Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
29 May 2014
By Rivers McCown
Every offseason, Bears general manager Phil Emery picks his team's biggest weakness and attacks it. He rebuilt the entire offensive line in the 2013 offseason. This offseason, Chicago's spent its aggression on the defensive line. Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen are big splashes added to a line that needed improvement. Willie Young and Israel Idonije are the types of smaller pieces that could have prevented the defensive collapse Chicago had in 2013. The Bears also spent two second-day picks on help at defensive tackle, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.
The Bears were not quite as aggressive in the back seven. Tim Jennings was re-signed, and Lance Briggs should be healthy. First-round pick Kyle Fuller should help solidify the other starting cornerback slot if Charles Tillman has lost what made him special. While the Bears also have question marks at linebacker, they also have some draft pedigree there. Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin were both picked in the first two rounds, and Khaseem Greene also has some promise. Unshaped potential isn't production, but it's at least a starting point.
But at safety, the Bears added only bit pieces. Journeyman Ryan Mundy will be in line to replace the departed Major Wright. Incumbent starter Chris Conte has range, but accumulated more broken tackles (16) than any defender in the NFL last season. Projected top backup M.D. Jennings was so bad last season that the Packers didn't tender him an offer as a restricted free agent,despite that being a need area for Green Bay. Fourth-rounder Brock Vereen out of Minnesota could climb this depth chart in a hurry. Draftniks see Vereen as a rangy player who will fit well at free safety. He also had cornerback experience for the Gophers.
Some draftniks saw Florida State linebacker Christian Jones as a possible second-day pick. He fell all the way out of the draft by failing a drug test at the combine. With the Bears unsettled at linebacker, he stands a pretty good chance of making the roster. The other name that stands out is former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch was a Heismann Trophy finalist, but has embraced the idea that he is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Unlike, say, some other Heismann Trophy quarterback who was a media phenomenon. No, don't try to remember his name now. Lynch is converting to running back, and on a Bears depth chart that includes dregs like Shaun Draughn, he could crack the 53.
Detroit's secondary must continue to be a mess, no matter how much capital they spend on it. Anything else would just seem weird.
The Lions let injury-prone safety Louis Delmas walk in free agency, choosing not to meet his asking price. Replacement James Ihedigbo had the best season of his career in Baltimore last season. Yet, it is true that he's been more of a journeyman than a solid starter in the past. The 30-year-old Ihedigbo may well wind up being an improvement on Delmas in that he can stay on the field, but he's more of a thumper than a deep coverage player. Plus, if you need some narrative in your analysis, Baltimore let him leave. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't make mistakes often.
Cornerback is the real issue here. Not a single Lions cornerback had a Success Rate above 55 percent according to the Football Outsiders charting project last year. (Success Rate is the percentage of plays targeting a defensive player on which the offense did not have a successful play.) Chris Houston, the supposed leader of the secondary, allowed a startling 10.8 adjusted yards per pass. That ranked him 83rd out of 87 qualifying corners. 2013 second-rounder Darius Slay is the other projected starter outside. He managed to allow only 10.2 adjusted yards per pass. (He didn't play enough to qualify for the big board.)
Detroit solved some of their roster problems this offseason. They picked up Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to solidify the receiving corps. They found a long-term replacement for Dominic Raiola by selecting Travis Swanson in the third-round. Second-rounder Kyle Van Noy should shore up an outside linebacker slot manned by dregs last season. But outside of Glover Quin, the secondary should again be a wasteland.
Kansas State offensive lineman Cornelius Lucas drew a $20,000 signing bonus from the Lions. Lucas runs 6-foot-8 and had the longest wingspan of any tackle at this year's combine. Given that Detroit gave a chance to UDFA LaAdrian Waddle last season, Lucas could well find himself on this roster. A name that will be more familiar to college football fans is quarterback James Franklin. Franklin finds himself on a depth chart with Kellen Moore and Dan Orlovsky. If he can't beat those two out for an NFL job, he doesn't belong on any roster.
