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?
29 Mar 2010
by Tom Gower
Last year, the Texans finished 18th in DVOA in pass defense. That ranking is slightly below average and might be considered mediocre by some franchises. For the Texans, it was a great accomplishment -- it was the best performance in pass defense DVOA in the history of the franchise. In an increasingly pass-oriented league, it's no surprise that the Texans are the sole post-merger expansion team not to make the playoffs in their first eight seasons. To reach the postseason for the first time, the Texans need to strengthen their secondary.
Naturally, the Texans' first act in free agency was to let their most prominent cornerback go. Dunta Robinson's play in 2009 didn't match his franchise tag salary, so his message of "Pay me, Rick" went unheeded. While GM Rick Smith was wise not to match the Falcons' overpayment, Robinson's departure still leaves a void that must be filled for the secondary to match its 2009 performance.
In addition to a new cornerback, the Texans' secondary would also benefit from a competent free safety. Chiefs' castoff Bernard Pollard put in a strong performance at strong safety after being a surprise cut, but he could use a running buddy at a position the Texans have struggled to fill for their entire existence. Earl Thomas of the University of Texas, a free safety with cover skills, looks like an excellent fit with the 20th overall selection.
Though they lost Robinson, the Texans retained their second most important free agent, No. 2 wideout Kevin Walter. Other than Robinson, the biggest loss to date is backup quarterback Rex Grossman, who followed Shanahan the Younger to Washington. This makes Dan Orlovsky the league's most overpaid backup quarterback rather than the league's most overpaid third-string quarterback. The only free agent the Texans have added is interior lineman Wade Smith. Think of him as a replacement for original Texan Chester Pitts, who probably won't be retained.
As you would expect from a Super Bowl participant who didn't lose any free agents of consequence, the Indianapolis Colts have very few holes. Or, at least they had very few holes before cutting starting guard Ryan Lilja. General Manager Bill Polian publicly expressed his displeasure with the offensive line's performance during the Super Bowl, where they most notably failed to get a first down on third-and-1 on the drive that started in the shadow of their own goal line. The Colts' offensive line was generally acceptable in short yardage, ranking 12th in the NFL in power situations. They also didn't allow many sacks, although much of that is due to Peyton Manning. Outside of those two areas, the Colts' offensive line did not excel. They ranked 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and 27th in runners getting stuffed for a loss or no gain.
The Colts have tried to address the offensive line in recent drafts, but second-round selections Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak are notable among recent Colts picks for being flameouts. Former sixth-round pick Charlie Johnson spent last year at left tackle in place of Ugoh and undrafted Kyle DeVan relegated Pollak to the bench. Compounding the problems, right tackle Ryan Diem and Lilja both slipped in 2009, leaving Diem a candidate for replacement and Lilja on the street after the Colts deemed his 2010 salary excessive.
Subject to the uncapped year restrictions, the Colts were limited in their ability to address the position in free agency. They only added low level players in Adam Terry and Andy Alleman. An ideal solution would be to find a cornerstone left tackle at the end of the first round, allowing Johnson to shift to a more natural right tackle position.
The Colts took care of their most important free agent by re-signing middle linebacker Gary Brackett. Beyond that, the Colts haven't gotten involved in free agency -- exactly what you would expect given their recent history of free agency inactivity and the restrictions they face in this uncapped year. The secondary depth took a hit with the departures of Tim Jennings and Marlin Jackson, and Jim Sorgi is now backing up the other Manning. Beyond that, the only moves have been the aforementioned release of Lilja and additions of Alleman and Terry. There's a reason Ned Macey last year dubbed writing the Colts' free agency recap "the easiest job at Football Outsiders."
The Jacksonville Jaguars are distressingly average. As recently as two years ago, this didn’t seem to be the case. In 2007, they finished third in the league in DVOA, behind only the Patriots and Colts. They scared everyone going into the playoffs and upset Pittsburgh in the first round. Contrary to popular perception, that team wasn't just about running the football. The passing game was the strength of that squad, as the Jaguars ranked second in passing DVOA. That strong performance, though, was built on a couple of unsustainable trends: extraordinary performance in third-and-long situations (158 percent more efficient than average, according to DVOA) and an unsustainable, historically low interception rate by David Garrard. A return to earth in both categories, plus poor defensive performance on third down, pulled the Jaguars down to a 5-11 mark in 2008.
