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The LiveBall Sports Miami Dolphins Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Dolphins prior to the 2012 season

LiveBall Sports picked the Miami Dolphins to make the playoffs in the AFC.

What should we have known with hindsight?

The real projection was slightly above average.  But in a down conference, it made sense to rally behind a team on the upswing that was bringing in fresh ideas and some new talent at key positions.  The Dolphins fit the bill.  However, while the idea still seems okay with the benefit of hindsight, the 2012 Dolphins were not as good as the 2011 Dolphins.  Had the Dolphins actually improved their performance, they won enough close games over bad teams to have won 9 or 10 games, and given that they beat the 6th seed Bengals head to head, they really missed a great opportunity to make the postseason.

The main culprit in the decline was the defense and the special teams.  The offense also failed to improve, but the 2011 Dolphins featured Reggie Bush’s career year, Brandon Marshall at receiver, and Matt Moore’s best season at quarterback, so the Dolphins going laterally on offense after accepting performance regression at the skill positions was not a huge surprise.

The pass defense struggled after trading Vontae Davis to the Colts for a second round pick, and letting Yeremiah Bell walk in free agency.  Sean Smith had an excellent age 24 season in 2011, but struggled in 2012, and signed with the Chiefs this past offseason.

Where does the organization appear to think it is at?

GM Jeff Ireland clearly acted like a GM trying to justify his  continued employment this offseason, though he didn’t act in a desperate manner, if that dichotomy makes sense.  The Dolphins went through a pretty aggressive team makeover, one that will cost them a ton of money over the next three to four years, but they did not spend up to the limits of the salary cap, and did so intentionally, given that the team still has major holes.  In other words, the Dolphins spent more than $200 million in new contract money this past offseason, but left plenty of room in the budget to spend more if QB Ryan Tannehill progresses in 2013.  Ireland could be in trouble if the team regresses further in 2013 (as he should be), but even a quick glance at the team’s salary cap situation difuses any notion that the Dolphins are in a do-or-die season for the front office or coaching staff.  This is not a Dallas Cowboys situation.

With that said, there is significant risk here on the shoulders of the front office.  Whenever you spend that much of your owners money in a commitment to win games both now and into the future, you increase the internal scrutiny (not to mention external pressure) on the moves you made.  8-8 is not going to get Ireland fired, but 8-8 behind strong defense with Mike Wallace not getting the ball down the field, Tannehill not progressing, and getting pummeled behind a weak offensive line while Dion Jordan doesn’t make an immediate impact creates a problem for Ireland in a way that it wouldn’t for head coach Joe Philbin.  How the Dolphins look this year is almost as big of a storyline as how they finish: Ireland can not live off of finding Cameron Wake forever.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

They brought in a bunch of receivers and traded up for Jordan.

Really, a lot of the spending the Dolphins did this offseason was about getting younger, and spending money to get players eligible for free agency for the first time, in the process replacing productive veterans like LBs Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby who were not going to get more productive into their thirties.  The spending was less about improving the Dolphins for the 2013 season as it was about building a core of talent around Ryan Tannehill rather than asking Tannehill to win with the core of talent they built around Chad Henne.

Wallace gives Miami the kind of deep threat it hasn’t had in two decades, which is a really big deal.  The issue may end up being that Tannehill struggled with the deep ball even going back to his college days: he was just as likely to rip off a long run at Texas A&M as he was to get the ball behind the defense from the pocket.  OC Mike Sherman designed Tannehill’s offense at Texas A&M, and is not likely to ask Wallace to simply run behind the defense so that Tannehill can put it up.   If Wallace doesn’t produce big numbers in 2013, Sherman (not Tannehill or Philbin) is going to get the blame.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Dolphins missed a nice window to compete starting either in 2008 or in 2010 when the team acquired Brandon Marshall from the Broncos, depending on how you view the Dolphins in the Parcells-as-overlord era.  When owner Stephen Ross made the decision to retain Jeff Ireland as General Manager without Parcells on board, he very much took full on rebuilding off the table for the Dolphins.  What the Dolphins did in 2012 had a lot of the elements of rebuilding (drafted a first round quarterback, traded team’s top receiver), but Ireland doesn’t have the capital to go through a double digit loss season.  So what we’re seeing is a bastardized rebuilding based heavily not on cheap youth, but on expensive youth via the free agent market.

Ireland’s plan not destined to fail.  Just a season ago, we saw the Redskins throw a lot of cash around trying to acquire free agents with their best years in front of them, like Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan.  That’s a team that won 10 games and its division: a division that featured a Giants organization not all dissimilar to the Patriots at this point.  The problem for the 2013 Dolphins is that a 10 win season is very much a pipe dream.  Given the increase in schedule difficulty and the team outperforming it’s underlying performance measures by almost a full game, a 10 win season would be almost a five win increase in skill from last year’s Dolphins team, which finished a fortunate 7-9.

