Archive for March, 2014

Mike Smith’s 2012 13-3 Atlanta Falcons turned into a 4-12 team in 2013 with almost the same roster. The NFC South become significantly more competitive with the rebounding of the New Orleans Saints and the uprising of the Carolina Panthers among the NFC’s heavyweights. But the success of the Saints and Panthers alone doesn’t explain their downfall. In my THRILLING, FLY BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS article, you can analyze what prevented Atlanta from returning to the playoffs in 2013.

Strength of schedule

Between 2012 and 2013, no team faced a greater jump in schedule difficulty than the Atlanta Falcons. The strength of schedule jumped from .422 to .504 between 2012 and 2013 for the Falcons (metrics courtesy of bleacherreport.com). The Falcons transitioned from playing the easiest schedule of 2012 in all of football to an above average schedule in terms of difficulty in 2013. The Falcons’ only three losses in 2012 (Regular season) came to other NFC South teams. The 13-3 Falcons probably weren’t as tough as your “average” 13-3 NFL team.

Defensive collapse

In 2013, the Falcons failed to stop the run, allowing 135.8 rushing yards per game, good for second to last in the league for run defense. The Falcons also ranked in the bottom five in the NFL for team sacks and team interceptions. The majority of the Falcons’ starters on defense played healthy for 15 or more games. Asante Samuel was the lone defensive starter to miss five games (Samuel’s since been cut from the team). The Falcons defense didn’t struggle because of injury, it struggled because it wasn’t built to handle the NFL’s fiercest runners and passing offenses. They likely leaned too heavily on Asante Samuel when he isn’t the same player he used to be. Atlanta previously masked a struggling defense behind a high scoring passing offense, but the challenges in the 2013 season made that unfeasible for Mike Smith. Atlanta will have an opportunity to take one of the draft’s elite defenders like Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr in May.

Running game downgrade instead of upgrade

In 2012, Michael Turner led a weak rushing attack for Atlanta. Turner had performed at a high level as a backup to LT in San Diego and as a starter in Atlanta for many years, but in 2012 his wheels fell off. Steven Jackson came to Atlanta in 2013 to be his replacement, and to improve on 2012’s rushing performance. Instead Jackson got injured and Atlanta’s rushing attack struggled even more in 2013. One-dimensional offenses are naturally easy to defend. And the Falcons offense had been slowed by injury.

Injuries

Devastating injuries to key players on the Falcons’ offense shelved their chances of being a strong team in 2013. Julio Jones, the crown jewel of the Falcons’ offense, went down early in the season putting a wrench in the Falcons’ plans to return to the postseason. Starting WR Roddy White also faced injuries and produced under 800 yards receiving on the season. Starting LT Sam Baker only played 4 games after receiving a long term contract for the team. Starting RB Steven Jackson went down with injury.

Lessons learned

When teams draft for depth instead of star power, place value on defense, and attract players who can stay healthy they set themselves up for success. Mike Smith will have a more competitive NFC South to play against in 2014, but a strong draft class and returning healthy starters should make the team relevant again.

Toby Gerhart – Jacksonville Jaguars RB

Jacksonville signed a starting caliber running back for under $4 million/year. The signing of Gerhart allows Jacksonville to focus on other areas of need in the draft (QB, DE, OLB, DB). Spending a fair but still affordable amount of money on a talented starter is the habit of a winning franchise.

Golden Tate – Detroit Lions WR

Detroit signed Tate to a $31 million contract over five years. Tate’s got excellent hands and admirable speed. He’s a solid breakout candidate on a Detroit offense that’s sorely needed a clear number two receiver for the past several seasons. Tate’s contract will look like a bargain if he can develop a rapport with Matthew Stafford.

James Jones – Oakland Raiders WR

Jones’ will quickly become the Raiders number one receiver regardless of who lines up at QB. Jones signed a three year, $11.3 million contract with Oakland. If Oakland ends up starting a veteran like Matt Schaub or a rookie like Derek Carr, they will be glad to have a wide receiver with a nose for the endzone like Jones.

Garrett Graham, Houston Texans TE

Graham stepped up in the absence of Owen Daniels and played tremendously well. Graham’s been rewarded with a three year, $11.5 million contract. Graham provides excellent value and talent at the position. Graham’s presence will be a major boon for whichever rookie Houston ends up drafting in May.

Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts WR

Nicks signed with the Colts for a one year, $3 million contract. If Nicks works out, Indianapolis can resign him to a longer contract to remain with the team. If he doesn’t they’ve only lost $3 million attempting to bolster their receiving corps.

