Four Downs: AFC South
by Ned Macey
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: AFC South? You'll find it here.
Free Agency Review
Extreme Makeover: Houston Texans Edition has been in full effect this off-season. A new coaching staff with plans to use a 4-3 defense and revamp a mediocre offense has led to as active a free agency as anyone in football.
The Texans aggressively targeted their areas of need and filled nearly all of the seemingly gaping holes they faced just a month ago. The switch to the 4-3 seemed to leave Houston short on defensive ends and middle linebackers. To remedy this problem, they brought in Anthony Weaver and Sam Cowart.
These signings are polar opposites in style. Weaver is an up-and-coming defensive end whose best days are in front of him. Cowart is an aging linebacker who will likely prove to be a disappointment.
Weaver is a physical specimen who has played inside in the past or as a defensive end in the 3-4. Given the plethora of pass-rushing ends the Texans have, including newly signed N.D. Kalu, he is an excellent addition. The Texans ranked 30th in DVOA against the run. With the Weaver signing, that will not be the case this year. (DVOA and all of Football Outsiders' other advanced statistics are explained here.)
Cowart, however, is a low-impact move. He was phased out in New York two years ago, and the idea that he will be productive at age 31 is a little far-fetched. Still, he provides at least an adequate middle linebacker, and if Kailee Wong proves he is better in the middle, the Texans have simply bought an insurance policy.
Offensively, the Texans have been just as active. They signed Mike Flanagan to shore up their offensive line. He will slide in at center pushing Steve McKinney to guard. Incumbent Milford Brown has moved on to the Cardinals. Flanagan is getting $9 million over three years, pretty big money for a 32-year old center. The Texans have now added four of their five starting offensive linemen through free agency. For perspective, New England and Indianapolis have offensive lines exclusively filled with people who never played for another team.
The Texans have also revamped their offensive skill position players. Gone are Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney. Now arriving are Eric Moulds, Kevin Walter, and Jeb Putzier. Putzier is the most intriguing signing. David Carr has never had a decent receiving option at tight end in his career. Obviously head coach Gary Kubiak is familiar with Putzier from their time in Denver, and Kubiak should be able to use Putzier effectively.
But it is hard to see how the wide receiver moves substantially improve the Texans. Walter is an unproven commodity with 30 career catches. Eric Moulds may be a big name, but his best days are well behind him. Moulds last posted a positive DVOA in 2000. He will be 33 this season, and he has a total of 10 touchdowns in the past three seasons.
The Texans' off-season has made it abundantly clear that they are interested in winning sooner rather than later. Cowart, Flanagan, and Moulds are all players past their prime brought in for the immediate future. This win-now strategy makes it clear that any Vince Young talk is just bluster, and they are drafting Reggie Bush with the first overall pick.
The first overall pick is sometimes considered a curse because of the massive bonus paid out to an unproven player. Recent history questions this assumption. From 1996-2004, all but one of the teams with the first overall pick have made the playoffs within four years. That one team, of course, is the Texans.
All of this is my way of saying that I am not a big proponent of trading the first overall pick. Still, the Texans have huge offensive line problems, and the possibility of getting D'Brickashaw Ferguson or Winston Justice plus additional picks has to be intriguing. Unfortunately, the signing of Drew Brees by New Orleans means that teams interested in Matt Leinart or Young can trade up to the second spot. So, while trading down would be a sound move for a team with multiple needs, they are unlikely to get fair value.
So, Bush it is. Comparisons to Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, and Gale Sayers seem to be coming from everywhere. Bush is a special talent, but those are some of the greatest players of all-time. The Texans cannot practically think that Bush offers more than those players.
As an interesting exercise, I took a look at how the those players' teams fared in their first five years after the NFL draft. Those three players were the second, third, and fourth overall selection of the draft, meaning they came to equally un-talented teams.
These numbers are somewhat shocking and should make Texans' fans keep their expectations in check. During these five-year periods, these three great backs made a combined 12 Pro Bowls, so their production was clearly not the problem. The simple truth is that a running back is only so valuable.
Those running backs were replacing Roosevelt Potts, Garry James, and Jon Arnett respectively. Bush will be replacing Domanick Davis, who has averaged over 1000 yards a season in his three years. He also is similar in size and style to Bush, making Davis, one of the Texans' better players, completely extraneous next season. Is Bush going to be better than Davis? Certainly, but even if Bush is historically good, the improvement will only be worth so much.
