10 glaring holes (cont.)
Immediate need: a stud defensive lineman
Colts fans and NFL experts are screaming for offensive linemen in Indy. We understand the passion. The Colts averaged 3.77 YPA on the ground in 2010 (27th league-wide).
But plenty of teams have won Super Bowls with poor running attacks, including many worse than the one Indy fielded in 2010. In fact, as noted above, the Super Bowl champ Packers did not run particularly well, either: just a tiny shade better than Indy with an average of 3.81.
Instead, there are much bigger problems for Indy on the defensive line, where the Colts ranked No. 28 on our Defensive Hog Index. Meanwhile, they were actually one of the better OLs in football: No. 7 on our Offensive Hog Index.
The Indy defensive front got pushed around like a practice field blocking sled all year long. The Colts surrendered 4.57 YPA on the ground (25th). But that wasn't even the worst of the problems.
The biggest problem was the team's vastly over-estimated pass-rushing capabilities. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have a reputation as a great tandem of pass-rushing defensive ends. They did account for 21 sacks last year.
But beyond those two, the Indy pass rush is a disaster. The Colts were 31st in the NFL at forcing quarterbacks into Negative Pass Plays. Just 7.1 percent of opposing drop backs ended in a sack or INT. Only the dreadful Denver defense was worse.
So the Colts couldn't stop the run in 2010. But they made up for it by failing to get after the quarterback. A huge injection of size and muscle in the defensive front will go a long way toward improving the team's fortunes. It will certainly do more than adding to the OL.
Immediate need: a shutdown corner or pass rush specialist
Some observers say the David Garrard Era has come to an end, and that it's time for the team to invest in the proverbial "quarterback of the future."
The Cold, Hard Football Facts say otherwise, for two reasons.
One, we understand Garrard is not a Hall of Fame quarterback. But he's been fairly efficient and productive during his career. He posted a solid 90.8 passer rating last year. In fact, he posted the highest single-game "uncapped" passer rating of all of 2010, with his 184.6 mark vs. Dallas in Week 8 (17 of 21, 260 yards, 12.4 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT). He's a guy who can win for you if paired with a great defense.
Which brings us to reason No. 2: the Jaguars fielded the worst pass defense in football in 2010. It was one of the more under-reported statistical stories of the year. And in a league in which you can't win if you can't stop the pass, it proved a devastating flaw.
Jacksonville finished dead last in Defensive Passing Yards Per Attempt -- they were torched for 7.53 yards every time an opposing QB dropped back to pass. It's a frighteningly bad number. The Jags also finished dead last in Defensive Quarterback Rating (our new indicator that accounts for sacks, fumbles and QB rushing, as well as passing stats). Meanwhile, only Houston was worse than Jax in Defensive Passer Rating.
Lack of a pass rush was a huge problem: Jacksonville registered just 26 sacks all year (only Denver was worse with 23). A total of 13 INTs also ranked well within the bottom half of the league. The Jags produced a Negative Pass Play on just 7.33 percent of opposing dropbacks, 29th in the NFL. The league's worst pass defense was a big reason why the 2010 Jaguars fielded the worst defense in franchise history (419 points allowed).
Jacksonville could put Peyton Manning or Tom Brady at quarterback. But even those guys are not going to do much better than 8-8 with the worst pass defense in football. The day will come when they need to replace Garrard. But right now, the Jaguars have a much bigger need trying to find a way to make life tough on opposing passers.
Immediate need: an elite pass rusher
It was easy for Bill Belichick to look like a genius during his defensive coordinator days with the Giants. Back then he had Lawrence Taylor, perhaps the most feared pass rusher of the past 40 years, making life hell on opposing passers.
Here during his New England days, he's duct-taped together defenses with the likes of Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest as his top pass rushers. Nice players, sure. But not the leg-snapping threat of an LT. Efforts to find their replacements in free agency have largely failed (Roosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas) and efforts to pick up an elite pass rusher in the draft have been non-existent.
It's time to change that philosophy.
After all, Belichick maintains his reputation as a genius coach. But the onfield product does not live up to the coach's billing. The last truly great pass defense Belichick produced was in 2003, when the Patriots led the NFL in scoring D (the only time under Belichick) and posted a 58.6 Defensive Passer Rating, one of the toughest pass-defense units of the past decade.
Since then, the pass defense has consistently failed New England in key situations, from Eli Manning's final drive of Super Bowl XLI to Mark Sanchez's 127.3 rating effort against the Patriots in the divisional playoffs back in January.
