Four Downs: NFC East
by Sean McCormick
Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Safety
The Cowboys went into the draft with clear weaknesses along the offensive line and in the secondary, and they addressed each of those needs in the first three rounds of the draft. Normally that’s enough to get a team a passing grade from draftniks and beat writers, but Dallas’ draft-day effort was universally panned both for the players they selected and the ones they passed on. The catcalls began with the selection of Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who was considered a third-round talent at best right up until he picked up the phone and heard Jerry Jones’ voice. After watching enough tape of Phil Costa getting driven into the backfield, you can sympathize with Jones for wanting a stouter anchor in the middle of the line, and Wisconsin linemen have been a pretty safe bet since Barry Alvarez was roaming the sidelines, so it’s certainly possible the pick looks better come September.
The problem is that what the Cowboys needed more than anything was a safety, and two of the top three prospects, Florida’s Matt Elam and Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien, came off the board with the next two picks. Dallas finished the season with a weighted pass defense DVOA of 12.5% (30th), and the defense finished dead-last in DVOA when covering tight ends. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The Cowboys just brought in Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator to run his patented Tampa-2 defense, a scheme that requires safeties who can hold up in coverage. In light of those facts, not spending an early pick on a safety was a bit of a head-scratcher. The safety Dallas eventually drafted, Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox, is a small-school project with minimal experience at the position. As it stands, Barry Church and Matt Johnson will open the season as arguably the league’s most undistinguished safety pairing.
Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions
Dallas liked both Arizona State outside linebacker Brandon Magee and South Carolina State safety Jakar Hamilton enough to bring them in for visits during the pre-draft process. Magee is a two-sport star who has been drafted three times by MLB teams, most recently by the Red Sox in the 23rd round of last year’s amateur draft. Dallas’ other free agent signings had a distinctly local feel to them, with six prospects who played either their college ball or high school ball in the Lone Star State. Of that bunch, the two corners, Texas A&M’s Dustin Harris and Wisconsin’s Devin Smith, may have the best chance to stick.
New York Giants
Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Linebacker
For a team with such a rich history at the linebacker position, it’s hard to remember the last time the Giants had even one really good player in their linebacking corps. (Jessie Armstead, who probably has the best claim to top dog in the post-Lawrence Taylor world, left the team in 2002.) The current starting trio of Dan Connor, Keith Rivers, and Jacquian Williams is typical of the patchwork approach general manager Jerry Reese has taken during his tenure. Connor is a solid two-down plugger who is vulnerable in the passing game due to his lack of speed. Rivers is a former top-ten pick who has accumulated more surgeries than sacks in his five-year career. Jacquian Williams is a guy named Jacquian Williams; he reportedly played in each of the last two seasons, but Giants fans can neither confirm nor deny his presence on the roster.
While this was not a particularly rich draft class, it is still surprising to see all seven rounds go by without New York using even a single selection on a linebacker. Now upgrades will have to come through free agency. The Giants jump-started the process by agreeing to terms with Aaron Curry on a one-year deal. Curry, another injury-plagued draft disappointment in the Keith Rivers mold, will compete with Rivers and Mark Herzlich for snaps at strongside linebacker. It’s a low-risk move that will look great if it pays off, but it shouldn’t keep Jerry Reese from continuing to explore the market. The biggest name on that market is Brian Urlacher, who has indicated a willingness to take a major pay cut to play for a contender, and who may have enough in the tank to provide a mild upgrade over Connor. One player who is almost certainly out of the mix is Michael Boley, whose legal problems will likely land him a suspension and could signal the end of his career.
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Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Etienne Sabino has the prototypical size and speed ratio you would expect for an Ohio State linebacker, and it was a mild surprise that he went undrafted despite his questionable instincts. Big Blue has a longstanding love affair with the Big Ten, and Sabino is walking into a good spot. Virginia Tech’s Alonzo Tweedy also plays linebacker, but no one envisions him contributing as a starter or even a rotation player in the NFL. Instead, he’s being brought in as a special teams ace. Cornerback is another area where the Giants are shaky and where they didn’t draft anyone, so Charleston Southern’s Charles James could win a roster spot with a strong showing in training camp.
Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback
Anyone who watched an Eagles game for more than five minutes last year realized that the secondary was in need of an overhaul. The names on the jerseys might have been familiar, but guys like Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played more like fans who had been pulled out of the stands to suit up at halftime. Philadelphia’s pass defense DVOA of 24.1% was the worst in the league, and three of the four starting defensive backs were among the league leaders in broken tackles. That’s the kind of performance that tends to get people fired, and now, in addition to a brand new coaching staff, the Eagles have a completely revamped secondary.
The problem is that, at least on paper, the team did a much better job of finding replacements at safety than they did at cornerback. Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung are both young, productive players with good draft pedigrees. There are reasons why these two players were available: both are injury risks, and Chung also was benched in New England because Bill Belichick felt he freelanced too often. Still, the talent makes both players very worthwhile gambles. The additions at cornerback have less upside. Bradley Fletcher finished out the year as St. Louis’ fourth corner thanks to his penchant for drawing flags. He might be a more natural slot defender, but Brandon Boykin is entrenched as the nickel back, so Fletcher will play on the outside. Cary Williams started for the Super Bowl champion Ravens, where he gave up a ton of completions by playing soft on any kind of comeback route. The one thing Williams does exceptionally well, though, is tackle -- he missed a grand total of three tackles in the last two years. And as noted before, that's a talent that was sorely missing from the Eagles' secondary.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Iowa State outside linebacker Jake Knott was considered a potential fourth- or fifth-round pick who slid right out of the draft in part due to the shoulder injury that prematurely ended his senior season. Knott has excellent range and good coverage skills, two traits that are largely lacking among the current Eagles linebackers. At 6-foot-2, Damion Square is a bit short for a 3-4 defensive lineman, but he started 31 games for Alabama, which is about as good a pedigree as it gets. Oregon’s Isaac Remington is a Chip Kelly import, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman who started the last two years for the Ducks.
Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Secondary
Considering the fact that the Redskins were operating without a full complement of picks thanks to the Robert Griffin trade, the team actually devoted a fair amount of attention to their leaky secondary, spending a second-round pick on North Carolina State corner David Amerson, then double-dipping on safeties by selecting Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas in the fourth round and Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo in the sixth round. Considering the paucity of top-flight secondary talent in this draft, it’s unclear if Mike Shanahan could have done much better. That said, making the best of a bad situation isn’t the same thing as fixing the problem. Amerson led the nation in interceptions two years ago and has a terrific frame to go up against bigger receivers. He also has a worrying aggressiveness that frequently led to him getting torched on double moves, and NFL analyst Mike Mayock called Amerson’s tape against Tennessee and Miami some of the worst he’s ever seen. The general consensus seems to be that Amerson is a DeAngelo Hall clone, which begs the question, how many DeAngelo Halls can one team afford to play? Thomas and Rambo are the safety equivalents of Amerson -- Thomas led the nation in interceptions in 2012, while Rambo was second behind Amerson in 2011 -- but in each case, the ballhawking is paired up with some questionable tackling skills.
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Ultimately, improvement in the secondary may come not from any of the new additions, but rather from the return of a healthy Brian Orakpo. With Orakpo in the lineup in 2011, the Redskins posted a 7.4% adjusted sack rate. That number dropped to 5.9% in 2012, as Ryan Kerrigan was left to provide the pass rush on his lonesome. With more pressure, opposing quarterbacks won't have quite so much time to figure out which Washington defensive back has been beaten by his man.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Xavier Nixon, who started 33 out of 46 games in his four years at Florida, was generally considered a mid-round talent who slipped because of a questionable work ethic. Nixon provides versatility, having played both left and right tackle, and he has the advantage of having played in a zone-blocking scheme that is quite similar to the one Washington runs. Will Compton is another big-program player, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors while manning the center of the Nebraska defense. With London Fletcher pushing 38, the team needs to find a young prospect to groom, and Compton has a chance to stick.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
47 comments, Last at 08 Jul 2013, 11:28am
#12 by CBPodge // May 17, 2013 - 4:48am
It does, relatively speaking. More local than being from, say, Maine. At a maximum you're about 600 miles away (if you happen to live right next to Ciudad Juarez). Not exactly next door, but definitely more local than many other places.
I dunno, if you gave me a person from Texas, anywhere in Texas, and asked me which team they supported, I'd pretty much always guess Cowboys, and I reckon I'd be right more than I was wrong.
