Four Downs: AFC East
by Andrew Healy
Each NFL team's offseason is filled with small moves and marginal personnel decisions. Sometimes, that series of small moves will build a winner. But a big, bold move always helps, by dramatically improving talent at an important position or changing the overall direction of the franchise. In the first series of Four Downs posts for the 2015 offseason, Football Outsiders goes division by division to suggest a bold move that each team could make to get better, either in the short or long term.
New England Patriots: Cut Vince Wilfork
As Pete Carroll decided whether to run or pass late in Super Bowl XLIX, he had little reason to fear Vince Wilfork and the Patriots’ short-yardage run defense. In 2014, the Patriots were the worst team in the league in Power Success, allowing opposing offenses to convert 22 of 27 runs (81 percent) in important short-yardage situations (third or fourth down with two yards or less to go and first- or second-and-goal from the two-yard-line or closer). Even the Patriots’ few stops came against the league’s worst running teams. Teams not ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA ratings converted 16 of 17 chances (94 percent) against the Patriots’ run defense.
Just as that stat gives Seahawks fans reason to cringe, it should also not make Vince Wilfork’s agent happy. Cutting Wilfork before his $4 million roster bonus comes due on March 10 would save the Patriots $8.1 million on the 2015 salary cap. Because Wilfork’s contract has little dead money, only cutting Darrelle Revis would generate greater savings. The Patriots are currently over the cap and could reasonably ask themselves how much worse they could be against short-yardage runs without Wilfork than they were this season with him.
Moreover, Wilfork is entering his 12th season, an age around which defensive linemen’s production has dropped precipitously in the past. Even though Wilfork had some very strong games this year to go with some weaker ones―notably against the Ravens in the playoffs―he did not play up to his salary in 2014. The gap between salary and performance would likely grow even wider in 2015. Bill Belichick needs to return to his coldly rational ways and cut Wilfork should he refuse to accept a new, smaller contract.
Buffalo Bills: Trade Marcell Dareus for a 2016 first-round pick
Marcell Dareus’s dominant play earned him a spot on the 2014 All-Pro team, but EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton conspired to keep him and his defense out of the playoffs and off the national stage. Still, with Dareus maybe the most important reason that the Bills had the NFL’s second-ranked defense and top-ranked pass defense according to DVOA, his worth has never been higher. As Dareus enters the last season of his rookie contract―with the Bills already having huge dollars tied up in the defensive line―that makes this the perfect time for the Bills to trade him, probably to an NFC contender.
Nobody in recent years has shown better than the Bills that having a great defense is not enough in the NFL. The Bills had the 26th-ranked offense, continuing fifteen years of offensive futility. The last time the Bills had a top-ten offense, Bill Clinton was president and Frank Wycheck was throwing laterals to Kevin Dyson. Since 1999, the Bills have had a top-ten defense in DVOA seven times, but have not made a single playoff appearance.
There's no mystery here: to get the offensive improvement they need to finally return to the playoffs, the Bills need a quarterback. After last year’s Sammy Watkins trade, they are low on tickets to the quarterback lottery, having given up this year's first- and fourth-round picks in the deal. But trading Dareus for a 2016 draft pick rather than a 2015 one will get a higher selection in a draft that might be deeper on quarterback prospects.
Miami Dolphins: Trade Mike Wallace for a mid-round draft pick
As he desperately tried to keep his job in 2013, ex-Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland doled out a huge contract to wide receiver Mike Wallace. Devoting almost 10 percent of the salary cap to a one-dimensional vertical threat made particularly little sense for Miami, a team whose young quarterback is better throwing short than throwing long. In 2013, with Wallace, Ryan Tannehill ranked 31st (out of the 32 quarterbacks with the most attempts) in DVOA on deep passes (over 15 yards in the air). That same year, Tannehill was 11th on short passes. In 2014, Tannehill was 19th on deep passes and seventh on short ones. Under new coordinator Bill Lazor, the Dolphins did not even attempt to throw deep often. Tannehill threw deep on just 15 percent of his attempts in 2015, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL.
In Miami, Wallace thus does not come close to creating enough value to make his salary worth paying. Rather than continuing to pay eight digits for a wide receiver who ranked 75th and then 19th in DVOA the last two years, Miami should look to unload Wallace for a Day 3 draft pick. Trading Wallace would give Miami $5.5 million in badly-needed cap relief for 2015 and get him off the books by 2016.
And Miami has a logical suitor in Seattle. Russell Wilson throws a great deep ball and must be dying to have a legitimate deep threat. Not to mention that Mike Wallace would team with Chris Matthews to make the NFL’s greatest ever news team at wide receiver.
New York Jets: Sign Darrelle Revis
This story will sound familiar:
- Future Hall of Famer leaves long-suffering franchise for Florida.
- Ill will develops between said franchise and said future HOFer over his exit.
- Future HOFer wins championship with his sport’s most-hated team.
- Finally, future HOFer returns to the franchise that drafted him and all is forgiven.
If the Patriots shy away from Darrelle Revis' $25 million cap hit for 2015, decline his option, and allow him to test the market, the Jets should do whatever is necessary to get him to take the last step of his LeBron-esque journey.
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Returning to the Jets would mean joining new head coach Todd Bowles, a creative defensive mind chomping at the bit to blitz in big moments. In a similar situation under Rex Ryan, Revis was the most important defensive player in football. Before the current Seahawks, the Revis and Ryan 2009-11 Jets were the last team to have a top-five defense three years in a row. Ryan’s blitz-heavy scheme and Revis were better together than they were apart. In his four seasons without Ryan, Revis has never played on a defense ranked higher than eighth in DVOA. In three Revis-less seasons, Ryan’s Jets defenses never ranked higher than ninth. As he did for Ryan, Revis would make it possible for Bowles to blitz more and to do so more effectively by operating without safety help.
Moreover, the Jets have the cap space they were lacking when then-GM John Idzik traded Revis away two years ago. According to overthecap.com, only three teams have more room than the Jets’ $49 million. Before they go to the draft to potentially fix their Hindenburg-sized quarterback problem, the Jets should make a big push to get Revis to bring his talents back to East Rutherford.
(This article originally appeared at ESPN.com Insider.)