Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
02 Mar 2010
by Sean McCormick
In a very real sense, Dallas' season ended with 7:23 left in the second quarter of its divisional round game against Minnesota when left tackle Flozell Adams came off the field with a strained calf muscle. The Cowboys had been struggling to block the talented Vikings front four from the opening gun, but that task went from difficult to impossible once Adams left the field. On the very next play, Minnesota's All-World defensive end Jared Allen ran over a speed bump by the name of Doug Free and dropped Felix Jones in the backfield. On second down, Dallas lined up Jason Witten on the left side of the line to give Free some help, but Allen simply blew past Witten on his way to a strip-sack of Tony Romo. The turnover resulted in a Ryan Longwell field goal that pushed Minnesota's lead to 17-3 and effectively ended the competitive portion of the game.
It's ironic that Dallas' season was derailed by a crippling injury because during the course of the 2009 season, very few teams stayed healthier. The Cowboys were 30th in the league in Adjusted Games Lost, our metric for determining how much injuries to starters had an impact on a team's performance. (It measures both players who miss games and those who play injured.) The average team's AGL in 2009 was 53.9, which is roughly equivalent to losing three starters for the entire season. Dallas, however, only lost 22.5 games worth of starter production. Normally that would be a bad sign, as teams with an unusually low or high AGL number tend to regress to the mean the following season, but the Cowboys have turned staying healthy into something of an art form. Aside from 2008, when the team suffered through a league-average rate of injury, the Cowboys have been among the healthiest teams in football for the last five years. With a roster that is largely weighted towards star players at the expense of depth, the pressure is on lead trainer Jim Maurer to keep Dallas' starters on the field for another potential Super Bowl run in 2010.
Free safety Ken Hamlin is slated to make $6 million next season, which is way too much for a guy whose production has slipped in each of the last two seasons. Alan Ball is younger and cheaper and looked capable of handling the job during his four-game stint as a starter, so Hamlin is a potential cut if he doesn't restructure his contract (or even if he does). Montrae Holland and Cory Proctor are both free agents who might not return to Dallas. With Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo both over the age of 30, the Cowboys may need to use a combination of free agency and the draft to build some depth on the offensive line.
The first priority for Dallas is to retain its own talent, not to run after free agents. Miles Austin was the fourth most valuable receiver in football despite only starting 11 games, and inking him to a new deal is the top priority for the offseason. The team would also like to retain defenders Gerald Sensabaugh and Marcus Spears and will probably place mid-level tenders on both of them.
The one area where it might make sense to make a splash in free agency is at left tackle, where talents like Marcus McNeill and Donald Penn are restricted free agents. Both players would represent a long-term solution at left tackle and would be worth giving up significant draft compensation, but it's more likely that the Cowboys will trot out Flozell Adams for another season while looking to the draft to find a younger replacement.
The conventional view of the Giants season is that the defense feasted on cupcake opponents like Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Kansas City in the first few weeks of the season. Then the Saints finally exposed the Giants defense as a unit that could not cover, particularly between the hash marks and was surprisingly indifferent to its run responsibilities. In this case, the conventional wisdom is right -- according to Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA stats, the Giants defense was 26.5 percent better than an average defense in Weeks 1-5, then 14.5 percent worse than average for the rest of the year. Against quality passing attacks such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and Minnesota (not to mention the Matt Moore-led Panthers), the Giants were helpless. First year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan tried to continue the aggressive play calling of his predecessor Steve Spagnuolo, dialing up big blitzes with six or more rushers on 14 percent of pass plays, but there wasn't much creativity in the blitz design.
After firing Sheridan at season's end, the team moved quickly to find a replacement, targeting deposed Buffalo interim coach Perry Fewell. Fewell chose to accept the Giants job over a job Chicago despite his close personal relationship with Lovie Smith, and at first glance, it seems like a strange decision. Fewell is a Cover-2 disciple, and for his defense to work properly, he requires undersized linebackers who can flow to the ball and drop into coverage. Aside from Michael Boley, who is coming off a very disappointing season, there is no one on the roster who remotely fits this job description. The Giants do have some young players like Clint Sintim, Jonathan Goff, Bryan Kehl, and Chase Blackburn, but they were drafted with a more traditional 4-3 in mind and may not fit what Fewell wants to do.
