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03 Mar 2010
by Aaron Schatz
In the only NFL division where every team now plays the 3-4, defense is the biggest story of the 2010 offseason. Three teams desperately try to improve on defense, while the fourth tries to repeat a defensive performance so good it dragged a poor offense all the way to the AFC Championship game.
It's been an offseason of change in Buffalo, as the Bills desperately try to break out of an endless cycle of mediocrity. Perhaps the biggest change will come on defense, where new coordinator George Edwards will toss out the NFL's last fad scheme (Cover-2) in favor of the NFL's current fad scheme (the 3-4).
A move to the 3-4 probably favors Buffalo's younger players more than its veterans, particularly at linebacker. Aaron Maybin, the team's 2009 first-round pick, was pretty much invisible as a rookie, going without a single sack. A number of 3-4 teams were interested in drafting the athletic pass-rush specialist as an outside linebacker a year ago. He simply doesn't have the size to take on run-blocking linemen as a 4-3 end and will have more freedom to make plays in the new scheme. Maybin and 25-year-old inside linebacker Paul Posluszny both have experience playing for a Penn State defense that uses a lot of the 3-4.
On the other hand, last year's starting defensive ends will be 33 (Aaron Schobel) and 31 (Chris Kelsay) next season. Neither player has the size needed to play end in a 3-4 scheme or experience dropping into coverage as a linebacker. Schobel may retire, while Kelsay could end up limited to playing in nickel situations where 3-4 teams often still use four-man fronts.
Most teams that switch to a 3-4 begin with a big hole at the nose tackle position, and the Bills are no exception. Marcus Stroud has told the press he would be fine with playing a two-gap nose tackle position, but he's likely to slide over to defensive end. It's odd to say a 310-pound man doesn't have enough size to do anything, but Stroud fits a lot better as a 3-4 end because those 310 pounds are stretched over a 6-foot-6 frame. Right now, a typical-sized nose tackle would be Jamal Williams of San Diego, who is 6-3 but weighs 40 pounds more than Stroud. Stroud has much more in common with Igor Olshansky and Richard Seymour. The only nose tackle of similar size is Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys (6-4, 303 pounds).
Incumbent defensive tackles Spencer Johnson and Kyle Williams also lack the size to play the nose in a 3-4 and would likely battle for the end position opposite Stroud. (Truthfully, Williams, a "gap-shooter," doesn't really fit into a 3-4 at all and is likely trade bait.) The only prototype 3-4 nose tackles on the Bills roster is a developmental prospect named Lonnie Harvey who spent half the year on the practice squad. The only realistic choices for Buffalo are to sign a nose tackle in free agency or add one through the draft. The good news is that a lot of quality veteran nose tackles are unrestricted free agents. The bad news is that those players -- Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, and Aubrayo Franklin -- are almost guaranteed to get franchised. The best player after that, Jason Ferguson, will be 36 next year and may retire.
Buffalo could break the bank and make a big splash by stealing Wilfork away from their division rivals with a big-money contract. However, just reading a sentence with the words "Buffalo" and "big-money contract" required a massive suspension of disbelief. Expect to see Buffalo go with a big defensive tackle when the 2010 draft hits the ninth overall pick.
Terrell Owens will not be brought back, but otherwise, roster changes in Buffalo are less about which contracts are up and more about which players won't fit under the new regime. The Bills also won't offer new contracts to defensive end Ryan Denney or veteran Josh Reed, who is a slot receiver of reasonable quality (average DVOA over the past four seasons). He would make a good signing for a team that needs receiver depth, particularly receivers who can run-block well. (Carolina, perhaps?) Starting guard Brad Butler shocked everyone by retiring at the age of 26, so he'll need to be replaced. Kirk Chambers started half the year at tackle and is a UFA, but he makes more sense as a depth guy. Lee Evans, the Bills' best offensive player, is caught in that class of players who go from UFA to RFA with the uncapped year.
Honestly, the Bills could use pretty much any player at any position except for running back. Even at cornerback, they could use depth, although Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee are a good starting set. The offense is a mess, and the defensive strengths they had last year are torn asunder by the move to the 3-4.
Mike Nolan helped turn around the Broncos defense after a terrible 2008 season, so it was a bit of a surprise when the franchise announced he was leaving after just one year. Denver's loss is Miami's gain. If Miami were to improve in 2010 as much as Denver did in 2009, the Dolphins might have the league's best defense. But don't expect Nolan to work the same miracles.
Earlier this year at FootballOutsiders.com, I took a look at the history of poor defenses that hire well-regarded defensive coordinators. A number of defenses this year saw big improvement after hiring big-name defensive coordinators like Nolan, Gregg Williams (New Orleans), and Dom Capers (Green Bay). But surprisingly, 2009 was an exception, not the norm.