Green Bay found solutions to a few of their bigger issues this offseason. First-rounder Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix should solidify a safety corps that had issues with both the run and the pass last year. Second-rounder Davante Adams and fifth-rounder Jared Abbrederis give depth at wideout, where James Jones fled for the Raiders and both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are set for free agency after the season. The Packers also added Julius Peppers to rotate with Nick Perry across from Clay Matthews.
One area where Green Bay didn't add much was inside linebacker. A.J. Hawk has been hanging around as a starter for years despite not bringing much of anything to the table. If there's ever a zombie attack in Green Bay, Hawk will be the lone survivor of it. Brad Jones signed a huge contract before the 2013 season, but was replacement-caliber after the first month. Backup Jamari Lattimore was a special teamer for most of the season. While the trio found their way into 10 sacks last season, most of them came in zone blitz situations. Their lack of range was a key factor in the Packers finishing 30th in run defense DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
Of course, this is par for the course for general manager Ted Thompson. Thompson doesn't believe in investing in inside linebackers as a general rule. Fair enough, Ted. I hope you're investing some of the savings in your medical staff this year. Green Bay could make another strong playoff run if they could just keep their core healthy for more than four games at a time.
The biggest name with Green Bay is someone who had to survive a tryout camp. Long has Draftnik Nation trumpeted Colt Lyerla as a move tight end with the potential to be Aaron Hernandez-esque. (That's ON the football field, people.) Unfortunately, Lyerla ran afoul of cocaine and quit the Oregon football team. If Lyerla's head is on straight, he has a chance to replace Jermichael Finley and jump third-round pick Richard Rogers. If it's not, it cost Green Bay nothing. Jake Doughty and Joe Thomas, a pair of inside linebackers, wound up with the highest signing bonuses Green Bay handed out this year. They both have a chance to make the roster at a position of weakness.
To be sure, Rick Spielman's draft was one worthy of praise. Trading up to select Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick will pay immediate dividends. No longer will this franchise have to pretend that Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel are long-term answers.
Yet, when a team is as bad as Minnesota was last season, it's almost impossible to fix everything in one go. Minnesota finished with the 30th-ranked pass defense by DVOA last season. Their secondary was in shambles. Part one of the offseason plan to fix that seems to be praying that Harrison Smith stays healthy. Part two was slapping some potential bargain band-aids on a depleted cornerback depth chart. Captain Munnerlyn had an excellent season in 2013, and Xavier Rhodes held his own as a rookie. But the problem is more about depth than talent.
The Vikings finished 32nd in DVOA on passes thrown to "other" receivers in 2013. ("Other" being non-No.1 or No.2 receivers.) Josh Robinson finished 86th among 87 qualifying corners in Success Rate last year. Newcomer Derek Cox was so bad for San Diego that the Chargers benched him. Yes, the Chargers deemed Cox unfit for the worst DVOA defense in the NFL in 2013. The Mistral Raymond/Jamarca Sanford strong safety battle is the kind of position scrum emblematic to bad teams. The only winner is other NFC North quarterbacks. Spielman couldn't fix everything in one offseason, but this unit still needs more re-tooling.
The player you've most likely heard of in Minnesota's UDFA haul is Kain Colter. Colter, of course, is more well-known for his focus on trying to unionize college football and ruin the NCAA's quaint idea of amateurism. On the football field, he'll be converting from quarterback to wide receiver. Remember that Jerome Simpson has held a roster spot for the past two seasons in Minnesota. Colter isn't going to be a star, but he could stick at the back end of that depth chart. Another player to focus on is Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson. Richardson is a 6-foot-6, 325-pounder who goes by the nickname "Tiny." After going undrafted due to medical concerns, Richardson will have a chance to grab a swing tackle role. The Vikings signed four different UDFA tackles. You can infer that they're not thrilled with their depth at the position.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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