The best case scenario is progress: 7-9 or 8-8 and competitive for a wild card spot deep into December, as such progress would allow the Dolphins to try to take the leap to competitor for a division title in 2014 with another aggressive offseason.  The worst case scenario is pretty ugly: a two win decline to 5-11 and major front office shakeup resulting in a lame-duck coaching staff (and possibly quarterback) in 2014 before the Dolphins begin a more traditional rebuilding after the 2014 season.  It’s a pivotal season for the Dolphins organization, to say the least.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsBuffalo BillsNew York JetsTennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers,

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The LiveBall Sports San Diego Chargers Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Chargers prior to the 2012 season

2012 was the first season in which LiveBall Sports really predicted a true decline for the Chargers.  This prediction was only kind of correct.  If we rewind to five years ago, the San Diego Chargers had as much talent as any organization in pro football.  It’s one of the reasons that they fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 record in the 2006 season.  The Chargers knew they had a nice window opening to capitalize on that talent.

So we posed the question last year: why hadn’t the Chargers been to the postseason since 2009?  This is the AFC West, for crying out loud.  Lots of things happened while the Chargers were inventing new ways to miss the playoffs.  The Raiders climbed out of the JaMarcus Russell era, put together 2 non losing seasons in a row, then fell back to the bottom of the NFL.  The entire Tim Tebow saga in Denver: from draft pick, to ridiculed preseason performances, to winning the division and a playoff game, to being shipped out of town in favor of Peyton Manning.  The Chiefs actually won the AFC West during Scott Pioli’s tenure, somehow.  Every one of these crazy twists happened while the Chargers were a strong pre-season favorite in the AFC West every year.

The 2012 Chargers did not have the talent of the 2008, 2009, or 2010 Chargers, and their were holes all over the roster.  Denver appeared to have a lot of the same talent issues, though, and that meant that the 2012 AFC West race was going to come down to Peyton Manning’s performance off of career-threatening neck surgery against Philip Rivers’ performance in the prime of his career.  Both teams would have to deal with a playoff-level Chiefs defense, but it was fair to reason that the Broncos and Chargers would fight it out for the division title last year.

What should we have known with hindsight?

The Chargers got off to a good start in 2012, winning three of their first four games, although they did not outscore their opponents over the first quarter of the season.  They did take a 24-0 lead over the Broncos to the locker room at half time, and were poised to take a two game lead in the AFC West race in October.  The Chargers would not have exactly been a lock for the playoffs at that point, but even an average team can hold a two game lead in the division over a great team if they can handle their business.  But the Chargers did not hold the lead, the Broncos came back to win by 10 (!) points, and would not lose again the rest of the regular season.

The Norv Turner era effectively ended at that point, as for the first time since he was head coach, the team simply wasn’t good enough to keep things interesting in the division race (something that really isn’t Norv’s fault, to be fair).  Philip Rivers had a true decline season at the worst possible time, to the point where it is fair to wonder if the $100 million dollar quarterback is still a quality NFL starter as he heads into his 30’s.  The arm strength is declining, and even his most outstanding traits such as his ability to effectively use the pocket are now in question as his offensive line has struggled to keep him upright.

The Chargers are going to try to salvage Rivers’ career in 2013, but with a new regime in town, he’s not necessarily going to get 16 full games to prove himself worthy of the most expensive years of a massive contract.

Where does the organization appear to think it is at?

The new front office is headed by GM Tom Telasco, formerly of the Colts organization.  He replaces AJ Smith as general manager.  Smith deserves much of the blame for the decline of the San Diego roster, but Smith also put the talent in place via the draft.  Smith was not a consistently good drafter, and that’s what did him in.  Under Telasco, the Chargers will attempt to get back to building through the draft.

The Chargers did not show a clear plan to tear down and rebuild the roster, nor did they go all out on the free agent market trying to turn their cap dollars into quality players.  They appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach with their roster.  Given how talent-deficient the roster is, such a path appears to simply be wasting a year.  Only two players on the Chargers roster have giant contracts: safety Eric Weddle, and Rivers.  Weddle is one of the very best players at his position.  Rivers still might be good, but he just isn’t the elite player he was two or three years ago.  The extremely passive approach taken by the Chargers seems to feel a bit formulaic, not dissimilar to the patience being shown by the new front offices in Jacksonville and New York (Jets).

But the challenges for the Chargers are different than what the Jets are facing.  Telasco isn’t taking over a disaster zone with tons of guaranteed dollars tied up in young-ish talent like Reggie McKenzie in Oakland or John Idzyk in New York, and trying to fit a new scheme to his talent.  He would have come in knowing whether or not Rivers was a good fit for what he was trying to build, so this approach seems like a bit of a waste of time, or at least a compromise based on a lack of strong QB options out there.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Chargers targeted accomplished college players at premium positions: they grabbed right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round from Alabama, MLB Manti Te’o from Notre Dame in the second, and Keenan Allen from Cal at receiver in the third.  All three players have strong pedigrees, but are below average athletically for the position.  It’s not a bad idea to grab low upside franchise cornerstones in your first draft so that you have something to build on, but if Telasco were to proceed systematically drafting based on BPA, the entire roster would be made up of low-upside talent.  For every low upside player that AJ Smith grabbed, he also got his fair share of high-risk athletes such as Shawne Merriman and Antonio Cromartie.  This is something to keep an eye on with the new Chargers regime.

