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RP: Draft boom and bust by position – Defense

This is part two of our research project examining which positions in the NFL draft have yielded the most hits and the most misses this decade. We did the offensive side of the ball yesterday in this post, and now it’s time to start in on the defense.

Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 of every draft this decade. We categorized each player as a positive, a negative, or a neutral. We only allowed neutrals for the past three drafts so that we didn’t straddle the fence over and over. We combined defensive ends and outside linebackers because of the proliferation of rush ‘backers in the 3-4 in the draft the last four years.

We then counted the positives as completions and negatives as incompletions to create a percentage of sorts. Neutrals did not count as attempts so that they don’t skew the rankings.

So here are the results. Feel free to quibble with the positive/negative/neutral ratings, because that would obviously change percentages. I’ve tried to be fair, and if there is a debate, I leaned toward the positive. (That’s the kind of guy I am.) Even with that, there are some pretty clear distinctions by position. Hopefully you’ll find the results are pretty insightful.

Defensive tackles: 13 of 20 positives (65 percent)
Positives: Sedrick Ellis, Amobi Okoye, Haloti Ngata, Broderick Bunkley, Tommie Harris, Kevin Williams, Ty Warren, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Richard Seymour, Damione Lewis, Marcus Stroud
Negatives: Travis Johnson, Dewayne Robertson, Johnathan Sullivan, Jimmy Kennedy, Ryan Sims, Wendell Bryant, Gerard Warren
Neutrals: Glenn Dorsey, Justin Harrell
Thoughts: This is one of the positions with the highest bust rates. When a player hits, they often hit big — Haynesworth, Seymour, Williams, and Ngata are (or have been) terrific, while even Harris, Henderson, and Stroud are among those who have been game changers. But there are also some big-time busts here in Robertson and Gerard Warren. Some of the busts (Sims, Kennedy) are still in the league, but they have settled into reserve roles. I’ve put Okoye and Ellis on the positives list based on single good years. For Ellis it was his rookie year; Okoye was good as a rookie but stepped back last year. Dorsey is also leaning positive, based on a solid first season. But Harrell has been so banged up that he’s headed for negative land as well. All in all, this is a dangerous position to draft.
This year’s candidates: B.J. Raji, Peria Jerry

Defensive ends and pass rushers: 13 of 17 positives (76 percent)
Positives: Gaines Adams, Adam Carriker, Mario Williams, Kamerion Wimbley, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Justin Smith, Greg Ellis, Andre Carter, John Abraham
Negatives: Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, Jamal Reynolds, Courtney Brown
Neutrals: Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson
Thoughts: I used to consider pass rusher a premium position (along with quarterback, left tackle, and cornerback), but with the proliferation of 3-4 defenses, the job description has changed. Now guys like Suggs, Ware, and Merriman (and to a lesser extent Wimbley) rush from a standing outside linebacker position. While they pile up huge sack numbers, they don’t strike me as quite as dominating as a more traditional end. I guess that makes me a 4-3 guy. So I would lean toward the more traditional end like Williams who can rush the passer but also can do other things. Peppers is in that camp too, although he wants to move to a 3-4 now. That’s what the Bucs are hoping Adams will do as well. Freeney and Abraham are interesting because they are 3-4 style guys who have fit in beautifully as 4-3 rush ends. There haven’t been a ton of busts, although Brown was the No. 1 overall pick, but the jury is still out on Long, Gholston, and Harvey from last year. Still, this position has a better hit rate than I expected, largely because teams have been able to successfully find guys who can be productive in a 3-4 scheme since Ware and Merriman opened the floodgates in the ’05 draft. This year’s top candidates – Orakpo, Maybin, Ayers, and Brown – all fit that mold as well.
This year’s candidates: Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, Robert Ayers, Everette Brown, Tyson Jackson