After the first round, the Texans have the first pick of the second round and the first two picks of the third round. They should be praying that Eric Winston falls to the second round which would allow them to finally draft a talented offensive tackle, but it isn't likely to happen. In the third round, they should look to upgrade a secondary that is short on quality players besides Dunta Robinson.
Free Agency Review
This time last year, the Colts were only parting with players whose immediate replacements were better than the players let go. This off-season, the Colts have lost two starters who will be replaced by inferior players in 2006.
We will get to the more high profile departure in a minute, but first, the Colts have lost David Thornton to the Titans. Clearly, linebacker is not a position valued by the Colts. Over the past four seasons, they have let Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington leave without much of an effort to retain them. Those two have gone on to play at a Pro Bowl level, but the Colts defense has continued to improve without them. Losing Thornton and replacing him with Gilbert Gardner is a definite downgrade, but the Colts Cover-2 system places little emphasis on linebackers in general.
Obviously, the biggest story for the Colts this off-season has been the departure of Edgerrin James. Nobody can say what the effect of James' departure will be on the Colts. Even team president Bill Polian -- who never seemed particularly interested in re-signing James â€“ would admit that James will be missed this season. The decision not to sign him was made with a prediction of declining production from James in year three or four of his new contract.
To see what impact an Edge-less backfield will have on the Colts, the best an analyst can do is to look back at 2001, the year James blew out his ACL. In that season, Dominic Rhodes, an undrafted free agent, stepped in and had an exceptional year. Rhodes racked up a DPAR of 17.6, good for ninth in the league. That performance gives credence to the notion that James' production can be reasonably replaced.
Several factors make that a questionable assumption. First, Rhodes was unable to approach James' production as a receiver, and no player picked up at the end of the first round is likely able to match that production either. According to DPAR, James was the third most effective receiver among running backs a season ago. Second, Peyton Manning's worst season since his rookie year coincided with James' injury. Third, the Colts in 2001 did not play exclusively the no-huddle offense that they have employed the last several seasons. One can easily imagine early struggles as a rookie tries to adjust to the system.
The Colts should remain one of the best offenses in the NFL, but they will definitely miss Edgerrin James. Their offense the past three seasons has been a well-oiled machine, and James has been a major reason for the success. This year's offense may look more like the Colts pre-2003, very good but not the best in the league.
The Colts rarely shop in the veteran free agent market, but this year, they decided to venture out and replace their idiot kicker with the greatest kicker who ever lived, Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri has been known to turn water into wine, part the Red Sea, and on his death bed will achieve total consciousness.
The Patriots would certainly not have won the 2001 Super Bowl without Vinatieri, but then again, the Atlanta Braves would not have won the 1992 NLCS if it were not for Francisco Cabrera. In the 2003 Super Bowl, Vinatieri went 1-for-3 on field goals. His contribution against Philadelphia a year later was a 22-yard chip shot that stretched the lead to ten points.
The Colts certainly could have used Vinatieri circa 2001 when Mike Vanderjagt came out and choked on his final play as a Colt. Would the current Vinatieri have hit that field goal? Hard to say, given the fact that Mr. Clutch himself missed his only attempt over 40 yards in the playoff loss to Denver this year. The Colts will certainly feel more confident if a playoff game comes down to a game-winning kick, but the odds of such a kick arising from a distance where Vinatieri is likely to hit what Vanderjagt would miss are long.
None of this means that Vinatieri is not a great kicker. He has been one of the best in the business for a number of years, and he has rightly earned his place in the pantheon of Boston heroes. The problem is that a kicker just really is not that important, and Vinatieri's field-goal prowess is unlikely to lead to any additional wins for the Colts.
Where Vinatieri provides a noticeable upgrade is in his ability to kick off. The Colts still have kickoff specialist Jose Cortez on the roster, but Vinatieri should be able to handle those duties himself. Adjusted for weather conditions, Vinatieri's kickoffs were worth an estimated 4.9 points in field position to New England last year. The Colts, with Vanderjagt and a string of kickoff specialists, have never done better than -7.2 points over the past three seasons. Not only will the Colts get that advantage, but they will have an extra roster spot on game day that has been wasted on a kickoff specialist.
Rule number one when projecting the Colts draft strategy is to see what their needs are and find an appropriate Big Ten player to fill the hole. Their first two picks each of the last three years have come from Big Ten schools.
This year's hole is obviously at running back where Rhodes is atop the depth chart. Based on their predilection for Big Ten players, the Colts must be praying that Laurence Maroney falls to them. Some mock drafts show Maroney fall all the way to the Colts at the 30th pick while others have him going in the mid-teens. The Colts have no power to decide whether they get Maroney.