#16 by JonFromTX // May 17, 2013 - 9:14am
You have a point about the rest of Texas being closer to Dallas than Maine. And yes, about 2/3 of Texas are Cowboy fans. But as a resident San Antonio, there's no way I would consider Dallas local. Probably just the territorial mindset of us Texans though. We're just as proud of our local areas as we are of the state in general.
#7 by alsep73 // May 16, 2013 - 3:44pm
All Giants fans can confirm Williams' presence on the roster, as he's the guy who forced the fumble that sent the team to their most recent Super Bowl appearance.
Special teams ace, and a fast player who's had some impressive games at LB shadowing tight ends, and also some very poor games at LB. Of the patchwork roster at that position — a position the team has de-emphasized under Reese and Coughlin in favor of the line and the secondary — he's the guy I trust the most.
#31 by larubinson (not verified) // May 20, 2013 - 3:33pm
With you both on the J. Williams comment. It's WAY off base and uncharacteristic of Football Outsiders. Every half way decent Giants fan knows who he is. My 9-year-old nephew knows who he is. As a matter of fact, he's the one guy I'd pencil in as a starter in the 2013 LB corps. He could get beat out and be situational. And agreed that he has to show he can stop the run. But he's very fast and typically good in coverage (one glaring exception being against the Packers his rookie year when he went for interception against Finley with game on the line).
#14 by theslothook // May 17, 2013 - 5:43am
I would agree.. the obvious question is why. Its hard to pin point when the passing revolution happened. Even 10 years ago, 2003- only a handful of players were throwing for 4k yards. Today, 4k has become very run of the mill, so obviously something has changed. Chase stuart wrote a year back or so - the big spike in passing numbers is coming from YAC/ mostly short and medium routes that are generating huge yards after the catch numbers. Screens, flare outs - essentially - its derived from the slot and that to me screams scheme. I suspect sometime soon, defenses will adjust to this interior attack and we will revert back.
#15 by Perfundle // May 17, 2013 - 7:38am
6.5 out of 20 so far is not at least half, and looking at the teams that remain, most of them don't have it as a need either. This division had the worst average defensive passer rating, so of course most of their secondaries need help.
#22 by cisforcookie (not verified) // May 17, 2013 - 11:57am
it's also, I think, easier to diagnose bad secondary play than anything else defensive. the players are out there on an island with a fairly clear standard of what success is. therefore, if the secondary is bad, it's obvious. if the linebackers are bad, it's not necessarily obvious.
#32 by Perfundle // May 21, 2013 - 2:20pm
So when your point has been exaggerated beyond any use, that's still acceptable? Four more teams have been added, which brings us to 6.5 out of 24. Suppose that it ends up 6.5 out of 32. Is your point still true? Just thinking about the teams still remaining should've made you realize that your point is completely wrong. Seems to me that the level of scrutiny given to the secondary is the same as any other position.
#25 by theslothook // May 17, 2013 - 1:50pm
I can name more than the one's you've listed:
If you ask Ne fans - are they satisfied with their presently constructed secondary? I think the answer is no. Here's a list of teams I would definitely add to yours.
That's 16 teams right there.
Now, heres a list of other teams that could argue :
Bal(could be argued since they lost Reed and Williams and theres some uncertainty about webb coming back)
DEN(Champ could hit the wall and I don't really care of their safeties at all)
STL(they addressed this issue in the draft but it still doesn't mean that their secondary is fine).
CLE(outside of hayden - who is their opposite corner)
and I could even add more.
#29 by bravehoptoad // May 20, 2013 - 1:50pm
I don't think you have the question right. Are these all teams whose single greatest need is secondary? NE might not be happy with its secondary, but is it the biggest hole? I'd agree with FO that pass rush is a bigger need, and NYG has a bigger need at linebacker, Jac at QB, etc.
#30 by theslothook // May 20, 2013 - 3:02pm
The secondary is manned by a minimum of 4 players that to have secondary be the significant need, you would almost have to say that a team fields 4 below average starters at the position. Obviously, one can have one great corner and 3 below avg staters and the totality gives you a poor secondary but not necessarily the biggest need.
I was addressing the larger issue of just how many teams have issues with their secondaries. If we want one reason why it seems defenses have taken a major step back, I'd say the biggest factor is that the secondaries haven't caught up with the spread and slot productions of today's receivers.