On the other hand, there are signs that Fewell might do well. He relies heavily on a four man rush, and the Giants have the personnel to provide it -- even on a down year, their 6.7 percent Adjusted Sack Rate was no worse than middle of the pack. Fewell is also considered one of the premiere secondary coaches in the league. Buffalo was fourth-best in the league at covering No. 1 receivers, and the Bills were able to keep their performance up even as their secondary was ravaged by injuries. That's good news for a team that was torched by DeSean Jackson, Steve Smith, Sidney Rice and just about every other number one receiver who showed up on the schedule. Fewell has a talented pair of starting cornerbacks to work with in Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, but he needs Ross to start playing up to his potential. He'll also need to do more than tweak the scheme to improve the safety play -- the Giants need some new players, particularly if Kenny Phillips takes a long time to work his way back from microfracture surgery.
The team has already parted ways with veteran linebacker Antonio Pierce, and he could be just the tip of the iceberg as the team retools its defense. Fred Robbins is a free agent who lost his starting job halfway through the season and is unlikely to be re-signed. There has been some offseason verbal sparring between management and defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who has threatened to quit football if he isn't promised a starting job next year. The rule of thumb is that you don't win by trading away an elite pass rusher (paging Kansas City), but with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka on the roster, general manager Jerry Reese might dangle Umenyiora in an attempt to address multiple needs in the back seven.
There are pressing needs at linebacker, at defensive tackle and at safety. If Fewell does decide to play a Tampa-2 defense, then it would make sense to bring in some of his old players to ease with the transition. George Wilson won't start for Buffalo with Jairus Byrd and Donte Whitner ahead of him on the depth chart, but he played very well for 12 games as a starter and would immediately be the best safety on the Giants' roster. Keith Ellison is best as a reserve player, but he has the pass coverage skills to make him valuable in nickel and dime sets. Although trade rumors have died down in the past few weeks, the team figures to keep an eye on the Kerry Rhodes situation with the Jets.
It wouldn't be February in Philadelphia without people agonizing over the Eagles quarterback position, but what makes this year different is that for the first time there is some real uncertainty about who will be under center for the team next season. According to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter, several teams have been calling and inquiring about all three of Philadelphia's quarterbacks. Donovan McNabb is entering the final year of his contract, and while Kevin Kolb would technically remain a restricted free agent in 2011 under the current CBA rules, it seems unlikely that the team would extend McNabb's contract now and then turn around and do the same for Kolb the following season. It is possible for the Eagles to delay the decision by letting McNabb play out the final year of his deal, but it is more likely that the team strikes while the iron is hot and trades either McNabb or Kolb. The question is, which one?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the answer depends on how Andy Reid and GM Howie Roseman view the roster. If they think the team is on the brink of a Super Bowl, they will hold onto McNabb and let him take his shots until the window officially closes. Otherwise, they'll throw in the towel and rebuild around the younger Kolb. But that implies that Kolb is not ready to step in and perform. Kolb's 15.9% DVOA rating was higher than those of promising young signal-callers Chad Henne and Joe Flacco, and even a little higher than McNabb's 9.2% DVOA. While all the usual caveats about small sample size apply, there's no question that Kolb flashed ability, and his accuracy on short-to-intermediate throws might return some of the consistency to an offense that at times was overly dependent on the big play to move the football. Philadelphia has stayed competitive because they have been willing to let go of longtime veteran players like Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, and Hugh Douglas a year too soon rather than a year too late, and with McNabb likely to fetch something between a late first- and an early second-round pick, trading him seems most likely. At the same time, if the Eagles opt to stay with what they know and extend McNabb, Kolb could be an attractive chip to a younger team like Cleveland. New Browns GM Tom Heckert drafted Kolb when he was in Philadelphia, and he might be willing to package picks and perhaps a desirable veteran like Shaun Rogers in order to bring Kolb to Cleveland.
