Four Downs: NFC East

Four Downs: NFC East

by Vincent Verhei

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.

Dallas Cowboys

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Safety

It would be nice if Dallas could add a runner to replace DeMarco Murray, but it's clear that you don't need a dominant running back to win a championship in today's NFL. You do, however, need great play from your defense—or at least better play than what the Cowboys got last year, when their defense finished 22nd against the run, the pass, and overall by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The additions of free agent Greg Hardy (pending his suspension) and second-round draftee Randy Gregory should boost the pass rush, while first-round cornerback Byron Jones will help Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick handle spread formations. At safety, though, the Cowboys are stuck with the eminently mediocre duo of J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church.

Safeties are hard to analyze statistically, because their assignments can vary wildly from team to team. By and large, though, we can say they are asked to prevent opposing offenses from making big plays, and the Cowboys' pair didn't offer much help there, especially in the running game. Church was 25th among safeties in run stops (tackles that stopped an offense from gaining 45 percent of yards to go on first down, 60 percent on second, and 100 percent on third or fourth); Wilcox was 61st. That would be fine if their conservative play was taking away home runs, but Dallas gave up 1.03 Open-Field Yards per carry last year, third-worst in the league. (Open-Field Yards are rushing yards gained at least 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.) The Cowboys also struggled to stop deep passes, ranking 20th in pass coverage on throws that traveled at least 16 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Key Undrafted Free Agents: La'el Collins might be the most famous undrafted free agent since Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jason White went undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2005. (White eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans, but promptly retired due to pre-existing knee injuries.) A left tackle at LSU, he was expected to go in the first round of the draft as a guard, perhaps even as the first offensive lineman off the board. Then word broke that police wanted to question Collins concerning the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her unborn child. Though Collins was never named as a suspect, no team was willing to take a gamble on his legal status, not even a seventh-round flyer. Collins met with police and was not arrested, and still has not been named as a suspect. Collins was then free to sign with any team he chose. League rules dictated that financially, there was little difference where he wound up, so Collins' choice came down to the circumstances available on each club. He chose Dallas, the team with perhaps the league's best offensive line, where he will battle Ronald Leary for a starting guard spot, or perhaps supplant right tackle Doug Free. The bad news for Collins is that he has lost millions of dollars by going undrafted. The good news is that if he is successful in the NFL, he will hit free agency a year earlier than he would have otherwise.

In non-Collins news, the Cowboys added Baylor wide receiver Antwan Goodley, a two-time All-Big 12 player. They also signed several all-name candidates, including Florida Atlantic wide receiver Lucky Whitehead, Houston wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, and Georgia Tech running back Synjyn Days.

New York Giants

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Linebacker

The Giants were trampled on the ground last season, finishing 27th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric for run defense. A look at our front seven statistics shows that aside from a mediocre ability to prevent short-yardage conversions, they struggled in virtually all areas of run defense. They didn’t tackle opponents for a loss very often (27th in Stuff Rate), gave up too many medium-length runs (31st in Second-Level Yards), and were burned by long runs too (29th in Open-Field Yards).

Giants linebackers also failed in pass coverage, ranking 20th in coverage against running backs, 25th against tight ends, and last by a wide margin in passes thrown to the short middle area of the field.

Jacquian Williams, perhaps the team's best linebacker when healthy last year (he missed seven games with a concussion), was not re-signed after the season. That leaves the middle linebacker spot to either Jon Beason, who missed most of 2014 with a toe injury, or Jameel McClain, whose average run tackle last year came 4.2 yards downfield. That ranked 72nd among qualifying linebackers. Both Beason and McClain will be 30 years old by the time the season starts. The top option outside will be J.T. Thomas, who was effective at times for Jacksonville last season, but there's a reason the Giants will be his third team in four years. On the opposite side, possible starters include 2014 fifth-rounder Devon Kennard, longtime backup Mark Herzlich, or new arrival Jonathan Casillas, who played primarily special teams for Tampa Bay and New England the last couple seasons.

[ad placeholder 3]

Key Undrafted Free Agents: Maryland linebacker Cole Farrand has a chance to stick around, if only because New York's status at that position is so dire. Purdue running back Akeem Hunt could bring the home run back to a Giants team that ranked 28th in Open-Field Yards last season. He averaged 5.5 yards per rush in his Big Ten career, and also returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns. Lineman Brett Jones is not technically a rookie—he was the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie in 2013, and its Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman last year. He played center in Canada, but will be moving to guard in New York. Richmond wide receiver Ben Edwards was a two-time All-Colonial Athletic Conference first team selection, leading the CAA with 80 receptions as a junior and adding 74 more as a senior. Southern Connecticut State defensive tackle Carlif Taylor was a two-time All-Northeast-10 Conference selection.

Philadelphia Eagles

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Safety

Malcolm Jenkins will return to start at one safety position, but Nate Allen signed with Oakland in free agency. To replace him, the Eagles did… uh… nothing. They did not add a safety in free agency. They did not make a trade. They did not take one in the draft. They didn't even add a pure safety as an undrafted free agent. At the time of this writing, here is a full list of pure safeties on Philadelphia's roster, besides Jenkins:

  • Earl Wolff. A fifth-round pick in 2013, he started six games as a rookie and one last year, but at times was a healthy scratch in 2014, and ended the season on injured reserve with a knee injury.
  • Chris Prosinski. Jacksonville drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. He started nine games in his first three seasons, then was waived last September and picked up by the Eagles, playing eight games for Philadelphia.
  • Chris Maragos. Veteran special-teamer for San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia, he has never started a game in five NFL seasons.
  • Jerome Couplin III. An undrafted rookie last season, when he played one game for Buffalo, eight for Detroit, and one for Philadelphia.
  • Ed Reynolds. A fifth-round pick out of Stanford last year, he never made the active roster.

