Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

jj watt2

During this driest of NFL dry seasons, the draft is torn down, reassembled, and deconstructed again (rinse and repeat), we’re reminded that each draft takes on its own unique characteristics and reflects the current league climate.

In 2005 three running backs were selected in the top five: Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams. Nearly a decade later we recall that draft as a crushing failure and the beginning of the running back draft spiral. In the nine years since only three other backs were selected in the top five overall.

This year’s draft will almost certainly be driven by the passing game, just as it was three years ago but in a very different, and very defensive way. Let’s look back on 2011, and what’s already known as one of the great pass rusher drafts of all-time.

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When I took a long, sorrow-filled look at the NFL running back last week and the decline of this particular football species in recent drafts, the evidence provided by free agency was a footnote. That was mostly done out of necessity, because even in late March the sample size to draw from of running back free agent signings this year was moderate at best. It was Ben Tate, followed by Rashad Jennings, and then a bunch of bit players and veterans.

That last part is still true. As is expected of a position where body breaking is an epidemic, the available names beyond Tate this year often have a very specific role they need to play if their new team wants a favorable return on their investment. It’s still an important role, though, one that in theory deserves fair financial compensation.

Well, define fair.

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Desean shhh2

Depending on a number of different variables (how long you’ve turned away from a screen of some kind, your time zone, and the last time you drank orange juice, to name a few) there’s somewhere between five and nine teams interested in the services of DeSean Jackson. Shortly after his release this past Friday afternoon the high end there was widely reported, and since then the lower digit seems more likely.

Three days after a bizarre event in our lives, here’s what we know, or think we know.

  • We know the Chiefs aren’t interested anymore after doing their due diligence, which is peculiar given their need at the position, and Andy Reid’s familiarity with Jackson.
  • We know there’s mutual interest with the Raiders, who can buy several islands with their cap room, and play their football in a state where their potential future employee grew up. So that’s something.
  • We think we know the Jets aren’t pursuing Jackson yet despite still having a wide receiver need even after signing Eric Decker. They’re holding back for…reasons (mostly price, the usual character concerns, and an upcoming WR-rich draft).
  • We know he has a meeting with the Redskins today, his first official free agent job interview.

That last one is pretty important.

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mike wallace2

A year ago at this time the Miami Dolphins were the Super Bowl champions, though annoying little details based in reality and fact told us the Baltimore Ravens were the real champs. But after signing every known free agent the Fins won our hearts and minds, and seemingly made winning in the fall a mere matter of marching.

That ended in rivers and oceans of tears, and it left Mike Wallace as the shining beacon showing us what not to do during free agency. With rumors percolating yet again about a Wallace trade — one that’s impossible due to his mountainous contract — now seems like a fine time to reflect upon what we’ve learned about paying wide receivers with delightful abundance.

Mostly, just don’t do it.

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If I were to ask you to group the top NFL quarterbacks in tiers, at first there would be much yelling, mothers would be insulted, and haymakers would be thrown. Sounds like fun, so I’ll play too.

  • Tier 1: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady
  • Tier 2: Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger
  • Tier 3. Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III
  • Tier 4: I dunno, (almost) everyone else?
  • Tier 10: Matt Schaub, Geno Smith, Matt Cassel/Christian Ponder

That’s just a rough attempt, but it looks about right. That fourth tier, the muddled middle, is what’s important here. It’s in that space where the contract extension confusion lies. It’s where there’s at best negligible separation between, say, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. It’s where the decision to make a heavy financial commitment needs to be sat on for many a sleepless night, because tying yourself long-term to a franchise arm who isn’t a franchise arm at all can be crippling. It’s where average lives, a line that some quarterbacks hover above while others are slightly below.

Andy Dalton is among them, and right now he’s the poster boy for the difficulty of paying his kind.

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I’m not sure exactly when the fizzling out point is in free agency, but Day 10 feels about right. Oh sure, there’s still plenty of names out there, starting with one marquee defensive end who’s still good for about a dozen or so sacks (Jared Allen), and behind him are the handful of useful pieces who can make an important contribution in the right role (LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore), and the dirt cheap lottery tickets (Miles Austin, Jermichael Finley). The pickups who fit into the latter two categories are often the most impactful in the fall.

Allen aside, the major cannonballs into the free agency pool are over. So when the dust finally meets the floor, we will look back on this free agency period and see a particularly mad time when Darrelle Revis was on the open market for a few hours alongside DeMarcus Ware. They’re two of the best defenders of this era, and we’ll also see a market that dumped all the money on cornerbacks, and cared little for running backs. The times, they’ve changed.

But inevitably like every free agency period we’ll also see something else when we look back. It’ll take at least a year, but a few of the contracts handed out since March 11 will become a salary cap burden that’s far too heavy. Like Ware this year, that can end in the player being a cap casualty, a fate which usually comes due to age, declining skills, and an astronomical dollar number that can’t be justified.

Teams typically set a max number they’re comfortable dedicating to each position, and even if they have cap room that can lead to the yearly curb kickings we see. Having money is nice, but it’s irrelevant if your current payroll isn’t being maximized. Ware and Revis may have been the most notable cuts this year, but D’Qwell Jackson was also axed by the Browns even though they entered free agency with the third most cap room. Similarly, despite having ample space with over $18 million to work with, the Falcons cut safety Thomas DeCoud—the same safety they signed only two years ago to a five-year contract extension.

The cycle of life in the NFL can lead to an abrupt professional death. So who could be the DeCoud of this free agency class a year or two from now? Well, let’s start with the guy who replaced D’Qwell Jackson.

You’re going to quickly notice a theme here: defenders who won’t age gracefully.

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browns fans2

There is no winning the offseason. Football isn’t played in the offseason. So there’s no losing in the offseason for the same reason. We’re breaking new ground here.

Starting in mid-March every year and culminating with the draft is the cultivation of hope and a whole lot of “ifs”. Those turn into projections and likelihoods, and if the general manager behind the curtain punches the right buttons and pulls the proper levers, he sees an improvement of some significance once games are played.

When we’re optimistic and cheerful in March, we’re trying to find this year’s Kansas City Chiefs, the team that spent but not overly while making the right moves in the right places. The team that, like the Chiefs, has the potential to rebound quickly from a dreadful season, or dreadful seasons.

So far that team is the Cleveland Browns. After qualifying for the playoffs just once since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999 and compiling a record of 51-109 over the past decade, the Browns might just have a chance to not suck.

There’s a six-step process happening in the land that winning forgot, and it’s ongoing.

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