Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
03 Mar 2011
by Bill Barnwell
ESPN Insider draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay don't often agree, but their first mock drafts of the year concurred on one topic: The Cowboys would draft Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara with the ninth overall pick. With Mike Jenkins a year removed from the Pro Bowl, it's very clear who Amukamara would replace in the lineup: Veteran corner Terence Newman, who was the most expensive starter in a pass defense that ranked 28th in DVOA last season.
Newman's numbers in 2010 weren't pretty. Among the 68 defensive backs with 50 targets or more, he was 63rd in yards per attempt (9.1 YPA) and 61st in Success Rate (43 percent). There is one complicating factor, though. Newman played through most of the season with an extremely debilitating rib injury, suffered during the same Week 7 loss to the Giants that produced Tony Romo's broken collarbone. Before he suffered the injury, Newman averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and had a 58 percent Success Rate on 26 targets. Afterwards, he was a totally different player. Newman allowed 10.0 yards per attempt and had a 37 percent Success Rate after hurting his ribs.
Even with the injury, Newman was better than Jenkins, who allowed 10.5 yards per attempt with a 40 percent Success Rate. Jenkins also picked up six pass interference penalties, while Newman didn't have any. A healthier Newman should be more effective in 2011, while it's hard to imagine that the Cowboys would give up on Jenkins only a year after his trip to the Pro Bowl. With holes on the offensive line and in the front seven, the Cowboys have more pressing needs than cornerback. They should hold onto Newman for another season.
The Cowboys will have to devote resources to rebuilding their offensive line, whether through the draft or in free agency. The left side of their line -- tackle Doug Free and guard Kyle Kosier -- are unrestricted free agents, although the team surely will find a way to lock up Free for something less than the franchise tag. Right guard Leonard Davis and right tackle Marc Colombo are both candidates to be released. The team can release Davis without owing him anything, having paid him a $16 million signing bonus earlier in his contract.
On defense, the potential hole is at safety. Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh are both unrestricted free agents, and while neither impressed last season, there's not much behind them, either. One option here that might be a uniquely effective fit for Dallas: Bob Sanders. Few medical staffs are more effective at managing injury-riddled players than Jim Maurer's crew. Think about Colombo, who was basically written off before coming to Dallas and remaining healthy for several seasons. Considering how effective Sanders is when he does play, it's worth a shot. It's also time to release inside linebacker Keith Brooking, with 2010 second-round pick Sean Lee taking over next to Bradie James.
Under Tom Coughlin, the Giants have exhibited a disturbing trend: They get worse as the season goes along. In each of Coughlin's seven seasons at the helm, New York's record in the second half of the season has been worse than their record through the first eight games of the year. If we assume that there's no meaningful reason for that to be the case, the odds of that occurring in seven consecutive seasons is less than one percent. Even if we ignore the first season of Coughlin's reign (when he benched Kurt Warner for a dreadfully bad rookie campaign from Eli Manning, with a 5-3 team finishing 1-7) and just focus on the past five seasons, the Giants have been noticeably worse by the end of the year. Big Blue have been 30-10 through their first eight games over the past five years, but they're 18-22 over the final eight. That 12-game decline is the largest for any team since the 1996-2000 Steelers, and that team wasn't facing the possibility of an 18-game regular season going forward. So what gives?
One problem is out of their control: Their schedule has been much more difficult in the second half over that timeframe. The average winning percentage of their opponents during the first eight games is 44 percent, equivalent to a 7-9 team. Over the final eight games, that rises to an average winning percentage of 57 percent, or a 9-7 team. Even after adjusting for the quality of opposition by using DVOA, the team declines in every aspect of the game, across the board. The one factor that stands out, though, is pass defense. The Giants' average rank in pass defense DVOA during the first half of the season is sixth; during the second half, it's 20th. This year, they went from first in the league to tenth, with that 45-17 loss to the Packers in Week 16 contributing mightily.
The Giants can only hope to shake out of their second-half doldrums as well as that Steelers did. After going 27-13 in the first half of the season and 16-24 in the second half from 1996 through 2000, Pittsburgh promptly won more games in the second half than they did in the first for each of the next four seasons.
The Giants' miraculous run to the Super Bowl in 2007 came after what looked to beone of the best drafts of the decade; four years later, the Giants will have to make some tough decisions about paying those guys. Steve Smith is coming off of microfracture surgery that calls his long-term viability in jeopardy. Kevin Boss is a tough guy, but he's settled in as a second-division starter -- is that really somebody to commit $12 million or so in guaranteed money to? Meanwhile, Ahmad Bradshaw says that the team has made re-signing him a priority, but is it really clever to give a contract extension to another veteran running back after Brandon Jacobs's issues this season?
Truthfully, the more important decisions come on defense. Defensive tackle Barry Cofield had four sacks this season and is the team's best run-stopper up front; yes, better than expensive free agents Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard. Even if the organization releases Bernard, they'll have Canty and 2010 second-rounder Linval Joseph up front. They'll probably have to let Cofield walk. The same is probably true of Mathias Kiwanuka, who had four sacks in three games before herniating a disc and missing the remainder of the season. His move to linebacker didn't take, and with the presence of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul, Kiwanuka could be fourth on the depth chart at end heading into 2011. It's just too difficult to invest serious money to someone who isn't going to play that all frequently. In addition to Bernard, the team will also likely choose to part ways to fullback Madison Hedgecock.
For the second straight season, the Eagles are in a position most NFL teams would find enviable: They have a NFL-caliber quarterback they don't really need. Last year, the team chose to dealt Donovan McNabb, but with the success enjoyed by Michael Vick this season, they're expected to deal Kevin Kolb. Should they? It depends on what they can get in return, because they can retain a surprisingly high level of their performance with Kolb in the lineup.