Linebackers: 12 of 12 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Keith Rivers, Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Lawrence Timmons, A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims, Thomas Davis, Derrick Johnson, Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, LaVar Arrington, Brian Urlacher, Mike Peterson
Negatives: None
Thoughts: Linebacker typically aren’t valued at the very top of the draft, but the research shows that the first-round candidates are usually players. Willis and Mayo have been defensive rookies of the year the last two years, and many of these guys are stalwarts of their teams. The problem is that while these guys are productive, few are game-changers. On this list, only Urlacher and Arrington early in his career truly fit that description. So while linebacker is a safe pick, it’s not always the best pick when you’re trying to build a superstar club. Still, especially around the 10th pick and beyond, it makes a lot of sense to pick a linebacker. It stands to reason that this year’s candidates – Curry and the three USC starters from ’08 – will continue the trend of linebackers being good selections. None of the four has the most upside of any pick on the board, but my guess is that all of them will be productive.
This year’s candidates: Aaron Curry, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, James Laurinaitis

Cornerbacks: 10 of 11 positives (91 percent)
Positives: Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Carlos Rogers, DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Terrance Newman, Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer, Deltha O’Neal
Negatives: Adam “Pacman” Jones
Neutrals: Tye Hill
Thoughts: I traditionally consider cornerback a marquee position and a building block, but this decade the draft hasn’t produced a Champ Bailey/Deion Sanders/Chris McAllister elite guy in the top 10. There are some good players on this list – Revis, Newman, Jammer, and Trufant have probably had the best single seasons of these guys – but none of them are true shut-down guys. Revis is probably closest at the present moment. Maybe those guys don’t exist as much anymore, because the Tampa-2 defense emphasized zone coverage and tackling, while the 3-4 also usually features a zone behind it. Again this year, there is no all-time elite kind of corner. Malcolm Jenkins should be a good player, but he’s Newman-level good instead of Champ Bailey-level good. Still, the new defensive systems have meant that most of these corners have panned out. Even the negative, Jones, showed flashes of great ability, but his off-field issues ruined his career and relegated him to the negative category.
This year’s candidates: Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler

Safeties: 6 of 6 positives (100 percent)
Positives: LaRon Landry, Donte Whitner, Antrel Rolle, Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Roy Williams
Negatives: none
Neutrals: Michael Huff, Jason Allen
Thoughts: Not many safeties reach this stratosphere, but the ones that do typically are at least good players. The late Sean Taylor was by far the best of this bunch, while Landry (another Redskin) is the one of the best of these players at this point. The top current safety, of course, is Polamalu, who is a game-changer at a level that most safeties never even think about reaching. Roy Williams was a standout early in his career, but when Dallas switched defensive systems he lost all effectiveness. Allen and to a lesser extent Huff are leaning toward the negative category, but we’ll leave the jury out on them for now. Most of the time (including this year), there aren’t safeties worth this kind of investment. That makes this position like linebacker, only taken to the extreme.
This year’s candidates: Louis Delmas

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FR: Most impactful cutbacks

 This is part 3 of our free agency preview. We’ve already done a more than full workup on the 14 franchise players, and we’ve been updating our post on key re-signings clubs made so far. (That post was updated through the opening of free agency.) Now, we’re going to break down the most impactful cutbacks teams have made. We’re comparing them on the football relativity scale, with 10 being the teams that lost the most, and 1 being teams that didn’t lose much. We’ve listed only teams that have made salary-cap-related cutbacks, so all 32 are not listed. And this post will also be updated up through the beginning of the new league year tomorrow.

 10 – Buccaneers  (key cuts: LBs Derrick Brooks and Cato June, RB Warrick Dunn, WRs Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard) – This cut list reads like a Tampa Bay’s all-pro ballot from just a few years ago. Brooks is arguably the greatest Buccaneer of all time (only Lee Roy Selmon really has an argument), and he has remained productive even as he has aged. Galloway went into last year as Tampa’s No. 1 wide receiver, and Hilliard and Dunn played bit roles but key roles last year. With the change of head coaches, Tampa Bay is obviously trying to turn a page, but they’re losing a lot of quality players and leadership in the process. These cuts hurt a lot.