Seriously, that's it. As for the rookies, second-round pick Eric Rowe played safety for three years at Utah, but he was a cornerback in his senior season, and both he and Chip Kelly have strongly suggested that that will be his position this fall. Sixth-rounder Randall Evans played both corner and safety in college, as did undrafted free agent Denzel Rice, but it's hard to imagine a sixth-rounder or a UDFA stepping in and starting on opening day. The Eagles gave up a league-high 72 20-yard completions last year, and could be worse in 2015.

Key Undrafted Free Agents: Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com picked out eight undrafted rookies with a chance to make the team, half of them offensive linemen. UNLV guard Brett Boyko is huge—huge, I say—at 6-foot-7 and 301 pounds. He started 43 games at left tackle for the Runnin' Rebels, twice being named second-team All-Mountain West, after playing defensive line and quarterback in high school in Saskatoon. Guard Malcolm Bunche (another monster at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds) started his collegiate career at Miami before finishing at UCLA. He played both left tackle and guard for the Bruins. Guard Cole Manhart was a three-year starter at left tackle for Division II Nebraska-Kearney (go Lopers!), a three-time All-Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association choice, and earned AFCA All-America honors following his junior and senior seasons. Center Mike Coccia started 40 games at center for New Hampshire, earning AP FBS All-America honors his senior season. Shorr-Parks also likes a pair of tight ends, Michigan State's Andrew Gleichert (who can also play fullback) and Texas-El Paso's Eric Tomlinson, along with Texas wide receiver John Harris (68 catches for 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior year). The most likely defensive player to make the team is the aforementioned Denzel Rice, a two-time All-Big South second-teamer at Coastal Carolina.

Washington Redskins

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Secondary

[ad placeholder 4]

Give the Redskins credit here. They recognized a weakness -- the pass defense was dead last in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings a year ago -- and did all they could find new players to patch that weakness up. Only problem is, there's no guarantee the new players will be an improvement over the guys they've been brought in to replace.

We'll start at safety, where Ryan Clark has retired and Brandon Meriweather was not re-signed after the season. Dashon Goldson arrives from Tampa Bay, where according to Football Outsiders game charting he gave up 10.5 yards per target last season, ranking among the bottom ten safeties in the league. Washington also signed Jeron Johnson, formerly a backup in Seattle. As you're probably aware, backup safeties in Seattle don't get a lot of playing time, and Johnson has only one start in four NFL seasons. He's a complete mystery. All we know for sure is that he's worse than Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, and while there's no shame in that, you'd like to see him accomplish something before anointing him a starter.

At cornerback, DeAngelo Hall returns from injury, but he turns 32 this season, he's coming off two Achilles tendon tears, and even in his best years his pass coverage numbers never lived up to his reputation. The other corner will be Chris Culliver, a free-agent signee from San Francisco. Culliver should be Washington's best defensive back if he can stay on the field, but he arrives in D.C. with a criminal record, and he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL. There is also talk that Hall will be moved to free safety, opening a starting spot for either Bashaud Breeland (64th in adjusted success rate among cornerbacks last season) or David Amerson (75th). (Adjusted success rate, a stat from Football Outsiders game charting, is explained here.)

Key Undrafted Free Agents: Washington signed Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, who put up video game numbers in Mike Leach's offense (his 714 passes in 2013 were the second-highest total since at least 1956; the top four marks were all set by Leach quarterbacks), but he then abruptly retired on the eve of rookie camp. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason (21 touchdowns, four interceptions as a senior) was invited to rookie camp on a tryout basis. Diminutive Texas A&M running back Trey Williams (5-foot-7, 195 pounds) averaged 6.6 yards per carry on 204 collegiate rushes, and 24.1 yards on 70 career kickoff returns. Northwestern wide receiver Tony Jones ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Kicker Ty Long converted 77 percent of his 77 field-goal attempts at Alabama-Birmingham.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.

Comments

55 comments, Last at 25 May 2015, 5:58pm

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

What the Eagles are doing at safety is legitimately bananas. I mean... I really like Earl Wolff, so I don't think this look as bad to me as it does to everyone else. But even liking Wolff (who somehow couldn't win the starting job from Nate Allen?!?), he has had significant injury issues and there's absolutely no back-up on the team.

Their handling of the CB spot is a mess as well, in the sense that they invested a lot in it this off-season but don't appear to have definite #2CB slotted in - and I'm also convinced they're going to have buyer's remorse on Maxwell around week 3 or so when he proves to be Cary Williams 2.0...

It's astounding that secondary was their major weak point in 2014, they invested a lot of resources in it this offseason and somehow it wasn't decisively improved. The bar for "better than Nate Allen" is so very, very low and astoundingly they managed to not clear it.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm not sure it's that bad - last time we had no apparent off-season answer to our safety issue, we turned to the draft, and our 5th rounder that year ended up starting as a rookie. Note: I'm the only member of the Macho Harris fan club.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

If we had a player of the caliber of Victor starting at S at this point I'd be thrilled.

