Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
19 Feb 2013
by Tom Gower
When then-Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was asked why he switched from the 4-3 to the 3-4, he declared it was because he had more good linebackers than defensive linemen. Nearly thirty years later, his son Wade’s defense in Houston is running the 3-4, but not because his team has a surfeit of quality linebackers.
The problem exists at both inside and outside linebacker. On the inside, Brian Cushing was lost for the season in Week 5 after tearing his ACL. He should be healthy for Week 1, but the lack of talent around him is troubling. Darryl Sharpton was supposed to fill the spot vacated by the offseason trade of DeMeco Ryans, but started the year on the physically unable to perform list, then did too little, especially in pass coverage, when he did make it onto the field. A quantum improvement by Sharpton or a new starter, most likely from the draft, is a necessity.
At outside linebacker, the Texans used a first-round pick in 2012 on Whitney Mercilus, who had a modestly productive rookie season. After leading the team in sacks in 2011, Connor Barwin added 15 pounds in the offseason and struggled to turn the corner, recording only 3.0 sacks. Now a free agent, the bright side of his struggles may be that the cap-strapped Texans find it easier to keep him. Even if they do, they’ll need a big step forward from him or Mercilus to find a complementary rusher to J.J. Watt.
The Colts made the playoffs in 2012, but they were not a very good team, especially on defense. They ranked 31st in defensive DVOA, and the problems existed at every level of the defense. They were the league’s worst run defense, forced the third-fewest turnovers in the league, and struggled especially on passes to tight ends and slot receivers.
The first thing the Colts need is a starting cornerback opposite Vontae Davis. Cassius Vaughn was one of the worst starters in the NFL, and Colts opponents knew it, targeting him more than any other corner in the league. (Vaughn had a Success Rate of 48 percent according to Football Outsiders game charting, which ranked him 69th out of 89 corners with at least 35 charted targets.) If free agent Darius Butler, who played well on the too-infrequent occasions he was healthy, is not retained, the Colts need to replace him as well. The Colts also ranked worst in the league on allowing long runs. Some of the responsibility for that is on safety Tom Zbikowski, who looked like the marginal starter he was in Baltimore.
Outside linebacker is an obvious position of need, with Dwight Freeney an unrestricted free agent who will almost certainly be allowed to test free agency due to an obscene franchise tag number of around $20 million. With not much depth at the position, the Colts will definitely be looking for a starter in the draft or free agency. Defensive line is another area of need and a big reason the run defense struggled, as Baltimore import Cory Redding was the only good starter.
Only two years removed from a season where they lost their first 13 games and ended up with the first pick in the draft, Colts fans should be ecstatic they made the playoffs in 2012. But without major defensive improvement, the Colts are more likely to finish below .500 in 2013 than they are to return to the postseason.
Blaine Gabbert had a very, very bad rookie year. He had the worst Total QBR in the league, but even that understates how bad he was. By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, Gabbert had the second-worst season of any quarterback since 1991 (minimum 400 passes). Only David Carr in his rookie season was worse, and even then, only because of all the sacks he took.
Gabbert was slightly better in his second year, but even here, "slightly better" means that he improved to 30th in the league by Total QBR and 34th by DVOA before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Chad Henne came in and delivered splashier play, but ultimately ended up with an even lower Total QBR (he finished 33rd). It’s very, very hard to win in today’s NFL without quarterback play significantly better than what the Jaguars have had the past two seasons.
With a new regime in place, including new general manager David Caldwell and new head coach Gus Bradley, the Jaguars have entered a rebuilding phase. What does that mean at quarterback? The Jaguars hold the second overall pick in this April’s draft, but there is no quarterback prospect that comes close to Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin, and the Chiefs would likely select that player if he existed in this class. If the Jaguars are looking for a new quarterback of the future -- and some recent comments indicate they may not be -- they may look to the later rounds of the draft to find one.
Gabbert was a high first-round pick under the new CBA, so his salary is guaranteed for 2013 and 2014 even if he’s not on the team. Notwithstanding Russell Wilson’s play in 2012, rookies drafted after the first round have a very modest history of success. With no above-average starters available in free agency, that likely means another year of Gabbert as a starter. Unless he shows tremendous improvement, that will likely end in another high draft pick in 2014. Maybe the Jaguars will be able to find a good quarterback with that pick.
2012 was the fourth consecutive season the Titans have ranked in the bottom seven of the NFL on runs up the middle by our Adjusted Line Yards metric, which minimizes the distorting effect of long runs. While Chris Johnson’s running style does not flatter these numbers, it is a real issue.
Head coach Mike Munchak has indicated the Titans will be looking for multiple new players on the interior of the offensive line after all three starters (center Eugene Amano and guards Leroy Harris and Steve Hutchinson) finished the season on injured reserve. Harris, who’d never played right guard before 2012, is a free agent and will likely be allowed to leave. Hutchinson, who will turn 36 next season, may retire. If he does not, the Titans may find his injury history (three consecutive seasons on injured reserve) and declining play do not justify his salary. Amano’s performance has never lived up to the lucrative extension he signed in 2010. He could be cut as well if the Titans retain Fernando Velasco, a restricted free agent who played competently in his stead in 2012.
Do not be surprised if the Titans add a starting caliber-guard in free agency and use one or multiple draft picks on centers and guards after ignoring 2012’s pledge to get younger at the position only to wind up signing the veteran Hutchinson.
(This article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.)
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