While Saturday won't give us an answer to which is the best one-loss team, it is still a big week for conference races across the country.
24 Mar 2010
by Mike Kurtz
Baltimore seems to have all of the pieces in place: a young, promising quarterback, a trio of talented receivers, and the third-best defense in the league. While the postseason did not go quite as planned, the team seems poised to improve substantially and seize the AFC North next year. Yet one statistic is particularly troubling: Baltimore finished 26th in Adjusted Games Lost last season. (AGL measures effectiveness lost to injury, both when starters miss games and when they play hurt).
Baltimore has a very good track record for injury and recovery during the past few years. But there is a clear tendency for a team -- regardless of how good its medical staff is -- to trend back toward the league average in AGL. Injuries in recent years have disproportionately hit the defense. In Baltimore's worst-case scenario, the offense suffers an average number of injuries but the defense doesn't get any healthier.
Not even Morbo could come up with a more frightening record for the last two years of cornerbacks, a sordid history of benchings and injuries, principally to starter Fabian Washington, although his fellow starters and replacements have had their share of bumps and bruises. As if this weren't problem enough, the team's strategy for free agency left them without much depth behind the starting defensive line. Ed Reed is still one of the best defenders in the league, but he is getting older and nagging injuries are starting to catch up with him.
Fortunately for the Ravens, depth is one of the easiest things to draft for, since a team can work a best player available angle and get good value out of its picks (or trade down for more picks, if possible). By happy coincidence, this is also the best way to maintain a great team going forward, a comforting thought for Baltimore fans and a frightening one for the Ravens' divisional rivals.
Where Cincinnati attempted to fix its wide receiver problems through free agency, Baltimore actually succeeded. Donte' Stallworth signed a one-year contract, giving Baltimore an inconsistent and injury-prone player, but one that can stretch the field. The crown jewel was, of course, Anquan Boldin. The vocal receiver had a complicated 2009 campaign, vacillating between devotion to his team, demands that he be traded, and simply being injured. Boldin rushed back to join in Arizona's playoffs push, so he may be more motivated than his PR lets on. It's an added bonus for fans that Boldin's already on record trashing the Steelers.
Derrick Mason filled the group out by re-un-retiring/re-signing/finally returning Ozzie's phone calls. That keeps the fan favorite in town for another two years. The trio of Boldin, Mason and Stallworth should give the relatively porous secondaries of the AFC North fits and provide plenty of opportunities for maturing quarterback Joe Flacco to develop among good-to-great talent.
Even with Stallworth's bargain contract, all that money shoveled to Boldin meant tightening belts elsewhere, and backup defensive linemen Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards jumped ship, leaving the Ravens' defense with all the depth of a galette. Corey Ivy has also been put on the back burner, but considering his lack of playing time even as the secondary burned to the ground, Baltimore does not seem inclined toward giving him a big pay day.
Quarterback wins the prize here, because the current dynamic duo of Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace isn't scaring anyone aside from Drew Carey. While incoming general managers often "blow up" significant portions of the roster in order to distance themselves from old regimes, it is unusual for a team to ditch its top two quarterbacks without any real backup plan. Quinn (-19.5% DVOA, 32nd) and Anderson (-40.4% DVOA, 44th) were hardly world-beaters, but Delhomme (-20.2%, 33d) only comes up as an answer when the category is "Gratuitous Giveaways." Holmgren is clearly building for the future, trading Quinn away while he still has value and letting Anderson walk, but the timing is unfortunate as this is a very weak year for quarterbacks in the draft. The Browns would need a big trade up to get Sam Bradford, and Holmgren surprised everyone by actually discussing with the press his dissatisfaction with Jimmy Clausen.
Honorable mention for "biggest hole" goes to wide receiver. Last year, the Browns had exactly one wide receiver near the top 50 in our advanced ratings: Braylon Edwards. Of course, Edwards hasn't been on the Browns since October. The Browns are always looking for more ways to use Josh Cribbs because of his explosive explosiveness, but the real hope for short-term improvement in the Browns receiving corps will be sophomore Mohammed Massoquoi, who had a decent season for a rookie wideout on a bad team with a bad quarterback.
Cleveland has spent a lot of time and effort amassing 12 picks in the upcoming draft with which to start the rebuilding process. A few good picks could turn Cleveland's offense from miserable to merely ineffective, especially if the Browns can get good value at wide receiver. But they'll need a better quarterback to rise anywhere higher than that.
Mike Holmgren is taking a relatively conservative, incremental approach to rebuilding, bringing in Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace essentially as placeholders, along with aging veterans Tony Pashos, Benjamin Watson and Scott Fujita.
Fujita is a solid addition to a the league's 30th-ranked defense, but his strength is in run support, not coverage. That said, Cleveland was at or near the bottom in almost every defensive category last year, so his particular skill set won't matter quite so much. Pashos and Watson will provide some veteran leadership and confidence, two clichés Cleveland has lacked in recent years.