Incidentally, I always trace Andy Reid's downfall to letting Quintin Mikell walk - I never understood how after Mikell's two Pro Bowl caliber seasons (his 2008 for which he didn't make the Pro Bowl was actually much better than his very good 2009) they could just let him leave, especially having just let Dawkins go. That 2008/2009 defensive stretch was the second best they ever had as a team (that 2008 season being really remarkable) and just like that, its core was gone: Mikell, Samuel, Dawkins, Bradley, Patterson - even useful role players like Brown, Thomas & Bunkley. I know age and injury were the main reasons for a lot of that change, which make Mikell's departure all less defensible.

And they've been stuck in safety hell ever since.

(I like to imagine an alternate reality where Mikell never left and Bradley never got injured - I think the 8-8 "dream team" plays out very differently if it doesn't field Nate Allen at S nor Casey Matthews/Brian Rolle at LB and replaces them with excellent players...)

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Wasn't Brown a bit more then a role player, I thought he had pretty good charting stats for at least one of the years in CLE after he left?

Letting Samuel/Mikell/Brown go always makes me cry thinking about how good that defense would have been if we had kept them for a few more years. Never understood the logic of letting them walk, yeah they might be getting older but when the cupboard is bare and you have no replacements on the roster sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and pay them until a draft pick works out.

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

To be fair, any even slightly below replacement level safety would be better than Brandon Merriweather who either was suspended, hurt, or would get hurt lining up his next suspension mid game.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Giants management has made it clear in recent seasons that LB is not at all a priority position. Kennard looked pretty good last year, even before you adjust expectations for a fifth round rooie, but Beason has been bad in coverage even when he's healthy. And Herzlich runs like he had cancer, but somebody has to fill the "white linebacker Coughlin inexplicably loves" role

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Yeah, I think the Giants actually build their roster very smart - they've clearly avoided putting on a premium on LB, so saying the failed to improve there isn't right: they intentionally put their resources elsewhere. Without last year's bad luck at RB and some luck this year with o-line, I actually think they look like a fairly good bet to win the division...

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Historically, there is a spot on the Giants roster for 1 reasonably expensive Linebacker to be the signal-caller and 3-down leader of the defense. Right now, for better or worse, that's Jon Beason. (In the past, it's been Michael Boley and Antonio Pierce.)

Still, between McClain, Thomas, and Casillas, they are spending for more veterans at the LB position now than they generally have in the past. This is probably a reflection of the fact that they no longer have a tweener-DE who they like to stand-up in certain sets (i.e., Matthias Kiwanuka) or any quality depth at Safety that would enable them to play their 3rd S in place of a WLB.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It's interesting, if you look at DVOA, the best 4-3 defenses (Seattle, Detroit and St. Louis are the only two in the Top 10) put almost no premium on LB. Detroit and St. Louis invested heavily in d-line while Seattle put their money the secondary. I think that shows there's some wisdom to building your 4-3 defense with the LB's as replaceable parts (although, my notion here will be tested when Bobby Wagner's contract is up.)

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I guess financially you might be right, but I think DeAndre Levy, James Laurinaitis, and Bobby Wagner sure deserve a lot of credit for the success of those teams.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I agree - but none of them are 1st round picks and none of them have outlandish contracts. (I would also say Laurinaitis and Levy also never looked anything other than pedestrian until the lines in front of them were excellent, but that's totally just opinion.) Laurinaitis has a fairly significant contract but Wagner and Levy aren't even the highest paid LB's on their teams. There are 10 defensive players on the Seahawks getting paid more than Wagner and 4 on the Lions getting paid more than Levy.

These teams just aren't investing heavily at LB compared to d-line or secondary - the Lions entire starting LB corps is getting paid less than Ngata alone. Same for Richard Sherman OR Earl Thomas and the entire Seahawks LB corps. Laurinaitis is the third highest paid player on the Rams, but there are two DE's getting more money than him. I'm just speaking in terms of resources spent, not the on-field value of the players...

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Wagner isn't highly paid right now because he's on his rookie contract, he's about to become very highly paid.

And the case that those teams don't prioritise linebacker seems to be based on deliberately ignoring that Laurinitis and Wagner are both second round picks, which is pretty high for a linebacker. And Bruce Irvin was a first round pick.

In recent history the Bears defense had been one of the best 4-3s and they had Urlacher and Briggs.

So your argument comes down them having in common that the draft D-linemen high. Except that Seattle don't, they've spent first and second rounders on Irvin and Wagner but haven't drafted a defensive lineman that high in years.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Actually, my argument comes down to what I argued and not something I didn't: the 4-3 defenses in the Top 10 in DVOA in 2014 didn't prioritize LB. I added, the Rams and Detroit prioritized d-line while Seattle prioritized the secondary. I didn't say something I didn't. Nor did I argue no 4-3 team in the history of 4-3 has ever prioritized LB (because, and you might be surprised to hear this because they're obscure players who didn't get much press, but I am well aware of not only Brian Urlache but Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and Lawrence Taylor, all of whom were paid quite a bit of money by their teams!) I'm glad to finally have an opportunity to say it without exaggeration: but, sir, you've made a strawman argument against me!

