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 2014
by Scott Kacsmar
For a team coming off a ninth-consecutive losing season, the Bills actually have a decent roster in place with no glaring holes. Key acquisitions on defense in the last few years have solidified that unit, which ranked No. 4 in DVOA at Football Outsiders. This leaves Buffalo in the familiar position of trying to replace Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. Florida State's EJ Manuel was a first-round pick last year, but injuries really took away from his opportunity to impress as a rookie. Adding talent around the quarterback should be the top priority this offseason, but that does not have to be a big-name receiver. In the last two years the Bills have drafted Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham in the first three rounds. With young receivers and a very good running back duo (C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson), the Bills are better served to improve the trenches.
Coach Doug Marrone has specialized in the offensive line, so he should have a good grasp on what went wrong in his rookie year. No one ran the ball more in 2013 than Buffalo with 546 runs, but the offense only ranked 14th in yards per carry (4.2) and 17th in DVOA. Run blocking was not a strength of the offensive line, especially to the outside, and right tackle Erik Pears in particular could be the player replaced in the draft by a top prospect like Greg Robinson (Auburn) or Jake Matthews (Texas A&M). Left tackle Cordy Glenn was a second-round pick in 2012 and his starting job should be safe, but he must play better. Buffalo had such little success when rushing outside last season that a league-high 71 percent of runs came up the middle or guard.
Not only does Manuel need some insulation from a consistent running game, but he could use better protection so he does not have to scramble as much and risk more injuries. Buffalo's offensive line ranked 28th in adjusted sack rate (8.5 percent). Only 28 of the 48 sacks surrendered came with Manuel taking the snap, but if he's going to stay on the field and get better, then the blocking must improve.
When left tackle Jake Long departed in free agency to St. Louis last year, there was a big hole to fill. Miami never fixed it, choosing instead to add a big-play wide receiver in Mike Wallace, and the blocking troubles got quarterback Ryan Tannehill sacked a staggering 58 times. The departure of Jonathan Martin and the associated suspension of Richie Incognito didn't help things, nor did a trade for Bryant McKinnie from Baltimore. When your offensive line cannot hold its blocks and your best receiver's strength is getting deep, that's a poor combination. It's no surprise Wallace failed to live up to the lofty expectations in year one given the lack of time Tannehill had in the pocket. Wallace ranked 77th in DYAR and 75th in DVOA among wide receivers.
Not only did the protection around Tannehill collapse, but the running game rarely got off the ground in 2013. Miami had four games with fewer than 25 rushing yards. Miami had seven such games in team history prior to the season. Still, Miami's offense came alive late in the year to put the team in position to make the playoffs, but the final two games were two of the biggest offensive duds in team history. The Dolphins scored just seven points and turned the ball over five times.
Tannehill's Total QBR fell from 50.4 as a rookie to 45.8 this year. He's a good athlete and does not often create his own sacks by holding onto the ball too long, so 58 sacks are very concerning for Tannehill's development. Aside from Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, the Dolphins do not have many sure pieces in place to protect their young quarterback. This hole will take more than one offseason to fix, but something must be done in free agency and the draft.
When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. However, a variety of injuries and surgeries have cast some doubt on whether he will ever be the same elite player again, or how long he'll last until the next injury. With Gronkowski now recovering from ACL surgery, the Patriots need an insurance plan. Some will say the team needs wide receivers, but Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola did a very respectable job of replacing Wes Welker's role. Shane Vereen is a good receiving threat out of the backfield. The team has promising young outside wide receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who both battled their own health issues down the stretch.
The pieces are there for Tom Brady, but this offense was built around two tight ends. After Gronkowski's injuries and the Aaron Hernandez nightmare, the Patriots had no backup plan in 2013. The offensive wrinkle was to ignore the position in the passing game. Brady completed just 14 passes to tight ends not named Gronkowski. In 2012, that number was 61, mostly thanks to Hernandez. Michael Hoomanawanui is better used as a blocker. With the 29th pick in the draft, the Patriots could target Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro. He's not the all-around tight end that Gronkowski is, but he can play in the slot and give Brady another reliable option down the middle of the field. Pair him with Gronkowski and it could be like old times again in New England with the two-tight end look.
Every season is played with a win-now mentality as Brady turns 37 and Belichick turns 62 this year. The Patriots cannot afford to again lose a whole dimension of their offense should Gronkowski suffer another injury.
Like the other two teams in the AFC East, the Jets are trying to build around a young quarterback to dethrone the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady machine in New England. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith had his struggles with turnovers (25 of them) and consistency, but adding better receivers would make his job easier. When Rex Ryan was reaching AFC Championship games with Mark Sanchez his inconsistent quarterback was throwing to talent like Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller. Those are receivers who can catch inaccurate passes and produce yards after the catch. Smith's leading targets were Jeremy Kerley, a banged-up Holmes, Stephen Hill and David Nelson. Hill has yet to catch on in two years and Holmes may not even be back given his cap hit of over $10.7 million in 2014.
It was as cumbersome a receiving corps as the Jets have had in years, and tight end Jeff Cumberland led the team with just four receiving touchdowns. A tight end like North Carolina's Eric Ebron could be a great addition with the 18th pick in the draft. Smith had success when throwing to similar big targets last year. He completed 64.4 percent of his passes to Kellen Winslow Jr., 64.0 percent to Nelson and 63.9 percent to Cumberland. However, Smith was just 47-of-114 passing (41.2 percent) when targeting Holmes and the still raw Hill. Those outside throws are tougher, which is why a player like Ebron would be a great security blanket over the middle for Smith.
Some believe the Jets are even a threat to go after a quarterback in this deep draft, but it might not be wise to go that route again until the offense actually has some toys to play with.
This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
42 comments, Last at 14 Feb 2014, 2:48pm by nat