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 2010
by Bill Barnwell
While Denver added much needed talent on the defensive line with the signings of Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green, and Jamal Williams, they've got a problem directly behind that bulk. The Broncos released starting inside linebacker Andra Davis in early March and haven't signed a replacement. Davis started 13 games for the Broncos alongside D.J. Williams in the middle of Denver's 3-4 alignment, but with his departure to Buffalo, he'll be playing for his third team in three years.
Davis represents one of the difficulties in using statistics to measure player performance on the defensive side of the ball. He made a remarkable number of plays last year for an inside linebacker, and when he made a tackle, he allowed an average of only two yards, the fifth-best figure in the league. He also ranked in the top 10 in 2007, but he ranked 49th in 2008 and 56th in 2006, and he's clearly not regarded as an elite linebacker. In this case, it's better to ignore the numbers and trust the opinions of scouts and coaches.
One possible replacement is third-year linebacker Spencer Larsen, but Larsen is inexperienced and has injury issues. If Denver chooses to add a veteran to challenge Larsen, the obvious candidate is former Dolphins starter Akin Ayodele, who has experience in the 3-4. However, Ayodele struggled with his tackling last year, and conventional wisdom doesn't consider him any better than Davis.
As part of their move from a zone-blocking scheme to a more traditional blocking approach, they released starting center Casey Wiegmann, who caught on with the Chiefs. Rumors have linked the Broncos to future Hall of Famer Kevin Mawae, but Mawae's play slipped last year in Tennessee, and he just turned 39. Since the merger, only three 39-year-old offensive linemen have managed to make it through 10 or more starts.
Denver's big offseason project, though, was to improve its situation up front on the defensive side of the ball, and the Broncos succeeded. Adding Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green provides valuable depth at defensive end, but the key move was signing Jamal Williams away from the Chargers. Williams should instantly take over for Ronald Fields at nose tackle, but while he's an obvious upgrade in talent, Williams is 34 and coming off of a torn triceps muscle.
Should he be able to come back at 100 percent? It's hard to say. There are some worrying signs in his injury comparables -- Pio Sagapolutele tore his triceps before the 1998 season, and while Sagapolutele never played again, he was a more marginal player than Williams. A more comparable player would be Rod Coleman, who suffered a triceps injury (along with hand and knee injuries) in 2007 at 31. He also never made it back onto an NFL field. Anthony McFarland was able to come back from a triceps tear in 2004, but he was 27.
Coincidentally, a data point on Williams's side would be Mawae. He suffered a triceps injury in 2005 with the Jets, and came back to play at a high level with the Titans during most of the past four seasons.
The key to success for any 3-4 defense is an excellent nose tackle. The Chargers' run defense fell apart last year without Jamal Williams. Elsewhere in California, the 49ers were emerging with the league's fourth-best run defense, thanks to a breakout season from their nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin.
In Kansas City, there is no such hope for a breakout year. The current nose tackle is veteran Ron Edwards. At 315 pounds, Edwards is undersized for the position (marking the first time anyone weighing 315 pounds has been undersized for anything), preventing him from effectively occupying offensive linemen, let alone penetrating into the backfield to make plays.
After missing out on the Williamses and Vince Wilforks of free agency, the Chiefs made a quiet addition who could potentially play the position, former Browns defensive tackle Shaun Smith. At 325 pounds, Smith has the size to man the position, but it's hard to think of a player with more downside. Smith is known league-wide as a locker room cancer who has an inflated opinion of his self-worth. While he's a talented athlete, he barely suited up in 2009 because teams simply didn't want him around.
Even if Smith stays in line for a little while, depending on him as a long-term solution would be foolish. He's a short-term patch at best, and the nose remains a hole unfilled.
Kansas City focused on adding talent to their offensive line, adding potential starters in the aforementioned Wiegmann and former Colts guard Ryan Lilja. Wiegmann can play either guard or center, and his landing point may depend on the status of left tackle Branden Albert. Albert was moved from guard to left tackle after being drafted, but his play since then has led the Chiefs to consider moving him back. If the team opts for a left tackle with its first-round pick, Wiegmann would play center and Albert would play guard or right tackle.