San Diego also let both of its cornerbacks — Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason — walk in free agency.  Although the Chargers did sign Derek Cox from Jacksonville, who has no. 2 CB type upside, the position is a total war zone.  Also; this team plays Peyton Manning twice this season.  The pass rush is also a major question mark, as 33 year old Dwight Freeney takes the place of injured 2012 first round pick Melvin Ingram in the lineup.

The offense upgraded in the offseason.  The Chargers picked up Danny Woodhead from the Patriots, who will fit into HC Mike McCoy’s scheme of position versatile talent: Woodhead might be both the best RB and slot reciever/third down back on the roster.  Either Max Starks or King Dunlap should improve the Chargers LT situation over Mike Harris, who started last year as an undrafted rookie, but the line is still a cause for concern.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Chargers enter 2013 with an incomplete and lacking roster, and given how little help Philip Rivers has, the Chargers might have been better off just moving him in the offseason.  But you can look out there and see Antonio Gates in the twilight of his career, Malcom Floyd at the end of his run with the Chargers, Eddie Royal and Ryan Mathews fighting relevance, and just accept that the Chargers veterans are going to decide how far they can go this season.

San Diego has been passed by the Kansas City Chiefs.  They aren’t quite as lacking in talent as the Oakland Raiders, but they are also a year further behind in rebuilding.  They still play Peyton Manning twice a year.  The Chargers are an interesting darkhorse to pick first or second in the NFL draft next season.  While an awful season might be in the best long term interest of the franchise, Philip Rivers is probably not as bad as he showed last year, Mike McCoy is probably going to improve the team’s coaching, and Antonio Gates may very well have another good season left in him for the Chargers to be truly awful next season.

This is likely going to be a bad defensive team in 2013, but it will not be a terrible offense, and the Chargers should be able to win 5 or 6 games and be relevant into early December.  Again, every qualification about being an AFC team applies here: 8 wins makes a playoff contender, and Philip Rivers has directed 8-win (above replacement) passing games in the past.  There’s enough receiving talent for the Chargers to trend towards the top of most offensive categories if everything breaks right and Rivers plays up to his contract.

The Chargers playoff odds are under 20%, but that’s probably true of teams like the Steelers, Jets, and Colts as well, and those teams have tasted the postseason more recently.  It’s not that the Chiefs or even Broncos are a juggernaut that the Chargers simply can not beat, but those franchises are better positioned to handle the Chargers in the present…and in the future as well.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsBuffalo BillsNew York Jets, Tennessee Titans,

The LiveBall Sports Tennessee Titans Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Titans prior to the 2012 season

The Tennessee Titans almost made the playoffs in 2011, finishing with a 9-7 overall record.  The team’s biggest change going into the offseason was a change at the quarterback position, with second year QB Jake Locker taking over for veteran Matt Hasselbeck atop the depth chart.  The rest of the offseason plan was based mostly on the hope of internal improvement.  They needed to bolster their pass rush, improve coverage, and find out why the heck RB Chris Johnson kept falling down before contact.

My predictive analysis didn’t love the Titans, but they did see team that could easily build on the 2011 season and could compete in a weak division in 2012.  Ultimately, I thought that Andrew Luck getting drafted into the division might end up being the difference between a first place contender and a second place contender because I had a much higher college grade on Luck than Locker, but I wasn’t in love with the Texans, and thought the Titans could challenge for their spot atop the division, if not a wild card.

What should we have known with hindsight?

Even with hindsight, the collapse of the Titans defense compared to the relative development of the young players on that defense remains a mystery.  DE Derrick Morgan, the team’s 1st round pick in 2010, had a strong season and took the first step towards fulfilling his potential.  LB Akeem Ayers had a nice year.  DT Mike Martin was a great find in the third round of the 2012 draft.  Jason McCourty was every bit as good as his much more heralded brother, replacing CB Cortland Finnegan, who left in free agency following a career year.  Despite all that, the defense just was not very good in 2012.  And even still, it doesn’t make much sense to this analyst.  More pressure is going to fall on defensive coordinator Jerry Gray in 2013.

But the offensive struggles were more troubling because they were traceable directly to the offensive backfield.  Locker was horrible, which wasn’t a terrible shock, and Chris Johnson failed to produce again, which is no longer a shock.  That combination of ineptitude cost offensive coordinator Chris Palmer his job during the season.

Here’s how hindsight helps us: Matt Hasselbeck’s first third of a season in 2011 may have been a fluke, but it is also the only offensive production the Titans have enjoyed in the entire Mike Munchak era.  He retains his job in 2013 as very much a lame duck coach, because the roster is incomplete and Hasselbeck was shipped out of town by longtime owner Bud Adams.  Adams does not have a reputation as a bad owner, but now on the wrong side of 90, he is getting a deserved reputation as an impatient one.  Impatience is a virtue only if you can actually go out and land Peyton Manning in free agency, but the season the Titans had was far more disappointing than anyone around the organization planed for.  Munchak is just in a tough spot as a coach now.

Where does the organization appear to think it is at?

