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?
24 Feb 2010
by Bill Barnwell
Last year, the Falcons secretly had the league's second-best run defense, according to DVOA. At -16.1% (remember, since defense is about not allowing a team yards or points, a negative DVOA is actually better), they were better at stopping the run than vaunted defenses like the Ravens, Jets, and Steelers.
When the opposition threw? That was another story. Atlanta's 24.0% pass defense DVOA was 27th in the league; no team ranked lower than 22nd (Minnesota) made the playoffs, and the Vikings were the only team in football with a better run defense than Atlanta.
Good pass defense requires an effective pass rush and good coverage, and the Falcons had neither in 2009. The Falcons hoped that a ferocious pass rush would compensate for a mediocre secondary, but Atlanta's sack rate of 5.6 percent was 26th in the league, with star end John Abraham going from 16.5 sacks in 2008 to only 5.5 in 2009. The team leader in sacks was actually defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who had six. There's hope in situational pass rusher Kroy Biermann, who had five sacks in his sophomore campaign, but the problem here is the guy starting across from Abraham and ahead of Biermann.
When the Falcons took Jamaal Anderson with the eighth overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, they were expecting a two-way end in the vein of Patrick Kerney, who had just left the team. Instead, Anderson has contributed 2.5 sacks through his first three seasons. The track record for guys with three seasons under their belt and fewer than three sacks suddenly developing pass rush skills isn't very good. If Anderson had shown even flashes of brilliance as a pass rusher, there would be some hope, but it's pretty clear that he's never going to be even an average pass rusher on the edge.
The Falcons did temporarily move Anderson to tackle during the season, but he doesn't have the skills or the body type to last there long-term. While he's got competition from JaMarcus Russell and Buster Davis, it appears that Anderson may very well become the first player selected in the opening round of the 2007 NFL Draft to be released.
While a fair amount of our Top 25 Prospects had breakout years, Jerious Norwood was one that didn't; even after Michael Turner went down with an ankle injury, it was Jason Snelling that emerged as the team's starting back. Both Norwood and Snelling are restricted free agents this year, and Snelling's success might actually work in Norwood's favor; coming off of his worst season as a pro, the Falcons might choose to tender him at a level below his true value, and a team like the Eagles could bite. Wideout Brian Finneran's been re-signed, while the team will get to enjoy the services of Tyson Clabo as a RFA for another year, thanks to the CBA woes. Cutting dire cornerback Brent Grimes is one of the most obvious moves an NFL team has to make this offseason.
Thomas Dimitroff comes from New England, who were happy to shop on High Street in free agency. They also have a gaping chasm across from Abraham. Could they be a landing point for Julius Peppers? If Peppers still wants to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, they're out, but he'd be a great fit here. Working on the secondary is also a must, especially at corner; while the team hopes that Christopher Owens will continue to develop, bringing in a veteran like Leigh Bodden or the out-of-favor Fabian Washington from Baltimore would prevent them from having to play replacement-level fodder like Grimes or Tye Hill at corner.
After a 12-win season in 2008, the Panthers had high hopes for 2009. Alas, Jake Delhomme's season-opening spurt of interceptions was a sign of bad things to come; the Panthers finished 8-8, but needed wins over an absent Giants team in Week 16 and the Saints' backups in Week 17 to get there. DVOA has them at 10.2% on the season, 14th in the league, but it underestimates the level of effort they faced against an otherwise-excellent Saints team in Week 17. It's fair to say that Carolina was a below-average team in 2009.
That difficult year yields challenging questions for this offseason. Defensive end Julius Peppers is an unrestricted free agent, and because he was tagged as the team's franchise player a year ago, he'd cost an absurd $21.8 million to keep around for 2010. Chances are that he won't be [Note: Since this was written, the team confirmed that to be true], costing the team their best player without any compensation. To fit Peppers into the cap a year ago, the Panthers signed quarterback Jake Delhomme to a contract extension that guarantees him nearly $12 million in 2010; of course, Delhomme was alternately average and terrifying in 2009, and was essentially benched onto injured reserve. The team is stuck with him for one more year.