Assuming that Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, and Lendale White are gone by the time the Colts pick, they will likely be left choosing between Joseph Addai, Maurice Drew, and Brian Calhoun. Calhoun gets the early edge as a Wisconsin alum. His poor showing at the combine could lead the Colts to gamble and hope they come away with him at the end of the second round. Addai provides the versatility that will be lost without James and is the more likely pick should Maroney be off the board.
Later in the draft, the Colts will likely add a linebacker, a cornerback, and an offensive linemen. Gardner may need support in replacing Thornton, plus Cato June will be a free agent after next season. Tony Dungy seems intrigued with the possibility of moving Marlin Jackson (last year's first-round pick from Michigan) to safety, which would leave the team thin at cornerback. Finally, the Colts always spend a mid-round pick on an offensive lineman.
Williams, It Was Really Nothing
The Jaguars entered the free agent period with oodles of cash to spend. They were coming off their first playoff season since 1999. They moved quickly to sign Brian Williams to fill a hole at cornerback. Since then, owner Wayne Weaver has seemed intent on counting his own money.
The move for Williams was a good one, as he will fill in nicely as the number two cornerback beside Rashean Mathis. Last year, Williams moved between nickel cornerback and starter and was consistently productive. The Vikings ranked in the top ten in DVOA defending first, second, and third receivers, and the team's turnaround coincided, in part, to Williams getting more playing time due to an injury to Fred Smoot. The Williams signing was one of the best by any team this off-season.
After Williams, however, the Jaguars did nothing. Technically, they added Mike Williams and Stockar McDougle to shore up their offensive line and signed Tony Williams, the former Cincinnati defensive tackle. The two offensive tackles will compete with incumbent Maurice Williams at right tackle.
The rumor mill says that the Jaguars are still considering adding tight end Roland Williams, defensive tackle Josh Williams, and long-time Football Outsiders favorite Moe Williams. The national anthem on opening day will be sung by Vanessa Williams, after which comedian Robin Williams will recite the new poem "Ode to the Jaguars" by poet William Carlos Williams:
So much depends upon
an aging receiver
and two large tackles
Despite having ample salary cap space, the Jaguars let starters Kenny Wright and Akin Ayodele flee to Washington and Dallas respectively. Wright has been adequately replaced by Brian Williams, but the Jaguars have nobody on the roster to replace the workmanlike Ayodele. The Jaguars showed interest in Will Witherspoon but lost him to the Rams. As it currently stands, 2005 fifth round pick Pat Thomas is on top of the depth chart at outside linebacker.
The gaping hole at outside linebacker makes it easy to imagine what direction the Jaguars will go in this draft. They have taken an offensive player with their first pick and two of their first three picks in each of the past three drafts.
Picking 28th, the Jaguars are likely hoping that Chad Greenway falls all the way into their laps. Greenway's stock has slipped as the draft approaches, but he is someone who should be able to fill in competently as a rookie. Also in the mix could be Thomas Howard or Ernie Sims if they want to emphasize athleticism or DeMeco Ryans if they want an intelligent player sure to contribute immediately. Do not rule out the possibility of Jacksonville going after Miami linebacker Leon Williams.
The FoxSports.com mock draft has Greenway going before the Jaguars pick and projects them taking Nick Mangold, a center out of Ohio St. While I agree that a talented center would be a great addition to the Jaguars, their propensity to draft linemen in the second and third rounds leads me to believe they will follow that model again this year.
No mock draft or published report indicates the Jaguars are interested in upgrading their mediocre running game. Knowing the Jaguars, they will insert another mid-round talent to add to the glut of Greg Jones, Alvin Pearman, and LaBrandon Toefield. However, don't rule out a trade to get the rights to DeAngelo Williams.
Free Agency Review
When the Titans waved goodbye to Derrick Mason, Samari Rolle, Joe Nedney, Fred Miller, Robert Holcomb, Carlos Hall, Andre Dyson, and Kevin Carter a season ago, it was with the intention of permanently solving their long-term cap problems. The higher salary cap that accompanied the new collective bargaining agreement suddenly left the Titans in a position to add to a team only one season removed from facing salary cap hell.
The Titans' newfound money was spent as successfully as any team in the early free agent period. They moved quickly and picked up David Givens, David Thornton, Chris Hope, and Kevin Mawae. The beautiful part of these signings was that, with the exception of Mawae, all are four-year veterans who are still in their prime.