The lack of a pass rush is a huge problem. The Patriots appeared to find a shutdown corner last year in Devin McCourty. But even the best CBs can cover only so long if a quarterback has all day to pass. And in recent years, opposing quarterbacks have sat patiently in the pocket picking apart New England's defenses.
The team has danced here in the lead-up to the draft with the likes of former Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram. But drafting him would be a huge mistake. After all, the team ran the ball incredibly well in 2011 and productive running backs are a dime a dozen in the NFL, as New England history proves.
An elite pass rusher will have a much bigger impact, especially for a team that already boasts an elite offense and has proven desperate for big play makers on defense in the postseason.
Immediate need: wide receiver
NFL teams obsess over wide receivers, in the mistaken notion that they're a quick fix that will have a big and immediate impact on the team's fortunes. NFL teams over the past decade have drafted 40 WRs in the first round, more picks than any other offensive position.
NFL executives could not be more terribly misguided than they are when it comes to their obsession with wide receivers.
The truth is that wideouts are easily the riskiest pick in the first round of the draft. There are two basic problems with drafting them, especially early. One, wide receivers have a high rate of failure. And two, even if you nail the pick, wide receivers have a very minimal impact on overall team success.
Look at two of the great first-round wide receivers of the past several years: Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.
Fitzgerald's Cardinals only enjoyed success with Kurt Warner at QB. Fitzgerald's offenses stunk before Warner arrived and, as noted above, Arizona's passing attack was a disaster last year, in the wake of Warner's retirement. Johnson, meanwhile, has been highly productive with the Lions, including two 1,000-yard seasons and 33 TD receptions in four years. Johnson enjoyed his best year in 2008, with 78 catches, 1,331 yards, 17.1 YPC and a league-best 12 TDs -- all career highs. It's worth nothing his 2008 Lions went 0-16.
So we almost ALWAYS advise against picking wide receivers, especially in the first round. But there are very rare exceptions: those few teams solid in every other aspect of the game but in need a little boost to the offense. And the Jets represent one of those rare teams.
There are few statistical weak links on this team outside the quarterback position. But Mark Sanchez is one of the game's rising stars, he's already proven he can win big games and make clutch plays, and the team is obviously committed to him for the foreseeable future.
So they need to arm him with better weapons. Coupled with the fact the team's biggest receiving weapon, Braylon Edwards, may not be back, and it makes the Jets one of the few teams for whom it is advisable to chase a gamebreaking wide receiver early in the draft.
Immediate need: a left guard
The Steelers have fielded plenty of fine teams over the past three years, including the Super Bowl champs in 2008 and the AFC champs in 2010.
But the offensive line has consistently been the organization's weak link and has quite literally never recovered from the loss of future Hall of Fame guard Alan Faneca, who was signed to a big-bucks deal by the Jets before the 2008 season (and played with the Cardinals last year).
We understand the reason the Steelers let Faneca go. He was getting older and he demanded huge money. Regardless, Pittsburgh has struggled to both run effectively and protect the passer in the years since he's left, often in quite frustrating fashion.
This weak link was exposed badly in the single biggest play of the 2010 season and the turning point of the Super Bowl XLV against the Packers.
The Packers had just taken a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when QB Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass at his own goal line. He had no chance. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu, the heir to Faneca's throne at LG, was tossed seven yards backward by DT Howard Green, who got a paw up in Big Ben's face. The QB's pass fluttered badly and was intercepted by Nick Collins, who returned for a TD.
The score was 14-0. There was plenty of football still be played. But, statistically speaking, the outcome of the game was set in stone: every team in Super Bowl history that's suffered a pick-six has lost. The Steelers proved no exception.
It was just one play. But it underscored in dramatic fashion the fact that the Steelers need help on the OL. In the biggest moment of the biggest game of the year, the OL snapped -- as weak links usually do. Pittsburgh was an elite team in every measure last year, except on the offensive line.
The Steelers ranked No. 15 on our Offensive Hog Index in 2010, No. 18 in average per rush attempt (4.09) and No. 22 at protecting the passer -- allowing a sack or INT on 10.0 percent of drop backs in 2010. And this final flaw haunted them in the biggest play of the biggest game of the 2010 season.
Pittsburgh boasts elite defense filled with playmakers, an elite if uneven quarterback, great weapons at the skill positions on offense and all the tools needed to make another Super Bowl run. They could use an elite offensive lineman, too.