After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
04 May 2010
by Bill Barnwell
After releasing starting inside linebacker Andra Davis early in the offseason, the Broncos took their sweet time in finding a replacement. The guy they ended up signing, Akin Ayodele, was the only veteran left on the market, and there's a reason why he was the last item left on the shelf. His final year with the Dolphins exposed how painful he is in coverage and how teams can exploit him with passes up the field. He was the primary offender during Dallas Clark's 183-yard game against the Fins in Week 2. The FO game charting project listed Ayodele with 12 broken tackles in 2009, second to Corey Mays among NFL linebackers.
The hope in Denver is that Ayodele can handle the run-heavy situations and that reserve linebacker Wesley Woodyard, an undrafted free agent in 2008, can come in as part of the team's nickel package to join fellow inside linebacker D.J. Williams in coverage. The Broncos didn't use any of their picks to nab an inside linebacker -- or any linebacker -- in the draft, which leaves them perilously thin at the position. If Ayodele has lost another step in the offseason, if Williams gets hurt, or if Woodyard can't handle the nickel responsibilities ... let's just say that the Broncos needed depth at inside linebacker more than they needed two centers.
(Postscript: The wonderful commenters on the ESPN article noted that the Broncos are suggesting that they'll move Mario Haggan inside and start Robert Ayers on the outside. I should've mentioned that in the article, but let's just say I'm skeptical of that switch sticking.)
I thought it might be interesting, before discussing undrafted free agents, to look at which undrafted free agents are likeliest to get a gig. The table below compares the percentage of players on rosters at a given position that were undrafted free agents to all other players from 2004 through 2009. As an example, seven quarterbacks got onto active rosters as rookie undrafted free agents over the time frame, which is just about 1 percent of the 703 instances of rookie UDFAs hitting the big time.
|UDFAs on Rosters vs. All Others, 2004-2009|
|Pos||UDFA %||All Other %|
This suggests coaches look at their undrafted free agents a lot like fantasy players look at real football -- they have an irrational affection for adding skill position guys. Maybe it's because their play is more likely to stand out, or because it's easier for them to fill a specific niche for a few plays a game. Hard to say.
The Broncos did add an inside linebacker in undrafted free agency, Cal product Devin Bishop. Bishop was a JuCo transfer from San Francisco City College that only started one year at Cal, following a similar path to his older brother, the Packers' Desmond. Denver also made a point of adding depth at safety in its class, bringing in three big-school products: Marcellus Bowman (Boston College), Kyle McCarthy (Notre Dame), and Cassius Vaughn (Mississippi). McCarthy has the best shot of making the team, but he'll have to compete with another Notre Dame product -- second-year special teams dynamo David Bruton -- for a roster spot.
There are two things we know for sure about the Chiefs and their 3-4 defense: You need a very good nose tackle to succeed in the NFL while playing a 3-4 scheme, and the Chiefs don't have one. Veteran Ron Edwards is a stopgap, and while he's game to try, he just can't handle the responsibilities that your excellent nose tackles need to take care of so that the linebackers behind him can make plays.
Another thing we know is that a good nose tackle is hard to find. When teams get one, they tend to hold onto him until he either gets hurt or falls out of favor with the organization. Think about the careers of Jamal Williams in San Diego or Kris Jenkins in Carolina as reasonable examples.
So, with three of the first 50 picks in the draft, how did a team that ranked 31st in run defense DVOA a year ago fail to upgrade its front seven? Taking Eric Berry will help, but the team's two second-round picks were a running back (Dexter McCluster) the team plans on converting to wide receiver, and a cornerback (Javier Arenas) who will play behind two young starters at corner, Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers.
Meanwhile, who was left on the board for each of those picks? Mammoth Alabama lineman Terrence Cody. At 354 pounds, Cody would have been the ideal two-gap space-filler the Chiefs need to clog running lanes and create opportunities for defensive playmakers like, coincidentally, Eric Berry. Instead, the Chiefs passed on him. Cody went to Baltimore, where he'll help Haloti Ngata create those opportunities for Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Oh boy.
The Chiefs were able to get a player at their spot of need, Minnesota nose tackle Garrett Brown, in the undrafted period. At 303 pounds, Brown will need to put on some weight to play the nose. To the dismal KC wideout corps arrives UMass wideout Jeremy Horne, who only had 22 catches for 297 yards in his senior season, while starting seven of 11 contests. You might wonder why a guy who couldn't stay in the starting lineup for UMass is heading to an NFL team; the answer is that he's 6-foot-3 and ran a 4.42 40-yard dash during Boston College's Pro Day.
