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?
13 Feb 2014
by Rivers McCown
Obviously, the Texans' real biggest hole is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but all indications are that they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. So, even though we'll all be subjected to another three months of mock draft scenarios that pretend otherwise, let's go ahead and pencil that in as taken care of.
The biggest problem on Houston's defense last season was linebacker. The Texans committed a six-year extension to Brian Cushing in September only to watch him end a second consecutive season on IR with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren't devastating injuries in the long run.
But Cushing hasn't been the problem; it's the players around him that have disappointed. Former first-rounder Whitney Mercilus went from part-time pass rusher to full-time player following Connor Barwin's departure last offseason, and he went from six sacks to seven mostly because he picked up 2.5 against a battered Seahawks line early in the season. Mercilus also had a few adventures with the concept of setting the edge. Former second-rounder Brooks Reed is such an effective pass rusher that he's continually been hounded by rumors of a position switch to middle linebacker since Cushing went down. That's what happens when you notch 5.5 sacks in your last two seasons combined. Former fourth-rounder Darryl Sharpton is injury-prone, a free agent, and has the zone coverage instincts of a fish that was just yanked from the sea.
Veteran run stuffer Joe Mays and waiver claim Jeff Tarpinian filled out this sad sack unit that helped lead Houston to just two negative (i.e. better than average) defensive DVOA game scores over the last nine games of the season. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
Assuming Houston uses its first pick on a quarterback, they'll miss out on most of the best pass rushers in this class. And, assuming they bet on Cushing rebounding (which, contractually, they have almost no choice but to), it's unlikely they'll use a high pick on a second middle linebacker to fill out Romeo Crennel's 3-4. So, the hope is probably that someone like BYU's Kyle Van Noy is still around at the top of the second round, and that the Texans can rebuild that edge rush they desperately needed last year with some extra oomph.
This category could also be narrowed down to "every non-Robert Mathis defender," but secondary draws an extra focus in Indianapolis because two of the few non-zeros Indianapolis started last season, corner Vontae Davis and safety Antoine Bethea, are free agents.
Davis has always had the raw talent and tools to be a top cornerback, but this is the first year he really played like it. Even then, he had his lapses. (Davis was among the top ten cornerbacks in our Success Rate charting stat, but was only average in yards allowed per pass because he got burned big a few times.) The Colts will probably have to pay him No. 1 corner money, but he's toward the median of the No. 1 corner category rather than some kind of Richard Sherman-esque difference maker. Bethea has lost some range and will turn 30 before the 2014 season starts, but he still has his terrific instincts and still packs a wallop in the ground game.
The good news is that the Colts happen to have quite a bit of cap space coming into the offseason. Indianapolis has about $30 million in cap space as of today, and could generate a little over $8 million more by cutting Samson Satele and Greg Toler. That opens up the franchise tag if they'd like to hold off on signing Davis long-term, or if they'd just like to keep other teams from negotiating with him.
The bad news is that LaRon Landry plays safety like an 11-year-old plays defense on Madden: hit-sticking the entire way. Toler was lost for most of the year to a groin injury, and while Darius Butler had some really nice games, he's not an optimal starting corner. Indianapolis will have holes in the secondary with or without Davis and Bethea.
The worst news is that the Colts won't have a first-round pick to try and fix things; they used it to acquire Trent Richardson, the only player on the roster besides Mathis that can bring an offense to a screeching halt. That means more of Ryan Grigson's adventures in free agency, where he snubs the top tier to find the Erik Walden of cornerbacks (might we suggest Nolan Carroll?), and maybe stumbling into a safety like Stanford's Ed Reynolds at the back of the second round. (Hey, we're not the first NFL writers to predict that the Colts employ every other Cardinal player because Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, and Pep Hamilton are all in Indy.)
Chad Henne isn't as bad as you think he is.
The Jaguars' quarterback for the competitive portion of their schedule (After Gabbert, as it's known in the history books) finished 39th in QBR, but by DVOA, he was 33rd. That puts him ahead of noted elite quarterback Joe Flacco, and Henne had at least as many complaints about receiver quality and offensive line play as Flacco did last season.
But Henne is a backup quarterback to go to war with, someone who can come in and competently run an offense and help receivers develop. A franchise quarterback he is not, and that's what the Jaguars would probably most like to find with the third overall pick. Depending on how the top of the draft shakes out, they could find Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and/or UCF's Blake Bortles available at this spot. Even if they don't, and have to "settle" for Jadeveon Clowney or Anthony Barr, this is a fairly deep class at quarterback and the Jaguars could be looking for one near the top of the second round, where players like Fresno State's Derek Carr, Georgia's Aaron Murray, and LSU's Zach Mettenberger could be possibilities.
Free agency is … less inviting. Unless you're a believer in the idea that Josh McCown can keep playing like he did last season, and if you are, have we got a Damon Huard to sell you! Owner Shad Khan has already suggested that the Jaguars might leave the draft with two quarterbacks. Don't stop there, Khan. Draft six. Draft eight. Give them all "Not Gabbert" jerseys. It's an important step in the history of this franchise to be able to avoid a fourth straight year of the Gabbert conundrum, and Jacksonville should do everything in their power to take it this offseason.
While I am personally not a believer in Jake Locker, the series premise is "Filling The Holes," not "Answering The Question Marks," so let's focus on a big area of need in Tennessee: the linebacker corps.
The Titans have spent heavily on this position in the past few drafts. They picked Akeem Ayers near the top of the second round in 2011, Zach Brown in the second round in 2012, Zaviar Gooden in the third round in 2013, and Colin McCarthy in the fourth round in 2011. Despite all that, they had street free agent Moise Fokou starting at linebacker for most of the season, and, against all odds, staying on the field in nickel and dime packages. Fokou is a heady player who has been a favorite of coaching staffs in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, but he doesn’t exactly have the sideline-to-sideline speed that a highly-drafted linebacker should, in theory, have.
Tennessee has essentially relegated McCarthy to the failed experiment table. The two second-round linebackers regressed last year. Brown has speed to burn, but looks more like an athlete playing the part of linebacker than an actual linebacker at times. Ayers was bumped down as a nickel rusher and dropped from six sacks in 2012 to one last season. That was a big reason Tennessee's Adjusted Sack Rate fell from 13th in 2012 to 20th last year.
The Titans probably aren't going to spend another high draft pick at linebacker – the hope is likely that the lumps of moldable clay that Jerry Gray left can be turned around in the hands of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. With the switch to a 3-4, though, a stabilizing middle linebacker like Karlos Dansby or Jon Beason could be something the Titans pursue with their meager cap room. Assuming their negotiations toward re-signing Alterraun Verner aren't too costly, that is.
This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
22 comments, Last at 20 Feb 2014, 11:16am by Lebo