Smart Free Agent Movers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers displayed patience and wisdom in free agency by cutting loose underperforming LT Donald Penn and signing a talented Anthony Collins to a reasonably priced long term contract. They also signed a quality Center in Evan-Dietrich Smith and an underrated TE in Brandon Myers. The importing of Josh McCown shows Lovie Smith is already preparing a strong roster for 2014.

Nonsmart Free Agent Movers

Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen are worried about getting fired next season so they’ve made a number of offseason moves to make sure it happens. After a number of questionable FA signings including an aging Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Donald Penn, the Raiders went the extra mile and traded a sixth round pick to Houston for the privilege of paying QB Matt Schaub $10.5 million to be a bad backup or a worse starter.

Earth to Dave Gettleman. Take your third round pick, WR Marvin McNutt, and a brand new pair of Jordans’, wrap it all up in a cardboard box and mail it out to:
Chip Kelly
1 Lincoln Financial Field Way,
Philadelphia, PA 19147

DeSean Jackson is up for a TRADE YOU MAROON. GET YOUR FAT TOOKUS OFF THE COUCH AND GET THE BEST RECEIVER IN THE NFC EAST.

In other news, Oakland put a band-aid on their offensive line by signing Donald Penn. Penn is uninspiringly overweight weighing in at 340 lbs, hefty even for an NFL offensive lineman. Penn still performs as an adequate left tackle and can be expected to provide solid O-line play for Oakland in 2014.

Dallas’s chances of drafting an interior d-lineman in the first round just dropped the moment they signed former Bear Henry Melton to play DT. Teams will likely still covet Aaron Donald’s services in the middle portion of the the first round, but Dallas may decide it’s in the best interest of the team to draft a defensive back like Ha Ha Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor to put more talent on the field right away.

NY Jets head coach Rex Ryan is reportedly “upset” after seeing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sign with the Giants. The Jets now only have two former first round picks at the cornerback position, whereas in 2012 they had four (Dee Milliner, Kyle Wilson, Antonio Cromartie, Darrelle Revis).

Former Louisville Cardinal and first-round-pick-to-be Teddy Bridgewater apparently didn’t blow enough air up Mike Mayock’s skirt causing his imaginary stock to “drop.” Mike Mayock is a consummate professional, and if he believes Bridgewater didn’t have an impressive pro day, he’s probably right. But a pro day makes up about one percent of a player’s draftability. Bridgewater’s executed as a surgical passer in Louisville for years. A day of over-analyzing his throwing motion doesn’t detract from his ability to perform as an elite passer in the NFL.

These are the six wide receivers on the Panthers active roster as of 5:21:12 PM Eastern time, 3/17/2014.

  • Kealoha Pilares – Hawaii. 5’ 10” 205 lbs. Career numbers 2 receptions for 42 yards and one touchdown.
  • Tavarres King – Georgia. 6’0”. 191 lbs. No statistics.
  • RJ Webb – Furman. 6’2” 205 lbs. No statistics.
  • Marvin McNutt – Iowa. 6’2” 216 lbs. No receptions.
  • Toney Clemons – Colorado. 6’2” 210 lbs. Career numbers of 3 receptions for 41 yards.
  • Brenton Bursin – Wofford. 6’3” 210 – No statistics

The Panthers wide receivers have a collective five receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown between the six of them. Carolina lost four wide receivers in free agency, Cam Newton will want someone besides Greg Olsen to catch the football in 2014 if the Panthers expect to outpace New Orleans in the NFC South. Premium free agent WR’s Hakeem Nicks and Eric Decker have already signed with Indianapolis and the New York Jets, respectively.

Noteworthy wide receivers remaining in free agency include:

  • James Jones
  • Danario Alexander
  • Miles Austin
  • Lance Moore
  • Sidney Rice

Riverboat Ron Rivera watched as his starting left tackle retired from the game. He and Panthers GM Dave Gettleman will have to decide if they want their first round pick to go towards a shiny new receiver, a position of need for the past several years, or on the second most important position on the team, left tackle.

Gettleman could choose to resign former tackle Bruce Campbell. Campbell, a physical specimen heading into the draft, has never started a game in his NFL career. Campbell would provide added depth at the position, if little else.