#33 by Perfundle // May 21, 2013 - 2:35pm
And you are overshooting in the opposite direction from BJR. If you're going to get that picky, even Seattle fans weren't happy with parts of their secondary last year, especially after losses.
Plus, fans tend to over-denigrate certain aspects of their team to prop up others. For instance, teams with elite QBs tend to think worse of their receivers than a neutral fan would, because otherwise they'd have to admit that the receivers play a larger part in how successful the QB is. Asking the average fan to think rationally about their team is a fool's errand.
Finally, secondary play has to be considered to the league average, not to some sort of unattainable ideal. It's not like any of the secondaries even in the playoffs were playing at some elite level.
#34 by theslothook // May 21, 2013 - 8:20pm
I don't mean to sound extreme in any of this. Really, if there's one interesting facet, to me its pass dvoa. There is an inescapable fact that the passing game has definitely been growing(and no, it's not been a JUST a steady increase - the increase spikes at certain junctures and it has filtered its way across all qbs, not just the very best).
Since pass rush numbers(at least sack rate) has been more or less constant - I can only surmise that the huge spike in numbers are the result of 3 possible explanations - the qbs/receivers are getting better while the secondaries have stayed the same, the qbs/receivers have stayed the same while the secondaries have gotten worse, or there is some combination of the two.
Just off my own perceptions watching the game and studying the numbers, I'm inclined to believe its that the secondaries have not caught up to the scheme of the nfl passing game. We've sort of seen this already with how teams view the slot corner and the safety. Gone are the roy williams of the world at safety. Thats why I think most teams feel they need to have upgrades in their secondary.
My ultimate point was in response to BJR(who seemed to imply too much was being made of a secondaries) whereas I thought the point about weak secondaries was perfectly valid.
#35 by Perfundle // May 21, 2013 - 9:58pm
Well, if by better/worse you mean that they're better/worse physically, relative to each other, it could be that none of the three are true. As you said, it could very well be the scheme that defenses haven't adjusted to, or rather, have to adjust to giving up more yards from now on. And now we have additional wrinkles in the read-option and pistol formation, and those could very well add an extra 0.5 to 1 or more yard per play for the teams that are using it.
So why have these schemes become so successful so quickly? My guess is that with the increase in quantitative analysis in the NFL, offensive coordinators have far more knowledge of the defensive tendencies of their opponents, and the success rates of their own plays. Obviously defensive coordinators do too, but since there are so many more offensive formations than defensive ones, and the defense can only react to what the offense does in the end, the offense will always come out on top in these situations.
My point is that teams and fans might have to resign themselves to the new offensive nature of the NFL. GMs, in particular, might need to keep some of these supposed underperforming DBs, because incoming players might not be particularly better on average.
#36 by theslothook // May 21, 2013 - 11:15pm
Maybe. Its just theorizing at this point. That said, if we believe winning in the nfl is about passing the ball and stopping the pass and because passing the ball is so much a factor of qb play, the onus then seems to be on getting a good secondary and a great qb.
#38 by Perfundle // May 22, 2013 - 2:06pm
Pretty much. But I'll add that a good secondary is usually highly dependent on at least an average pass rush. Seattle was something of an anomaly last year; if you subtract the eight-sack game against GB, their pass rush was not very good at all, and their secondary play got the way it was almost entirely on the backs of Thomas, and to a lesser extent, Sherman.
Also, you need at least a semblance of run defense. Green Bay didn't have that against SF, and they got shredded. Seattle didn't have that against Atlanta, and they got shredded in the first half. And Baltimore almost collapsed in the Super Bowl when SF was running them over in the second half. The common factor between these teams is that all three had significantly better pass defenses than run defenses
#40 by theslothook // May 22, 2013 - 2:13pm
That's true. I generally agree - I think every good defense should field at the very least an acceptable run defense or the offense will simply ere on the side of risk and bury you that way. So in a way, I'm assuming that for a team to get to the playoffs, you absolutely have to have a respectable run defense(unless your the colts).
#37 by bravehoptoad // May 22, 2013 - 9:36am
You may have been addressing the larger issue, but the rest of the thread was not.
