Four Downs: AFC East
by Andrew Healy
In a series of articles over the next few days, Football Outsiders will be looking division-by-division at the biggest hole left on each team's roster after free agency and the 2015 NFL draft.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Quarterback
In five seasons with the Jets, Rex Ryan never had a quarterback who ranked higher than 28th according to Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. Now he comes to a team with a third-year quarterback, EJ Manuel, who ranked 37th and 38thin his first two seasons, and a veteran quarterback, Matt Cassel, who has been just as bad in four of his last six seasons. However much Ryan is to blame for Mark Sanchez's failure to develop in New York, he has even less to work with in Buffalo.
Ryan's Bills mirror recent Buffalo teams, just in a more exaggerated way. During the Bills' 15-year playoff drought, they have had many good defenses. Seven times, they have had a top-ten defense by DVOA. Never during that stretch have they had a top-ten offense, and their quarterbacks have been the worst in the NFL. Since 2001, the Bills have had no quarterback rank better than 20th in DVOA.
In 2014, the Bills' quarterback weakness kept the league's second-best defense (by DVOA) out of the playoffs. This year, the Bills actually have an even bigger hole at quarterback. For most of 2014, the Bills started a quarterback, Kyle Orton, who was on average the 22nd-best quarterback in the NFL by DVOA over his last five seasons with at least 100 attempts. By comparison, Matt Cassel has been the 30th-best quarterback over his last five qualifying seasons, and Manuel has been even worse so far in his short career. The Bills' quarterback crevasse gives the rest of the team little margin for error in 2015.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Bills signed two offensive tackles in the UDFA market: Tyson Chandler of North Carolina State and Jermaine Barton of Illinois State. While neither made NFL.com's list of the top 15 undrafted tackles, both Chandler (6-foot-6, 331 pounds) and Barton (6-foot-7, 332 pounds) are huge guys who will have a chance to make a team that was weak on the edges in 2014. The Bills ranked dead last in adjusted line yards both around left end and right end.
The Bills' weakness on outside runs could not mesh less well with their expensive new running back. LeSean McCoy had 143 runs outside the tackles last season, 26 more than any other runner. For McCoy to find the room he needs to run outside, the Bills will need a surprise breakout season from Chandler or Barton, or more likely from one of their other unproven tackles.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Cornerback
Top corner Brent Grimes may already be in decline. In 2013, Miami ranked seventh in the NFL against opponents' top receivers. Last season, Miami fell to 21st in that category as part of the Dolphins' second-half defensive swoon. Improvement in 2015 is unlikely. Grimes will turn 32 in July, an age past which very few corners sustain a high level of play. It is certainly in play for Grimes to have his falling-off-a-cliff season. It happens somewhere around his age for almost every cornerback not named Darrell Green. While the Dolphins have been in decent shape at the top corner position with Grimes in recent seasons, they may be in trouble as early as this season.
Of even greater concern for the Dolphins is depth at corner. Getting little from 2013 second-rounder Jamar Taylor and 2014 fourth-rounder Walt Aikens, the Dolphins ranked 30th in the league last year against opponents' third, fourth, and fifth wideouts. Entering the offseason with just Grimes, Taylor, and Aikens on the cornerback depth chart, Miami has taken two paths to try to address their weaknesses. First, they dipped at the low end of the free agent market, signing Brice McCain and Zack Bowman. Neither player is particularly young (McCain is 28, Bowman 30), and neither has provided much value above replacement level (about three or four Approximate Value for a veteran, per Pro Football Reference) in recent years. In the draft, they waited until the fifth round to add two corners, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett. While they have now cornered the market for McCains in the NFL (with linebacker Chris, the Dolphins currently have every McCain to play since 1950), the Dolphins have not filled their hole at corner so much as papered it over by acquiring low-level veterans and mid-round picks. After addressing their receiver weakness with the smart trade for Kenny Stills, the Dolphins might have been better off using their first-round pick to address their hole at corner. Instead, Miami's pass defense will depend on Grimes holding up for another year and a breakout from one of their unproven players.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Celebrated coming out of high school, defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy never even started a full season at UCLA. But with the limited supply of athletic 330-pound run-stoppers, McCarthy may find room on the Dolphins roster if he can stay healthy. Miami also picked up four receivers in the UDFA market, with Christion Jones of Alabama perhaps the best prospect given the Dolphins' increased emphasis on short passing. In addition to creating separation on short routes, Jones may be able to contribute as a kick returner.
