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?
17 Feb 2014
by Tom Gower
As we chronicled before the AFC Championship game, the Broncos had the worst pass defense in the league in the games Von Miller missed. Miller should be healthy by the start of the 2014 season, and the pass defense was better with him in the lineup. Still, the secondary that struggled badly without him could be facing significant personnel turnover, as four players who started at least ten games are free agents.
The situation is not quite so dire as that makes it sound. Strong safety Duke Ihenacho is an exclusive rights free agent who will return. He mostly displaced free agent Mike Adams, though Adams did start ten games total and could play both safety positions. That versatility was needed because of the injury that caused free safety Rahim Moore to miss the entire postseason. Cornerback Chris Harris is a restricted free agent who will likely require compensation from another team if they wanted to sign him away. Considering the ACL injury he suffered in the postseason could have teams guessing how durable he is, that seems unlikely. He should return.
The starting cornerback opposite Harris is more important. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranked among the top cornerbacks in the league according to the Football Outsiders game charting project -- his Success Rate of 65 percent (defined here) was fifth among the top 85 cornerbacks -- but is a free agent. Champ Bailey is under contract for 2014, but has a large salary for a player of his age (36 in June) and injury history (11 missed games in 2013). Tony Carter, another restricted free agent, and Kayvon Webster are probably not enough to hold the fort. All that means the Broncos need Rodgers-Cromartie -- or a corner of similar skill -- in place in the starting lineup.
The Chiefs had a highly effective offensive line in 2013. They ranked second in the league in rushing DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Some of that success, no doubt, was due to the presence of Jamaal Charles, one of the best backs in the league. However, the Chiefs also ranked second in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, our metric which cuts runs by distance to get a better look at how much of the running game comes from initial blocking.
This would not seem to indicate a hole until we consider that three of the seven Chiefs offensive linemen to play significant snaps in 2013 are set to be free agents. Of those free agents, left tackle Branden Albert is the most valuable and also the likeliest to depart. He had a solid season until a knee injury cost him the last four games. He is likely looking for a long-term deal after playing under the franchise tag and seems unlikely to get it in Kansas City after last offseason’s talks failed to result in an extension. That likely means last year’s first overall pick Eric Fisher shifts back to his more natural left tackle spot. The Chiefs are hoping Fisher’s struggles on the right side were the product of playing an unfamiliar position. That is possible, but right tackle is normally a spot for failed left tackles, not vice versa.
The other free agents on the line are Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, who mostly split time at right guard. Asamoah was a fine player until 2013, but never seemed to cotton on to Andy Reid’s system. Schwartz seems more likely to return, as he was the starter at the end of the season. Ideally, he is more of a backup, but his resigning would provide greater continuity for a line already likely to undergo a shakeup.
The good news for the Raiders is that general manager Reggie McKenzie will have oodles of cap room to spend on adding players to perhaps the league’s worst roster. The bad news is there may not be a single position outside of perhaps linebacker and wide receiver where the Raiders could be reasonably content with the players they currently have under contract for 2014.
The defensive line was a relative strength for the Raiders in 2013. They finished a respectable 18th in run defense by both DVOA and Adjusted Line Yards. The Raiders also ranked tenth by Adjusted Sack Rate, which adjusts for the opponents and opportunities a defense has to get sacks. Naturally, the four men who played the most snaps in 2013 at defensive line are scheduled to become free agents.
McKenzie may have considered defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker and defensive end Jason Hunter stop-gaps signed out of necessity when he inked them to one-year deals last season. Still, each played at least respectably in 2013. The state of the Raiders roster is such they would be hard-pressed to replace one of them from players currently under contract for 2014, never mind all three of them. Even more importantly, end Lamarr Houston is a free agent. Clearly the best player on the line, Houston led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons and provides important versatility for defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s multiple defense. If the Raiders do not re-sign him, they must replace him with another quality player in free agency or the draft.
For much of the season, the Chargers flirted with the worst defenses in the history of DVOA, which goes back to 1989. A stretch of improved play at the end of the regular season, which coincided with and may have been the result of the return of pass rusher Melvin Ingram from injury, meant they merely finished last by DVOA. They ranked 31st against both the run and the pass, but at least they were not historically awful!
As those numbers indicate, the Chargers have multiple needs on the defense. Their most important free agent on defense is almost certainly inside linebacker Donald Butler. Their most important position of need on defense, though, is probably the same one we highlighted last year: cornerback. Give general manager Tom Telesco credit, as he at least tried to upgrade the position. Unfortunately, big free agent acquisition Derek Cox was not the answer he was paid to be. He flopped, getting benched and returning to the lineup only to be benched again. He may be cut after not seeing significant playing time in any of the final seven games. His primary replacement, Richard Marshall, is a free agent.
Even worse, Cox posted better numbers according to the Football Outsiders game charting project than his starting counterpart, Shareece Wright. Cox ranked eleventh-worst, allowing 9.4 yards per pass in coverage; Wright was seventh-worst, allowing 9.7 yards. Cox ranked 78th with a 45 percent success rate, Wright 83rd with 39 percent. Nickelback Johnny Patrick did not have enough targets to make the rankings, but he had an even worse success rate than Wright did. Telesco must try to rebuild the defense if the Chargers hope to return to the postseason.
This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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