"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
15 May 2013
by Tom Gower
Andre Johnson was perhaps the second-best wide receiver in the NFL in 2012, thanks to a return to health after missing multiple games in both 2010 and 2011. With the release of Kevin Walter, whose salary was outsized considering his declining level of production, the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver is young and unproven.
That starts with first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Considered about the most pro-ready receiver in this year’s draft, the Texans are counting on his relatively polished route-running skills and natural hands to let him step in as a starter immediately. Most late first-round receivers of late have been eased into the lineup, but the Texans need Hopkins to be a high-impact player immediately.
Hopkins is expected to play such a big role because no receiver on the roster other than Johnson has more than Keshawn Martin’s 10 career catches. Martin hit the rookie wall last year and is better suited in the slot and as a returner anyway. 2012 third-round selection DeVier Posey seemed to be coming on late in the year, but an Achilles injury suffered in the playoffs is expected to sideline him until midseason.
The biggest name the Texans signed is Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, but he is raw enough as a passer that he can fairly be considered a camp arm only. With the loss of Justin Forsett, the Texans have a hole at third-string running back behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate. One of Ray Graham, Dennis Johnson, George Winn, or Cierre Wood is likely to fill that, and do not be too surprised if more than one of them (Graham and Wood?) makes a 53-man roster, either in Houston or elsewhere.
Before the 2012 season, the Colts traded their second-round pick in this year’s draft for Vontae Davis. The physically talented Davis struggled to cover effectively in the 10 games he played, finishing in the bottom ten in Success Rate and yards per pass according to Football Outsiders game charting (stats explained here). Davis can play better, but his inability to play up to his physical potential was why the Dolphins were willing to trade him to the Colts in the first place.
To replace the oft-targeted Cassius Vaughn opposite Davis, the Colts went to free agency and added Greg Toler, who ranked in the top ten in Success Rate and yards per pass. However, those stats are heavily dependent on Toler's role. His career history suggests that Toler can be a good nickel or dime corner, as he was in Arizona last year, but that he struggles when asked to play a full-time role. The Colts will be hoping that Darius Butler, who put up the best charting numbers of any Colts corner, can stay on the field and keep Toler in a sub package role where he can be an asset. The Colts are also hoping the addition of LaRon Landry at strong safety, replacing the woefully overmatched Tom Zbikowski, can help ease some of the coverage burden placed on Antoine Bethea’s shoulders. Vaughn returns in case the Colts want to put a bull’s-eye for quarterbacks on the field.
If the Colts are looking for cornerback reinforcements, Nigel Malone was a first-team All-Big 12 player for Kansas State in 2011, while Sheldon Price was a multi-year contributor for UCLA. Between Wagner defensive end C.O. Prime and Idaho State wideout Rodrick Rumble, the Colts also have two names on the UDFA All-Name Team.
In some ways, what the Jacksonville Jaguars did at quarterback this offseason is very admirable and a model for how similarly situated teams should treat a quarterback issue moving forward. With no quality veteran starter in the free agent market, they did not pay any of the average or below-average passers like he was better than he was. Knowing they were not an average quarterback away from the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, they did not trade draft picks for a non-great player. Holding the second overall pick in the draft, they selected not the top quarterback on their board, but the best player.
At the same time, the Jaguars still have Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne as their two potential starting quarterbacks. Gabbert was not very good, finishing 30th in Total QBR. Henne was worse. It is very hard to win games with quarterback play as bad as the Jaguars have had recently, and generally requires a strong defense (and the Jaguars ranked 28th by defensive DVOA) and a strong running game (and the Jaguars ranked 27th by DVOA there). (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
The addition of Luke Joeckel and the return to health by Maurice Jones-Drew should mean an improved running game in 2013, but another season of Gabbert and/or Henne likely means another high pick for the Jaguars in 2014.
With one of the league's worst overall rosters, opportunity abounds for undrafted free agents in Duval County. The biggest names are quarterbacks Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's brother, and Matt Scott, a potential mid-round prospect with intriguing mobility whose three concussions his final year at Arizona may have knocked him out of the draft. Other players with a chance to stick include plus-size defensive tackle T.J. Barnes, fullback Lonnie Pryor, and tight end Ryan Otten.
The Tennessee Titans did not have a very good defense in 2012. They ranked 24th by DVOA. They gave up more points than any defense in the history of the franchise. When they went on a big free-agent spending spree, their biggest moves and most of the spending came on offense, which is also where they spent their first- and second-round draft picks. The defense returns largely intact, with the only likely changes being Bernard Pollard at strong safety instead of the released Jordan Babineaux, and Sammie Lee Hill, who was the Lions’ fourth defensive tackle, starting in place of the departed Sen’Derrick Marks.
Instead, the Titans seem to be counting on a lot of internal improvement, better coaching with the addition of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams (though Jerry Gray returns as defensive coordinator), and an offense that can do a better job of sustaining drives. While the Titans fielded a particularly young defense in 2012 and some internal improvement is likely, most defenses that go from bad to good quickly devote more resources to adding better players, especially a premium player of the type the Titans do not have unless Derrick Morgan can translate his impressive 2012 hurry total into a double-digit sack season.
Until long snapper Beau Brinkley and defensive tackle DaJohn Harris made the team in 2012, no rookie undrafted free agent had made it past the first three games for the Titans since 2006. After adding a full score of players between veteran free agency and the draft, that seems unlikely to change in 2013. The player with perhaps the best shot of making the team is Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson, a solid between the tackles runner who finished second in the NCAA in rushing yards in 2012 and can contribute in the passing game.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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