As for Wagner, it won't be Seattle paying him. They simply won't have the money to keep him and Wilson - there's just no way. If Seattle pays him a paycheck in the neighborhood of what they are paying Thomas and Sherman, at that point they will have shown a priority in investing in LB. Right now, they are inarguably (you have no argument here, this is a fact) prioritizing their secondary and not their LB's (As I said before.)

My argument was pretty simple: last year, the 3 top 4-3 defenses didn't prioritize LB... which they clearly don't as both Detroit and Seattle are paying individual defensive players (in Seattle's case, multiple individuals) more than they are paying their entire LB corps. There is no LB on any of the three teams that is the highest paid defensive player. These are just facts. There's a reasonable case that St. Louis prioritized Lauriniatis since he's the third highest paid player on their team. However, there are 5 d-linemen getting paid more than their next highest paid LB, though - wouldn't you say paying a back-up at one position more than a starter at another indicates prioritization? If not, what would indicate prioritization to you? (That's without even mentioning that another d-lineman, Nick Fairley, is drawing nearly as much money as those LB's to boot.)

Seriously, I know this always comes across as sarcastic when I ask it of other commenters, but what would any of these teams have to do to indicate priority at one positional group over another? Keep in mind "prioritizing one thing over another" is not the same as "showing rabid enthusiasm for one thing and total disinterest in another." I'm serious: no LB is the highest paid defensive player on any of the teams, the salaries of another positional group dwarf that spent on LB, amongst the three teams there are scarcely any first rounders spent on LB, single players are getting paid more than an entire positional group etc. Just give me a measure and we'll see if they meet, I'm not even invested in being right, this is not something I care deeply about, I'm just curious what would make it "true" for you...

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm thinking the flaw in your argument is that you define "prioritize" only in terms of money. Draft picks also have value, and all of those teams have invested high draft picks in their linebackers.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Again, compared to other positional groups: no, you're wrong. Detroit and St. Louis have committed way more towards d-line in terms of picks. There's no comparison between them having each used a single 2nd rounder on starting LB's since 2009 (and a St. Louis using only one single other pick any higher than the 6th round on an LB) and the combined 6 total high 1st round picks they've used on d-line. Come on - there's no argument here. You're simply wrong. The numbers get skewed even worse if you go back to 2007 and add ANOTHER 2 high first rounder d-linemen to the total (and a 2nd rounder in Detroit - although the 2nd round LB they took cancels that out.)

Seattle there's more of an argument for having spent a 1st/2nd on Bruce Irvin/Wagner a couple years ago, but in general they haven't spent high picks on defense - buuut since 2009, they've spent two first rounders on DB's (i.e. more resources than they've used on LB's) - this combined with salary shows they haven't prioritized LB compared to their secondary. With draft picks, it's at least close in Seattle, but that's ignoring how they spend their money. Which I'm not sure way you would do that. Be honest, if you had to order Seattle's priorities in terms of money and draft picks, would you ever put LB at the top of the list? You wouldn't dream of putting it ahead of secondary, unless you were intent on being dishonest.

That was a nice swing, but you missed the nail.

Again, give me a clear definition and we'll see if they meet it.

They don't, though.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

OK, find me a team that has invested both cap and high picks into linebackers and you will have a point.

Everyone values defensive backs and linemen higher, that's the NFL. What you were saying is that those teams specifically don't, which just isn't the case.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Well, the question is 4-3 teams. If you stop and think for a moment, you'll realize many teams (like say the Eagles) have invested more in their LB's than DE's or secondary. The Eagles, for example, have spent a single first 1st or 2nd round pick on a d-lineman (Fletcher Cox) and have him as their 5th best paid defensive player. Meanwhile, they have 4 LB's (Ryans, Graham, Barwin and, wtf!? Marcus Smith) making more or very similar money to him - and Smith as well as Graham were both 1st rounders.) Their other d-linemen are all making less money than their #4CB, Nolan Carroll. Their other starting d-linemen are making less than CB's buried on their depth chart and significantly less money than 5 different LB's. You see the difference? Philly has prioritized LB and not d-line. Therefore, according to your outline, I "have a point."

But that's a 3-4 team, so it's not precisely comparable. What about what we were discussing, which is 4-3 teams to prioritize LB's? Well, you have Carolina (who were ranked a respectable 15th in DVOA) that has 3 LB's in their Top 12 best paid players total and as 2 out of 3 of their best paid defensive players. Since 2009, they've taken 1 d-lineman and 1 LB in the first round - so that's a wash. It's not 100% clear they've prioritized them over d-linemen (depending how you value the couple of 2nd round draft picks they've used on d-linemen) but it would be impossible to argue they've prioritized d-line over LB's. But you can see the difference between how Carolina has spent money and picks and St. Louis, Detroit and Seattle, right? I'm not even trying to convince you, I'm just trying to get you to acknowledge a fact.

(Also, I don't need to slam-dunk this, but Carolina absolutely, positively has prioritized LB over their secondary. That's just not even a discussion. Zero DB's taken in the top 2 rounds of the last five drafts and a single player in the Top 25 paid players on the team. So no, that's a different set of priorities than Seattle having Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman as two of the top 3 paid players.)

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'd count a 3-4 outside linebacker as closer to a defensive lineman than a 4-3 linebacker, I find FO's 'second level defender as a better description. That leaves the Eagles with Ryans, who is frankly rather overpaid but that's a different conversation.

