Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
16 May 2013
by Sean McCormick
The Cowboys went into the draft with clear weaknesses along the offensive line and in the secondary, and they addressed each of those needs in the first three rounds of the draft. Normally that’s enough to get a team a passing grade from draftniks and beat writers, but Dallas’ draft-day effort was universally panned both for the players they selected and the ones they passed on. The catcalls began with the selection of Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who was considered a third-round talent at best right up until he picked up the phone and heard Jerry Jones’ voice. After watching enough tape of Phil Costa getting driven into the backfield, you can sympathize with Jones for wanting a stouter anchor in the middle of the line, and Wisconsin linemen have been a pretty safe bet since Barry Alvarez was roaming the sidelines, so it’s certainly possible the pick looks better come September.
The problem is that what the Cowboys needed more than anything was a safety, and two of the top three prospects, Florida’s Matt Elam and Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien, came off the board with the next two picks. Dallas finished the season with a weighted pass defense DVOA of 12.5% (30th), and the defense finished dead-last in DVOA when covering tight ends. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The Cowboys just brought in Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator to run his patented Tampa-2 defense, a scheme that requires safeties who can hold up in coverage. In light of those facts, not spending an early pick on a safety was a bit of a head-scratcher. The safety Dallas eventually drafted, Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox, is a small-school project with minimal experience at the position. As it stands, Barry Church and Matt Johnson will open the season as arguably the league’s most undistinguished safety pairing.
Dallas liked both Arizona State outside linebacker Brandon Magee and South Carolina State safety Jakar Hamilton enough to bring them in for visits during the pre-draft process. Magee is a two-sport star who has been drafted three times by MLB teams, most recently by the Red Sox in the 23rd round of last year’s amateur draft. Dallas’ other free agent signings had a distinctly local feel to them, with six prospects who played either their college ball or high school ball in the Lone Star State. Of that bunch, the two corners, Texas A&M’s Dustin Harris and Wisconsin’s Devin Smith, may have the best chance to stick.
For a team with such a rich history at the linebacker position, it’s hard to remember the last time the Giants had even one really good player in their linebacking corps. (Jessie Armstead, who probably has the best claim to top dog in the post-Lawrence Taylor world, left the team in 2002.) The current starting trio of Dan Connor, Keith Rivers, and Jacquian Williams is typical of the patchwork approach general manager Jerry Reese has taken during his tenure. Connor is a solid two-down plugger who is vulnerable in the passing game due to his lack of speed. Rivers is a former top-ten pick who has accumulated more surgeries than sacks in his five-year career. Jacquian Williams is a guy named Jacquian Williams; he reportedly played in each of the last two seasons, but Giants fans can neither confirm nor deny his presence on the roster.
While this was not a particularly rich draft class, it is still surprising to see all seven rounds go by without New York using even a single selection on a linebacker. Now upgrades will have to come through free agency. The Giants jump-started the process by agreeing to terms with Aaron Curry on a one-year deal. Curry, another injury-plagued draft disappointment in the Keith Rivers mold, will compete with Rivers and Mark Herzlich for snaps at strongside linebacker. It’s a low-risk move that will look great if it pays off, but it shouldn’t keep Jerry Reese from continuing to explore the market. The biggest name on that market is Brian Urlacher, who has indicated a willingness to take a major pay cut to play for a contender, and who may have enough in the tank to provide a mild upgrade over Connor. One player who is almost certainly out of the mix is Michael Boley, whose legal problems will likely land him a suspension and could signal the end of his career.
Etienne Sabino has the prototypical size and speed ratio you would expect for an Ohio State linebacker, and it was a mild surprise that he went undrafted despite his questionable instincts. Big Blue has a longstanding love affair with the Big Ten, and Sabino is walking into a good spot. Virginia Tech’s Alonzo Tweedy also plays linebacker, but no one envisions him contributing as a starter or even a rotation player in the NFL. Instead, he’s being brought in as a special teams ace. Cornerback is another area where the Giants are shaky and where they didn’t draft anyone, so Charleston Southern’s Charles James could win a roster spot with a strong showing in training camp.