2009 saw more of the same. The running game was good, but not the strength it was in 2007, and the passing game was average. David Garrard ranked 17th in passer rating and 19th in DYAR. No Jaguars receiver ranked above 39th in DYAR (total value) or 41st in DVOA (value per play). No defense worried too much about either Torry Holt or Mike Sims-Walker.
On defense, the Jaguars’ miserable third-down performance in 2009 made a mediocre defense look even worse. The Jaguars added Aaron Kampman in free agency to cure an anemic pass rush that ranked 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate. Kampman and John Henderson are half of a good defensive line, but beyond those two, the Jaguars' defense has no disruptive players.
The Jaguars are in the enviable position of being able to take the best available player with the 10th overall pick. They need receivers, and they also need pass rushers. They can only choose one in the first round. The pressure is on GM Gene Smith to get this pick right and avoid past first round disappointments like Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, and Derrick Harvey.
The small-market Jaguars have been perhaps the biggest surprise player in the relatively muted affair that has been Free Agency 2010. They made a move on the first day of free agency, signing special teams dynamo Kassim Osgood away from the Chargers with the promise of a three-year deal and a chance to compete for a starting wideout position.
The big move, and a surprise one, was signing Kampman to a four-year, $26 million deal. Assuming he's recovered from his ACL injury, he should be a quality edge rusher. Attention on one side could help Derrick Harvey shed the first-round bust label on the other side. Kampman's addition probably means the departure of defensive end Reggie Hayward, who remains a free agent and would have to accept a reduced role and deal to return.
In 2008, the Titans had the No. 4 defense by DVOA, thanks in large part to a defensive line that ranked 5th in Adjusted Line Yards and 9th in Adjusted Sack Rate. In 2009, the defensive line slipped to 20th in Adjusted Line Yards and 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and the defense overall fell to 27th in DVOA.
Albert Haynesworth is not walking through that door, and his departure exposed other players for what they were. Kyle Vanden Bosch has been slowed by age and injuries. Ditto for Jevon Kearse, to the point where the Freak's career may be over. Youngsters William Hayes and Jacob Ford could occasionally exploit single coverage when the attention was concentrated elsewhere, but they couldn't make plays on their own. The Titans compounded their problems by letting former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz entice Vanden Bosch to join the Lions. They did add Jason Babin, but with only 17.5 sacks in six seasons, he remains most famous for the draft day trade in 2004 when the Texans traded with the Titans to move up to draft him.
The good news: There is depth and talent in the defensive ends expected to go in the first round of the draft, including Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Morgan, Brandon Graham, and Everson Griffen. The Titans are in good position to select one of these players, and have been linked to most of them.
The Titans' strategy in free agency was to try to remain competitive while shedding players who wouldn't be key contributors in 2011 or beyond. Vanden Bosch was allowed to sign with the Lions, and Kearse was not and will not be re-signed. Kevin Mawae and Nick Harper might be welcomed back -- at best -- in backup roles. Alge Crumpler was allowed to sign with the Patriots, and franchise mainstay Keith Bulluck remains on the free-agent market while he rehabs from the ACL injury that ended his 2009 season.
The Titans did take care of the one unrestricted free agent who was young, re-signing offensive lineman Eugene Amano to a five-year deal. He may be moved to Mawae's center spot after starting at left guard the past two seasons. The Titans also re-signed corner Rod Hood, who will probably compete for the starting spot opposite Cortland Finnegan. From other teams, they added a pair of former Eagles in Babin and Will Witherspoon, who should fit into Bulluck's weakside linebacker position. They also paid the price to re-up restricted free agent tight end Bo Scaife at 110 percent of the 2009 franchise tag amount, or a cool $4,908,200, for which you may thank the lack of development of 2009 draft pick Jared Cook.
(Portions of this article previous appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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