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?
28 Feb 2012
by Vince Verhei
Biggest offseason holes: Cornerback, Guard
The Cowboys' top-three cornerbacks missed a combined nine games with injuries. And when they were on the field, they gave up big chunks of real estate to opposing receivers. Overall, our numbers ranked the Cowboys' defense 19th against opposing No. 1 receivers, and 31st against No. 2 wideouts. They actually ranked seventh against all other wide receivers, which indicates that they had more depth at cornerback than most other teams, but their top corners were so bad that it hardly mattered.
We use two statistics to measure cornerback play. The first is yards per target, which is simply receiving yards surrendered divided by total passes thrown in that player's direction. The other is success rate, which is the percentage of passes in which the player was listed in coverage and the offense failed to gain 45 percent of needed yards for a new set of downs on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, or 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down.
So far in our charting data (which is incomplete for a handful of teams), we've found 80 cornerbacks who were targeted in pass coverage 40 or more times last season. Only 28 of those players had a success rate below 50 percent, and three of those players were on the Cowboys. Terence Newman was the worst of the bunch, ranking 72nd in success rate, and dead last among those 80 cornerbacks in yards per play.
Can Newman recover? The four closest matches in our defensive similarity scores system are Eric Allen 1999-2001, Todd Lyght 1999-2001, Phillippi Sparks 1998-2000, and Tory James 2004-06, none of whom ever played again. Most of the other players similar to Newman had only one or two years left, although Al Harris managed to scrape together five more years in the league. While Newman's numbers are somewhat inflated due to the offensive explosion of the last few years, it's safe to say his time has probably come and gone.
Cornerback is one of the toughest positions for rookies to play. Since the Cowboys are definitely in win-now mode, they might be better served finding a corner in free agency. Some of the top cornerbacks available include Kansas City's Brandon Carr, Atlanta's Brent Grimes, or San Francisco's Carlos Rogers.
On offense, the Cowboys' biggest need is at guard. Montrae Holland is a free agent, and he will be 32 next season. Kyle Kosier will be 34. An influx of youth here would help the Cowboys' short-yardage rushing performance, which ranked 23rd in the league last season.
It was easy to overlook this because the team just won the Super Bowl, but the Giants' offensive line was kind of a mess last season. The Giants used five different starting units during the regular season, and only eight times did they start the same five players in back-to-back games. As a result of all this chaos, the Giants ranked 28th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, and 27th in Power situations. The Giants need stability at this position, and some youth would help too. The five linemen who started in the Super Bowl will be, on average, 31 years old next season, and the youngest (left guard Kevin Boothe) will be 29.
Considering the age of the players involved, the Giants would be well-served to draft the best lineman available. Ideally, though, they would find themselves a new tackle. According to FO's game charting project, David Diehl led the team in blown blocks, but that's somewhat unfair. Diehl started the season as a starter at left guard, then filled in at left tackle when William Beatty went down with a season-ending eye injury. Diehl did his best to take Beatty's spot, but he was overwhelmed. Eleven of Diehl's 17 blown blocks came after Week 11, his first start at that position. (Beatty, by the way, had only six blown blocks in his ten starts).
The second-place player in blown blocks? Right tackle Kareem McKenzie. Since he's also the oldest player in the lineup (he'll be 33 next year), he's the most likely man to be replaced.
The downside of winning the Super Bowl is that you end up picking last in the draft. The Giants will miss out on the top tackle prospects -– USC's Matt Kalil, Iowa's Reilly Reiff, or Stanford's Jonathan Martin. Instead, look for them to target someone like Florida State's Zebrie Sanders or Iowa State's Kelechi Osemele.
The stat pages at Football Outsiders make the holes in the Philadelphia defense very clear. First, the defensive line statistics, where we see Philadelphia ranked third in stuff rate, but 29th in Second-Level Yards and 22nd in Open-Field Yards. In plain English, that means the defensive line was very good at hitting runners in the backfield, but when those runners made it across the line of scrimmage, they usually went for big gains. Next, the team defense page, which shows that the Eagles were OK covering wide receivers and dominant against tight ends, but 29th when covering running backs in the passing game. You'd be hard pressed to find a team in the league that got less value out of their linebackers.
How much of an afterthought have linebackers been in the City of Brotherly Love? Of the team's five most-used linebackers, one (Akeem Jordan) was undrafted, two (Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou) were seventh-round picks, and one (Brian Rolle) was a sixth-rounder. Casey Matthews, a fourth-rounder last year, has the best pedigree -– but he was such a disaster that he was benched after just three games.
The Eagles need a do-it-all linebacker, one who can tackle runners, excel in pass coverage, and rush the passer on occasion. They pick 15th in the first round. If they're lucky, they may have a chance to select Boston College's Luke Kuechly or Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict. If those two are off the board, Alabama's Dont'a Hightower, North Carolina State's Audie Cole, or North Carolina's Zach Brown would make a nice consolation prize.
They won't get Andrew Luck. That much we know. But any other move seems viable. They could trade up for the Rams' No. 2 pick and take Baylor's Robert Griffin III. They could stand pat and take Arizona State's Brock Osweiler or Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill at No. 6. They could sign a veteran like Alex Smith or (gasp) Peyton Manning in free agency, or take a chance on unproven Matt Flynn. They're going to have to make some kind of move, though, because there's no way they can go through another season with Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback.
Rex Grossman has thrown 1,500 passes in the NFL, and when you account for the era he's played in, he has been one of the most inaccurate passers in league history. Beck, meanwhile, is 30 years old, and has yet to win a game as a starting quarterback in the NFL. A few other career numbers: three touchdown passes, seven interceptions, 26 sacks.
Should the Redskins do whatever it takes to acquire Manning? If they think Peyton can get them back to the playoffs, they are sadly mistaken. While quarterback may be the biggest hole on the roster, it is not the only hole on the roster. Far from it. The top-three receivers (Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte' Stallworth) are all in their 30s and aging ungracefully. The offensive line is in shambles, with nine different players starting at one time or another in 2011. They've done a good job accumulating youth on defense, but it's not as if that youth has gelled into a dominating unit. And the 2012 schedule is going to be a tough one, chock full of playoff teams from the AFC North (Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals) and NFC South (Saints and Falcons, not to mention the Panthers and Cam Newton), plus two games against the Super Bowl Champions from New York. The Redskins need to develop a young passer and build around him, and acquiring a fading star now will only hinder that process.
Of course, that's never stopped Washington from doing this kind of thing before.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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