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?
07 May 2013
by Danny Tuccitto
Over the past three seasons, Buffalo's pass defense hasn't finished higher than 22nd according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric of play-by-play efficiency (explained here), the Bills' pass rush hasn't ranked better than 24th over that span. The offseason spending spree that added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson before the 2012 season probably would have ended the streak if not for Anderson's 11-game absence. (Williams had 10.5 sacks, so he did his part.)
If Anderson returns to his double-digit sack form of 2011, then the only thing standing in the way of an above-average Bills pass defense (finally!) is their underwhelming stable of cornerbacks. Aaron Williams, one of last year's starters, struggled so much that the new coaching staff decided to move him to his more natural position of safety for 2013. The new staff seems to have given Leodis McKelvin's career new life; after two years of contributing in the return game and on nickel downs, Buffalo re-signed McKelvin to a four-year, $20 million contract, and gave him Williams' old job.
Stephon Gilmore, who started 13 games as a rookie, finished 2012 ranked 43rd among cornerbacks in defensive success rate (explained here) per our game charting. As even the most elite corners take a year or two to settle in at the position, we're not too worried about him.
No, what's troublesome is the trickle-down effect of the Williams-McKelvin move: that the Bills appear to be entering next season with Justin Rogers, Ron Brooks, and Crezdon Butler as additional corners on passing downs. For Brooks and (especially) Butler, it's a question of experience. Butler was on Arizona's practice squad before moving to Buffalo, and our game charters only listed him as the primary defender on three passes in 2012. Brooks only played in nine games as a rookie, seeing just 27 passes thrown in his direction. Rogers was the only one of the three to see enough passes (51) to qualify for our defensive success rate rankings, but the 2011 seventh-round pick finished at No. 64.
So, to recap the situation, when Bills opponents go to pass-heavy personnel packages in 2013, the Bills will be fielding Gilmore, a glorified return man, a mediocre former seventh-rounder, and two players trusted to defend only 30 total passes a year ago. Somewhere, Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill are licking their chops.
Most scouts viewed Tennessee Tech's Da'Rick Rogers as a polished receiver with great measurables to boot (6-foot-3, 4.5 40-time, 39.5-inch vertical) who would fall to the third or fourth round because of his off-the-field issues. So whether or not he pans out on the field, Buffalo got incredible value by signing him as an undrafted free agent. In his final year at Tennessee before a suspension and subsequent transfer, Rogers was voted first-team All-SEC, finishing 2011 with 67 catches for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns. As it seems to have been for quite some time, Buffalo's wide receiver depth chart remains nothing special outside of Steve Johnson, so Rogers has a great shot to make the team in 2013. Arguably, he may be even more NFL-ready than Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, whom the Bills spent second- and third-round picks on, respectively.
When the Dolphins traded up to the No. 3 pick, but chose defensive end Dion Jordan over tackle Lane Johnson, it came as quite a shock to both NFL experts and laypersons alike. With perennial Pro-Bowler Jake Long leaving for St. Louis, Miami drafting his replacement was seen as a fait accompli. Instead, the Dolphins decided to proceed with 2012 second-rounder pick Jonathan Martin as Ryan Tannehill's blindside protector.
Martin improved from awful to below average when he took over the left side during Long's injury absence at the end of last season, but he still ended up leading Miami's offensive line (and finishing ninth in the NFL, by our count) with 22.0 blown blocks in pass protection, 6.7 of which resulted in sacks. Coming out of college, one of Martin's main areas of needed improvement was "anchoring against power moves", and sure enough Martin crumpling to the ground in the face of a bull rush by San Francisco's Aldon Smith remains one of the most enduring -- and GIF-able -- epic failures of the 2012 season.
Of course, Martin was a rookie, so perhaps we can give him a pass for his poor game charting stats and sometimes-embarrassing game film. But he's not the only question on the left side. Veteran Richie Incognito really struggled last season. According to our game charting, he led all offensive linemen with 11 blown run blocks last year, and finished with the ninth-most blown block sacks allowed among left guards.
At least the right side of the line looks much more solid now that the Dolphins have signed free-agent veteran Tyson Clabo. That in turn allows third-round pick Dallas Thomas to move to right guard, a position more suited to his talents. He'll compete with ex-Bears guard Lance Louis for the starting job.
After trading Davone Bess to Cleveland, the top of the Dolphins wide receiver depth chart is chock-full o' big guys: Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Armon Binns, and Rishard Matthews all stand at least six feet tall. To fill their mighty-mite void, Miami signed a pair of smallish players, either of whom could end up being Bess' replacement in the slot. Jasper Collins ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, and put up video game numbers in his senior season at Mount Union, the alma mater of NFL wideouts Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts. The other signing, Chad Bumphis, is stronger but not as fast as Collins, and was Mississippi State's leading receiver in 2012.
We could have gone with wide receiver here given that projected starters Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins are worse than the players they replaced. New England drafted two wideouts in the first four rounds of the draft, but rookies usually don't provide substantial value at that position. However, if there's one thing we've learned about the Patriots offense over the past decade, it's that Tom Brady doesn't need elite wide receivers to make things work.
Instead, what seems to have derailed the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes recently is a sub-par pass defense: They haven't finished with an above-average pass defense DVOA since 2007. At times, they have lacked talent in their secondary, but adding Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard in 2012 made that less of an issue, while adding Adrian Wilson and underrated third-round cornerback Logan Ryan this offseason should make the secondary even better.
