Breaking Down the Most Improved Units After 2014 NFL Free Agency
With the draft being less than a month away, it's time to examine how specific positional units were affected by their teams' offseason moves.
Some teams hit a home run in free agency and gave themselves additional wiggle room on draft day, while others failed to add building blocks to their roster by sitting around.
Free agency isn't created equal. It's all about fit, spending wisely and supplementing the roster the right way. Unfortunately, owners and general managers often forget they aren't playing Madden. The choices they make and the consequences that come with the choices they make are real.
Let's break down the seven most improved units in the NFL after free agency.
All statistics are from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Chicago Bears: Defensive Line
After a disappointing season on the defensive side of the ball last year, Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery knew it was time to load up on talent and attack the quarterback.
In an effort to effectively bolster their play and get after the quarterback, the Bears made it a point to rid themselves of aging, underperforming players. This, in turn, meant All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers was sent packing, while Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton was allowed to walk in free agency.
Both players are quote, unquote name players who carry star power, yet neither lived up to expectations in 2013. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus, Peppers graded out as the 36th-best 4-3 defensive end, and Melton graded out as the 139th-best NT/DT on 125 snaps.
No matter which way you slice it, that’s simply not good enough.
So, Emery opened up the Bears’ checkbook and made a splash. At the start of free agency, he signed one of the most well-rounded defensive ends in Lamarr Houston. Shortly thereafter, he inked two pass-rushing phenomenons in Jared Allen and Willie Young to complete Chicago’s overhauled defensive line.
Allen is a five-time Pro Bowler who has registered seven straight 10-plus sack seasons, and Young is a former seventh-round pick who has made a living as a rotational rusher. Over the course of his three-year career, he has amassed six quarterback sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 79 quarterback hurries.
Couple the production of those three players with that of defensive tackles Stephen Paea and Jay Ratliff, and it’s safe to say the Bears now have one of the most gifted defensive lines in football.
Furthermore, they have an improved unit that perfectly complements Jay Cutler and Co.
Denver Broncos: Secondary
As historic as the Denver Broncos offense was in 2013, their defense, especially their secondary, was less than impressive. On a weekly basis, opposing quarterbacks marched up and down the field on it with ease.
At the end of the regular season, Jack Del Rio’s secondary had surrendered 4,070 yards passing, 29 touchdowns, 61 plays of 20 yards or more and eight plays of 40 yards or more.
Clearly, those numbers were unacceptable to a defensive-minded head coach like John Fox. This meant a change needed to be made to the team’s most vulnerable position, the strong safety position.
So, what did the Broncos do on the first day of free agency? They signed one of the most coveted strong safeties, T.J. Ward, in all of football to a four-year, $23 million deal. The signing turned Denver’s weakest position in the secondary into its strongest.
In four years' time, Ward has made a name himself by being an enforcer in the run game and sound in coverage.
As a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2013, he garnered a plus-14.5 grade overall. That was the third-highest overall grade at his position. Will Hill and Devin McCourty were the only other safeties to tally higher grades by season’s end.
For the sake of comparison, Duke Ihenacho (the safety he is replacing) not only finished with a lower overall PFF grade (negative-7.5) grade, he registered fewer tackles, interceptions and stuffs in the run game.
Ward is by far the most worthwhile addition Denver made to its secondary, but he’s not the only one. John Elway wasn’t satisfied with one Pro Bowl player at defensive back, so he rolled out the Brink’s truck for cornerback Aqib Talib.
Talib will immediately slide into Champ Bailey’s former roll at left cornerback and pair his talents with one of the most underrated corners in the league, Chris Harris. If you’re the Broncos, it’s hard not to like your chances in 2014.
Expect Denver to make another run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Defensive Line
Ever since Gus Bradley took over as head coach in Jacksonville, the Jaguars have been labeled as “Seahawks East.”
The label makes a ton of sense based on the fact the Jaguars are quick to scoop up defensive players the Seahawks dump. Yet, Bradley wants you to know they are merely talented players who happen to come from Seattle’s organization, via Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com:
I think that could be a perception of it and I want to be careful of that. But if they're good players ... If there's an opportunity for someone that if I have coached, or been a part of coaching, and they've given so much to me and helped our staff as a coaching staff, that in turn if I can have the opportunity to help them, I'm going to look into it. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, that's just how I am.
Bradley’s right: Yes, he may be aware of the perception, but that doesn’t mean it’s detrimental to the team. For a case in point, look at the Will Blackmon signing.