As for the Panthers, you are right that I had forgotten about them and they do seem to place more emphasis on linebackers than other teams. However, you only have to go back a year or two and their linebacker heavy team would be ranked right up at the top of the defensive DVOA rankings, which would counter your original point that the 4-3 teams that don't invest in linebackers are those that do best. They also run the same scheme as those very good Chicago defenses, so their propensity to invest in that position is probably due to the influence of that scheme. Additionally, while they have basically ignored their secondary (again probably because defensive backs are less important to a Tampa-2 type team) they did spend a first rounder on Lotulelie and a second on Charles Johnson as well as paying Greg Hardy a fortune, even though it turned out they were paying him handsomely to get suspended.

I just think you reached a little bit drawing such a sweeping conclusion from three data points from one particular year.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Man, I don't even know what to say about your analysis of the Eagles - yes, if you weight 5 starting positions against 2, they are not spending as much on on ILB's as DE/DT/OLB. And if you're going to parse it that closely, well then Irvins doesn't count as an LB for the Seahawks and it'd be a little dubious to count a pass rush specialist like Alec Olgetree as not being a "second level player" pushing both of those teams more squarely into what I'm arguing. But that would be some truly absurd nonsense. But leaving 3-4 teams out of it is more reasonable than saying Graham and Alonso are the same thing and one is not a "second level player."

But reading that Panthers paragraph I think I finally understood why you're arguing this with me despite being objectively wrong - you think I'm saying something about the "best" or "only" or "the way that makes the most sense" to build a 4-3 team, which I am not. Of course you can go back a couple years and find good 4-3 defenses who have invested heavily at LB relative to other positions. Whoever said you couldn't build a team that way? Pointing out that the best 4-3 defenses in the league have all built that way was just meant to show how the Giants shouldn't despair for similarly failing to prioritize LB.

I didn't reach a sweeping conclusion - I pointed out you can field a Top 10 defense without prioritizing LB. Which is, once and finally, a true fact.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Well maybe I misinterpreted what you meant but it sure reads like that is what you were saying.

However, the pedant in me has to address some of you later statements.Irvin might have been drafted with the idea of him replacing Clemons in the Leo role but he plays Sam for them now, a much more second-levely role. Ogletree is not a pass rush specialist, at all. He has 1.5 sacks in two years and I'd forgotten that he was a first rounder which means the Rams have spent a first and a second on their linebackers. Given that most teams spend 60% of their time in nickel these days how have they not prioritized their linebackers when the two that play a lot are 1st ad 2nd round picks?

And I never mentioned Alonso, I would have described him as a second level guy, a run stuffer/coverage player. Isn't Graham a converted DE and pass rusher? That's why I would say they're two different positions.

So to sum up: the Rams, Seahawks and Detroit have built good defenses without investing in linebackers. Apart from Seattle and St Louis both spending first and second round picks on linebackers. So just Detroit then.

36 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I didn't saying without investing in LB, I said without prioritizing the entire positional group (and priority can only be determined by comparing it to other positional groups - like the secondary Seattle spends waaaaay more money on and the d-line St. Louis spends both waaaaaay more money AND picks on.) Also, I've been over extensively how the scant draft picks Seattle and St. Louis spent definitely don't outweigh the draft picks they spent elsewhere or salaries. (And you're right about Olgetree - I was confusing him with another player.) When both salary and draft picks are considered, it's just not even close for a single one of those teams. Let it go, you're wrong.

Finally, Graham is a converted DE, but he never plays with his hand on the ground (unlike Connor Barwin) so again you can parse this to a ridiculous extreme - if you wanted to argue their very versatility is why Philly invested heavily in them, that's certainly reasonable. Leaving OLB out, they've still spent marginally more on ILB than d-line, although it is more or less a toss-up. Philadelphia was just something I pulled out of my head - how to handle pass rushing OLB, whether they are the same thing as 4-3 DE's is an entirely different question and one that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

It highlights the issue though of you talking out of both sides of your mouth, truthfully: you're simultaneously arguing Seattle and St. Louis aren't de-prioritizing LB relative to other positions and that EVERY team de-prioritizes LB relative to other positions. You've been proven as wrong as you can be in terms of what I'm arguing, so I'm not sure what else there is to say...

39 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Burny, you said in post 6 that the three teams you mentioned had been, "building your 4-3 defense with the LB's as replaceable parts" but two of the three teams have recently used first and second round picks on linebackers.

I think my position is consistent, those teams have not deprioritized the position any more or less than other teams. In fact two of them have arguably invested more in the position.

If you had said that in the modern NFL teams don't place a large priority on linebackers then there would have never been any disagreement.

I fully agree that Philly are not relevant but it was you who brought it up.

40 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

No, they haven't invested more by any argument! Stop saying that! Seattle has invested a similar # of picks and waaay less salary. St. Louis and Detriot have invested both waaay fewer picks and salary. Stop staying that!

41 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Also 2nd round picks are replaceable parts. You get one every year. They make the active roster about 50% of the time and become multiple year starters about 15% of the time. They cost almost nothing. If you miss one year, you can replace that part easily, no team is relying on a 2nd round pick to be a starter they way they are their top paid players. There's a comparison, but a very mild one to spending a 2nd rounder (or even a 1st rounder) on Bobby Wagner and paying Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman bank. Stop pretending they're comparable! They are not! You do not pay Richard Sherman his paycheck for even that 50% chance he will work out. This is painfully, mind-numbingly obvious. Please stop. You are wrong.