The other half of pass defense is a different story. New England's lack of a pass rush has been even more of a constant thread over the past several years than poor secondary play: The Patriots pass rush finished 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, and hasn't ranked higher than 15th since 2007. What's more, all they've done to address this is over the past two seasons has been to draft defensive end Chandler Jones last year and outside linebacker Jamie Collins this April.
Both Jones and Collins ranked among the top five pass-rushing prospects of their draft classes according to our SackSEER projections in 2012 and 2013, so it's not like we're down on the specific players New England has added. It's just important to keep in mind that Jones only had six sacks in 13 starts last year, and Collins has recent NFL history working against him. From 2002 to 2012, only 12 players had double-digit sacks during their rookie seasons, and just four of those did so in 11 or fewer starts (Aldon Smith, Mark Anderson, Terrell Suggs, and Dwight Freeney). As Collins will have a hard time cracking New England's starting lineup in 2013, it's unlikely he will be productive enough to bring the Patriots pass defense the pass rush productivity they sorely need.
White wide receiver stereotype alert! Missouri's T.J. Moe was among New England's 19 signings, and he's already being compared to Wes Welker. (Or is it Danny Amendola? Or maybe Julian Edelman?) At the combine, Moe wasn't fast running in one long, straight line (4.68 40-time), but he was the second-fastest among all positions running in a series of short lines (6.53 three-cone time). He also did more reps on the bench press than any other wideout (26) which suggests he could at least beat the average defensive back in a boxing match. (Note: not Tom Zbikowski.) With the Patriots' aforementioned lack of depth at wide receiver, Moe has a decent chance to make the team this year. But if he really is the second coming of Welker, he'll be waived in Week 2 of his rookie year, and go on to have a great career two NFL stops later.
Admittedly, it wasn't groundbreaking when we identified the Jets' biggest hole as"all the offensive skill positions" back in February. Last season, their offense finished 31st in yards per play, 30th in DVOA, and 30th in points scored. Even the most casual of NFL observers could have spotted the problem, to say nothing of the passionate Jets fan base that had to watch the disaster firsthand.
Much to the chagrin of cardiologists and psychiatrists in New York and New Jersey, the Jets addressed the single-most important offensive skill position in last month's draft. Geno Smith may have been the second signal-caller selected, but Football Outsiders' statistics-based Lewin Career Forecast said he was the best quarterback prospect in the 2013 draft class. Last year, that honor went to Russell Wilson, and Smith seemingly has a much easier path to the starting lineup than Wilson did. He's only behind ship-has-sailed Mark Sanchez and body-has-failed David Garrard on the Jets' current depth chart. To boot, recent trends say that NFL teams don't spend top 100 picks on quarterbacks with the intention of stashing them on their benches. Of the 22 quarterbacks selected in the first three rounds since 2009, 17 started at least six games as a rookie, and two of the non-starters were Peyton Manning's backup (Brock Osweiler) and Tom Brady's backup (Ryan Mallett).
That said, it sure would have been nice if the Jets armed Smith with an arsenal of play-making weapons. Instead, a team with such obvious needs in that department only has interior linemen and glorified backup running backs to show for their non-Smith player personnel efforts the past three months. Regarding the latter, Chris Ivory to this point in his career has proven to be a talented runner against defenses focused on stopping the pass. He's also proven that he is an injury waiting to happen. Meanwhile, free-agent addition Mike Goodson has spent most of his four-year career as a returner, and his only year with at least 100 carries (2010) resulted in rankings of 38th in total rushing value and 42nd in rushing value per play out of 54 qualifying running backs.
With Ivory having only three receptions in his career, Goodson figures to be the lone receiving threat out of the backfield. However, going back to that 2010 season with Carolina, he ranked 42nd in total receiving value and 42nd in receiving value per play out of 54 qualifiers. This is significant insofar as new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's pass offense relies heavily on receiving production from running backs (See: LeSean McCoy, Charlie Garner, and Garrison Hearst).
Of course, Mornhinweg's previous stints in Philadelphia and San Francisco have also featured the likes of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Terrell Owens, and Jerry Rice. No such polished talents at wide receiver or tight end reside on the Jets roster at the moment. Football Outsiders' Playmaker Score projection system viewed Stephen Hill as the best wide receiver prospect of the 2012 draft, but he's now tasked with adapting to his second offense in two seasons. Elsewhere, among 82 qualifying wide receivers, Jeremy Kerley finished 2012 ranked 59th in total value and 64th in value per play, Santonio Holmes' Week 1 status is uncertain due to the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2012 season, and tight end Jeff Cumberland is no Dustin Keller.
While it's more so the case that quarterbacks make their receivers than vice versa, one would be hard-pressed -- without the help of the internet -- to find more than a handful of quarterbacks who succeeded with the likes of Holmes, Hill, Kerley, Cumberland, and Goodson on the other end of their passes. Whether Sanchez manages the unlikely feat of starting all 16 games or Smith gets his inevitable opportunity as a rookie, it's hard to imagine the 2013 Jets offense exceeding their two 30-point games in 2012.
Rather than throwing serious resources at wide receiver and tight end this offseason, the Jets instead signed six such players as undrafted free agents. And given the state of those two positions on the depth chart, there's serious potential for at least two of them to make the team in August. Pittsburgh's Mike Shanahan, who played wide receiver at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, will be moving to tight end in what, for all the world, looks like an attempt to replace Keller. Meanwhile, Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola had the second-most receiving yards in school history, ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the combine, and jumped 37 inches high at his pro day. Those are the kind of stats that Playmaker Score really likes; on the other hand, he went to Lehigh.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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