Blackmon showcased his talent in training camp last season, but the Seahawks didn’t have room for him on their 53-man roster. So, Bradley saw an opportunity to improve the Jaguars' weak secondary and acted on it.
The move paid dividends. In 15 games, Blackmon recorded 40 combined tackles, 11 passes defended, two forced fumbles and one interception. Moreover, he finished with the second-highest PFF grade on Jacksonville’s defense.
Bradley’s hoping former Seahawks defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons have the same effect on the defensive line that Blackmon had on the secondary.
The good news is the odds are in Bradley’s favor. Bryant is coming off a career year against the run, and Clemons is inching closer to 100 percent after he completely dominated the opposition in the playoffs.
By the time the Super Bowl had ended, Clemons had racked up one quarterback sack, one quarterback hit, eight quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles in three postseason games.
Bryant and Clemons may be former Seahawks players, but that’s irrelevant now that they are in Jacksonville. Bradley is building his defense the way he wants it and is open to adding any player who fits his defensive scheme.
Because in addition to Bryant and Clemons, the Jaguars had a couple under-the-radar signings in Ziggy Hood and Dekoda Watson. From a schematic standpoint, all four players fit like a glove, and all four players offer a unique skill set at their respective positions.
Jacksonville won’t lead the league in sacks, but its defensive line is one of the most improved units in the NFL thanks in large part to Bradley's vision for the Jaguars defense.
New England Patriots: Secondary
Much like the Broncos, the New England Patriots had a few glaring holes on the back end of their defense. Talib faltered down the stretch, Alfonzo Dennard was far too inconsistent on a weekly basis and Logan Ryan struggled against the run.
Obviously, there is no such thing as a perfect player, yet the Patriots felt they could up their level of play at a premium position, cornerback. So, they went against the grain and brought in a pair of aging Pro Bowl cornerbacks.
Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner may not be the players they once were, but they both have the necessary know-how to instantly upgrade the 18th-best pass defense in the NFL.
Here’s what Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had to say about Revis and Browner in his B/R 1000 series:
He's now with a new team, the New England Patriots, but it was the same old Darrelle Revis (5’11”, 198 lbs, seven seasons) in 2013. The former Pitt Panther is still one of the elite cover men in the league. With exceptional short-area quickness and awareness, Revis is able to stick with wide receivers no matter the route he sees. Revis’ hand use is high-level, and he has the footwork to run with all types of receivers.
Brandon Browner (6’4”, 221 lbs, three seasons) is a long, athletic cornerback with the ability to fight receivers for the football. He excelled in Seattle during previous seasons because he could use his size and strength to bully receivers down the sideline.
Based on Miller’s evaluations, it’s apparent the Patriots are looking to get more physical in the secondary. Revis and Browner definitely fit the bill if that is their objective. Both players display great hand usage at the line of scrimmage by knocking opposing receivers off their spot.
The presence of Revis and Browner on the outside will also help New England’s pass rush. This could prove to be huge because the Patriots pass rush was anemic last year.
In fact, PFF’s metrics awarded the Patriots with the second-worst pass-rushing grade in the league. Corners are not built to cover for extended periods of time without a pass rush, but that initial jam off the line of scrimmage may end up being the difference.
A split second here or there could easily alter the end result of the play. Better coverage on the back end often turns quarterback hits into quarterback sacks and quarterback hurries into quarterback hits.
There’s a direct correlation between secondary play and defensive line play. The Patriots know they go hand in hand, which is exactly why they made a heartfelt effort to enhance a unit that was seen as a liability for much of the 2013 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Offensive Line
Head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht were extremely active in free agency.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemingly infused every unit with additional talent. The defensive line gained a premier pass-rusher, the quarterback position benefited from a wily veteran and the secondary expanded its talent base with the perfect corner for Smith’s scheme.
However, the one unit that added topnotch talent in the middle and on the outside was the offensive line. Left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith aren’t exactly household names, but both are topnotch players as pass protectors.
Despite playing a limited number of snaps for the Cincinnati Bengals, Collins made the most of his opportunities. In seven regular-season starts last season, he didn’t allow a quarterback sack or a quarterback hit. No other left tackle who played at least 400 snaps can make that same claim.
As far as Dietrich-Smith goes, his pass-protection skills were equally remarkable. In 1,073 snaps for the Green Bay Packers, he only allowed 14 quarterback pressures. Sure, he had a couple rough games early on in the season, yet his play started to really take off after Week 3.