BJR: Each year in these articles at least half the teams biggest need is the defensive secondary.
Perfundle: 6.5 out of 20 so far is not at least half....
theslothook: I can name more than the one's you've listed....
So no, in fact, you can not name more than the one's he's listed, when he's addressing the issue of what teams' biggest needs are.
#13 by CBPodge // May 17, 2013 - 4:57am
Bradley Fletcher is a pretty decent player, if he's in the right system. When the Rams were playing under Spagnuolo he was one of the few bright spots. He's very aggressive, and very physical, but pretty effective as a bump-and-run corner. The knock on him is that a) he's quite injury prone and b) he's pretty terrible playing any sort of off coverage (as he still likes to get physical, but all that does is just gets him flagged).
Basically, the Eagles have a corner who can play press man coverage pretty well, but can't really do much of anything else. Hmm, they wouldn't misuse someone with that specific skillset, would they?
#19 by Jim W. (not verified) // May 17, 2013 - 9:57am
Well, the other issue with the Frederick pick is how they got there in the first place.
The clearest part of what's been reported is this: At the 18th overall selection, Sharrif Floyd was the highest remaining player on Dallas' board, and perhaps their highest rated defensive lineman overall. The head coach and the scouts want to draft him. However, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli decide that he doesn't fit as a three technique in their scheme. Never mind that's the position he was regarded as pre-draft; he is Kevin Williams' eventual replacement in Minnesota; and, of course, why is he so high on their board then if he doesn't fit. The GM makes the decision to trade down. There are also questions as to to the value they got in the trade as well as other members in the war room being informed as to what the heck is going on...
Ah, to be a Dallas fan.
I don't disagree that safety might be their biggest post-draft hole. Barry Church looked OK in limited time last season, but he has three career starts at safety and is coming off of a torn achilles. Matt Johnson's pro day numbers and ball skills (17 INTs in college) are intriguing, but he was injured last year and has never played a snap in the NFL. Behind them are Wilcox and long time journeyman safety Will Allen. So yeah, there is a lot of instability at the position. It's not unreasonable to think that Dallas might not have a starting caliber safety on their roster.
#21 by Jim W. (not verified) // May 17, 2013 - 10:20am
Floyd was a top 10 player on their board, perhaps as high as 7th overall. Reid was a second round guy.
The 'reports' I mentioned are from local scribes, radio hosts, and ex-Dallas scouts that work in the local media.
#26 by Jim W. (not verified) // May 17, 2013 - 2:22pm
Farrar: "[Stephen Jones] later told the media that the team had LSU safety Eric Reid in the mix as the second-rated safety on their board . . . but thought there was more value in trading down and grabbing an extra third-round pick."
Farrar posted the article the morning after the 1st round of the draft and, as best as I can tell, derived this information from Dallas' post-draft press conference. A reporter asked Stephen if the team considered taking Reid with the 18th pick. Stephen basically said: We like Reid, but he is "too rich" there compared to the trade we accepted (I listened to Stephen's segment again to be sure). Stephen never mentioned Reid's placement as the second safety on their board (although Farrar is correct).
At any rate, multiple Dallas media members who are usually reliable in this regard have written/said that Floyd was a top 10 pick and Reid was a second round value on Dallas' board.
#27 by theslothook // May 17, 2013 - 3:00pm
Did anyone ever mention exactly why floyd fell in the first place? Really is mystifying for a player who just about all the draft pundits had labeled as a top 5 pick. I mean, its not even like he had injury concerns or a bad reputation.
#28 by Rivers McCown // May 17, 2013 - 7:27pm
I think it makes a little more sense if you put it in the context that, before the tape really got studied by the internet draftnik finest, there was not a whole lot of talk of Floyd being a top-five pick. Some, yes, but it was hardly a consensus.
I also think that his lack of elite measurables (both statistically and at the combine) contributed to the fall.
#46 by HailToST21 (not verified) // Jun 08, 2013 - 12:39pm
I'm guardedly optimistic about the secondary additions in DC. The mindset from Shanahan seems to be that you can teach tackling technique, but you can't teach instincts for a big play. I just hope the "instincts for a big play" don't interfere with "just knock the darn ball down on 3rd and long".
#47 by bryann // Jul 08, 2013 - 11:28am
well i personally believe that these are all part of game.