That declining ownership situation, combined with a front office that under Ruston Webster has not achieved the stability it had under Mike Reinfeldt and Jeff Fisher, has created a situation in Tennessee where winning is expected, even though it is unrealistic.  The Titans are not going to begin a rebuilding project anytime soon, but the roster isn’t particularly good.  The best hope for the organization is that the defensive players that produced last year can bring their talents together in the form of a productive, cohesive unit, allowing the Titans to win with strong defense.  This might help explain the controversial hire of linebackers coach and special defensive assistant Gregg Williams, who was suspended by the league last season.  Williams was defensive coordinator in Washington when Jerry Gray was their cornerbacks coach.

Gray is on the hot seat right from September on, and if the defense doesn’t show immediate improvement, it’s possible the Titans could promote Williams to defensive coordinator.

There can be value even for a team coming off a rough season to focus on the present instead of the future, but short-sighted moves don’t often lead to great seasons, much less a great future.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

On a more optimistic note, the Titans did appear to improve their team through the draft.  They grabbed Alabama G Chance Warmack with their first round selection, and while guards are not typically the first place you look for impact players, Warmack profiles as the kind of offensive lineman who offers game-plan altering ability, at least as far as opposing defensive coordinators are concerned.  It was not a great year for the Titans OL in 2012, but the head coach is a former lineman, and with the tackles both signed to long term deals, it was an interior impact maker that the team needed.

Tennessee prefers zone blocking, but they run a multiple attack in the running game (at least they did last year under Palmer), and Warmack won’t have a problem fitting into any scheme.  My only question about him is in the screen game, where they will actually have him moving.  Screen’s figure to be a part of the Tennessee attack, given their quarterback situation, and the kind of contract Chris Johnson has.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

With regard to Mike Munchak’s future, teams do not often rebound from the kind of hole the Titans have put themselves in after last season.  I called this a lame duck season for him above, which seems on the surface like an unfair tag to put on Munchak while leaving off coaches like Ron Rivera and Jason Garrett.  But the difference with Munchak is that the decision of the Titans to keep him in his position as head coach but not to alter the path of the franchise in terms of personnel philosophy is questionable at best.  It’s not an assessment of Munchak’s head coaching aptitude (where I have my concerns), but his role in the context of the organizational plan.  If there is one.

The 2013 Titans project to be a pretty bad team, although all caveats about the weak AFC apply here as well.  As I’ve said in multiple articles, someone is making the postseason at 8-8 in the AFC, and in a league were every team is expected to trend towards 8-8 every year, no team is out of it.  The Titans are just really far away from it.  We’ll say three wins off the pace, and a team best projected to finish at 5-11.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsBuffalo Bills, New York Jets,

The LiveBall Sports New York Jets Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Jets prior to the 2012 season

You’ll have to think back to a time when trading a mid-round pick for Tim Tebow was not a joke in order to remember this, but I don’t know if the consensus opinion was that the Jets we’re expected to miss the playoffs in hilariously entertaining fashion.  LiveBall Sports expected a rebound season for a team that had made the playoffs in back-to-back years with no meaningful offensive threats before falling late in the 2011 season to finish at .500.  It seemed like at their worst, the Jets would play .500 football because in Rex Ryan’s three year tenure, he had built a defense with the remarkable consistency of the Ravens, Steelers, or Bears.  A unit that is so dominant every time it takes the field, that any game the Jets offense doesn’t force feed the other team points, is a game the Jets should win.

What should we have known with hindsight?

Probably that a sample size of three years tells us very little about unit consistency.  The Jets were a good defensive unit again in 2012, but this was not the same unit that dominated AFC offenses in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  It was an aging unit with holes, and as the Jets attempted to scheme around some glaring holes, they trended towards the middle of the pack on defense.  The issues were most glaring in the two games against the Patriots.  Rex Ryan’s defense had given Tom Brady and the Pats fits through the years, and those fits were no more glaring when they knocked out a championship contending Pats team to go to the 2010 AFC Championship.

But that ended up being the pinnacle of the Rex Ryan era, because the young offense just never developed.  Blame for this falls squarely on the organization and the coaches, because Mark Sanchez and the offense continue to make terrible, rookie-type mistakes every year.  This isn’t a Sanchez-only problem, though it does seem to be a Jets-only problem.

Where does the team appear to think it is at?

The Jets are not the best example of an organization with great self awareness, so in a single offseason, they both decided to retain Rex Ryan as head coach and deal CB Darrelle Revis to the Bucs for a first round pick.  Things might simply be so bad in New York for first-year GM John Idzyk (replacing the disposed Mike Tannenbaum) that he didn’t feel like bringing in his own coach until he could get some semblance of stability on the roster.  But the Revis saga would suggest that this is not really Idzyk’s show just yet, but rather the responsibility of Woody Johnson, the owner.

