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?
24 May 2013
by Andy Benoit
Prior to the draft, conventional wisdom said that the Cardinals were in desperate need of more edge-rushing firepower, but they had even more desperate needs along the offensive line. New GM Steve Keim seemed to agree, making No. 7 pick Jonathan Cooper the first guard since Chris Naeole in 1997 to be drafted in the top 10. In the Friday rounds, Keim couldn’t resist the urge to fill less-pressing needs with risky-but-impressive athletes who have upside. He drafted inside linebacker Kevin Minter in round two and safety Tyrann Mathieu in round three. It was not until the round four that Keim came even close to addressing the pass rush, drafting Texas’s Alex Okafor with the sixth pick (103rd overall). Some would say he still didn’t address the pass rush; just like free agent pickup Lorenzo Alexander, Okafor’s value may be predominantly in his versatility and run defense, not in his ability to chase the quarterback.
On offense, there’s a far more troubling hole that Keim was not able to address at all: tight end. That’s a concern given that new head coach Bruce Arians runs a base scheme that’s built around two-tight end sets. When he was with the Steelers, Arians had a steady underneath pass-catcher and sound on-the-move run blocker in Heath Miller. He also had a solid in-line blocker in Matt Spaeth. With the Colts, he had Dwayne Allen (a more athletic but less experienced version of Miller), plus a respectable young seam receiver in Coby Fleener.
In Arizona, Arians has middling eighth-year veteran Jeff King and underdeveloped third-year pro Rob Housler. The top backup is undrafted fourth-year journeyman Kory Sperry, who played all of 22 offensive snaps last year. King and Housler both struggled mightily in run blocking last season, and only Housler has the necessary athleticism to become a viable weapon in the passing game. (And there’s no guarantee that he will.)
The good news is the arrival of Carson Palmer at least brings some stability to Arizona’s quarterback situation. That should help both tight ends. Also, it’s unlikely that Arians will ask King and Housler to win unfavorable one-on-one matchups as often as the previous regime did. But just because Arians will be more willing to schematically hide his tight ends’ weaknesses doesn’t mean those weaknesses still won’t hinder this offense. There will be parts of Arians’ playbook that will have to go untouched this season. Ultimately, in order for his system to be fully maximized, more talent must be infused at the tight end spots.
The Cardinals brought in 16 undrafted rookies. Among them is tight end Kevin Auffray, who is 24 and, in his last-ditch effort to make the NFL, emerged from the Super Regional Combine. Prior to that spring affair, Auffray had a deal to play in Warsaw, Poland.
Also in the group is Dan Giordano, a Cincinnati linebacker who, at 260 pounds, has the size and strength to be a serviceable playside run defender. The purported concern with him is a lack of athleticism. Rounding out the group are Jamaal Johnson-Webb and Joe Caprioglio, two offensive linemen who will likely have to prove they can play multiple positions in order to make the team.
The Rams’ "hole" is really more like a "faulty surface." Upon initial glance, there are no glaring issues with their secondary. But upon closer inspection, you see several soft spots that could seemingly collapse under the right amount of pressure. Only time will tell if those soft spots can solidify or if they’ll have to be patched over.
Right now the only sure-thing in St. Louis’ defensive backfield is cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The eight-year veteran is a physical, flexible cover artist who can play man or zone both outside and in the slot. After Finnegan, question marks abound. Second-year corner Janoris Jenkins is obviously talented, but can he mature? Last season he had four interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and four total touchdown returns, but he also got suspended a game for violating team rules and endured a midseason slump where he struggled with inconsistent technique, including in man coverage (which is supposed to be his forte).
On the second string, the jury is still very much out on Trumaine Johnson, a 2012 third-round pick who primarily has seen action as an outside nickelback. Projected at the dime corner spot is Brandon McGee, a fifth-round rookie.