Kolb's raw statistics look worse than Vick's -- especially his 3.7 percent interception rate, more than twice Vick's rate of 1.6 percent -- but a lot of that has to do with Kolb's Week 17 start against the Cowboys. That game came with rookie Austin Howard making his first career start at left tackle against DeMarcus Ware, and the Eagles left LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, and DeSean Jackson on the bench. Kolb threw three interceptions, two of which came on Hail Mary passes. Take out that game, and the Eagles' pass offense DVOA with Kolb at center was at 28.9 percent. With Vick, it was at 29.9 percent.
Of course, Vick is a far superior runner to Kolb, and his rushing ability creates holes for LeSean McCoy. McCoy averaged 5.9 yards per carry with Vick, but only 3.8 yards with Kolb at the helm. The drastic improvement in the quality of their rushing attack with Vick meant that the Eagles offense had a 28.9 percent overall DVOA with Vick and a 16.9 percent DVOA with Kolb (excluding Week 17).
Considering Kolb's experience and age, Philly should hope for a haul similar to what the Falcons received for Matt Schaub from the Texans. Atlanta picked up two second-round picks and moved up two spots in the first round of that year's draft. With the 23rd pick in the first round, the Eagles don't have an obvious trading partner in need of a quarterback nearby; the closest candidate is Miami, who pick 15th. If the Eagles can move up and get a pair of mid-round picks, they should consider it a good haul.
The team's already placed the exclusive franchise tag on Michael Vick and the transition tag on kicker David Akers, so they're both sticking around. Instead, the front office will spend their time dealing with the unrestricted free agency of eight different defensive contributors. Some cases are obvious: Victor Abiamiri would get injured in the middle of signing his name on the contract, while Ellis Hobbs is likely to retire after suffering a second neck injury. As Mike Tanier wrote, Dimitri Patterson should be kept away from the playing field. Safety Quintin Mikell had an uneven season last year, and at 30, the team is unlikely to give him anything more than a short-term season to play alongside Nate Allen.
That leaves four linebackers: Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither, Akeem Jordan, and Ernie Sims. Gaither and Jordan are extremely unlikely to return. While Sims continues to show athleticism, he's made a career of getting lost in coverage schemes and has more name value than production to show as a pro. That leaves Bradley, whose shoes were filled ably by Jamar Chaney at the end of the season when Bradley dislocated his elbow. Bradley's an adequate starter when healthy, but Adam Caplan notes that the Eagles could re-sign him and move him outside. Considering their past, it's hard to imagine that Philadelphia will invest very much in a linebacker of any sort in free agency.
Caplan suggests that sources link the Eagles to Nnamdi Asomugha; it's hard to see the Eagles giving such a big contract to a player on the downside of his (admittedly superb) career, but it's a great match of talent with the Eagles' biggest hole.
It certainly appears that the Donovan McNabb era is over after one season in Washington. The Redskins can buy McNabb out of his impending contract extension for $3.75 million, an option they'll undoubtedly elect to take. Backup Rex Grossman was not the answer, either: His -19.4% passing DVOA was far worse than McNabb, who put up a 0.1% DVOA before being benched. So whenever Week 1 of the 2011 NFL season rolls around, who will the Redskins start at quarterback?
Even if the Redskins do draft a quarterback -- and both Kiper and McShay point to the Redskins taking Cam Newton with the tenth overall pick in their latest mocks -- don't expect Mike Shanahan to start a rookie from Day One. He kept Jay Cutler on the sidelines for most of Cutler's rookie season in 2006, the only time he's had a rookie quarterback to work with as a coach. (He did start Steve Beuerlein without any pro experience in Week 1 of the 1988 season, but that was in Beuerlein's second season.) Even if the Redskins do draft Newton, they will need a veteran to help break him in.
With the team likely to run a variant of the West Coast offense, there are three available veteran quarterbacks that could step in with experience in the scheme. One is Kolb, but it's hard to imagine the Redskins trading more draft picks for yet another Eagles quarterback after the Eagles failure. That leaves them with two unrestricted free agents. Matt Hasselbeck's contract with the Seahawks is up, and Seattle will likely choose to go with Charlie Whitehurst or a drafted quarterback of their own. Hasselbeck had a -9.8% DVOA last year while struggling with injuries, but the Redskins would provide him with the best offensive line he's played behind since the halcyon days of Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson.
The other candidate with significant experience in the West Coast offense? We hesitate to say his name for fear that he'll appear again. Let's just say he holds a lot of records, is really fond of one particular brand of jeans, and recently retired again. Few organizations would be willing to take on the sort of circus that he brings to the table, and even fewer teams would actually get an upgrade from his likely level of play. The Redskins are perhaps the only organization who would fit in both categories, and with Brett Favre, retirement is just a state of mind. Oops.
The Offseason Champs should get a chance to work their magic yet again this season. It seems obvious that they will cut Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth, and Clinton Portis shouldn't be far behind them. Santana Moss's contract voided after the Super Bowl, leaving them with Anthony Armstrong as their best wide receiver. They'll have to re-sign offensive lineman Jammal Brown to play right tackle while competing against teams who might want to grab him to play left tackle, which will cost them extra. That shouldn't be a problem.
DeAngelo Hall's defense will need to find some other cornerbacks to play alongside him. The much-maligned Carlos Rogers is a free agent, as is third corner Philip Buchanon. There's going to be holes in front of them, too: Rocky McIntosh is expected to leave for a team that plays a 4-3, while veteran Andre Carter is strictly a situational pass rusher these days. The time-honored tradition of signing free agents away from the Jets would have come in handy here, but Gang Green placed the franchise tag on David Harris. Without a really effective veteran available to play inside linebacker, the team could go for Takeo Spikes as a stopgap.
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