Other options include Ryan Harris and Eric Winston. Harris’s been a solid right tackle for Houston and has allowed only 3.5 sacks over 26 starts in his career. Eric Winston had built a reputation as a solid starter until last season when his performance seemed to collapse on a terrible Cardinals offensive line. Winston might benefit from a change of scenery in Carolina.

If the Panthers can squeeze solid OT play out of a veteran like Winston or Harris on a nominally-priced contract they will come out of free agency looking like geniuses. Arizona, Miami and Oakland all dished out a hefty pay-day for tackles like Jared Veldheer, Branden Albert, and Austin Howard. Veldheer and Albert, while talented, have struggled with injuries in the past. Howard has improved significantly since his rookie days but still doesn’t deliver the same presence as a true bruiser like Matt Kalil or Joe Staley. Overspending on a free agent doesn’t make him better. Just ask Dan Snyder.

Gettleman may have to find both their starting wideouts in the draft. Fortunately the draft is supposedly stocked at the position, making prospects hopeful for the future in Carolina.

The Cleveland Browns have been a franchise in turmoil for the past several years. In 2013, they fired their head coach after another embarrassing 4-12 season. But the front office showed some promise. They sent young power running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first round pick. Hindsight has shown that Cleveland came out of that transaction as the clear victor. They start the 2014 season with former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine running the show as head coach and two first round picks, one in the top five. In a shaky AFC North, Cleveland will become one of the AFC’s heavyweights and enter the playoffs taking the NFL by surprise with a veteran defense and balanced offense.

Pillars on defense:

Joe Haden, CB

Haden’s established himself as one of the league’s top corners. He doesn’t get the attention that Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib get because his team never ends up in the playoffs, nor does he run his mouth after a big win.

Donte Whitner, SS

Whitner replaces departed defensive back T.J. Ward. Whitner is a tough defender who will bring a high level of physicality to the defense.

Karlos Dansby, ILB

Dansby’s a seasoned veteran who brings leadership to replace the departed D’Qwell Jackson. Dansby’s shown he can be effective rushing the passer, in coverage, and against the run. He was a defensive powerhouse last season in Arizona and will make an enormous difference in Cleveland in 2014.

Pillars on offense:

Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, OL

Thomas is the most consistent left tackle in football. He hasn’t missed a start in seven seasons for Cleveland and always performs at a high level. Mack is one of the league’s top centers and unless he finds his way out of Cleveland he will be the leader of the offensive in line in 2014.

Josh Gordon, WR

Gordon took the league by storm last season by leading the league in receiving yards, even missing two games during the season, and having questionable at best quarterbacks throwing him the ball. If Cleveland can find a stable and competent QB situation, Gordon can blossom even further.

Jordan Cameron, TE

Cameron broke out this past season catching eighty passes for over 900 yards. Cameron’s presence on the team will make him a “safety valve” for a rookie or journeyman Quarterback in 2014.

Ben Tate, RB

Tate’s been a caged tiger his first five seasons in the NFL. Houston drafted him to be the starting running back, but suffered from an embarrassment of riches at the position as Arian Foster stepped up and outplayed even Tate at the position. Tate is only 25 years old and doesn’t have the wear and tear that other starting backs have at that age.

The Draft:

Sources trusted by NFL.com say Cleveland plans to spend their first pick in the draft on a non-passer (Clowney, Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews, etc) and a later pick on a passer. If Clowney is not available, Cleveland may look to take Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Mike Pettine made his name by rushing the passer at Buffalo so it makes sense for him to take well-crafted QB hunter like Mack or Clowney. Whether they select Clowney or Mack, they get out of the top ten with one of the draft’s elite pass-rushers.

If QB Derek Carr gets drafted by Oakland, Cleveland will have to settle for a passer like Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron, or Jimmy Garoppolo. Mettenberger has ideal size for the position and a good combination of big-game experience and admirable passing statistics.

Other major needs Cleveland will likely address in the draft include right guard and wide receiver.

Cleveland can elect to use their late first round pick on a top-tier receiver like Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, or Marqise Lee. Doing so would fill a major need for Cleveland and give their QB a variety of deep threats to choose from.

Cleveland should be able to select a guard later on in the draft in the caliber of Cyril Richardson from Baylor or Dakota Dozier from Furman to start right away at right guard.

The final product:

At the start of the regular season, the Browns’ starting lineup could look something like this:

QB: Zach Mettenberger
RB: Ben Tate
FB: Chris Ogbonnaya
LT: Joe Thomas
LG: John Greco
Center: Alex Mack
RG: Cyril Richardson
RT: Mitchell Schwartz
WR1: Josh Gordon
WR2: Marqise Lee
TE: Jordan Cameron

A receiving trio of Gordon, Lee AND Cameron, coupled with Ben Tate at running back makes Cleveland’s offense the most complete in the AFC North (considering Baltimore’s offensive collapse in 2013 and their total lack of receiving options).