43 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

OK, wow. First of all, take a breath and calm down.

A second round pick starts an average of 3.72 years (http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/breaking-down-the-nfl-draft/) in other words you can reasonably expect to get a four year starter out of that pick and the number is higher for inside linebackers. It is not unreasonable to say that it represents a significant investment from that team. This is much more true for a first round pick. If you don't think first and second round draft picks are highly valuable resources for NFL teams then you are mistaken and I wonder if it's worth responding to you at all. You say that they get one second rounder every year but I think it is more accurate to emphasize that they only get one second round pick each year (and only one first obviously, which just reinforces my case).

As for salaries; Wagner, Irvin and Ogletree are all on their rookie contracts so of course they are being paid less. That's the way the league works.

You made an assertion that hasn't a shred of evidence to support it unless you solely look at current salaries and that makes your case only if you ignore the salary structure of the NFL under the CBA.

A team needs more linemen (especially if you count a 3-4 OLB as an endbacker and not a second level player) and you need more defensive backs so it is natural that more resources will be spent on those two positions. However, you assertion that the Rams and Seahawks haven't invested in the position is gibberish. I don't know how else to put it, I disagree with your original statement and so does the evidence.

42 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

What's really needed to disprove this argument of chemical burn's is some 4-3 teams that have invested almost nothing in the linebacker position, not in dollars and not in draft picks. Then you could say that some 4-3 top-10 teams prioritized linebacker more than others, at any rate.

The NY Giants would be the first that springs to mind. Defensive DVOA last year was 24th. The Falcons? The Cowboys? The Bills? I'm not terribly conversant with NFL rosters, but maybe they're candidates.

44 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

The Giants are a very interesting case as they really have consistently under-resourced that position and been successful but they appear to be unique in that. With such a small sample size it's hard to make a definitive judgement and as I said earlier, it is dependent on defensive scheme. The teams that primarily play zone seem to place a higher value on linebackers than the Giants do.

But even their achievements are difficult to simply boil down to that one thing and the obvious possibility is that they got lucky. They had a lot of pass rush but nobody would argue that pressuring the qb isn't important would they?

45 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Again, I'm not making an argument, I'm pointing something out. I have no opinions on it. I don't think it's wise or stupid, a clever or shortsighted idea. I don't have opinions on what I'm pointing out.

As for what you're saying: I don't understand, the opposite of what I'm talking about would be what Karl mentioned: the Urlacher/Briggs Bears. They had more cap space (and picks) devoted to LB than d-line or secondary. Also, you're not going to get a "all and nothing" situation where a team is paying zero in picks and salary for LB and all of their money and picks for d-line. That isn't realistic, especially not for a good team. I guess you're saying if some teams spent absolutely nothing (relative to the rest of their defense) on LB, it would prove Seattle and Detroit have spent SOMETHING, so they have no priorities? Again, that's a strawman and not really even true.

It's simple enough to say: Carolina has invested at least as much if not more on LB than d-line and definitely more than their secondary. They de-prioritized their secondary in favor of LB and d-line. It's not rocket science. Their roster is built differently than Seattle's, which has waaaay more money tied up in the secondary than LB despite an equal amount of picks at the groups. The differences aren't even that subtle, they're basically as broad as they could be.

And again: I'm not making an argument, I'm pointing out facts! These 3 top 10 defenses all put their priorities elsewhere other than LB. I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing. I'm not saying that when Wagner signs a new contract that it will still even be true in Seattle's case. Less than a year from now, Seattle might no longer apply. There's no value judgement. There's no concept I'm testing out. I don't think it's a good or a bad idea to de-prioritize LB like these teams have done. I don't even think Wagner and Laurinaitis are less important to their team's success than Earl Thomas and Aaron MacDonald. I'm pointing out facts about how their rosters are currently constructed and where they have put their resources.

If their highest paid defensive player were an LB or several of their top picks were LB's, I wouldn't be saying this. It's, in fact, exactly why it doesn't apply to Carolina. Sheesh.

47 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Ok, let's put it to rest:

Cincinnati Bengals:
a respectable 14th in DVOA.

$22 million for LB's.
$26 million for d-line.
$25 million for secondary.

Their Top 12 paid players include 3 d-linemen, 2 LB's and 2 secondary players. No single player makes more than an entire positional group. Since 2009, in the first two rounds they have taken: 2 DB's, 3 d-linemen and 1 LB.

That is what a team that hasn't prioritized one positional group over another looks like. You might be able to argue that they are ever so slightly more invested in d-line. But I would say the d-line and secondary having 4 starters vs 3 for their LB's counts for the very, very marginal difference in salary and draft pick expenditure.

Enjoy, case closed from every angle.

(For comparison:
Seattle:
$11 million on LB's (28th in the league)
$32 million on DB's (1st in the league)
$31 million on d-line (3rd in the league)

Look - priorities!)

48 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Just for fun:

St. Louis:
$11 million on LB's (27th in the league)
$13 million on DB's (29th in the league)
$47 million (!) on d-line (1st in the league)

Detroit:
$14 million on LB's (20th in the league)
$14 million on DB's (28th in the league)
$22 million on d-line (12th in the league)

So, the two you weren't willing to admit qualified are way stronger cases than the one you thought qualified. Do me a favor: look up some numbers next time and actually have facts propelling what you're saying.

