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?
12 Feb 2013
by Andy Benoit
After Keith Brooking replaced Joe Mays at middle linebacker in Week 6, the Broncos went from allowing 120.2 rushing yards per game to allowing 77.9 per game the rest of the way. Mays had been a solid downhill player, but in new coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme he struggled to make pre-snap calls. Brooking stabilized Denver’s base 3-4 as a stack ‘backer and, surprisingly, held up well enough on the few occasions when he was asked to play in nickel.
That’s the good news with Brooking. The bad news is he’s a free agent who turns 38 in October. Prior to signing with Denver last August, he’d been showing noticeable decline since his mid-thirties. History says that re-signing Brooking would be a roll of the dice on John Elway’s part.
Elway may find the veteran expendable considering that Denver has plenty of linebacker depth and more important decisions to make at defensive tackle. The interior rotation of Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, Mitch Unrein, and Derek Wolfe was sensational at holding ground and drawing double-teams in 2012. But the 34-year-old Bannan is set to become a free agent. So is the more explosive (and wildly underrated) 30-year-old Vickerson. The losses of those players would impact whoever is at middle linebacker.
In short, expiring contracts have left holes in the interior of a front seven that led the Broncos to a No. 4 ranking in run defense DVOA last season. After they re-sign or franchise-tag star left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos are expected to have $12-15 million available in cap space. Elway could re-sign all three interior defensive starters and still have a little money left over. Or, he could trust his existing linebacker depth to fill Brooking’s void, lowball Vickerson, say goodbye to Bannan, and try to upgrade by luring a second-tier free agent defensive tackle -– say a Randy Starks, Terrance Knighton, or Alan Branch-type –- to Mile High.
We choose the obvious hole here for two reasons: it’s too obvious to pass up, and it highlights the less obvious point that the Chiefs, if you look closely, have a really good roster for a team drafting first overall. Jamaal Charles and a meaty, fairly mobile zone-blocking front five make for a viable run game. Defensively, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson highlight a front seven that’s sturdier and more athletic than people think. On the back end, Eric Berry continues to blossom at safety while Brandon Flowers is one of the league's top cornerbacks. Take away some of Kansas City’s league-high 37 turnovers (which, history shows, is a stat that tends to regress towards the mean the following season) and you have a similar Chiefs club to the ones that went a respectable 7-9 in 2011 and an admirable 10-6 in 2010.
Solid as most of Kansas City’s roster might be, achieving meaningful success in today’s NFL is impossible if your offense is aerially inept. The current outlook of Kansas City’s passing game is iffy at best. The only consistently viable receiver, Dwayne Bowe, is scheduled for free agency. 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin has shown scintillating flashes but no constant illumination. Veteran Steve Breaston couldn’t even stay on the active roster last year. 2010 second-round pick Dexter McCluster has been nothing close to the Percy Harvin-type weapon many expected. Tight ends Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss have been negatively impacted by serious injuries over the past two seasons.
That said, it’s unknown how much of Kansas City’s receiving issues are a product of a precarious quarterback situation. Matt Cassel hasn't panned out; at best, he is football’s version of a streaky jump shooter. Brady Quinn doesn’t read defenses astutely enough to regularly throw more than checkdowns, and third-stringer Ricky Stanzi has shown enough limitations to remain on the bench while both veterans have floundered.
So how does Andy Reid fix this mess? As usual, the free-agent quarterback market is bleak. But even bleaker is this year’s crop of rookie prospects. Reid’s West Coast system is fairly demanding of a quarterback mentally. Unless he thinks there’s a Tom Brady or a Russell Wilson hiding somewhere in this draft, it’d make sense to overspend just a little for a stabilizing one-year bridge guy like Alex Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Stable quarterbacking could at least bump the Chiefs back up to the middle of the NFL pack and allow Reid to use his first season for evaluating the rest of his personnel. If that seems like a recipe for mediocrity, compare it to the alternative: risking an erroneous long-term investment.
Half of Oakland’s defensive linemen are on the wrong side of 30, hitting free agency, or both. Carson Palmer is as up-and-down as a dot-com stock. Darren McFadden’s body falls somewhere between "fine china" and "Susan Boyle’s psyche" on the fragility meter. Having these three issues on the table means one can literally characterize the entire Raiders team as a "hole," because the rest of the roster is in even worse shape.
One of these holes is more gaping than the others, though: defensive back. Aside from the continuously underwhelming output of middle linebacker Rolando McClain, poor secondary play was Oakland’s biggest problem in 2012. Thanks in large part to surrendering 12 plays of 40 yards or more (third most in football), this defense finished 30th in pass defense DVOA. Blown coverages and missed tackles were issues all season.
The only cornerback who filled his role serviceably was veteran slot defender Joselio Hanson. He’s now a free agent. So is Shawntae Spencer (though he's just a guy). Fringe backup Phillip Adams showed enough intrigue as an underneath man-defender and ball-jumper to be re-signed as a restricted free agent, but with or without him, the Raiders still need to bring in at least three new corners. Restocking the position would allow Michael Huff to return to a more-fitting sub-package safety role and allow Dennis Allen to install some of the 60 percent of his scheme that he’s still waiting to roll out.
Corner isn’t the only issue, though. The safety situation is nearly as shaky. Tyvon Branch, a flexible box player, hasn’t appeared comfortable with the downfield responsibilities that come in Allen’s multidimensional system. Last year’s other starting safety, Matt Giordano, is an unrestricted free agent who lacks athleticism and instincts. It’s doubtful that general manager Reggie McKenzie will re-sign him. Same goes for free agent Mike Mitchell, an Al Davis second-round pick who took a few snaps from Giordano but never really pushed for a starting job.
What the Raiders discovered last December when they finally replaced McClain with Omar Gaither was that a lot of their front-seven schematic wrinkles can work with just average middle linebacking. Where "average" can’t fly is on the back end. Allen’s scheme requires upper-tier cover corners and versatile safeties.
Let's look at stats from the Football Outsiders game charting project for a moment. Last season, Quentin Jammer allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 75th in the NFL. He also had a 39 percent Success Rate (defined here), second-worst in the league behind Minnesota’s A.J. Jefferson. On the other side, Antoine Cason allowed 7.4 yards per pass (48th) and had a 42 percent Success Rate. Because of their struggles, defensive coordinator John Pagano -– who, like his brother Chuck, strives for a multidimensional and aggressive scheme, especially on third down -– rarely flipped past the basic zone coverage chapters of his playbook.
Now, Jammer is a free agent who will likely find himself forced into retirement after a respectable 11-year career. Cason is a free agent who will be the subject of several long meetings between Pagano and new general manager Tom Telesco. Do they offer the 2008 first-round pick a contract? If so, for how long and how much? Cason wasn’t nearly as bad as his 2012 numbers suggest. But he also wasn’t nearly as good as he was in 2010 when, as an agile, long-armed, firm-tackling off-coverage corner, he seemed on track for true stardom. Since then, for whatever reason the reportedly neurotic perfectionist has shown diminished confidence in all phases.
Still, you can’t censure Pagano and Telesco if they offer Cason a long-term deal. Overall, there’s a lot to like about him. But even if he is brought back, the Chargers still need a replacement for Jammer. It remains undetermined whether slot man Marcus Gilchrist, a 2011 second-round pick, can slide outside and be an every-down player. Same goes for Shareece Wright, who was taken just a round behind Gilchrist. But the fact that both players remain somewhat mysterious after two years likely means that, in the back of Telesco’s mind, every cornerback spot on the roster is in contention for new blood.
(This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.)
20 comments, Last at 25 Feb 2013, 1:28pm by cjfarls