Looking at Cleveland’s defense:

DE: Ahtyba Rubin
NT: Phil Taylor
DE: John Hughes
OLB: Khalil Mack
ILB: Karlos Dansby
ILB: Craig Robertson
OLB: Jabaal Sheard (Barkevious Mingo could step up and take this role if Coach Pettine feels he’s ready)
CB1: Joe Haden
CB2: Buster Skrine
SS: Donte Whitner
FS: Tashaun Gipson

Outside of an almost unknown defensive line, Cleveland can field a strong defense in 2014.

  • Tashaun Gipson nabbed five interceptions last season and will be part of a very talented secondary.

  • DT Phil Taylor, a product of the Julio Jones trade Atlanta made to move up in the draft back in 2011 has been a rock in the middle of the defensive line ever since.

  • CB Buster Skrine, not well known outside of Cleveland, has made enormous strides at the CB position since his first two seasons. Skrine may not ever end up in the highlight reel for sportscenter, but he’s provided consistent and reliable corner play in 2013.

With players like Barkevious Mingo, Khalil Mack, and Karlos Dansby, Mike Pettine can orchestrate his patented blitzing patterns and unlock Cleveland’s potential.

A balanced offense paired with a defense spearheaded by Joe Haden, Khalil Mack, and Donte Whitner will put Cleveland in the spotlight next season. This team will be in the playoffs.

I’m still high as a kite from my N.O. Xplode rush from my gym session this evening. So I’m going to write.

The New England Patriots let go of run-stopper Brandon Spikes and premium corner Aqib Talib in free agency. Starting DT Vince Wilfork has requested to be released from the team, suggesting he will, in fact, not be a Patriot for 2014.

New England went to the AFC championship game without Wilfork thanks to some quality depth at the position (Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga) and saw backup Jamie Collins play admirably in the absence of pro bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo.

New England stayed toe-to-toe with Denver in the AFC title game until CB Aqib Talib got injured. Talib’s injury signified the breaking of the dam holding back Denver’s passing attack. Denver went on to win the AFC title game as Demaryius Thomas ran unchallenged with his superior size and speed (6’3” and 229 lbs, and a 4.38 40 time). In the past 72 hours, New England signed Darrelle Revis after being cut by Tampa Bay, and 6’4” pro bowl corner Brandon Browner after being released by Seattle. New England’s depth at cornerback was solid prior to this offseason without injury looking to Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and rookie Logan Ryan who’ve produced solid play at the position in previous seasons.

If Danny Cardboard Amendola and Rob Brokekowski can keep themselves healthy New England looks primed to return to the AFC championship game already, this time with a secondary that can match up with any receiving corps the AFC has to offer.

There’s still the majority of the offseason to go, including a number of valuable free agents and the draft to determine which teams start who in 2014. New England’s handled the free agent market like true professionals, and look like early favorites to challenge for the AFC throne again in 2014.

Jairus Byrd to New Orleans

The belle of the free agent ball is Jairus Byrd. The top-shelf free safety was dissatisfied with his situation in Buffalo. Analysts predicted Byrd would land in Cleveland a team with money to spend and primed to turn the corner in 2014 (also where his former defensive coordinator is now the head coach), or Philadelphia, where his former college coach runs the show and could use some help after cutting starting safety Patrick Chung from the team. New Orleans’ defense, after putting on a record setting-ly poor performance in 2012, played surprisingly well in 2013 allowing only 19 points per game, 4th in the NFL. The addition of Jairus Byrd to an already high-performing defense may be what the Saints need to recapture the NFC South from a stubborn Ron Rivera-led Panthers team.

Denver’s free agency buffet

Denver’s made the news by spending (potentially) $110 million through three big name free agents. The former Bucs and Pats corner Aqib Talib signed a $57 million contract for six years with Denver. T.J. Ward, the former Cleveland hitman signed up for four more years on the gridiron for $23 million, and Cowboys legend DeMarcus Ware signed a three year, $30 million contract for Denver as well.

On the outside it looks like Denver’s defense just loaded up on some playmakers. The arrival of Aqib Talib coincides with the departure of former Denver DB Dominique Rodgers Cromartie. DRC was easily Denver’s most talented defensive back in 2013, and was signed for the same reason Talib was signed this offseason – to win a championship. Talib replaces Cromartie. He’s still only one man.

