Following on from Mike Clay’s review of offensive depth charts, we are now bringing you their defense-focused counterparts.
What I’m doing here is going team-by-team and taking a look at each AFC East team’s roster situation across the three defensive units and Fantasy Football positions (DL LB DB). I’ll also be speculating on a few potential off-season moves we could see each of these teams make.
The Bills are in the midst of a transition back from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front, and it could have a huge impact on the value of their defensive linemen, most notably Marcell Dareus. In his rookie season, Dareus (+14.8) demonstrated more than a few flashes of brilliance alternating between nose tackle and defensive end in the Bills’ 3-4 set, but a switch to the “three technique” in a 4-3 front would free him up to consistently wreak havoc in opposing backfields. With a year of experience under his belt and Kyle Williams (+44.9 in 2010) returning from a foot injury, the Bills are more than set in the middle. On the outside, things are a bit dicier, with Dwan Edwards (-14.1), Spencer Johnson (-5.0) and Alex Carrington (-8.5) all failing to take advantage of Dareus’s strong inside play. Look for the Bills to try to upgrade at DE via the Draft or free agency, though it’s possible that combining Dareus and a healthy Williams will be all that’s needed to effect a serious upgrade in the overall performance of the Bills’ DE corps.
The state of the linebacking corps is quite solid, with WLB Nick Barnett (+8.4) and SLB Chris Kelsay (+10.8) bookending second-year MLB Kelvin Sheppard (+4.6). Sheppard was particularly strong against the run (+8.4), and the unit as a whole looks to be a real strength heading into the 2012 season. Look for the Bills to use a mid-to-late round pick on a future replacement for the 31-year-old Kelsay, but for them to otherwise focus their attentions elsewhere. The biggest question mark is Shawn Merriman, who’s played his entire career as a 3-4 OLB. Assuming his contract makes him uncuttable, look for the Bills to try to get the most out of the fading edge rusher by deploying him exclusively on passing downs, cutting down on wear-and-tear and getting the most possible value from his diminishing skills.
Ballhawking free safety Jairus Byrd has emerged as the star of the Bills’ secondary, posting a very strong +13.0 rating in 2011 (3rd-best amongst all NFL safeties). Things are a bit murkier at strong safety, where George Wilson (-1.5) is competent against the run (+3.0) but fairly disastrous in pass coverage (-4.1, 67th-best amongst qualifying safeties). At corner, Leodis McKelvin (+2.1) is gradually emerging as a solid player, but nowhere near the level required to justify being the 11th overall pick in the 2008. Drayton Florence (-10.9, 100th-best qualifying CB) was an unmitigated disaster, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the Bills let him go if a better option emerges. As a rookie, Aaron Williams (-6.4) struggled badly in pass coverage (-8.1, 93rd-best amongst qualifying corners), but there’s still reason for hope that his play will improve, particularly with the benefit of OTA’s and a full offseason training program. Terrence McGee (+5.9 in 2010) missed much of 2011 with a knee injury, but by renegotiating his contract he’s given himself an opportunity to win a starting spot in 2012.
Unlike the Bills, the Dolphins’ anticipated switch to a 4-3 defense could be a huge mistake. The problems most certainly begin up front, where two critical components – Kendall Langford and Cameron Wake – will likely be miscast in a 4-3 front. Langford is a prototypical 3-4 DE, and though his play slipped noticeably in 2011 (+1.7) from his stellar 2010 campaign (+14.4), it’s worth noting that his play on the pass rush actually improved (from +4.2 to +7.7). Attempting to convert him to a three technique DT probably won’t yield the desired results, and the Dolphins’ shift to a 4-3 could mean this is the end of the free agent Langford’s tenure in Miami. Alongside him, Randy Starks (+12.5, 6th-best 3-4 DE in 2011) also wouldn’t benefit from the transition to a 4-3.
But the biggest issue, without question, is Wake. He broke out in a huge way in 2010 (+38.9, 16 sacks), and though his play actually improved in 2011 (+43.4), his sack total (9) dropped enough to leave casual observers concerned. Moving the 6’2″, 240-pound Wake from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE could be absolutely disastrous for his productivity, as he’s not large enough to take on the double-teams he’ll start to see regularly in that role. Turning the team’s most effective defensive player into a “tweener” is the kind of ill-advised move that could set the Dolphins’ defense back in dramatic fashion, possibly mitigating any benefit that would be enjoyed by adding a hopefully-healthy Peyton Manning to the offense. One player who would likely benefit from the shift to a 4-3 is Koa Misi (-2.6), who could fit very nicely at WLB alongside MLB Karlos Dansby (+16.2).