I went looking for trends by looking at the Football Outsiders advanced DVOA ratings (explained here) for every team from 1995 to 2008 that had a defensive DVOA above 0% (i.e. worse than average) the previous season. You know these teams will improve, on average, because of regression to the mean. But how did teams with new coordinators -- in particular, experienced coordinators -- differ from the larger group of teams coming off bad defensive years? The answer: They didn't.
It's going to be hard for Nolan to have a huge impact on the Miami defense since the Miami defense wasn't that bad in the first place. The Dolphins were barely below average last year, 18th in DVOA. That's a far cry from the Broncos, who were coming off a season with one of the worst defensive DVOA ratings in history.
The personnel circumstances in Miami are also much different than they were a year ago in Denver. Nolan was getting Denver's best defensive player (Champ Bailey) back from injury, and the Broncos signed free agents to fill the other three spots in the starting secondary. Miami, however, isn't getting any new defensive backs. There's no reason to believe the safeties on the free agent market are any better than Yeremiah Bell or Gibril Wilson, and the Dolphins aren't going to let veterans get in the way of developing the two cornerbacks they took early in last year's draft, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.
Of course, top-drafted cornerbacks usually take three or four years to develop, not two. So don't be surprised if the Miami defense does improve significantly ... in 2011.
The Dolphins have very few free agents this year. Chad Pennington could look for a starting job elsewhere, or retire, but the Dolphins would be happy to have him back if he can accept being the veteran backup to Chad Henne. Jason Taylor is a free agent, but it is hard to imagine him going anywhere after his aborted one-year excursion to Washington. The other starting outside linebacker, Joey Porter, will be cut. Veteran Nate Jones is a good nickel back who is expendable because the Dolphins are getting younger at the position. 35-year-old Jason Ferguson will probably either retire or re-sign with Miami, but he could get overpaid by some other team given the current disconnect between supply and demand for 3-4 nose tackles.
The Dolphins need linebackers. One of last year's outside starters is already gone (Porter) and the other is too old to play every down (Taylor). The situation at inside linebacker is also a problem; Akin Ayodele, long a solid but unspectacular player, had a tough 2009. This year we tracked broken tackles for the first time as part of the FO game charting project; the numbers are still very preliminary, but right now we have Ayodele with the worst "broken tackle percentage" among all inside linebackers, 16 percent. (That's broken tackles divided by tackles + assists + broken tackles.) Channing Crowder comes in third at 11.5 percent, behind Ayodele and the Chiefs' Corey Mays. The Dolphins could take a shot at one of the many excellent RFA linebackers (Elvis Dumervil?) or go after one of the top UFA veterans, like Karlos Dansby or Aaron Kampman (although it makes more sense for Kampman to return to end and sign with a 4-3 team). The Dolphins could take a linebacker with their first-round pick, but the draft is also a good place to look for Ferguson's replacement (either immediate or eventual) at nose tackle.
The Patriots are locked in a financial standoff with their best defensive player, nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The team put the franchise tag on Wilfork to prevent him from signing with another team. Wilfork will likely threaten a hold out rather than come back to the Patriots without the financial stability of a long-term contract with a hefty signing bonus.
Wilfork is so good against both the pass and the run that it's hard to imagine what the Patriots would do without him. However, there might be a way for the Patriots to lose Wilfork and still improve on defense, by taking advantage of the shifting economic market for football players.
Nose tackles like Wilfork have become a very valuable commodity in recent years as the 3-4 defense has spread throughout the league. As recently as 2006, only six teams played a pure 3-4 as their main defensive scheme. Now, 14 teams plan on using the 3-4 as their main scheme, with a 15th team (Washington) also considering it. In the AFC, the 3-4 is actually the majority defense: The only 4-3 teams left are the four AFC South teams, Cincinnati, and Oakland.
The demand for players whose skills fit the 3-4 has exploded, but the supply has stayed the same. The same 3-4 players who were once undervalued in the market are now overvalued. This is much like what has happened in baseball during the past decade. When Michael Lewis wrote "Moneyball," teams like Oakland and Boston were looking for players with good on-base percentages because those players were undervalued in the market. But after a while, enough teams were trying to copy "the Moneyball philosophy" that players with good on-base percentages weren't ignored anymore -- so they didn't offer particularly good value for the price. Smarter franchises have moved on to the next undervalued commodity (outfield defense, apparently).
The Patriots think a lot like those guys up 93 who run the Red Sox. Last season, with 3-4 defenders becoming more scarce, they moved towards a hybrid defense which switched back and forth between three-man and four-man fronts. While other teams are desperate for nose tackles, the Patriots' biggest problem has been finding the outside linebacker "tweeners" that were easy to pluck out of the free-agent market a few years ago.
That's why the New England Patriots might actually be wise to consider letting Wilfork leave. Not for nothing in return, of course. Perhaps they could work out some sort of sign-and-trade deal with another team in exchange for a package of draft picks that is significant but not quite as unrealistic as the two first-rounders it takes to sign away a franchise player. The Patriots could use those picks to help re-shape their defense as a 4-3 scheme. This type of deal would also allow the Patriots to decide where Wilfork landed -- and keep him out of the AFC East.
