Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
05 May 2011
by Aaron Schatz
This is part of a series in which we look at the biggest holes remaining on each team after the NFL Draft. Usually, that means the biggest holes remaining after the draft and free agency, but obviously, 2011 is a little different. So some of these holes may not actually be holes if teams re-sign their own players, and others will be filled when free agency finally begins.
It's been a while since the Ravens had significant holes on defense, but they had some clear ones heading into the draft. First-round cornerback Jimmy Smith helps a lot, as three of last year's top four Ravens cornerbacks are free agents this offseason. However, the Ravens also struggled to get to the passer last season. They had only 27 sacks and finished 27th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric.
The Ravens essentially had a two-man pass rush last year: outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive end Haloti Ngata. Together they had 17 sacks; no other Ravens defender had more than three. Together they had 20 quarterback hits; no other Ravens defender had more than four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was very good dropping into pass coverage, but he didn't really bring pressure on the quarterback from the outside.
The Ravens either needed a player who could bring pass rush from the 5-technique on the line (someone like Jets draft choice Muhammad Wilkerson, or Saints draft choice Cameron Jordan), or an outside linebacker who could rush the passer opposite Suggs. Their only draft pick in this area was a developmental prospect, Pernell McPhee of Mississippi State, in the fifth round. If the Ravens want to get more pass rush in 2011, they'll either need to find an outside linebacker in free agency or hope for more improvement from third-year defensive end Paul Kruger.
The Bengals demonstrate the difference between "a team with few holes" and "a championship contender." If they can re-sign their major free agents, the Bengals don't seem to have big holes on the roster. But the surface covering those non-holes is very thin for a number of reasons:
1. Inexperience. The Bengals passing offense will be built around two rookies (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green) and a second-year tight end (Jermaine Gresham).
2. Free Agent Questions. The Bengals have two major free agents, running back Cedric Benson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph. If they are unable to re-sign Benson, they are left starting Bernard Scott with no clear backup. The Joseph issue depends on the lockout. The Bengals put the highest tender on Joseph to keep him if the new CBA makes five-year players restricted free agents. If the new CBA makes Joseph unrestricted, however, the Bengals are unlikely to match the expensive contract he'll get elsewhere. That would leave them depending on Adam Jones to move into the starting lineup across from Leon Hall -- and keep his act together.
3. Mediocrity. There are places where the Bengals could definitely improve, but don't really have holes per se. The offensive line does its job, but no one player really wows anyone. Center Kyle Cook and left guard Nate Livings will likely stick around as restricted free agents, while right guard Bobbie Williams is 34, declining, and in the final year of his contract. Safety is another issue: The Bengals have a mixture of veterans coming off injuries, veterans who are free agents, and Reggie Nelson, who was run out of Jacksonville on a rail a year ago.
4. Kicker. They really do need one. Clint Stitser won't do, and Mike Nugent wasn't anything special even before an injury cost him most of last season. Coach Lewis, I have David Akers' agent on line one ...
It's hard to leave the draft with a lot of holes after you deal the sixth overall pick for five lower draft picks. But after other trades and some moving around the board, the Browns actually ended up with only eight picks.
The biggest task for the Browns this offseason was remaking their defense, which will be switching from a 3-4 front to a more conventional 4-3. Cleveland used its first two picks on defensive linemen who will likely go right into the starting lineup: Jabaal Sheard at end and Phil Taylor at tackle. However, they didn't draft any other linemen or linebackers with their later picks. That leaves little depth for a front seven that will lose a number of veterans this offseason, including tackle Shaun Rogers and three older linebackers who played a major role on last year's defense (Eric Barton, David Bowens, and Matt Roth).
Behind Sheard and Marcus Benard at end, the only player with any experience is 29-year-old Derreck Robinson, whom the Browns grabbed off the scrap heap in 2009. Backup tackle Brian Schaefering started nine games last year, but no other tackle has more than one game of NFL experience. There are a couple backup linebackers with some starting experience -- Jason Trusnik, Kaluka Maiava -- but the Browns need more considering the question marks around their starters. Scott Fujita saw his 2010 season ended by a knee injury, and D'Qwell Jackson has played just six games in the past two seasons due to season-ending pectoral injuries.
The Browns will no doubt be looking for veteran backups for their front seven when free agency finally arrives.
It's hard to write about post-Draft holes with a team that doesn't usually have many holes. The Steelers tend to draft players and then coach them on the bench for a year or two before putting them in the starting lineup, which means that there's usually a replacement ready to go when a veteran is ready to depart as a free agent.
This year, when it comes to cornerback, that may not be the case. Right now, two of the Steelers' top three cornerbacks are free agents. William Gay is likely to be a restricted free agent, depending on what this year's rules are. (He has four years of experience.) A bigger question is veteran Ike Taylor -- if Taylor leaves for another team, there is no clear replacement on the roster.
If Gay stays and Taylor goes, the starting hole still exists. Gay had excellent stats in 2008 and 2010 as a nickelback, but his poor stats as a starter in 2009 show that he's the type of player whose weaknesses are easily exposed in a larger role. Keenan Lewis was a third-round pick back in 2009, but he's only played 13 games, almost entirely on special teams, since being drafted. The Steelers passed over the top cornerbacks in the draft, players like Aaron Williams and Ras-I Dowling, who could have been able to start from Day 1. They did address depth at the position by drafting Curtis Brown from Texas in the third round and Cortez Allen from the Citadel in the fourth round. However, even first-round rookie cornerbacks usually struggle to adjust to the NFL. It's hard to imagine that Brown or Allen would be able to serve as a regular starter should Taylor depart the land of black and yellow.
A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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