With Peppers leaving, Delhomme gnawing at owner Jerry Richardson's pocketbook, and a host of veterans that are unlikely to survive a rebuilding period as Panthers, Carolina should take the uncapped year to shed as many of their onerous contracts as possible and start over. With the most talented draft class of the decade entering the league, they have assets that could result in valuable draft picks, including wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross.
Their best trading chit, though, is All-Pro halfback DeAngelo Williams. Williams turns 27 in April, only has 754 NFL carries on his odometer, and is signed for one more year at the price of $725,000. With budding (albeit injury-prone) star Jonathan Stewart waiting in the wings, a Williams deal is their best shot at getting back the first-round pick they traded to San Francisco to move up and draft Everette Brown a year ago. The Chargers, who pick 28th, seem like a logical landing point if the Panthers head in that direction. With a team not good enough to make it to the Super Bowl, it makes sense for them to start over.
If the Panthers decide to stay the course, they could still choose to make moves to spruce up the roster. Peppers has already decided to leave, but they'll likely hope to fill the hole with a combination of Charles Johnson and Everette Brown. Fellow starting end Tyler Brayton is also a free agent, if the Panthers let him go and choose to start Johnson and Brown, they'll need to add depth. A wideout across from Smith would seem to be a priority, but that's been the case for three years now, and Carolina's brought in assorted tall men who aren't particularly good at playing wide receiver at this point of their lives. Following that pattern would seem to yield ... Brandon Lloyd. Sorry, Panthers fans. This actually would be a good place for Terrell Owens to go considering Owens's diminished skill set and what the Panthers need: a possession receiver. Starting right guard Keydrick Vincent is also an unrestricted free agent, as is fill-in defensive tackle Hollis Thomas.
Owens seems like the logical fit, with Lloyd the (sadly) more likely one. Their search for a guard to replace Vincent could bring them to the Vikings' Artis Hicks or Stephen Neal of the Patriots, both of whom are unrestricted. They've already signed former Colts defensive tackle Ed Johnson as a replacement for Thomas; he'll compete with Damione Lewis for a starting job next to Ma'ake Kemoeatu.
It's easy to make the case that the Saints need to lock up Darren Sharper. His arrival last summer coincided with a dramatic upswing in the quality of the Saints' pass defense, which finished ninth in DVOA. Sharper tied for the league lead with nine interceptions, scored three touchdowns, and had nearly twice as many yards on interception returns as anyone else in the league. Oh, and then the Saints won the Super Bowl. Throw in his veteran leadership, his age (35 in 2010), and the looming uncapped year, and it makes sense to give him a one-year, $6.5 million deal to return for another season. All makes sense.
Once you start examining those points, though, cracks begin to emerge in the foundation. For one, correlation is not always causation. While Sharper was undoubtedly an upgrade on the Tebucky Joneses that came before him, another player arrived in New Orleans this offseason: Jabari Greer. Quietly, Greer emerged as an elite cornerback when he was healthy; more notably, when he was absent, the Saints' pass defense declined dramatically. The Saints had the third-best pass defense in the league when Greer was in the lineup, from Weeks 1-9, but they fell all the way to 20th when Greer was out. Sharper was in the lineup for all but two of those games, and could do little to stop the rot; the facts suggest it was Greer, not Sharper, whose arrival turned the defensive tide. (And, of course, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams helped too.)
As for the nine interceptions? Sharper's unquestionably a ballhawk, leading all active players in career interceptions, but that doesn't mean he's good for nine again. He had two other nine-pick seasons, 2000 and 2005; he only averaged five interceptions in the subsequent two seasons. That's not just a Sharper thing, either; from 1990-2008, there were 25 instances of a player picking off nine passes in a given year. In the season after their huge INT run, those defenders averaged fewer than three interceptions. Not a single player managed to get nine picks in back-to-back seasons. Five would be a much more realistic target for Sharper's 2010, and that's not particularly appealing.