Brian Westbrook insists that his career is not finished, but his tenure in Philadelphia is over. Michael Vick is the third quarterback who has drawn interest from other teams, most notably St. Louis, and he may be dealt before a March 5 roster bonus is due -- or the Eagles could pay the bonus just to buy more time to find a good deal. Kevin Curtis was an afterthought for much of the year thanks to the development of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin; should he be released, he'll draw interest on the free-agent market.
One of the major needs is a playmaking defensive end opposite Trent Cole, premiere talent is available in Julius Peppers and Aaron Kampman. The Eagles have been aggressive the past few seasons in acquiring veterans through trade or free agency, netting Jason Peters and Asante Samuel in back-to-back seasons, and they might be inclined to make a big splash again. Speaking of Samuel, while he and Sheldon Brown continue to be among the better corner combinations in the league, the depth behind them is lacking. Roderick Hood is a guy with the press skills to play in a pressure defense, but Jeff Fisher doesn't seem enamored with him, so Hood might be available. Nate Jones is a prototypical nickel corner who had a solid season with Miami and could be in line for a decent payday.
Just when it seemed like the Redskins had turned into Oakland East, a storied franchise that no one wanted to work for thanks to an overweening owner, the team landed the big fish, signing Mike Shanahan to become the new head coach. Signing a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach with a 146-98 record would immediately set off celebration in Detroit or Buffalo, but the enthusiasm was a bit more guarded in Washington. You can forgive Redskins fans for thinking that they've seen this act before, as big-name signings and bad football have gone hand in hand for much of the Daniel Snyder era. Snyder began his tenure by throwing money at washed-up former greats like Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith. He burned through famous coaches like Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, and Joe Gibbs. Last year, he signed Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract and was rewarded with a 4-12 season for his troubles. What reason is there to think that Shanahan will be different?
Start with the fact that while the Redskins might be picking fourth in the 2010 draft, they weren't close actually one of the four worst teams in football according to Football Outsiders' play-by-play analysis. Washington finished with a -5.3% DVOA in 2009, good enough for 21st in our rankings. They ranked ahead of teams that were still in the playoff race until December, like Tennessee and Jacksonville, and they were far ahead of eight teams with DVOA ratings below -20%. In a draft with two elite quarterback prospects in Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford, as well as blue-chip left tackles like Oklahoma State's Russell Okong and Maryland's Bruce Campbell, the Redskins will have their choice of offensive players. Should the team opt for a quarterback -- and it sounds like Shanahan does not regard Jason Campbell as a long-term solution -- they can rest easy in the knowledge that their coach has had a great deal of success culling offensive linemen and running backs from the middle and back end of the draft.
Washington's defense was one of the best in the league at generating pressure last year, posting a 7.5 percent Adjusted Sack Rate, fifth in the NFL. But despite that pass rush, the defense was terrible at taking advantage of offensive mistakes. They ranked 30th in turnovers per drive, one of only three defenses that couldn't manage one takeaway per every ten drives (along with Cleveland and Oakland). Part of this can be attributed to players like LaRon Landry and Carlos Rogers having poor instincts when the ball is in the air, but another part of it is bad luck. If new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can keep the pass rush going, the odds are that more hurried throws will end up in the hands of Redskins defensive backs in 2010.
Perhaps the biggest loss is that of Joe Bugel, the venerable offensive line coach who spent 15 seasons in Washington and oversaw the Hogs during the first Joe Gibbs era. Bugel will make for an interesting discussion when he is up for the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, the line Bugel left behind is in shambles. Chris Samuels has been seeking medical evaluations on his neck before making a final decision, but he appears to be headed for retirement. Clinton Portis has done himself no favors with his offseason sniping at the media and fellow teammates, but with his $6.43 million salary guaranteed, there isn't much incentive to cut him loose.
Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen will target offensive linemen who Shanahan has worked with in the past, a process they started when they inked center/guard Kory Lichtensteiger. Tony Pashos is coming off a mediocre season in San Francisco, but he is supposedly high on the wish list. Russ Hochstein is another guy who might be just a marginal starter but who would improve the depth and competitiveness along the line.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com.)
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