Givens is the most high-profile of the signings, but he is probably the worst value. Hope and Thornton fulfill two major needs. The Titans were awful defending starting receivers. Although much of this was a result of poor cornerback play, their safeties were often caught out of position. Hope excels in coverage and will be a boon to their pass defense.
Thornton will shift over to strong-side linebacker, pairing with Keith Bulluck to provide Tennesse with a tandem of linebackers as athletic as any in the league. A year ago, the Titans ranked second in defending runs over left tackle where Bulluck stands. On runs behind right tackle, they ranked 26th.
Mawae is coming off a season lost to injury and is 35 years old. Only two seasons ago, he was considered among the best centers in the game. Incumbent starter Justin Hartwig signed with the Panthers, leaving a hole at center with no adequate in-house replacements. Signing Mawae to a contract with little guaranteed money is a decent gamble, although maybe one better made by a team closer to contending.
Givens was widely considered the second best receiving option on the free market and was actually a safer option than the more heralded Antwaan Randle El. The Titans also had a glaring hole at wide receiver opposite Drew Bennett. Thus, signing Givens was probably a wise move, even if it did cost $24 million.
Still, Givens has benefited from playing with Tom Brady, and he is probably not as good as his stats. His DPAR and DVOA a year ago were very good. Compared with the Patriots' number one and number three receivers â€“ Deion Branch and Troy Brown â€“ Givens' production was noticeably lower. In 2004, Givens' DVOA roughly matched David Patten's, and Redskins fans saw how he did away from Brady. Fortunately, Givens will be a co-number one with Bennett and will not pull an Alvin Harper or Peerless Price.
The signing of Drew Brees by the Saints thrilled two organizations, New Orleans and Tennessee. Houston plans on taking Reggie Bush, and New Orleans no longer desires a quarterback. That leaves Tennessee sitting in prime position to take the quarterback of their choosing. All of this could be complicated by a potential trade into the top two by the Jets or some other team looking to snag Matt Leinart.
For fun, let us assume that the Titans do get their choice of quarterbacks. They have compelling reasons to draft all three of the top prospects, Leinart, Vince Young, and Jay Cutler. Leinart worked with offensive Norm Chow while at USC, and Leinart is certainly the safest bet to be a quality NFL quarterback.
Young is interesting because of the similarities to Steve McNair, who is already serving as a mentor to Young from afar. Both have excellent physical skills but played in shotgun heavy formations in college. Young is the more impressive runner but less developed as a passer than â€œAir McNair.â€? The Titans' success with bringing McNair along slowly and the opportunity to have him mentor Young have to intrigue the Titans.
Finally, Cutler played his college ball at Vanderbilt in Tennessee. He also starred at the Senior Bowl where the Titans coaching staff was running practices. All accounts say that Chow was impressed with Cutler, and many mock drafts had the Titans taking Cutler when Leinart was assumed to be going to the Saints.
The current buzz is that the Titans are leaning towards Young. While this is not unreasonable, it seems more likely that this is a smokescreen to prevent the Jets from trading up to the second spot and taking Leinart.
Complicating all of this, however, is McNair's unhappiness with his contract situation. He saw the fate of Jon Kitna, Kurt Warner, and Drew Brees in recent years. He fears being used as the â€œmentorâ€? before being cast away. At that point, he would enter the free market a year older and potentially less healthy. A two-to-three-year commitment by the Titans would make sense for the short term future of the team. Leinart, however, is likely ready to play in the NFL next season or certainly the year after. The Titans are not likely to want to have McNair under contract at his market value if they are going to have Leinart under contract as well.
In recent days, the Titans have excluded McNair from the practice facility if he will not give them cap relief. He counts over $23 million against the cap because of all of the cap relief he has provided in previous seasons. McNair has no incentive to sign for multiple years if the Titans plan on using him only as a short-term solution. Since the Titans are already under the cap, they should just keep McNair and let him become a free agent after the season.
After their first pick, the Titans have two obvious holes to fill. First, they desperately need an upgrade at cornerback. Early in the second round, they may have a shot at Ashton Youboty or Richard Marshall. The other need is offensive tackle, where the Titans said goodbye to Brad Hopkins. They are shifting Michael Roos to left tackle and counting on Jacob Bell to move from back-up guard to starting right tackle. Houston picks ahead of Tennessee in the second round, and their need for offensive linemen could hurt the Titans.
Next week: NFC West and AFC East by guest columnists Doug Farrar and Bill Barnwell