the Combine, but has struggled to stay healthy. Similarly, Marshall safety C.J. Spillman may have gone as high as the third round if he hadn't suffered a broken hand. Finally, there's Syracuse running back Curtis "Boonah" Brinkley, whose 399-yard game for West Catholic High School in Philadelphia will never be forgotten.
75 comments, Last at 28 May 2009, 5:37pm by Vince Verhei