The Rams are banking even more on another rookie at safety: third-round pick T.J. McDonald. The son of former 49er Tim McDonald turned some heads with his versatility and hard hitting at USC, though some respected analysts thought he looked undisciplined and lost in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. No one was particularly impressed with McDonald’s showing at the Senior Bowl. His perceived "riskiness" would not be hugely concerning if the Rams had even middling depth at safety, but no other safety on their roster was even drafted. One of those undrafted guys is fourth-year pro Darian Stewart, who started 13 games in 2011 but led Football Outsiders' count with 19 broken tackles before losing his job to Craig Dahl last season. With Dahl now in San Francisco and 32-year-old veteran Quintin Mikell a street free agent, Stewart is suddenly thrust into a leadership role at his position.
None of the players covered here are particularly awful, but all of them are young and of "boom-or-bust" ilk. And when one domino in a secondary falls, others usually follow. That’s just the nature of pass coverage. The reason the Rams are willing to roll the dice with youth here is that they believe their budding defensive line – which features a star in Chris Long and a pair of soon-to-be stars in Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn -– can consistently generate quick pressure on quarterbacks.
GM Les Snead threw a lot of wet noodles against the wall after the draft, signing 22 free agent rookies. All of them have reason for hope; last season, the Rams went into Week 1 with 17 rookies on their roster, eight of whom were undrafted. This is a team willing to rebuild with youth. What’s noteworthy (or maybe just purely a coincidence) is 16 of St. Louis 22 undrafted rookies are from Southern schools. Snead grew up in Alabama, played football at Troy State and Auburn, worked as a graduate assistant at Auburn (’92-’93), an administrative assistant at Louisiana Tech (’94-’95) and spent the first 16 years of his NFL career with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons. In short, he’s a southern guy. The headliner of this year’s undrafted class is Ray Ray Armstrong, a safety who was considered a bright prospect before getting dismissed from the University of Miami and being ruled ineligible to play at the NAIA level. The Rams are projecting Armstrong at linebacker. Also in the mix is Phillip Lutzenkirchen, a tight end from Auburn who had his senior season truncated by a hip injury but had more touchdowns than letters in his name in the three years prior to that.
The best and second-best 3-4 inside linebackers in football are Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (or NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, depending on one’s personal preference). Perhaps this would be the case if they played elsewhere, but when watching film it's very clear that both linebackers benefit greatly from playing behind a blocker-eating defensive line. Niners defensive end Justin Smith does not just draw double teams, he commands them. Often, Smith’s job amounts to penetrating inside against an offensive tackle and grabbing hold of a guard. The goal is to prevent interior offensive linemen from pulling in man-blocking or sliding in zone-blocking. Underappreciated end Ray McDonald plays a similar brand of football opposite Smith.
The Niners acknowledged the significance of the defensive ends in their scheme by shoring up the immediate depth here with the signing of Glenn Dorsey in March. The ex-Chiefs end was brought in to replace backup Ricky Jean-Francois, whom general manager Trent Baalke knew the club would not be able to retain. (He's now with the Colts.) Baalke also invested in the long-term at this position by drafting Florida State’s Tank Carradine in the second round.
While defensive end gets all the attention in San Francisco, the nose tackle is also responsible for keeping Willis and Bowman clean against the run. The Niners had an excellent nose in Isaac Sopoaga, a strong 10-year veteran who moves extremely well. However, the 330-pound free agent was lured to Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton are installing a new 3-4 scheme.
Ostensibly, the Niners were not particularly fond of any nose tackle prospects in this year’s draft, as they had a bevy of picks but did not make a play at this position until the fifth round, where they took Quinton Dial. The Alabama product will need some time to develop, which means the man set to replace Sopoaga in 2013 is Ian Williams, an undrafted third-year pro who played just 32 defensive snaps last year.
An optimist would assume that the 49ers must really like Williams. After all, with him on the roster, they made minimal effort at replenishing their nose tackle position. A realist would say the Niners do not prioritize the nose tackle position, which is why they felt it was more important to draft replacements for departed veterans at other spots like safety (Eric Reid, first round, for Dashon Goldson), tight end (Vance McDonald, second round, for Delanie Walker), and wide receiver (Quinton Patton, fourth round, for Randy Moss). This makes sense. As important as the nose tackle is to San Francisco’s run defense, schematically it’s not as important as the defensive end. And, on passing downs, the nose tackle is irrelevant, as he gets replaced with a nickel corner.