The Jets are clearly leaning towards rebuilding, though they do have a heck of a lot of young talent under the age of 25 already, most of it on the defensive end (Muhammad Wilkerson, Quintin Coples, Sheldon Richardson, Dee Milliner), so given a year to free up salary cap space, you could see the Jets going hard in free agency again in 2014 trying to compete by throwing some money around.  It may make more sense to go through a long term rebuild, given the team’s current quarterback situation.  Even the best laid plans can fall apart before they begin so long as the “best laid plans” involve betting on injury-prone (now retired) quarterback David Garrard after sitting out two years of football due to surgery.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Jets probably lost more pieces than they were able to replace during a salary cap bad-contract purge, and that was before the Revis trade.  They did a good job replacing those pieces in a single offseason, but because they had to buy talent on the cheap, they were not able to get it at premium positions.  That means that the Jets will enter the 2013 season with a fair amount of young talent, but major question marks at critical positions.

The team’s single best draft choice bucked that trend, as the Jets selected West Virginia QB Geno Smith.  Smith gives the Jets a first round skill set at a second round price, which is an excellent buy when looking at undervalued assets.  Very few evaluators were completely sold on Smith, which is why he was available in the second round.  It is always helpful to remember that “fading the evaluators can be a successful draft strategy (so long as you aren’t ignoring common sense) because no team or scout has shown over a long period of time an ability to beat the rest of the league in the draft.  If you are limited in your resources, you need to be creative, and by taking a shot on Smith, Idzyk may have found a Mark Sanchez replacement in the second round.

However, Geno Smith does not improve the Jets enough to conclude the rebuilding project a success right as it begins.   If he wins the job out of camp, it may just mean that the Jets were worse off going into the offseason than anyone realized.

The Jets focused on giving Rex Ryan more pieces to work with on defense during the draft, and it’s usually a good move for a team coming off a bad season to fortify it’s strengths as opposed to trying to address every weakness.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

You’ve probably seen through enough of these team previews (linked below) that the AFC is just too weak to write off any teams who get to compete in it.  The Jets are going through a rebuilding year, but they are not doing it traditionally.  They are doing it with an embattled coach with a recent history of success at this level in a desperation season.  Last time Rex Ryan entered this situation, he inherited a team in 2008 that had fallen off in December under Eric Mangini (and Brett Favre) and missed the playoffs.  That 2008 Jets team appeared to be headed for a rebuilding season under Ryan.  It went to the AFC Championship game.

So Rex Ryan has done this before.  In a weak AFC, there are worse teams to be bullish on than the Jets.  Someone is going to get to 8 wins and make the post season.

I can’t see this Jets team getting to 8 wins.  It is lacking on offensive talent, lacking an obvious long term solution at quarterback, and does not have even one player on the roster who can make defenders miss in the open field, as much as the team would like Joe McKnight to be that guy.  The defense is a lot younger than the defense that Ryan built into the best in the NFL back in 2009.  It’s does not have Darrelle Revis at corner.  Safety play remains a problem from last year.  This is just not a great situation to be responsible for.  Tannenbaum already paid the price.  Ryan is next up.

5 wins sound about right for the Jets, and that is a win total that means a new coach for next year.  But it would also be an evasion of disaster by John Idzyk, who very well might have a future in New York, and needs to get the team on the right track quickly enough before expectations return…in 2014.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills,

The LiveBall Sports Buffalo Bills Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Bills prior to the 2012 season

The Bills spent a whole bunch of cash in free agency last year to rebuild a lacking pass rush, bringing in pass rusher Mario Williams from Houston, defensive end Mark Anderson from the Patriots, and brought back Shawne Merriman for another season.  The Bills had a strong defensive line prior to bringing in Williams and Anderson, so even though both appeared to get way more money than they were worth, the Bills seemed to have bought one of the AFC’s best defensive units.

The Bills kept adding to Dave Wannestedt’s unit in the draft, selecting cornerbacks with their top two picks, and featuring CB Stephon Gilmore as the defense’s top DB last year.  With pro bowl S Jairus Byrd heading into a contract year, it seemed like the Bills were a good unit to be optimistic about, at least on the defensive end.  But because the offense was strictly made up of home grown offensive talent and wasn’t being supplemented in any way by veteran acquisitions, a great burden would fall on head coach Chan Gailey to get production from the offense and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick may have been Gailey’s best project yet, coming off a year where he earned a massive contract extension before falling prey to injury, and a full on team collapse in 2011.  Fitzpatrick was going to have to be even better in 2012 for the Bills to cash in on their free agent investments with a playoff berth.

What should we have known with hindsight?

Nothing more than what we did know which was that Gailey wasn’t getting enough help from the organization in building a winner.  The Bills saw an opportunity to improve in a weak AFC when they decided to spend on their defense, but the offense got completely neglected and was unable to sustain it’s gains from 2011.  Fitzpatrick had an absolutely dreadful season throwing the football, and showed yet again that he’s stretched as an NFL starter.  The Bills did release Fitzpatrick after the season, eating a lot more money on the back end of a contract that looked foolish the day it was signed, and worse in the year and a half since.

Gailey was not retained by the team either, which is a move that we all saw coming, and an unfortunate ending to a long, well-traveled NFL coaching career who was more than willing to implement spread and pistol concepts in the NFL before it was en vogue to do so.  A progressive offensive mind does not necessarily make a great head coach, and Gailey has had an issue with holding jobs.  For the Bills, it made sense to go in a different direction since they did not have a coherent plan under Gailey in the first place.