Sharper's not great against the run, either. It's unfair to pick one play and use it as an example of a player's ability, but go watch that 26-yard run from Joseph Addai in the Super Bowl again. He makes Sharper look like the worst player in the league with a juke in the open-field. Whoever signs Sharper this offseason will be paying for last year's interception total, Jabari Greer's excellent play, and a reasonable amount of veteran leadership. Of course, if veteran leadership was so important, the Vikings probably wouldn't have let go of Sharper in the first place.
The two most prominent names are Sharper and potential cap casualty Reggie Bush; Bush doesn't deserve he money he's set to make -- more than $8 million -- but the Saints can afford to keep him on the roster. The only other starter that's an unrestricted free agent is linebacker Scott Fujita. Among the 18 restricted free agents on the roster are the other two rotation halfbacks (Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell), the top three candidates at left tackle (Jermon Bushrod, Jammal Brown, and Zach Strief), and starting safety Roman Harper. Bushrod's a sell-high candidate, as the left tackle's play was markedly inconsistent throughout the 2009 season, and if Brown returns from injury, he'll move to the bench. Their best RFA, though, is guard Jahri Evans; arguably the league's best interior lineman, if anyone deserves a poison pill contract this offseason, it's him.
Super Bowl-winning teams aren't known for making wholesale changes in the offseason, so don't expect any huge arrivals in New Orleans. Veteran depth on defense across the board makes sense; if the Saints are going to upgrade anywhere, it's at defensive tackle, where they could make a move for someone like Cory Redding.
While Josh Freeman got Buccaneers' fans hopes up during the team's dramatic victory over the Packers in Week 9, he didn't offer very much to cheer about after that. After the Packers victory, the Bucs passing attack was 20th in the league in DVOA; over the final eight games of the year, they were 29th. Even the rushing attack fell from 19th to 26th; it's hard to argue that Freeman made the offense better.
Particularly concerning was Freeman's interception rate. With 18 picks on 290 attempts, Freeman had a 6.2 percent interception rate. Since 1990, only two quarterbacks have thrown more than 250 attempts in a season with a higher interception rate: Jake Plummer (1999) and Donald Hollas (1998). If we limit the figures to just rookie seasons, Freeman's well ahead of previous "leader" Plummer, who was at 5.1 percent his rookie year. (Just behind him, at 4.9 percent: Peyton Manning. Of course, behind Manning is Heath Shuler, Kerry Collins, and Tony Banks.)
The good news is that the interception rate should regress to the mean next year, but it's clear that Freeman needs some help. While the Bucs added tight end Kellen Winslow a year ago and gave him a contract extension, they also inexplicably signed wide receiver Michael Clayton to an extension, despite Clayton's inability to get above 40 receptions since his rookie season. They didn't lock up the mercurial Antonio Bryant, who is now set to leave as an unrestricted free agent. That leaves Winslow and slot receiver Sammie Stroughter, without much else for Freeman to target.
Adding a wide receiver this offseason is a must for facilitating Freeman's growth. Although mixing him with the always-volatile Winslow could be dangerous for team chemistry, this is a natural landing point for Brandon Marshall, who played his college ball 90 minutes away at Central Florida.
In addition, while the team seems set to lock up competent left tackle Donald Penn, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood consistently ranks among the league leaders in sacks allowed. He's arguably the worst pass-blocking starting tackle in football, and if the team hopes to keep Freeman upright, he needs to go.
Bryant's as good as gone, as is the deposed Byron Leftwich. Backup Josh Johnson is rumored to be part of the booty requested by St. Louis if Tampa wants to move up to the first overall pick; even if that deal falls through, moving Johnson while he still has some trade value makes sense. Safety Jermaine Phillips is also a free agent; getting him away and chaining Sabby Piscitelli to him would be a positive move. Prominent restricted free agents include Cadillac Williams and Barrett Ruud; locking up Ruud to a long-term deal is a must, and truthfully, it should have happened already.
Tampa had a ton of cap space heading into the 2009 season that they've been carrying over for several years, but in an uncapped year, that doesn't particularly matter. It doesn't make a lot of sense for them to go after a bunch of veterans in free agency, and a lot of the fifth- and sixth-year free agents they'd normally be targeting as a low-risk, high-reward guys are RFAs this year, so they're stuck.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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