Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Mar 2011

Four Downs: NFC East

by Bill Barnwell

Dallas Cowboys: Is it time to move on from Terence Newman?

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.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

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.

New York Giants: How can the second-half struggles under Tom Coughlin stop?

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.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

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.

Philadelphia Eagles: Should the Eagles trade Kevin Kolb?

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.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

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.

Washington Redskins: Can we please have a quarterback?

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.

Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch

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.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 03 Mar 2011

26 comments, Last at 07 Mar 2013, 3:19pm by PHILLIP

Comments

1
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 4:08pm

Both Clinton Portis and Andre Carter have been cut already. The Redskins are likely to target Ryan Harris at right tackle. He's a Shannahan guy and would be a good fit.

3
by JW (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 4:42pm

The Broncos did place an RFA tender on Harris, however my understand is that the RFA tender may be meaningless depending on the new CBA.

- JW

5
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 4:57pm

Ah, had not heard about that. The RFA tag for players with 5 years is almost certiainly meaningless, but the 4 year RFA may not be. Certainly changes the equasion.

8
by perly :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 5:24pm

Also, the $3.75M McNabb got as part of his new contract was all in 2010. His entire compensation this year is $12.5M and the Skins have until the regular season to trigger or not. He's not going anywhere at least until he can force an issue about access to team facilities.

As for Haynesworth, every indication so far is that Shanahan's willing to drag this out for far longer than anybody would think reasonable. Given how poorly last year's roster was managed, it wouldn't surprise me to see 92 make the 53.

2
by Giants Fan (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 4:25pm

The fact that Bradshaw is a veteran is a reason to not extend him? He's only 24 guys, and if he works on his fumbling issues could become one of the league's elite RBs in a few years.

6
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 5:02pm

So much depends on what the new CBA rules are. In a capped system, a team wants to commit only so much money to the fungible position of RB. At the same time a possible 18 game season could make the 2nd running back on a team that much more important because one workhorse running back will wear down that much more quickly.

In this period of labor unrest, little is simple or certain!

4
by MilkmanDanimal :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 4:42pm

Isn't The Bearded One kind of like a Cthulu demon-god or Beetlejuice, in that saying his name brings him back around?

12
by Cthulu (not verified) :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 4:38am

I wish I had Favre's following.

17
by Mike B. In Va :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 1:15pm

OK, that's a new keyboard.

18
by Independent George :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 6:12pm

ph'nglui mglw'nafh Favre R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

It all makes sense now.

7
by Dork Matter (not verified) :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 5:07pm

Regarding Washington's QB need...Carson Palmer? I don't think it's a smart move, but Snyder may be stupid enough to cough up the kind of value Mike Brown would want.

9
by drobviousso :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 5:35pm

It makes to little sense not to happen. Palmer's skills don't mesh at all with a WCO, and all Palmer wants is to work for an organization run by rational people.

10
by Shattenjager :: Thu, 03/03/2011 - 5:47pm

Jay Cutler in 2006 was not "the only time [Mike Shanahan has] had a rookie quarterback to work with as a coach."
Brian Griese was a rookie under Shanahan in 1998. Obviously, there was a reason not to start him beyond not starting a rookie, but he did have a rookie to work with (and perhaps it's noteworthy to your point that 36-year-old Bubby Brister was the backup ahead of him).

11
by Key19 :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 4:22am

The other side of the "Newman is good when healthy" coin is that he's never actually healthy for an entire season, so he will always be subject to these periods of immense suckitude. And maybe if the Cowboys actually had more than four CBs on the roster, they could sit Newman down for a few weeks to get him healed properly. I'm not saying Prince is a must-pick guy for Dallas, but he is certainly one of the more logical picks out there. If I had my druthers though, I'd take Tyron Smith in the 1st and then pray that either Brandon Harris, Aaron Williams, or Rahim Moore falls to #41. Any of those three guys would help our secondary in a big way. This way, we get an elite OT prospect and then a legitimate CB/S prospect as well. Missing out on Prince could hurt down the line when I watch him dominate for someone else, but at this point the Cowboys have let OL become such a need that it cannot be ignored any longer and we have to pay the price of missing out on a possible shutdown CB.

13
by bubqr :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 8:36am

"the Redskins would provide him with the best offensive line he's played behind since the halcyon days of Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson."
Really ? I thought that the Skins line, apart from the emerging Trent Williams wasn't that good.

14
by bubqr :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 8:40am

BTW, I really think the Eagles will resign Bradley, whose pricve would be much higher if he was a FA 1 year before: He proved that he can be a good LB in the league, and he's the only relatively "proven" things the Eagles have at LB.

At safety, K.Coleman looked good last year (especially considered the round he was picked in), N.Allen was inconsistent, and while keeping Q.Mikell would be a good 1 year option (he's still a solid SS), I wouldn't feel that bad if we had to play with Coleman/Allen. I do feel bad however with that RCB spot.

15
by JasonK :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 9:20am

Maybe it's not what Coughlin is bad at-- maybe it's what he's good at. It's plausible to imagine that he and his staff are better than average at pre-season preparations, but just OK at mid-season adjustments. Perhaps the Giants are simply more ready to play in the first few weeks than most teams are, but that advantage erodes over time as teams get more film on their opponents and adjust their tendencies.

16
by MattR :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 11:42am

Great point. Coughlin is the anti-Norv.

19
by Theo :: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 9:49pm

An entire NFC East artice, 16 comments and no one is saying "overrated"?
It's about time.
This division is over rated.

20
by JonFrum :: Sun, 03/06/2011 - 12:04pm

Regarding the Giants:

"the odds of that occurring in seven consecutive seasons is less than one percent."

Is that the odds of one team being worse in the second half seven years in a row, or the odds of any of the 32 teams in the league being worse in the second half seven years in a row? It matters, no? The odds of me winning the big lottery is not significantly different from zero. The odds of SOMEONE winning is 1.0.

22
by Alexander :: Sun, 03/06/2011 - 10:21pm

The odds of someone winning the lottery is not 1.0, just as an aside.

21
by Matt in Hampton (not verified) :: Sun, 03/06/2011 - 2:20pm

As someone who lives in VA I really hope the skins would sign favre. I am not a skins fan but they are all so obnoxious that I think they could trick themselves into thinking it could work until about week 4. The carnage! that would be the best ever!

23
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 03/07/2011 - 3:31pm

And keep Donovan around to back up Favre.

Didn't T.O. give an interview about how much better Favre was than Donovan when he was an Eagle? Part of what got him run out of town? McNabb is a good NFL quarterback, even if he isn't as dangerous as he once was. His contract, though, says he won't make the 53.

24
by ChaosOnion :: Wed, 03/09/2011 - 9:49am

I am honestly impressed McNabb put up average QB numbers behind that line, with that running game and with those receivers. All without understanding the WAS offense or having the cardiovascular performance to run the two minute drill.

25
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