Williams and Anderson both had disappointing years and Merriman retired at the conclusion of the 2012 season.  You may have guessed given that statement that the Bills did not rush the passer all that well despite all the money spent on upgrading their pass rush, and you would have been correct in that assessment.  They still needed to find a pass rush, and a passer heading into the 2013 NFL Draft.

Where does the team appear to think its at?

This is a tricky question only because the Buffalo Bills are not and have not been a premier football organization for some time now and actually made the decision to switch general managers after the conclusion of the draft.  That’s a good indication that the front office changes will be mostly cosmetic.  Otherwise, how else do you explain drafting a quarterback in the first round of the draft and then changing the guard immediately after?

The Bills are not going to rebuild anytime soon with owner Ralph Wilson now in his mid-nineties and with team payroll at a relatively high level and big names on the payroll like Williams, Byrd, Steve Johnson, and C.J. Spiller.  But they are also not that close to competing for the division title either.  They are closer to that goal than they have been in years, but the Bills are only just starting to embrace football analytics, and to date, have not figured out how to compete in the modern NFL with limited resources.  For years, the Bills have been happy just giving themselves enough talent to win 5 to 7 games and stay on the fringes of the wild card race, but never to give their fan base a real winner or even a coherent plan to get a winner in the near-term future.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Bills drafted EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft to be their quarterback of the future.  Manuel is a big player who is an excellent athlete and threw the ball pretty well in college at Florida State.  He is not really a big time pro prospect because he does not handle pressure well at all and has shoddy, sometimes careless mechanics.  However, the Bills may be justified in believing in his upside relative to the rest of the 2013 QB class.  Since the Bills are a bit unlikely to pick in the top five of the NFL draft anytime soon, Manuel’s selection made some sense: it was not likely the Bills were going to be able to pick a more talented player with a better pedigree in the future.

Buffalo has actually been a pretty good player development organization for some time now, and Manuel is a better prospect coming out than JP Losman was in 2004, which is very faint praise, to be sure.  The real test for Buffalo is going to come inside the division as Manuel plays against Jets draft pick Geno Smith, a far more mechanically polished college player with much better college statistics, and a higher consensus draft grade for those reasons.  The Bills’ lack of comfort with Smith led to the team’s selection of Manuel, and any mistake they made with this evaluation will be amplified because Smith landed inside the division.

It made a lot of sense when the Bills acquired Kevin Kolb after the Cardinals released him.  Kolb plays a lot like Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib did in college, where he was coached by Doug Marrone before the Bills hired Marone.  Kolb is young enough where you could at least argue that his statistical record to date could be understating his abilities, and experienced enough where he should be able to contribute immediately in a new offense without too much of a learning curve.  Kolb was a higher grade of a prospect than Ryan Fitzpatrick was, and given the success that Fitzpatrick enjoyed in Buffalo prior to the contract extension, Kolb is a strong value signing to a team that will very much keep expectations under control.

The Bills also signed DE/LB Manny Lawson from the Bengals, which, I mean, this is the kind of moves the Bills usually make.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

My projections suggest that the Bills are the team that many observers believe the Chiefs are.  The Bills are the team that underachieved last year in spite of it’s talent and the team that had the major hole at the quarterback position while the rest of the team was far ahead.  In drafting Manuel and signing Kevin Kolb, the Bills may have done more to plug the hole at quarterback the the Chiefs did by trading for Alex Smith’s contract.

This year’s Bills are not a deep team because the Bills are never a deep team, and they have been derailed by injuries each of the last two years.  That’s unfortunate.  It’s also been a fairly effective reality check on the Bills because this is a roster that could do a lot of damage in the AFC if they had a really healthy year.

The knock on the Bills is that they are one of the easiest team to project year after year because they never really change their organizational direction even as coaches and quarterbacks come and go.  2013 brings a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback to Buffalo, although it’s mostly the same team that it was under Gailey these last two seasons.  If the Bills can maintain continuity in a good way over the next couple of years, Ralph Wilson is probably going to get to see his team back to the playoffs at least one more time.  But the Bills are the kind of team where consistency has never really been a virtue.  It’s become a way of life for an organization that averages 6.5 wins a year.

Bet the over on the Bills’ win total, but feel free to make non-football plans for January.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals,

The LiveBall Sports Arizona Cardinals Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.

What we said about the Cardinals prior to the 2012 season

By staying with Kevin Kolb in 2012, the Cardinals made a much wiser decision with their quarterback position than the Cleveland Browns did with Colt McCoy in almost the same situation.  They were rewarded for their decision by a strong three-and-a-quarter game stretch by Kolb that led to a 4-0 start by the Cardinals.

The Cardinals were not a trendy playoff pick last year, pretty much because of their problematic quarterback situation, but they entered 2012 with a well respected defense and the natural homefield advantage that comes from playing in a modern stadium in the pacific time zone.  In other terms, it shaped up to be your average Cardinals year.

What should we have known with hindsight?