Writing about the Raiders after a draft is usually like shooting fish in a barrel. But after a draft that focused on the offensive line and netted linebacker Rolando McClain along with quarterback Jason Campbell (via trade), it's not so easy this year.
This year, we couldn't write that Oakland's biggest post-draft need was "logic." Still, there are a fair amount of questions about how the Raiders' defense will hold up in 2010. While there are some elite parts -- namely cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive lineman Richard Seymour -- there were enough holes last year to cause trouble. The primary offenders were at safety. Young Tyvon Branch has shown some promise at the strong safety spot, but free safety has been a hole. Michael Huff, the seventh overall selection in 2006, has been a total bust who represents the risk in taking a player like Eric Berry that high -- there's no safety net, ironically, for safeties. Corners can move to safety, like Antrel Rolle did in Arizona, but the next spot for safeties is the UFL. Huff can't cover anyone, and backup Hiram Eugene was last seen receiving the biggest stiff-arm of the decade by Willis McGahee.
Despite all that, the Raiders failed to take a safety until the 251st pick of the draft, adding Michigan strong safety Stevie Brown. Corners Walter McFadden and Jeremy Ware are too small to move over to safety, but are instead typical Raiders' selections based solely on speed. Hey, maybe we can still make fun of them after all.
Considering how poor the bottom of its roster is, it's remarkable that Oakland could only manage to bring in seven undrafted free agents. Fullback Manase Tonga is probably the pick of the litter, an excellent run-blocker at BYU who should benefit from the release of Oren O'Neal, which coincided with Tonga's arrival. If any undrafted free agent is a bet to be starting in Week 1, Tonga might be that guy. Tonga also grew up in San Mateo.
It seems strange that the league's best passing offense would need to add a wide receiver in the draft, but it's true. Philip Rivers has two elite players he can throw to -- wideout Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates -- but there's a huge drop off from those guys and the next tier of Chargers receivers. Malcom Floyd inherited the starting job after Chris Chambers was released, but Floyd is a complementary target that doesn't have the "possession receiver" skill set the Chargers would love to add to their system. He's basically Vincent Jackson-lite. The role would be an ideal spot for 2007 first-round pick Craig Davis to squeeze into, but Davis hasn't developed whatsoever during his first three seasons as a pro, and he will likely be competing for a roster spot this summer.
San Diego would've benefited from adding a possession receiver to take some of the heat off of Jackson and Gates and push Floyd back into a part-time role. That's the role Eric Parker played in this offense a few years ago before suffering a career-ending hip injury. Eric Decker -- who went off the board at 87 to the Broncos -- would have been a great fit here. He runs excellent routes and does an effective job of going over the middle. He would have had an impact on next year's team far more quickly than project linebacker Donald Butler, who the Chargers nabbed at 79.
The Chargers added 20 undrafted free agents, including seven wide receivers. It seems reasonable to suggest that one of them will make the roster. A quick run through them all ...
Marty Schottenheimer compared Seyi Ajirotutu of Fresno State to Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd after coaching Ajirotutu in the East-West Shrine Game. That's probably not a selling point for this organization. Florida State's Richard Goodman has 27 catches during the past two years, thanks to a fractured fibula in 2007. He finished his five-year career with 54 catches, 602 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. Jordyn Jackson is out of Eastern Oregon and can be a running back or a wide receiver if you ask nicely. If that makes him the poor man's Dexter McCluster, you can only imagine how many pay brackets away he is from Wes Welker. Here's his highlight reel. Baylor's Ernest Smith is 6-foot-3 and ranked 204th on NFL Draft Scout's list of wideout prospects. He averaged 9.2 yards per catch last year, so if Loser League teams have practice squads ... Marcel Thompson hails from Lindenwood University in Missouri, which is attempting to move from the NAIA to Division II in football. He's 6-foot-3 as well. I know, shocking. Cornell's Bryan Walters is shorter at 6-foot-1, but he started for three years, caught 144 passes in school, and also served as the team's return man. He's from Bothell, Washington, which is the home of our very own Vince Verhei. Finally, Jeremy Williams saw significant playing time all four years for Tulane, and had a huge senior season, catching 84 passes for 1,113 yards and seven touchdowns. Universal Draft has a highlight clip of him on Youtube.
(Portions of this article previous appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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