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?
11 Jun 2014
By Rivers McCown
Sometimes, Andre Johnson does your work for you. The talented All-Pro and future Hall of Famer ducked out of OTAs, saying that he was "wondering if this was the place for him."
That tells you all you need to know about the Houston quarterback situation. The Raiders picked off Matt Schaub and ran him back for a sixth-round pick. But the Texans did not address the quarterback position in a meaningful way in the draft, despite opportunities to trade up for Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater.
Houston's in-house candidate with the best NFL credentials is Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick finished 2013 with a 55.4 QBR, good for 15th in the league. But by Football Outsiders' DVOA, he was at -3.6%, which was only enough for 20th place. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Fitzpatrick has never finished a season with a positive DVOA rating. Presumptive backup Case Keenum had a promising couple of starts, then faded down the stretch, finishing with a 34.5 QBR (35th place) and -22.4% DVOA (39th place). If you could Frankenstein Fitzpatrick's tendency to run wildly at the line on the slightest hint of pressure with Keenum's tendency to run backwards, you might have a quarterback that actually stood in the pocket. Rookie fourth-rounder Tom Savage is a project, and T.J. Yates wasn't even good enough to beat out Case Keenum last year.
Bill O'Brien has declared an open competition for the spot. If the Texans have any success in the passing game, it'll be Andre Johnson doing all the work for them, too.
The biggest standout here is Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough, who missed the Rose Bowl due to a violation of team rules. The 6-foot-4 plugger has solid instincts and could be a fit inside next to Brian Cushing if moving Brooks Reed to middle linebacker doesn't pan out. Another one to keep an eye on is Rice kicker Chris Boswell. Randy Bullock tested the edges of how bad a kicker can be without losing his job last season. Special teams coordinator Joe Marciano is no longer around to coddle him, so the Texans should have an open competition for the role.
Long-time Colts safety Antoine Bethea fled Indianapolis for the 49ers in free agency. General manager Ryan Grigson did not make a free-agent signing at the position. The Colts were without a first-round draft pick that could have snagged one of the first four safeties who went off the board. They avoided using their second-day picks on the hole as well.
As a result, the quotes coming out of Colts OTAs talk up third-year safety Delano Howell. Coach Chuck Pagano noted that he had "six, seven, eight tackles something" in a start against San Francisco. Of the four non-rookies on the safety depth chart besides LaRon Landry, three of them went undrafted. (Corey Lynch,a sixth-round draft pick, is on his fifth team.)
That battle alone would be enough to tilt this position to a worry, but Landry is far from a sure thing himself. Landry has missed 20 games over the past four seasons due to injuries. When he was on the field last season, he was poor against both the run and the pass in our metrics. Despite his intimidating size, Landry had just a 30 percent Stop Rate on running plays last season. (Stops are the total number of plays by a defensive player that prevent a successful play by the offense, defined as 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down.) To put that in context, Darius Butler did better despite his listed weight of 185 pounds. Landry is also skipping OTAs to work out on his own accord, which is just the thing Indianapolis needs as they're breaking in untested players next to him.
Despite drafting Mewhort, the Colts are still fairly weak along the interior of the offensive line. Jonotthan Harrison, a center out of Florida, may be Indianapolis' main competition for 2013 fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes. The Colts also picked up Ohio State guard Marcus Hall, who is most notable for his creative way of showing The Big House who No.1 is.
The good news is that there's almost no way this unit will be as putrid as it was in 2013, when Football Outsiders ranked it 31st in Adjusted Line Yards, ahead of only the Ravens.
But the talent on hand lends you to start applying the word "maybe" liberally if you want to assume resurgence on the line. Maybe Luke Joeckel's poor start on the right side meant nothing and he'll be the safe pick to anchor left tackle that Jacksonville thought he would be when they chose him second overall a year ago. Maybe signing left guard Zane Beadles to an eye-popping five-year, $30 million deal will pan out. Maybe, between Austin Pastzor and Cameron Bradfield, the Jaguars have an adequate right tackle. Considering he was a college center, maybe moving Mike Brewster back to the middle will help remedy his lack of functional strength at guard. Maybe third-round guard Brandon Linder is NFL-ready right from the get-go.
The more likely scenario is that the Jaguars still carry a bad offensive line next year. Brewster has been downright bad in earlier appearances. Beadles isn't better than solid and blew 21 pass blocks last season according to Football Outsiders game charting, more than any other Broncos interior lineman. Joeckel may have more growing pains, and the other positions aren't settled.
It will still be better than giving 2,759 snaps to Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, and Will Rackley. And it won't be close. The camouflage suit jacket that Meester wore while introducing second-day draft picks at the draft would be an upgrade on the production the Jags got from the line last season.
The biggest name among the Jacksonville UDFAs is former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris. Morris is a photographic copy of how you'd build the ideal quarterback until the ball actually leaves his hands. Odds are he will be just as forgettable as Matt Scott. Auburn guard Tyler Shatley could get an opportunity handed to him if Lindner proves unready for prime time. Oregon defensive tackle Ricky Havili-Heimuli is likely the closest we'll ever get to having a football player named after Weird Al's "Pretty Fly For A Rabbi" segues.
In 2013 OTAs, former Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray pushed hard for Tommie Campbell or Coty Sensabaugh to unseat incumbent Alterraun Verner outside. That, of course, didn't happen. Verner went on to have an acclaimed statistical season, then bolted for Tampa Bay in free agency. Verner said that he felt "not appreciated" at times by the Titans staff, which may have played into his decision to leave.
Gray is gone, and new Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton has to manage the consequences. Campbell and Sensabaugh are still around, though Sensabaugh now has a season of solid nickelback play to his credit. The other option is 2013 third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who notched just 92 defensive snaps last season.
Tennessee did do some work on their defense, bringing in Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard to solidify the front seven. They didn't find a veteran that could shore up cornerback in the same way. No matter who starts, it's clear that the Titans will be downgrading at this position. Jason McCourty is still a very solid lead cornerback, but depth problems at corner are an issue for a team that fancies itself a contender.
Former Johnny Manziel target Derel Walker and Oklahoma's Jaz Reynolds will have a chance to crack the roster. The wideout depth chart declines sharply after Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, and Justin Hunter. Travis Coons, a kicker out of Washington, will join the competition to replace Rob Bironas.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.