The arrival of DeMarcus Ware also happens as another Denver defender leaves the team. Longtime Charger linebacker Shaun Phillips who led the Broncos in sacks (10) last season is no longer on the team. If DeMarcus Ware is lucky, he can pull out double digit sacks at thirty one years old. Again Ware doesn’t add on to the pass-rush, he replaces a departed veteran who overperformed at 32 years old.

T.J. Ward is a true upgrade over Duke Ihenacho at Strong safety. Ward will help against the run and short passing game.

The signing of these players is great for the media, but it still wouldn’t have given Denver an ice cube’s chance in hell last year of even coming close to Seattle. What it does is keep Denver competitive coming into the NFL draft.

Darrelle Revis to New England

Tampa cut Revis this offseason after they realized they’d actually have to pay him $16 million a year and failed to find a trade partner at that price. Revis chose to play for a contender and accepted a role with Belichick’s Patriots at $12 million for a one year contract. Revis makes the Patriots’ defense solid in the backfield again. Devin McCourty’s play at safety’s been borderline inspiring and a true shutdown corner like Revis means the Patriots can contend with the heavyweights of the NFL assuming their offense can continue to score. New England, like Denver are in win-now mode, but instead of signing three players to 3,4, and 6 year contracts, they sign one player to a one year contract. New England will have to solidify their defensive line, receiving corps, and interior offensive line. But those are manageable feats to pull off in the draft and maybe some small-name free agent signings.

San Francisco’s questionable trades

San Francisco sent a sixth round pick to Jacksonville for their unwanted used passer Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert looked promising coming out of Missouri but never materialized into starting talent in Jacksonville. The 49ers supposedly liked Gabbert out of College but ultimately saw him go to Jacksonville. If anyone can turn Gabbert’s career around, it will be QB guru Jim Harbaugh who turned former bust Alex Smith into the QB now leading the Chiefs’ offense. Still, even with a sixth round pick, San Francisco may have been able to draft a passer like Keith Wenning from Ball State Or Jeff Mathews from Cornell instead. The enigmatic Harbaugh clearly sees something in Gabbert that others don’t.

San Francisco also sent an undisclosed draft pick to Miami for embattled tackle Jonathan Martin. Martin’s a promising young talent Harbaugh coached at Stanford. He can likely provide meaningful depth at the tackle position. I can only assume San Francisco didn’t give up any higher than a third round selection for Martin, as again, there are a number of very solid options in the draft at the tackle position.

Other

The one thing that (I feel) GM’s need to remember and is sometimes easy to forget is that players are not as good as they are paid. Albert Haynesworth never lived up to his gargantuan contract from Washington even though he’d been a productive DT for Tennessee in years past. Traditionally successful teams generally don’t splurge in free agency (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Indianapolis). Signing quality depth at bargain pricing or that one key player who puts your team over the top are the best uses of free agent signing.

Oakland watched their clydesdale left tackle Jared Veldheer sign with Arizona and attempted to sign lesser-lineman Rodger Saffold to a major long term contract. Saffold failed the physical and Oakland voided the contract to see Saffold resign with St. Louis as a guard. It’s still possible Oakland could land tackle Anthony Collins from Cincinnati if Tampa doesn’t do so first. Otherwise Oakland may end up having to spend a high draft pick on a premium tackle to prevent the offense from caving in.

Eric Decker entered wide receiver purgatory the moment he signed with the New York Jets. Just ask Santonio Holmes.

Josh McCown may be the starting QB for Tampa Bay next season after signing with Tampa today. If Glennon wants the starting job he’ll have to beat out McCown for it.

The most underrated free agent signing so far might be Golden Tate’s signing with Detroit. Detroit’s only ever been Calvin Johnson and other mere mortals catching the ball from Stafford. If sure-handed Golden Tate can show why he’s worthy of a number-two spot on a pass-heavy team, Detroit’s offense could seriously flourish with Fauria at Tight End and Reggie Bush at running back.

Toby Gerhart will apparently be given a serious chance to earn a starting spot in Jacksonville after signing with the team.

Some big names remaining in free agency to watch include: Jermichael Finley, Hakeem Nicks, James Jones, Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno, Michael Vick, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, Jason Hatcher, Henry Melton, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

There is still lots of time left in free agency for teams to sign major players or make complete fools of themselves.