Also, jesus is Detroit's salary cap mismanaged.

49 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Which is fine and dandy as long as you don't believe that NFL teams have two resources at hand with which to build a team, draft picks and the salary cap.

Your point is entirely valid if you purposefully ignore one of those two resources and the cheap starters that are available if you don't have to spend free agent money on them because they're on their initial contracts.

If those are your parameters then you are entirely correct but even then you have admitted that your analysis is merely a one year snapshot and it's likely to change within a year and wasn't the case previously.

So you can be as dismissive as you like, you've ignored half of the equation.

53 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Gah - I've addressed draft pick at these positions!!!!! The Rams and Lions have spent more AND higher picks on d-line than LB's! I haven't ignored it! I've addressed it repeatedly!!!!! The Seahawks have spent identical picks on DB's to LB's. Enough! You're 100% absolutely wrong. Everything you've brought up has been addressed and repeatedly in minute detail.

To recap:
St. Louis have spent VASTLY more salary and VASTLY more picks.
Detroit has spent more salary and VASTLY more picks.
Seattle has spent VASTLY more salary and identical picks.

I've addressed your fucking point repeatedly, which was never obscure to begin with.

Additionally, I've shown you two decent defenses that have spent resources differently: Carolina spent the most money and picks on LB and D-line at the expense of secondary, Cincinnati spent evenly on salary and picks across all three groups. There's nothing left to be said, other you saying "yes, I was wrong and didn't know what I was talking about."

54 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"I think that shows there's some wisdom to building your 4-3 defense with the LB's as replaceable parts" Yeah, like spending a first and second round pick on the position suggests just that.

For that statement to be true you would need to show that they had been devoting much less of their resources to the position than everyone else. The lists of salaries are misleading because Ogletree, Wagner and Irvin are cheap due to them being on their rookie deals.

The pure number of draft picks is also misleading; because teams spend 60% of their time in the nickel they play 4 DLs, 2.4 LBs and 4.6 DBs. So of course there will be a tendency for all 4-3 teams to spend fewer total picks on linebacker but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are viewing that position as "replaceable." That was your initial point, though you have basically conceded your case in your final paragraph.

You could have backed down when you realized that you didn't know what position first round picks Ogletree or Irvin played, which rather undermined your assertion but you didn't and instead chose to start shouting, swearing and deploying multiple exclamation marks in a rather deranged fashion.

I really don't understand why you are persisting with this.

55 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

This argument about 4-3 vs 3-4 is becoming quite irrelevant because linebackers play the same roles in sub packages in both alignments. The difference really comes down to the gap concepts of the d line(including the standing edge rushers). But say Willis and Bowman did the same thing that Thomas and Kuechly do now.

The real discussion should be - what constitutes a good pass defense. As I've researched it, pass rush is important, but I suspect pure coverage accounts for 60 percent of a team's pass dvoa. The question then becomes, what makes a good cover unit? That has been nearly impossible to answer because different teams do it successfully a few different ways and theres a ton of year to year variation. My gut sense - you need corners and from there, you need either good linebackers or good safeties, if you have 2/3 - you're good to go.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I will never begin to understand Washington's fascination with picking up the leftover bits of Tampa's lousy secondary. Before Goldson, it was Tanard Jackson and E.J. Biggers, plus they hired Raheem Morris as secondary coach. The genuinely talented parts of the secondary that have left (Talib and Revis) hopped to New England, the crappy ones make a beeline for Washington.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Wow, so the NFC East teams have terrible safeties or secondaries. Which AFC East opponent might that favor?

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Just ask Cortland Finnengan. And we saw what a guy like Kirk Cousins can do when his receivers are running wide open all over the field. When you're that bad, you can't count on beating the worst. On the other hand, I'd give the NFC East teams a far higher chance of turning their fortunes around in the secondary than the Bills and Jets of doing the same at QB. Defense is simply easier to fix.

------
Who, me?

38 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

DVOA has been very kind to Kirk Cousins, so I'm loathe to entirely write him off - and I think we agree he has been better than Geno or EJ by any standard. I do think the Giants are headed in the right direction, but Philly's horrible secondary downgraded this offseason and people were marveling that Dallas' defense was merely bad last year (instead of awful) and I don't see how they've improved. Washington's 32nd ranked (by DVOA) pass defense has no where to go but up. I'm still not confident they will manage to do so. The AFC/NFC East match-ups are fairly spread out with about only 1 each week, so I'm guessing around mid-season is when people will start noticing, "whoa, the AFC East has really owned the NFC East this year..."

50 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Cousins was horrid in 2013 on a similar sample size to last year before coming in after Griffin got injured on week 2. He picked the Jags apart in relief and then the following week he had a great game against the Eagles. The wheels fell of quickly after that and he only lasted three and a half more games before he was benched. For Colt McCoy. If that isn't a scathing condemnation of his game, I don't know what is.

Unless you place an awful lot of stock on those two great games -which are the sole reason for the decent total DVOA you are seeing-, at this point I don't see anything to separate him from the pack of hopeful young QBs who didn't merit a high draft pick. Seems like he has a good deep ball, but when defenses adjusted there was little else to his game.

------
Who, me?

51 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I don't place much stock in those games and don't think Cousins is great. However, we've seen a much higher ceiling for his performance than we have from either Smith or Manuel. Smith and Manuel are bad even by the pathetic standard of "is he as good as Kirk Cousins?"