Kolb got hurt, was replaced by John Skelton, and Skelton was so bad that he got pulled on a coaches decision for Ryan Lindley at quarterback, a player so overmatched that we will likely never see him in an NFL game (if on a roster) again.  Skelton was released by the team after the season and the last year of his contract was picked up on waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals.  Kolb did not return from injury, but as very much an effect of the size of his contract, Kolb was released by the Cardinals after just two seasons.

Most metrics and predictions had the Cardinals pegged pretty accurately, but I’m not sure anyone saw the historical awfulness of the Cardinals offense coming, specifically given the start to the season that Kolb gave them.  The running game fell off the face of the earth behind a Beanie Wells injury, and nothing will derail a team more quickly than a young player who appears to be coming into his own being useless to a franchise.  Wells was released due to a knee injury and is still unsigned as I write this.

The bigger issue for the Cardinals is the lack of development of their receivers.  Larry Fitzgerald was the league’s best offensive weapon in 2008.  Five years later, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that we’re still dealing with a star here.  While Fitzgerald continues to get the benefit of the doubt with poor quarterback play, he’s not putting up numbers that other top receivers with poor quarterbacks do.  There’s some bias in Fitzgerald’s advanced statistics thanks to forced passes in his direction, but what the statistics can tell is is that Fitzgerald is simply not the player he was earlier in his career.  And while a rebound season in 2013 is likely, I don’t think we’re going to enjoy another great season by Fitz again.

Where does the team appear to think it’s at?

On some level, every team is going to be guilty of overrating its current situation: no one (non Reggie McKenzie division) ever wants to admit that the job that they just signed up for is going to be difficult to turn around.  However, in the case of the Cardinals it sure felt like new General Manager Steve Keim went into this offseason to target the team’s biggest needs instead of rebuilding.

Obviously, a team can address only so many needs in a single offseason without skimping on some things, and the skimping is the art of team building beyond the science of resource analysis.  But at some point, filling needs becomes rebuilding, and for the Cardinals, they can’t compete this year without better performance on the edges than last season.

If the Cardinals don’t compete this year, their veteran offensive acquisitions won’t be around when they are ready to compete in the NFC West.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Cardinals identified the interior offensive line, running back, and quarterback as the greatest needs on the team, and addressed all of those needs in the offseason.  The problem may be what they did not address: offensive tackle, tight end, and wide receiver.

The Cardinals get positive grades for the quality of players they brought in to address those needs.  Carson Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall are A+ grade buy low opportunities in the offensive backfield, and should take the Cardinals from 32nd in the league on offense to about 25th or so.  Any further improvement would come from head coach Bruce Arians and his internal development of his receivers.

The Cardinals focused mostly on the defensive side of the football in the draft, addressing the offensive line when they had the value to do so.  I have my issues with Jonathan Cooper as the seventh overall pick, but there aren’t many football scouts who don’t believe that is a good selection.  Getting DE Alex Okafor, DB Tyrann Mathieu, and LB Kevin Minter in the same draft should be a nice series of building blocks as the defense switches schemes.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Cardinals just don’t have enough to put it together in the NFC West this season.  The acquisitions they made this offseason have a good shot to work.  But while they made strong investments, they didn’t get a ton of upside, typically because upside is expensive.  Jonathan Cooper is not a high upside player because of the position he plays, and neither is Kevin Minter.  Palmer is bound to have a good season before his career is over, but he lacks the pre-injury upside from his early Cincinnati days.  Mendenhall is going to have another strong NFL season, but he’s not going to be the player that is expected from a first round running back.  Even Fitzgerald’s best years are in the rear-view mirror.

The best case scenario is that the Cardinals ride a strong defense, a nice special teams unit, and homefield advantage to a couple of in-division upsets and a 8 or 9 win season.  But the more likely outcome is that the Cards claw their way to a 5 or 6 win season and play in more close games than they did last season.  Measurable progress, but still very much a standard-level Arizona Cardinals season.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit Lions, Cleveland Browns,

The LiveBall Sports Cleveland Browns Season Preview

May 28, 2013 1 comment

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.

What we said about the Browns prior to the 2013 season

The Browns were a really bad team in 2011 running a really primitive offense and any hope of competitiveness in 2012 would lean heavily on Trent Richardson coming in and making people forget that Peyton Hillis was ever a Madden cover athlete (he was, for some reason).  The incumbent quarterback was Colt McCoy, but when the Browns’ plan A to trade up in the draft for Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft fell through, the team settled on using a lower first round pick on QB Brandon Weeden.

Weeden replaced McCoy as kind of a quick-fix style of draft choice for a team that really needed to rebound from a 2011 season that disappointed even the most reasonable expectations, not to mention those who expected that Browns team to make the playoffs.  Based on how poorly the Browns had played in 2011, it was hard to see them improving without Richardson and Weeden being a major part of the improvement.

What we should have known with hindsight

The Browns were better in 2012, but Richardson and Weeden hardly contributed.  Richardson failed to hit the 1,000 yard milestone, despite being one of just a few feature backs left in the NFL.  That makes it seem like Richardson was a failure: he was not, he just was not a high efficiency player as a rookie, averaging under 4,0 YPC.  Weeden on the other hand, offered little to lean on going forward from his age-29 season.  Weeden was worse in 2012 as a 29-year old rookie than McCoy was in 2011 as a 24-year old sophomore.