Pundits have made much of the Bengals' acquisition of Antonio Bryant, heralding it as the move that will bring Chad Ochocinco's inevitable return to form. The problem, however, is that Antonio Bryant doesn't have the best record. Ochocinco was at his best opposite a great possession receiver, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Bryant doesn't have a similar profile as a quality route technician with sure hands. Last year, he posted a Roy Williams-esque 45 percent catch rate, which just isn't high enough to pull extra coverage off the big 85.
And more than anything, that's what Cincinnati's offense needs. The Bengals have finally put together a powerful offensive line, able to help convert short-yardage downs the passing game hands them. Last year, the team was the best in football on power runs. Fortunately for the Bengals, there is a decent chance that Golden Tate falls to them, as wide receiver isn't as much of a league-wide need this year. If they can't get good receiver value in the first round, the Bengals can address their defensive line (a tackle would go a long way toward shoring up their run defense) or go after a valuable asset that they have short supply of: depth. A few key injuries could lead to an all-out collapse of a blossoming defense and dash Mike Brown's dream of a second consecutive AFC North championship.
Antonio Bryant, Matt Jones and Chris Davis (formerly with Tennessee) were brought in to help bolster the once-elite Cincinnati passing attack, but Bryant does not have sure hands, Davis has a career total seven catches in his two years, and Jones has serious off-the-field issues which should help him fit right in at the clubhouse but are nonetheless a liability. The team cut Laveranues Coles, which hurts their depth at this position. But depth isn't the problem -- quality is. Daniel Coats was not tendered and offer, but re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. The former undrafted free agent became part of the passing game by necessity last year, an experience Cincinnati should hope to avoid in 2010.
On defense, the team re-signed the always-interesting Tank Johnson to a four-year deal. While the deal won't make the mediocre Cincinnati defensive line any better, it will help ensure that it doesn't get any worse. Similar things can be said about Roy Williams, who confirmed that Roy Williams still exists by signing a one-year deal.
Larry Johnson, who has developed knee issues and locker room problems in the past few years, was released and later signed by the Redskins. At the moment, this leaves the recently acquired Brian Leonard as the only backup for the surprisingly effective Cedric Benson. While Leonard has shown flashes of talent, his skill set and style of play are significantly different from Benson's.
While the Pittsburgh defense is a crushing machine at its best, 2009 revealed that perhaps too much rests on the knee of Troy Polamalu. With Polamalu either sidelined or playing with limitations for almost the entire season, the Steelers suffered a precipitous drop in defensive efficiency, falling from -26.9% defensive DVOA in 2008 to -2.9% in 2009, the worst performance by Pittsburgh in the entire DVOA era.
The worst part of this decline was in pass defense, where the team led the league by a healthy margin in 2008 and then dropped to 14th in 2009. Surely a small part of this decline can be pinned on the loss of Bryant McFadden-- who quietly had a quality 2008 campaign for the Steelers before leaving for greener, mechanized pastures. Most of the decline, however, came from an absence of Polamalu's disruptive presence on both the pass rush and in disguised coverages. The loss of both was just too much for Pittsburgh's patchwork secondary to handle.
Look for the Steelers to go for depth in the secondary come draft time, as none of the premier defensive backs are likely to be on the board when the 18th spot rolls around. Their second priority will be shoring up the oft-maligned offensive line in an attempt to reestablish Pittsburgh's running prowess and keep Ben Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the turf. Their third priority is someone to keep Roethlisberger from constantly pounding the brewskis, but that's not something you find on draft day.
The Steelers are notoriously tight-pursed when free agency rolls around, but things were a bit different this offseason. Facing a large number of free agents this year, Pittsburgh did opt to spend part of last year and this offseason securing essential players on the team, including Trai Essex, but also dipped into the free agent pool with a focus on quantity rather than quality. The team retained Ryan Clark to help ensure that the secondary doesn't get any worse, and reached out to Will Allen to ensure that there was a veteran waiting in the wings should everyone get injured again. Allen will also help with the team's near-league worst special teams in the coverage units.
The team even had enough money to reconnect with a few old flames. The first is Larry Foote, who realized that playing in Detroit meant actually playing for the Lions. Foote is a good all-around linebacker who will provide depth and give the team a bit of a boost defending short passes to tight ends and running backs. Second, Antwaan Randle El has returned after a largely mediocre stint in Washington, but the former starter will likely be the fourth wide receiver behind promising sophomore Mike Wallace.
Randle El's real value is as a punt returner. Stefan Logan was electrifying on kick returns for the Steelers last season, but seemed to think he was riding down Pall Mall in a convertible on punt returns. The Steelers are just hoping that the veteran wide receiver has fixed habit of running backwards after fielding the punt.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.
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