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

FWIW, the Cowboys haven't decided yet if Byron Jones will play CB or S... or both. The one thing they've said consistently is that they love his flexibility to play both and it's a big reason they drafted him.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

"The most likely defensive player to make the team is the aforementioned Denzel Rice, a two-time All-Big South second-teamer at Coastal Carolina."

He won't even make it past first cut.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I'm curious since you've played devil's advocate on a lot of Kelly's moves this off-season, what do you think is going to happen at S? I just assumed Rowe was going to get a shot but they seem pretty insistent he's staying at CB. I know most fans don't like him and he hasn't got much organization support, so I'd be surprised to hear Wolff is getting a shot...

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I have no idea. The scary thing is they don't either. Maybe it's Watkins, who is probably better suited for safety anyway. But he's no sure thing. Maybe it's Carroll, who played some safety in Miami and has said he would be willing to move there. But he too is an unknown as a full time safety. Or maybe it's someone else, but the rest of the lot has no experience. Wolff won't even make the roster unless there's a bunch of injuries.

They tried to sign McCourty, so it's not like they have just completely ignored the position.

Maybe they'll roll out an unconventional 3-5-3 defense!

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Maybe they'll roll out an unconventional 3-5-3 defense!

I almost suggested this possibility. Just nothing but Cover-3 and big blitzes. It'd be different, that's for sure.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

It wouldn't be a terrible idea to put the entire thing on the strength of their front 7 (8?) They have enough starting LB's to do it, too - getting Graham, Alonso, Ryans, Kendricks and Barwin on the field simultaneously is certainly more appealing than "maybe Ed Reynolds?" I've always maintained they would have done better playing 10-on-11 than having Nate Allen on the field and the CB's expecting him to be in position on bracket coverage...

32 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

God. If you were to play for turnovers and killing the running game a 3-5-3 would actually be rather beastly. Playing under a cover-3 shell you would also maximize Maxwell and any other big Seahawk like CBs.

Of course the key would be holding serve on offense.
_______

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I have had the idea rolling around in my head for some time that building a the middle of your defense to play for interceptions first might be a future trend in the NFL.

The rule changes related to roughing the passer and defensive pass interference have made it more difficult to defend the pass by pass rush or man coverage. Something like a 3 deep zone with the 5 in the middle just trying to break on the ball might work out. Tell them when in doubt don't try to break up the pass or play for the tackle, just go after the ball. I would think this would work especially well in the opponent's end or towards the middle of the field.

The defense might give up a lot of 8-15 yard first down passes, but you only need one int to stop a drive.

37 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

I do think Seattle figured out something smart in terms of the liberalized passing rules which is "don't be afraid to live with the short 5 yard penalties - fight closer to the LOS and shut down at the pick and crossing routes that other teams are being eaten alive by." Jamming the middle of the field with LB bodies might be another strategy that works just as well... provided you have Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman on your team. The main problem with ANYTHING Philly does on defense this year is that their CB's stink (sorry, Maxwell is a lesser Cary Williams and their #2 will likely be a 2nd round rookie converted safety) and that there's only so much Malcolm Jenkins can do on his own.

Collapsing the play as quickly as possible and expecting no help from the secondary would likely be the smartest move for them in this context: play like only sacks, batted balls, pressures resulting in short scrambles and interceptions are going to stop the opposing offenses. Blow it up as quickly as possible and don't expect help on the outside.

46 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Burn, If Maxwell is a lessor Carry Williams, why didn't teams pick on him. Specifically, the Pats in the Super Bowl. A team who always goes after the weakest link of the opponents defense. Why not exploit the weakness?

52 Re: Four Downs: NFC East

Maxwell as a replaceable part in the Seahawks system is a very different thing than Maxwell as a highly paid #1CB. Cary Williams had a similar role as the 9th or 10th best starter on a Superbowl winning defense - although Maxwell was probably the worst starter on that defense. You might notice the Seahawks picked up someone named "Cary Williams" to be Maxwell's literal replacement. Also, there's evidence that the Seahawks can get production out of the #2CB slot no matter who they put in there: Maxwell, Thurmond, Browner and Lane all looked very good when supported up by Thomas, Chancellor and Sherman. Are you honestly betting their secondary will be worse in 2015 now that he's gone? Or do you think his presence won't even be noticed, like when Thurmond left?

Anyhoo, exploiting the weakness of the Seahawk secondary is easier said than done. If "throw the ball at the #2CB" was all it took, teams would've thrown at Thurmond and Browner as well. Ultimately, Maxwell doesn't even have a full season as a starter under his belt, he gets more penalties per game than Williams (which was one of Williams' worst attributes to begin with) and Jeremy Lane was taking playing time from him by the end. And he's getting paid like a top CB? That's recipe for a bust. It's also the same recipe that brought the Eagles Cary Williams to begin with.

They just paid a huge amount of money (he's the 2nd highest paid player on the team) for a guy with 6 career interceptions in 4 seasons DESPITE being the weak link who should have seen plenty of balls coming his way, who has never started a full season and who draws penalties at an alarming rate. You can see where the idea that this is a much worse signing than Cary Williams comes from right? Williams at least had a few season as a starter before they signed him to a much more modest contract. They'd be lucky if he were Brandon Browner 2.0, a player Pats fans were booing out the door at the end of last year.