The Patriots have more free agents than their three division rivals, particularly when it comes to the few veterans remaining on a young, developing defense. Besides Wilfork, UFAs include cornerback Leigh Bodden, defensive end Jarvis Green, and outside linebacker/nickel rush ends Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain. The Patriots will probably try to retain Bodden, Banta-Cain, and Green, but Burgess was a disappointment this year. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas will be cut, although the Pats may try to get a low-round pick for him first. On offense, the big names are running back Kevin Faulk, tight end Benjamin Watson, and guard Stephen Neal. It's hard to see Faulk leaving, but he would be a nice fit for another team that likes to use running backs in the passing game. (Philadelphia?) Watson is a perennial disappointment to fans, and has trouble staying on the field, but DVOA numbers suggest that he wouldn't necessarily be as replaceable as most fans think -- he led all tight ends in DVOA for 2009 (minimum 25 passes). It's hard to see the Pats paying Neal a lot of money when guard is the easiest position on the line to fill. The Pats could sign a free agent, draft someone in the middle rounds, or even try moving Nick Kaczur over now that Sebastian Vollmer has (mercifully) taken his starting spot at right tackle. (Kaczur is oddly listed as a UFA on a lot of websites, but the Pats signed him to a four-year extension during the season.)
If the Pats don't pay to keep Neal, it is hard to see them ponying up for a good veteran guard like Bobbie Williams, especially when they need to get RFA Logan Mankins paid long-term. If Bodden leaves, the Pats would likely add another veteran cornerback to help Shawn Springs mentor the youngsters. The most likely free agent addition would be a wide receiver who can start opposite Randy Moss; after all, there's a reason why long-time special teams ace Sam Aiken is known as "long-time special teams ace Sam Aiken."
"What?" you say. "Aren't the Jets biggest questions for 2010 on offense?" In some ways, yes, but they are generally questions that the Jets can only answer by waiting for the games to start. Nobody from last year's starting offensive lineup is an unrestricted free agent. The team is locked in to Mark Sanchez as quarterback and expects him to improve with experience. The offensive line and receivers are likely to be the same. The one major change is the release of Thomas Jones and promotion of Shonn Greene to replace him as starting running back.
The offense had better improve, because the Jets aren't likely to dominate the league on defense again in 2010. There's nothing in particular wrong with the Jets; defense is simply less consistent than offense from season to season.
The Jets weren't just the best defense in the league last year -- they were the best by a big margin. Our DVOA ratings say the Jets were 23 percent more efficient than an average defense. The gap between the Jets and the second-ranked Packers was bigger than the gap between the Packers and the team ranked eighth. (The Bills, surprisingly, who had an excellent pass defense even though your grandma could probably rush for five yards per carry on them.)
Here's a look at the best teams in defensive DVOA over the past 10 seasons, and how they did the year afterwards. The best defensive DVOA ratings are below zero because these teams allow less scoring than average (zero).
Some of these defenses stayed strong, like the 1999-2000 Ravens (who won the Super Bowl the next year, after all) and the 2007-2008 Titans (the only one to improve in the second year). However, the average team on this list got worse on defense by about 14 percentage points. If the Jets defense declined by the same amount, it would still be one of the five or six best defenses in the league. But unless the offense improved by a similar amount, that defense wouldn't be good enough to get the Jets a return trip to the playoffs.
The Jets have already made a change at kicker, signing Nick Folk and letting Jay Feely leave in free agency. Jones will be cut Friday, but the Jets are fine at running back with Greene and Leon Washington. Otherwise, the biggest UFA is defensive end Marques Douglas, a solid and underrated player who seems to constantly bounce around from one 3-4 defense to the next. Douglas' free agent status emphasizes one of the Jets' two defensive weaknesses: age on the defensive line. Even if Douglas returns, all three starters are over 30. The Jets have not drafted a lineman since 2006, and the only two on the roster under age 31 are backup Mike Devito and Ropati Pitoitua, a long-term developmental project.
The other weakness on the defense is the cornerbacks opposite Darrelle Revis, who had good charting stats thanks to the Jets' excellent pass rush but -- as we learned in the AFC Championship -- aren't really that great. Lito Sheppard will be cut along with Jones, which leaves Dwight Lowery as the new starter unless the Jets want to shop the free agent market or look for something in the draft.
Leigh Bodden and Dunta Robinson would both be excellent improvements across from Revis and would help the Jets defense combat regression to the mean. Jarvis Green would be a suitable replacement for Douglas and signing him would hurt the Patriots, always a plus in Gang Green country. Another soon-to-be-ex-Patriot is Adalius Thomas, and he really, really wants to play for the Jets, but do they even need him? Green or Pittsburgh's Travis Kirschke are better fits for a defense that needs linemen a lot more than it needs linebackers (although Kirschke, age 35, probably doesn't have much longer to go).
(Portions of this article appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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