Also on special teams, kicker Andrew Franks would seem to have a real shot to be the first-ever NFL player from RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Engineers, but of course you knew that). Incumbent Caleb Sturgis was part of a Miami special-teams unit that ranked last overall by DVOA, next-to-last on field goals, and last on kickoffs.
New England Patriots
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Cornerback
After losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency, the Patriots appeared likely to take a corner early in the draft. Instead, perhaps scared off by the ghosts of Ras-I Dowling and Terrence Wheatley, Bill Belichick waited until the seventh round to draft a corner. The Patriots now have Bradley Fletcher, signed from the Eagles in free agency, as their No. 1 cornerback.
If all you know of Fletcher are 2014 lowlights like this and this, then this sounds like an untenable situation. It's not quite as bad as it seems. No cornerback in football gets a bigger boost in his numbers when we account for the opposing receivers he had to face. If we adjust for Fletcher's schedule -- including five games lining up across from Dez Bryant (fifth in receiving DVOA), DeSean Jackson (sixth), and Jordy Nelson (eighth) -- Fletcher actually ranked 36th in adjusted success rate, making Fletcher an above-average corner. He is also an excellent value at the price the Patriots paid for him.
The fact that Fletcher is underrated and came at a bargain rate would make him an excellent No. 2 corner. He's still not a desirable option as your team's top corner. Even adjusting for opposition, the Eagles were still just 24th against opponents' top wideouts in 2014. Perhaps the only other potential choice on the roster is Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, and then only because his small sample size as a rookie leaves his ceiling undefined. Barring a midseason trade like the one that brought Aqib Talib to Foxboro in 2012, the Patriots will most likely have to scheme around the lack of a true top cover corner.
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Notable Undrafted Free Agents: It worked so well in 2014 that the Patriots again signed an undrafted cornerback who played at a school with Alabama in its name. At 6-foot-3, Jimmy Jean (out of Alabama-Birmingham) is 5 inches taller than 2014 UDFA signee Malcolm Butler (out of West Alabama). Jean may need to add some bulk (he is listed at 180 pounds in some places but 200 in others), but he will bring high-upside athleticism, as did Butler. And with his name, we can root for him to see the field just for the chance of Jim Nantz saying "Jimmy Jean has that receiver wrapped up like a pig in a blanket." A bit larger than Jean is the 6-foot-2, 217-pound safety/linebacker hybrid Brandon King out of Auburn.
The Patriots also signed Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner with plans to convert him to receiver, but they have already cut Gardner before we even got to June.
New York Jets
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Quarterback
All the improvements that the Jets have made this offseason are window dressing until they find a quarterback. Even after just two seasons, the chances that Geno Smith is the guy are small. In those seasons, Smith ranked 40th and 31st, respectively, in DVOA. Over the last 25 years, here are the ten quarterbacks whose DVOA ratings in their first two seasons with at least 100 attempts came closest to Smith's numbers.
|Quarterbacks Most Similar to Geno Smith by DVOA in First Two Years, 1989-2014|
|Player||Years||Y1 DVOA||Y1 Rank||Y2 DVOA||Y2 Rank|
|Billy Joe Tolliver||1989-1990||-21.4%||36||-5.9%||21|
|Locker was a rookie in 2011; these are his first two seasons with 100 attempts.|
While these and most examples of similar quarterbacks do not look good, a couple of counterexamples might inspire Jets fans. Troy Aikman struggled his first two seasons even more than Smith, and if we look back before DVOA ratings (which start in 1989), so did Terry Bradshaw. Unlike Smith, however, scouts saw enough potential in Aikman and Bradshaw to make each of them the No. 1 overall pick. Lacking that pedigree, Smith's early career struggles have been bad enough to make him a very poor bet to break out. Ryan Fitzpatrick does not exactly fill the Jets' hole at quarterback, but he is likely to be the better short-term option.
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Notable Undrafted Free Agents: If fourth-round draft pick Bryce Petty projects poorly as an NFL quarterback, undrafted free agent Jake Heaps is close to the ultimate no-hope prospect. The former high school standout's rating ranked 123rd out of 127 Division I qualifiers in Heaps' last season as a starter. More hopeful were the Jets' pickups of athletic South Alabama tight end Wes Saxton, Jr., and Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who might have been the best undrafted free agents at their respective positions. Saxton is a raw prospect with good speed (4.65 40 at the combine) for a player of his size (6-foot-3, 248 pounds). Jones would have gone higher in a different era when physical run-stopping linebackers were more in demand.
Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.