Sanders Philipse of Bucs Nation agrees that Collins and Dietrich-Smith will vastly improve the Buccaneers' pass-protection skills:
One area where we should see immediate improvement is pass protection, even if that wasn't a huge area of concern last year. No more slow-footed maulers like Davin Joseph and *shudders* Jeremy Trueblood. In come quick-footed, balanced players like Anthony Collins.
If Collins and Dietrich-Smith can pick up where they left off, the Buccaneers offense will be one of the 10-best offenses in the league. It’s amazing what a competent front office staff can do for a team in one short offseason.
New York Giants: Secondary
After a dismal 7-9 season in 2013, the New York Giants didn't sit around and twiddle their thumbs. They identified their weaknesses and fixed them in free agency.
On the surface, the Giants' greatest area of need appeared to be the offensive line, yet that wasn’t the case once you started to dissect the moves general manager Jerry Reese made.
Reese equally valued the needs of the team’s offensive line and its secondary. By no means was the Giants secondary bad, but its depth killed the team at particular points throughout the 2013 season.
Outside of cornerbacks Trumaine McBride and Prince Amukamara, New York didn’t have enough depth to compete at a high level in nickel and dime situations. That notion explains why the team threw a good chunk of change at Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond.
Between the two players, Rodgers-Cromartie and Thurmond will make $15.98 million guaranteed. That’s a lot of money for two players who will have to battle McBride and Amukamara for playing time.
Nevertheless, Rodgers-Cromartie and Thurmond are worth it. In addition to providing the Giants with the depth they were desperately seeking, both players have the versatility to play a wide variety of positions in sub-packages.
Over the course of their careers, Rodgers-Cromartie and Thurmond have spent time on the outside and in the slot. Don't expect Rodgers-Cromartie to man the slot often, but there’s a good chance New York will play to its strengths and exploit matchups with different personnel groupings.
Here’s how Dan Graziano of ESPN.com sized up the Giants secondary and their new signees back in March:
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB: He doesn't fit that "shutdown corner" description either, but his speed and athleticism enable Rodgers-Cromartie to make spectacular plays and sometimes even outrun his mistakes. The Giants should be able to split the field with him on one side and Amukamara on the other and feel very good about their chances in coverage. Depending on week-by-week matchups, they can isolate Rodgers-Cromartie in coverage as warranted without having to lean on him as a one-on-one difference-maker every week.
Walter Thurmond, CB: He was one of the cornerbacks called upon to fill a larger role in Seattle last year following the drug suspension of Brandon Browner, and it's generally believed the Seahawks' cornerback play improved. Thurmond is an elite-level talent as a slot cornerback, which is the role he'll likely fill with the Giants, but he's also capable of handling himself on the outside should one of the starters get injured.
In today’s NFL, you can never have too many good defensive backs. Without a doubt, the Giants bought into that theory and are hoping it pays off on the field. If it does, New York could reclaim the title of NFC East champs.
Washington Redskins: Wide Receiving Corps
Apparently, head coach Jay Gruden’s No. 1 plan for the Washington Redskins during the offseason was to supply franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III with as many weapons as possible. Mission accomplished.
Aside from the fact the Redskins added a slot receiver (Andre Roberts) on the first day of free agency, they pounced on DeSean Jackson once he hit the open market as well.
From a pure football standpoint, I have yet to meet someone who thought the move was a bad one. Yes, Jackson’s work ethic has come into question, but that type of concern falls to the wayside on game day.
Why? Because he’s an electric player on Sundays. According to PFF, he was the seventh-best receiver in the league last year and topped 1,300 yards receiving for the first time in his career.
He also totaled 82 receptions on 119 targets and 489 yards after the catch. Miller of Bleacher Report didn’t have Jackson as high as PFF did, yet he had nothing but good things to say about Jackson’s game as a whole: “Jackson doesn’t have elite size, but he’s a gamer with the talent to produce as a wide receiver or a return man. His post-catch production and dazzling open-field moves are some of the game’s best.”
Defending Jackson, Roberts and Pierre Garçon is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Speed kills in the NFL. And if we know anything about Griffin’s arm (when healthy), he won’t have any problem pushing the ball deep down the field.
As a rookie in 2012, he was the fifth-best deep-passing quarterback. On 36 attempts of 20 yards or more, he completed 50 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and one interception.
Washington’s wide receiving corps will be one of the most exciting units to watch in 2014.