Anyone who watched an Eagles game for more than five minutes last year realized that the secondary was in need of an overhaul. The names on the jerseys might have been familiar, but guys like Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played more like fans who had been pulled out of the stands to suit up at halftime. Philadelphia’s pass defense DVOA of 24.1% was the worst in the league, and three of the four starting defensive backs were among the league leaders in broken tackles. That’s the kind of performance that tends to get people fired, and now, in addition to a brand new coaching staff, the Eagles have a completely revamped secondary.
The problem is that, at least on paper, the team did a much better job of finding replacements at safety than they did at cornerback. Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung are both young, productive players with good draft pedigrees. There are reasons why these two players were available: both are injury risks, and Chung also was benched in New England because Bill Belichick felt he freelanced too often. Still, the talent makes both players very worthwhile gambles. The additions at cornerback have less upside. Bradley Fletcher finished out the year as St. Louis’ fourth corner thanks to his penchant for drawing flags. He might be a more natural slot defender, but Brandon Boykin is entrenched as the nickel back, so Fletcher will play on the outside. Cary Williams started for the Super Bowl champion Ravens, where he gave up a ton of completions by playing soft on any kind of comeback route. The one thing Williams does exceptionally well, though, is tackle -- he missed a grand total of three tackles in the last two years. And as noted before, that's a talent that was sorely missing from the Eagles' secondary.
Iowa State outside linebacker Jake Knott was considered a potential fourth- or fifth-round pick who slid right out of the draft in part due to the shoulder injury that prematurely ended his senior season. Knott has excellent range and good coverage skills, two traits that are largely lacking among the current Eagles linebackers. At 6-foot-2, Damion Square is a bit short for a 3-4 defensive lineman, but he started 31 games for Alabama, which is about as good a pedigree as it gets. Oregon’s Isaac Remington is a Chip Kelly import, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman who started the last two years for the Ducks.
Considering the fact that the Redskins were operating without a full complement of picks thanks to the Robert Griffin trade, the team actually devoted a fair amount of attention to their leaky secondary, spending a second-round pick on North Carolina State corner David Amerson, then double-dipping on safeties by selecting Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas in the fourth round and Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo in the sixth round. Considering the paucity of top-flight secondary talent in this draft, it’s unclear if Mike Shanahan could have done much better. That said, making the best of a bad situation isn’t the same thing as fixing the problem. Amerson led the nation in interceptions two years ago and has a terrific frame to go up against bigger receivers. He also has a worrying aggressiveness that frequently led to him getting torched on double moves, and NFL analyst Mike Mayock called Amerson’s tape against Tennessee and Miami some of the worst he’s ever seen. The general consensus seems to be that Amerson is a DeAngelo Hall clone, which begs the question, how many DeAngelo Halls can one team afford to play? Thomas and Rambo are the safety equivalents of Amerson -- Thomas led the nation in interceptions in 2012, while Rambo was second behind Amerson in 2011 -- but in each case, the ballhawking is paired up with some questionable tackling skills.
Ultimately, improvement in the secondary may come not from any of the new additions, but rather from the return of a healthy Brian Orakpo. With Orakpo in the lineup in 2011, the Redskins posted a 7.4% adjusted sack rate. That number dropped to 5.9% in 2012, as Ryan Kerrigan was left to provide the pass rush on his lonesome. With more pressure, opposing quarterbacks won't have quite so much time to figure out which Washington defensive back has been beaten by his man.
Xavier Nixon, who started 33 out of 46 games in his four years at Florida, was generally considered a mid-round talent who slipped because of a questionable work ethic. Nixon provides versatility, having played both left and right tackle, and he has the advantage of having played in a zone-blocking scheme that is quite similar to the one Washington runs. Will Compton is another big-program player, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors while manning the center of the Nebraska defense. With London Fletcher pushing 38, the team needs to find a young prospect to groom, and Compton has a chance to stick.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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