McCoy has since been traded to San Francisco to be Colin Kaepernick’s backup and low-probability relief ace should Kaep’s NFC-winning half season prove to be a total mirage (it won’t).  Weeden has a very tenuous hold on the starting gig in Cleveland.

This is a great example of why it makes more sense to change up your front office leadership one year too early than one year too late.  The Browns spent two first round picks in 2012 trying to upgrade their offensive backfield, but could have done it just as easily without spending either first round pick.  McCoy flashed vertical playmaking ability from inside and outside the pocket in 2010 and 2011 as the Browns starter, but surrounded that ability with general inconsistency at the position.  Using a first round pick on a McCoy successor four years his senior with a similar college resume isn’t just a move that didn’t work out, it’s a bad process.  Richardson was good enough to defensibly be the third overall pick, but even then, it’s clear the Browns overvalued him as he likely was not a top ten running back in 2012.

The disposed front office deserves a lot of credit for getting 21-year old rookie WR Josh Gordon for a second round pick in the Supplementary draft, a good move for all the reasons that Weeden was a bad move.  It cost the new front office a second round pick, which is unfortunate, but when the Redskins traded two future first round picks to jump the Browns and acquire RG3, there wasn’t a ton of outcry about what that might do to hamstring a future front office.  If ownership leaves a front office group in power too long, the status quo seems to be that mortgaging the future to save a job or three or seventeen is fair game.

The Mike Holmgren-Pat Shurmur era in Cleveland was a bad process that yielded disappointing results, but something about the current iteration of the Browns remains salvageable.  This is not a talentless roster, and there aren’t a ton of bad contracts on it.  With the old regime pushed out the door, there are reasons to be optimistic, pessimistic, and apathetic about the 2013 Browns, and their new management led by Michael Lombardi.

Where does the team appear to think it’s at?

The team feels like 2013 is just the beginning of what they are building towards, but without the team’s long term solution at quarterback on the roster, expectations will remained tempered.  That’s a pretty large hole on the roster: Weeden’s going to get a fair shake to meet expectations, but that leash isn’t going to be long.  It might not even last through the preseason.

The team’s other holes include vertical receivers not named Josh Gordon, and inside linebackers who can stack and shed, and just generally make plays without the defensive line in front of them keeping them clean.  Those are pretty big holes, but overall, it’s nothing compared to what a lot of the competition in the AFC is looking at.

So the Browns sit in the no-man’s land between quarterback-driven contender (which they clearly are not), and rebuilding project (which they really aren’t).  They can choose either direction, and should be able to contend for the division (and obviously a wild card berth by extension) as soon as this fall.  But they aren’t yet one, two, or three pieces away, and like many AFC teams are going to have to ask their coaching staff to plug a lot of known weaknesses throughout year one of the Rob Chudzynski era.

Their lack of overpaid veterans and declining stars give them a significant leg up on the competition, particularly in division with Pittsburgh (and Baltimore, although they’ve turned over the aging stars this offseason).

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Browns spent a ton of money, adding two outside linebackers in Barkevious Mingo (6th overall draft pick), and Paul Kruger ($$$) who they may have overpaid.  They also added an nice talent on the defensive line, Desmond Bryant ($$$), though they really overpaid.  They did get value in getting two years on QB Jason Campbell’s contract, and I would guess that he’s a slight favorite in the QB competition, though a tie would go to Weeden.

The Browns couldn’t do a ton of maneuvering in the draft because of the Josh Gordon selection, but Gordon will be just 22 this year, so they aren’t complaining.

Because of the relatively low payroll the Browns carried through the Pat Shurmur era, Lombardi and his front office had the ability to spend a lot of money.  They identified the players who fit the Browns now, and gave up that future spending power to upgrade the roster.  The free agent market is still one of the most inefficient ways to spend a team’s resources, but when your team has very few established veterans on long term contracts, you have to use the free agent market effectively to add talent so that you aren’t just drafting players onto a non-competitive team.

The downside is that Lombardi won’t get another chance to get it right if Mingo and Kruger don’t rush the passer that well, and the other main signings, Bryant and Quentin Groves, look like they’ll be cap casualties at best in a few years, if they aren’t wastes of money in the meantime.

The other issue is that every dollar the Browns spend now is a dollar they will not have to build around their quarterback once they find him.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Browns are in a shockingly strong position, and it gets even better when you consider that no team is going to get as much of a boost going from last year’s coaching to this year’s coaching.  There is nothing Chudzynski and Norv Turner can do to be worse than the coaching they had last season.  It’s probably going to get a lot better.

And even a small improvement in the talent is getting the Browns over .500 for the first time since 2007, when Chudzynski was the offensive coordinator.  I don’t think that improvement can be just assumed, in which case, the Browns are a .500 team.  But the 2013 Browns are a .500 team with a considerable amount of upside.  They can’t compete to win the AFC title without guys like Weeden and Richardson at least hitting the expectations that the Browns had for them when they picked them.  They’ll probably fall short of that.  But eight to ten wins is within the range of what the Browns can accomplish this year.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit Lions,