The team re-upped veteran free agent wideout Chris Chambers, giving him a three-year, $15-million deal. You can imagine my thoughts on giving a long-term deal to a 31-year-old wideout who relies on his physical ability and has had injury issues during the past few years. Running back Thomas Jones was added to compete with Jamaal Charles for time in the backfield, which makes the Chambers move look logical and coherent.
We covered the futility of the Raiders' passing situation in the previous Four Downs series, along with the unlikelihood that any option worth pursuing would become available to the team. While Seattle went for a deep cut in Chargers backup Charlie Whitehurst, there's no one available as an unrestricted free agent who would stand out ahead of Oakland's incumbents.
Of course, there's the nuclear option. If the Eagles really are willing to downgrade their expectations for a Donovan McNabb deal, the Raiders could be a landing point that fits both parties.
A first-round pick for McNabb would be a disaster for Oakland, who would then be missing first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 (thanks to the Richard Seymour deal). A second-round pick this year, though, would be a reasonable price for a team that could immediately win another game or two by swapping out their replacement-level quarterbacks with the above-average McNabb.
If Philadelphia would accept a package of the 39th pick and a promising young player like end Matt Shaughnessy, the Raiders would almost have to say yes, even without getting McNabb to sign a contract extension. If they really want to dream of a pre-lockout playoff berth, it's their only move.
Oakland kicked the restricted free agency period off with a bang, tendering middling nickel corner Stanford Routt at the first- and third-round level, while only tendering starting middle linebacker Kirk Morrison at a third-round level. The Raiders also franchised Richard Seymour, which makes sense, but they haven't signed a single free agent from outside the organization this offseason. Then again, considering how well they've identified successful veteran free agents during the past couple of years, that's probably for the best.
The team declined to tender a deal to outside linebacker Jon Alston, who then signed with the Buccaneers. They also waived several veterans, including defensive end Greg Ellis, halfback Justin Fargas, wideout Javon Walker, and defensive tackle Gerard Warren.
General Manager A.J. Smith created this hole at the beginning of March, dealing former Pro Bowler Antonio Cromartie to the Jets for a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The move came out of necessity: The team had soured on Cromartie's off-the-field indiscretion, and while the Florida State product had 10 picks in 2007, he's only produced five since. It was time for a change.
The problem is that San Diego now has a group of question marks at corner. The first guy in line to win the job will be former first-round pick Antoine Cason, but Cason's been a disaster as a pro. He was so poor in the slot that he was taken out of the nickel defense during the 2009 season. Although he had 12 tackles in the season-ending win over the Redskins, that's not a good thing. It was because Washington was targeting him in coverage repeatedly. The hope is that Cason will play better outside, but it's just that: hope.
Next in line is journeyman cornerback Donald Strickland, whom the Chargers signed as a free agent. Strickland was effective at times in the slot for the Jets last year, but he was also playing behind the league's best pass rush. At 29, Strickland is playing for his fifth team in the league. If you made a list of the cornerbacks that developed into effective starters at 29 after four teams passed on them, well, you wouldn't need to worry about harming many trees.
The final option is utility defensive back Steve Gregory, who is similar to Strickland and probably better suited for the slot. While San Diego got a third-round pick for Cromartie, they might need to use a first-round pick to replace him.
The quandary at running back was solved with the release of LaDainian Tomlinson, who signed with the Jets, followed by tendering a contract to Darren Sproles. Sproles appears to be the starting back heading into 2010, although it seems inevitable that he'll split the load with a back to be named later. So far, the only arrival at running back is Washington's Marcus Mason, who was the fifth-string back in D.C. last year.
Although Tomlinson's departure took the headlines, the Chargers lost several role players that might actually be more valuable to the team than Tomlinson was a year ago. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna was the backup in name only, as he started five games and saw plenty of snaps in two-tight end sets. San Diego will look for a replacement in the draft. Meanwhile, wide receiver/special teams demon Kassim Osgood headed to Jacksonville as a free agent, where he hopes to make an impact as a receiver. It'll be interesting to see how his departure affects the Chargers' coverage units.
Finally, the team dealt third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to Seattle for a 2011 third-round pick and a swap of 20 draft positions in the second round of this year's draft. Mike Tanier will be discussing this move in more detail in Walkthrough later this week.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
29 comments, Last at 05 Apr 2010, 10:25am by Kevin from Philly