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?
16 May 2011
by Doug Farrar
The Broncos will have two more elite edge rushers than they did last year. As new head coach John Fox moves the team back to a 4-3 base defense, Elvis Dumervil will return to his rush end position after losing the 2010 season to a torn pectoral muscle, and second overall draft pick Von Miller will bring an explosiveness off the snap that is reminiscent of Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware. That's great news for a Denver defense that was a threat to no quarterback last season, but there are still issues when evaluating the interior line.
Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan didn't survive the transition and were cut. Kevin Vickerson projects more as a traditional five-technique end at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds. Fox may have to compromise with his early personnel and run some hybrid fronts.
What was perhaps most interesting is that with the nine picks they had in the 2011
Draft, the Broncos didn't address the tackle position at all, despite this being one of the deepest tackle classes ever. The closest they came was with their last pick, Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal, the 44th pick in the seventh round. Beal is known to use his 6-foot-2 height to get underneath the pads of blockers and win leverage battles, but he doesn't have the weight to play inside in the NFL. It's possible that Beal, or a similar player, might play a more traditional end role, leaving Miller or Dumervil to rush the passer from a linebacker role.
You don't always need game tape, or those pesky analysts, to tell you what your biggest needs are -- there are times when your opponents will expose your greatest weaknesses by going right for it as often as possible. That's what happened to the 2010 Chiefs, who won the AFC West as the conference's surprise team, despite an interior defensive line that not only gave up 4.42 Adjusted Line Yards per carry up the middle, but also saw a league-leading 63 percent of all runs to the mid-guard area.
The Chiefs play a 3-4 defense under coordinator Romeo Crennel, but that's a bit of a misnomer because Crennel will put his defenders in frequent four-man fronts as he did when he helped Bill Belichick in New England. No matter whether it's three or four down linemen, the Chiefs will need better effort than what was seen from starter Ron Edwards and reserve Shaun Smith.
And that's where Kansas City's draft was curious. Taking Pitt receiver Jon Baldwin in the late first round may have been a reach, but the real problem was leaving two possible fringe first-rounders -- North Carolina's Marvin Austin and Oregon State's Stephen Paea -- on the board when they took Baldwin. There may be options in free agency, or sixth-round pick Jerrell Powe might surprise, but if the Chiefs want to climb to that proverbial next level, they'll have to find a way to stop the run inside.
Through the dog days of the mid-2000s, the Oakland Raiders roster had become a Black Hole in all the wrong ways. Only one player could rise above the mess created by Al Davis: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Asomugha was unquestionably the best in the league at his position, at least until Darrelle Revis challenged him for the title in 2009. Opposing quarterbacks threw in his area so infrequently, we had to change our baselines for targets at Football Outsiders so that we could include Asomugha in the stat tables of our annual Almanacs.
But a kink in Asomugha's contract made him a free agent in time for the 2011 season (and, of course, the 2011 lockout), and Davis went another way, signing Stanford Routt to a $31.5 million extension. Routt overcame early career difficulties to look surprisingly good in coverage in 2010 -- both on the field and in the stat columns. But losing Asomugha, as the Raiders almost certainly will, is a major hit in the wrong direction.
Of course, the Raiders went with speed, speed, and more speed in their draft. Among the burners they picked up were Miami cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke in the third round, and Ohio State's Chimdi Chekwa in the fourth. This may remind some of Oakland's 2005 draft, when Davis took Routt and Fabian Washington in the first two rounds because of their speed, and watched them struggle. The Raiders would be wise to pick up some veteran help at the position when they are able, so that they can avoid repeating that mistake.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith sees things with a very unconventional (and confrontational) eye. His record of success with personnel is clear, but over the last few seasons, it's always possible to out-think yourself. Trading up for safety Eric Weddle and running back Ryan Mathews in recent years meant trading away picks, which has left the Chargers' depth thinner. Because of the depth problems, San Diego put up some of the worst special teams metrics we've ever seen in 2010 -- especially on punt and kick coverage, where athletic depth comes into play.
In addition, while Smith used to have a rare eye for mid-round bargains like Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Legedu Naanee, and Jacob Hester, pickings have been thinner of late -- partially because of those trades. And in the 2011 Draft, Smith took still more risks after the first round. Nobody would question the wisdom behind taking Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget with the 18th overall pick, especially given San Diego's struggles with their front three of late. With his two second-round picks, Smith went with Clemson cornerback Marcus Gilchrist, whose primary initial value projection is as a return man, and Michigan's Jonas Mouton, who many experts pegged with a fifth-round grade or lower due to his relative lack of agility and change-of-direction skills.
Predictably, Smith was unmoved by contrary value assessments, insisting to the media after the fact that Mouton was a second-round pick in his room, if nowhere else. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is great if it's backed up by an unusual acumen regarding value picks, but given his recent track record, Smith might want to take a more conciliatory tone -- at least until he proves the wisdom of his recent transactions.
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