This is an illustration of why the Niners are once again a leading Super Bowl contender in the NFC: their biggest hole is, not coincidentally, at their least important position.
Of the Niners’ 12 undrafted rookies, defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye and offensive tackle Luke Marquardt are getting the most pub. Okoye, a native of England, is an outstanding athlete with no football experience. The 303-pounder got on the NFL’s radar after attending the Super Regional Combine at Cowboys Stadium, where he posted solid workout numbers. His main athletic background is in discuss throwing, where he finished 12th in the 2012 Olympics. Marquardt was first-team all-NAIA at Azusa Pacific in 2011. He sat out the 2012 season due to injury. Other notable signings for San Francisco included Minnesota H-back MarQueis Gray, Boise State running back D.J. Harper, Utah State wide receiver Chuck Jacobs, and Stanford fullback Alex Debniak.
In the Jack Black movie Shallow Hal, Jason Alexander’s character has a debilitating urge to find a flaw in even the most beautiful of women. At one point he rejects a stunning, long-legged girl’s invitation to a Beatles reunion concert because he can’t overlook that the girl’s second toe happens to be just a tad longer than all her other toes.
Writing about the Seahawks’ remaining "holes" feels akin to Alexander’s fixation on a beautiful girl’s long toe. On offense, the Seahawks feature a dynamic rushing attack, diverse passing game, rising young multidimensional quarterback, and a solid front line. On defense they’re deep and talented up front, young and athletic in the middle, and unquestionably better than everyone else on the back end. Both sides of the ball have tremendous depth and a scheme that fits the personnel.
But if one must pick nits, then one could identify a lack of straight-line speed at wide receiver as Seattle’s long second toe. Yes, newly-acquired Percy Harvin has terrific speed. His acceleration is even better. But Harvin’s build and skill set are those of an underneath, move-oriented playmaker, not a pure nine-route blazer. Harvin probably could lift a safety on vertical patterns, but there’s a reason he was rarely used this way during his four years in Minnesota. The Seahawks brought him in to be a more dangerous version of Antwaan Randle-El, not another version of Randy Moss.
Players like Harvin are drastically more potent when there is an explosive vertical threat opposite them. Sidney Rice would have qualified as such a threat early in his career, but a variety of injuries -– including a serious one to his hip in 2010 –- have taken some of the edge off his speed. Rice can still get himself open, but unlike a true burner who can simply line up as the X-receiver and go!, he’s now somewhat dependent on help from play design. Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are the same way. Behind them, fourth-round pick Chris Harper is a well-sized athlete who is said to have good body control and ball-tracking instincts, but many scouts have griped that he’s not overly explosive and only plays with one speed.
To be clear, the absence of a pure vertical threat will not be a significant hindrance to Seattle’s loaded offense. There are plenty of other weapons here to use. But given the team’s collection of move-oriented receivers, plus the fact that Russell Wilson might have the best pure deep ball in the NFL, you can bet GM John Schneider would love to find a veritable downfield weapon on the outside.
The Seahawks are a playoff team that had 11 draft picks this past April, which means there may not be a lot of roster spots available for undrafted rookies. (Players and agents understand this, so it might be fair to surmise that Seattle probably did not get the cream of the undrafted crop.) But the Seahawks also understand that you never know when you’re going to bump into the next Brandon Browner. The two most recognizable names from their nine-man undrafted class are linebacker John Lotulelei (UNLV’s team’s defensive MVP last year ... he’s NOT related to Star) and offensive tackle Alvin Bailey (a 26-game starter for Arkansas). Some rated Bailey as a late-round prospect, and he entered the draft pool with a year of eligibility still on the table. He’ll have a decent chance to make the final roster, as Seattle’s only depth at tackle is seventh-round rookie Michael Bowie and 2011 seventh-rounder Mike Person.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider. Please note that the article was written prior to the Michael Crabtree injury for San Francisco.)
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