9 – Colts (key cut: WR Marvin Harrison) – Indy’s list of cuts isn’t as long as Tampa’s, but the name on the list is as big as Brooks. Harrison’s huge salary-cap number (more than $13 million) meant a cut was necessary, but he’s a loss. Harrison had been passed by Reggie Wayne as the Colts’ No. 1 receiver, but he still was a key part of Indy’s frequently used three-wideout set. The onus is on Anthony Gonzalez to step up for the Colts, and they’ll have to find a third receiver to keep the offense moving. This is another loss (head coach Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks) that makes me think the arrow is pointed down on the Colts going forward.

8 – Jaguars (key cuts: RB Fred Taylor, WR Jerry Porter, CB Drayton Florence, DE Paul Spicer) – The Jaguars, like Tampa Bay and Indy, had to cut a franchise icon. Taylor has been a productive running back for 11 years in Jacksonville, and although he was clearly No. 2 to Maurice Jones-Drew last season, he was still productive. Spicer spent nine years with the Jags, but he was being slowed by injuries, and Jacksonville had to give ’08 draft picks Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves a chance to sail or sink. The other two cuts, Porter and Florence, were 2 of Jacksonville’s big free agent signings last year. Both were huge, huge busts. After changing general managers, Jacksonville decided to cut their losses on both big deals.

7 – Saints (key cut: RB Deuce McAlister) – We continue the team icon hit list in New Orleans, where McAlister got the axe after eight productive years. This cut is lower on the relativity scale because injuries have left McAlister with less ability to contribute than either Taylor or Harrison have. McAlister doesn’t look to be more than a bit player anywhere else, but the emotional loss that Saints fans will have in not seeing their native son out there is still significant.

7 (con’t) –  Broncos (key cuts: CB Dre Bly, DT Dewayne Robertson, DE John Engelberger, TE Nate Jackson, LB Niko Koutovides, S Marquand Manuel, LB Jamie Winborn) – This list is significant because of its length and because of Bly and Robertson. Robertson was a top-5 draft pick with the Jets who got a second chance in Denver and didn’t capitalize. Bly was a borderline Pro Bowl player in Detroit and St. Louis, but his time in Denver across from Champ Bailey showed that Bly was no longer an elite corner. This is another organization turning the page, and you can tell from the cut list that the new management feels like ex-grand poobah Mike Shanahan left a lot of pages on the roster that needed to be turned.

7 (con’t) – Ravens (key cuts: CB Chris McAlister, DE Marques Douglas) – This McAlister isn’t quite a franchise icon, but he was a key part of the Ravens’ dominating defenses this decade. The question is what McAlister has left. He’ s no longer a true shutdown corner, but can he still be an effective starter? My guess is some team will be willing to invest to see if that’s the case. Douglas was a rotation defensive end but not a huge loss.

6 – Raiders (key cuts: WR Ronald Curry, S Gibril Wilson, FB Justin Griffith, OT Kwame Harris, DE Kalimba Edwards) – The Raiders, like the Jaguars, cut the cord on many of their top free agent signings of last offseason. DeAngelo Hall got the axe during the season, and Wilson and Harris are now gone as well. (Many in the league had chuckled at the Wilson contract and laughed out loud at the Harris contract.) The Raiders are still talent thin, so cutting guys who can play, even if their contracts are way out of whack, still hurts.

5 – Jets (key cuts: WR Laveranues Coles, OG Brandon Moore, CB David Barrett, LBs David Bowens and Brad Kassell, TE Chris Baker) – The Jets had a bounce-back year last season, so it’s a bit surprising to see them cutting contributors like Moore, Baker, and Barrett. But while there’s some volume of cuts here, there’s not a devastating impact – if the Jets can get some young players through the draft to replace the depth. Coles was cut later in what was termed as the Jets “letting him be a free agent.” Don’t be fooled – that’s nothing but a requested release. Coles is decent but not worth the money he thinks he is. The Jets are probably better off just moving on.

