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?
09 May 2012
by Tom Gower
Since the pre-free agency installment of this series, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, drastically resetting their short-term expectations. In that installment, we highlighted the need for youth and quality at cornerback and safety. Since then, they’ve added Tracy Porter to play cornerback opposite Champ Bailey, as well as Mike Adams, a competent starting safety. Porter and Adams should be upgrades on the unsigned Andre' Goodman and the now-retired Brian Dawkins, respectively.
Our 24th-ranked pass defense’s biggest problem, though, was against running backs – they allowed a 26.4% DVOA on passes to running backs, which placed them 30th in the NFL. It wasn’t just against the pass where the linebackers seemed to struggle though, as the Broncos were twenty-fifth in the league in our Second Level Yards statistic, which measures how many opponent runs gain five to ten yards. The Broncos chose to re-sign Joe Mays, who started at middle linebacker, and Wesley Woodyard, who played more on passing downs. But since D.J. Williams is aging and Von Miller is a pass rush specialist, the Broncos’ linebacking corps is likely to be about as good as it was in 2011. That may not be good enough.
Cornerback Coryell Judie out of Texas A&M was an intriguing prospect who had a strong 2010 before a hamstring injury cost him much of 2011. If he can regain his 2010 form, he could make the team. Safety Duke Ihenacho from San Jose State excels in coverage, and could vie to replace Adams in a couple years. The Broncos also signed Arizona State wideout Gerell Robinson, giving second-round quarterback Brock Osweiler a collegiate teammate to throw to in rookie minicamp.
Since our prior column, the Chiefs chose to keep Dwayne Bowe, while letting cornerback Brandon Carr depart in free agency. The Chiefs did sign Stanford Routt, formerly of Oakland, to take Carr’s place. Routt led the league in defensive pass interference penalties in 2011, but had good numbers according to our game charting project and was clearly the Raiders’ best cornerback. Meanwhile, the recoveries from injury of Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, and Eric Berry all appear to be on schedule.
With Bowe still in the fold and Charles and Moeaki returning, plus the addition of Eric Winston at right tackle and guard Jeff Allen in the second round, the Chiefs should be poised to be much better on offense when they were in 2011, when they ranked 25th in passing and 30th in rushing by DVOA. The magnitude of that improvement will depend on quarterback Matt Cassel playing better than he did in 2011. Cassel has been a well below-average quarterback in two of his three seasons with the Chiefs, ranking 39th in 2011 and 37th in 2009 by DVOA. He’s performed better when the offensive personnel around him has been better, but if the Chiefs struggle offensively again in 2012, an upgrade at quarterback should become a high priority.
Few, if any, Chiefs made it to the various lists of top undrafted free agents. Kansas tight end Tim Biere has strong local support, and the Chiefs’ interest in Dallas Clark suggests there might be room on the roster for another tight end. Defensive backs Neiko Thorpe from Auburn and Tysyn Hartman from Kansas State may have the opportunity to make the roster if they excel on special teams.
While we highlighted linebacker as the Raiders’ biggest need a couple moths ago, every position save perhaps quarterback and wide receiver could use better depth. Injury attrition was a big problem in 2011, and the Raiders’ lack of depth was only exacerbated this offseason by the salary cap problems that led to the release of tight end Kevin Boss, cornerback Stanford Routt, and linebacker/defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. To top it off, their first pick in April’s NFL draft was a third-round compensatory selection, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, a 2011 draft-day trade, and selecting quarterback Terrelle Pryor in last year’s supplemental draft.
The problem exists throughout the roster. With Michael Bush gone, injury-prone Darren McFadden’s top backup is Mike Goodson, a forgotten man in Carolina in 2011. Brandon Myers is the starting tight end almost by default, and there is no other tight end on the roster with more than one year of NFL experience. Stefen Wisniewski was moved from guard to center, and there is no obvious backup if he goes down. With Wimbley gone, the Raiders are relying on a full recovery from the shoulder injury that cost defensive end Matt Shaughnessy most of last season. If he returns but takes a step back from his previous level of performance, last year’s 21st-ranked pass rush by Adjusted Sack Rate may take that step back with him. Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer were signed to start at cornerback, but behind them are inexperienced and unproven players like DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa, and Brandon Underwood. Any long-term injuries could prove disastrous for the Raiders this season.
Offensive guard Lucas Nix from Pittsburgh could be a valuable reserve. The Raiders have bodies at safety, but none good enough that Aaron Henry from Wisconsin couldn’t make the roster. While he wasn’t eligible for the 2012 NFL draft, former Cal State-Fullerton basketball player Andre Hardy has a chance to stick at tight end given the lack of depth and experience at the position.
The San Diego Chargers’ defensive line simply wasn’t good enough in 2011. The Chargers ranked 25th in our Adjusted Line Yards number, which measures how stout the front of a run defense is. The Chargers were fifth-worst when it came to stopping opposing running backs for a loss or no gain, and ranked dead last against the run in short-yardage situations, defined as third down, fourth down, or goal line with 1-2 yards to go.
Nose tackle is relatively set with the re-signing of Antonio Garay. Garay is not the difference-maker in the middle of the line that Jamal Williams was, but he is much improved from the player he was when an injury to Williams first forced him into the lineup a couple of years ago. He and Cam Thomas form a decent pair at nose tackle, and should be fine if the play at defensive end is better.
The Chargers will be hoping for more from last year’s first-round pick, Corey Liuget, who rarely made his impact felt as a rookie. Luis Castillo was cut and then re-signed to a one-year deal. He returns from a broken leg suffered in the opening game of last season, and if healthy, he should start over Vaughn Martin, who played in his stead. Second-round pick Kendall Reyes figures into the mix somewhere. If Liuget shows off the skills that made him a first-rounder, Castillo plays to his pre-injury form, and Reyes has a better rookie year than Liuget did, this could be a much-improved group. That is an awful lot of ifs.
The Chargers are only carrying three quarterbacks right now, so there’s an obvious job opportunity for LSU signal-caller Jarrett Lee. Justin Blackmon’s collegiate teammate Hubert Anyiam, UNLV’s Phillip Payne, and Arizona State’s Mike Willie could make things complicated at the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart. Montana offensive tackle Charles Burton has a chance to stick with Brandyn Dombrowski’s move inside to guard.
Posted by: Tom Gower on 09 May 2012
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