4 -Texans (key cuts: RB Ahman Green, LB Morlon Greenwood, DE Anthony Weaver, S Will Demps, OT Ephriam Salaam) – This list is long enough that it’s worth putting on this level. While Green used to be good, injuries have robbed him of effectiveness. No big losses here, but this is another team that must be strategic in replacing depth.

4 (con’t) – Lions (key cuts: CB Leigh Bodden, TE Dan Campbell, WR Mike Furrey, S Dwight Smith) – Another team changing regimes that cut some guys who have been productive. Bodden is notable because he was a key part of the Shaun Rogers trade last offseason. But given the Lions’ utter failure last year, these guys were probably all in roles (and at salaries) that are above their current water level.

4 (con’t) – Bills (key cuts: OG Derrick Dockery, TE Robert Royal) – Dockery was a big-ticket free-agent signing two years ago, getting Steve Hutchinson money (7 years, $49M) even though he wasn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Dockery has started 93 straight games, and so he should hook on elsewhere, but it should happen at a much lower pay rate.

3 – Panthers (key cuts: WR D.J. Hackett, RB Nick Goings, OT Jeremy Bridges) – Hackett was a key signing in Carolina last offseason, but he made little impact and got passed on the depth chart by Dwayne Jarrett. Bridges has played well over the last couple of years but his multiple off-field problems made him dispensible. Goings is a key special-teams guy, but his moment as an NFL-quality running back is gone.

3 (con’t) – Chiefs (key cuts: CB Patrick Surtain, LB Donnie Edwards, QB Damon Huard) – Surtain and Edwards were once stars, but they’ve lost effectiveness, and so in a regime change their cuts are expected. Damon Huard played OK as a starter 2 years ago, but he’s really just a backup, and Tyler Thigpen showed last year that he’s good enough to at least be a No. 2 quarterback.

3 (con’t) – Rams (key cuts QB Trent Green, WR Drew Bennett) – Bennett’s another free-agent bust on this list. He never was able to become Torry Holt’s sidekick for the Rams. Green has been a good player, but his time in the NFL is over. He should go to the broadcast booth next season, because he’ll be good at that, and he’s not a good quarterback anymore.

3 (con’t) Redskins (key cuts: CB Shawn Springs, LB Marcus Washington) – It’s a theme of this list – another free agent bust. Washington left the Colts as a big signing with the Redskins, but he didn’t deliver equal to his contract value. When Springs was cut, he moved the Redskins up a level in this comparison, but not more. Springs was once an elite quarterback, but injuries hampered him severely last season, and had he stayed he probably would have had to move to safety. The emergence of DeAngelo Hall in Washington made Springs expendable, especially at his $8 million price tag.

2 – Giants (key cuts: RB Reuben Droughns, CB Sam Madison, S Sammy Knight) – Droughns was only the fifth-best back on the Giants’ roster, so he’s expendable. Madison and Knight once were good players, but age has taken its toll. They have to hope to catch on for the minimum elsewhere if they want to keep playing.

2 (con’t) Steelers (key cut: OG Kendall Simmons) – The most amazing thing about the Steelers’ Super Bowl run was how ineffective their offensive line was most of the year. An overhaul is due, and Simmons, a former first-round pick, is being jettisoned as part of it.

1 – Bears (key cuts: WR Marty Booker, LB Gilbert Gardner) – Booker was brought into Chicago last year to contribute as a wideout, but he’s no longer effective. Gardner is merely a backup.

1 (con’t) – Cardinals (key cut: LS Nathan Hodel) – This is only notable because Hodel was a college teammate of PK Neil Rackers, and the Cardinals had promoted the fact that Hodel’s snaps helped Rackers succeed.

1 (con’t) – Cowboys (key cuts CB Adam “Pacman” Jones, QB Brad Johnson) – Dallas signed Johnson to be a safe, reliable backup, but when Tony Romo got hurt Johnson showed he just didn’t have it anymore. As for Jones, he got more attention than anyone else on this list last year, but he didn’t play very well at all. This move proves that the Pacman-in-Dallas experiment was sound and fury signifying nothing.

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