The situation in the secondary is worrisome for entirely different reasons. Vontae Davis (+0.5) showed promise at times in 2011, but Sean Smith (-16.1) was the third-worst CB amongst the 109 who qualified. If the Eagles make Asante Samuel (+9.2) available via trade or release, the Dolphins should pounce. Samuel would immediately jump to the top of the depth chart, reducing pressure on Davis and relegating Smith to slot-corner detail.
In looking at the Fins’ defensive line and linebacking corps, it’s clear that substantial turnover is going to be needed in order for the transition to a 4-3 to be a success. Put simply, a defense that was best in the NFL in 2010 slipped to average in 2011. This transition could easily cause the Fins’ defense to slip to the bottom of the league. And though that obviously didn’t prevent the Giants and Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl, it’s not a recipe for success given how many question marks still remain on the opposite side of the ball.
New England Patriots
The Pats’ defense is anchored by DT Vince Wilfork (+6.3), whose ranking doesn’t adequately reflect his importance. While his play on the pass rush (-7.7) isn’t great, he’s stout against the run (+8.4) and does a fantastic job of occupying blockers. Wilfork’s effectiveness is most easily measured by the positive impact his presence had on Andre Carter (+22.4) and Mark Anderson (+17.8), both of whom enjoyed career revivals playing on the outside in New England. Unfortunately for the Pats, both Carter and Anderson are free agents, and if they don’t return to Foxborough, look for Bill Belichick to restock his D-line via free agency and/or the Draft.
WLB/RILB Jerod Mayo (+8.7) endured an up-and-down campaign in 2011; six times he delivered strong single-game performances, while he had five poor outings. More consistency is clearly needed from the former first round pick. In the middle, Brandon Spikes (+6.0) improbably manages to overcome his epically slow 5.06-second 40 time, largely because his anticipation skills are top-tier. Whether that continues – or whether he is exposed more and more frequently in pass coverage – will go a long way towards determining his longevity. The Pats will probably look to add a linebacker in the draft, though they can afford to wait until the middle-to-late rounds to take a chance on a developmental project.
The secondary is another area of concern, largely because of the precipitous slip in Devin McCourty’s play. In 2010, McCourty burst onto the scene and posted a +11.6 rating while playing nearly 1100 snaps. But in 2011, he slipped to -2.2 while playing just over 900 snaps at corner. If McCourty (a 2010 first round pick) doesn’t bounce back, it’ll spell trouble. On the other side, Kyle Arrington (+3.2) is solid against the run, but his -2.2 rating in coverage suggests that he’ll be exploited with ever-increasing frequency in 2012. At safety, Patrick Chung is a hard-hitter who’s strong against the run (+2.0), but his propensity for crossing the line and taking costly penalties (-3.2) severely curtails his value. Look for the Pats to aggressively seek upgrades via free agency and/or the Draft, for their secondary doesn’t hold enough promise for them to stand pat.
New York Jets
Last season, Sione Pouha was PFF’s top-rated DT/NT, with a stellar +30.1 rating (including +27.2 against the run). But now he’s a free agent, making him perhaps the Jets’ most pressing offseason priority. Assuming he’s either signed to a contract extension or given the franchise tag, the Jets will be free to focus their attention elsewhere in the draft and free agency. DE Muhammad Wilkerson got his career off to a fine start in 2011, posting a very respectable +4.7 rating (including +7.9 against the run), while the solid if unspectacular Mike Devito has emerged as a reliable option on the other side. But if the Jets are to bounce back from a disappointing 2011 campaign, much will depend upon whether Pouha (+0.7), Wilkerson (-1.8), and Devito (-3.3) improve their work on the pass rush, especially in a division that already includes Tom Brady (Patriots) and might soon include Peyton Manning (Dolphins).
The Jets’ anemic pass rush isn’t limited to their front three; supposed QB hunter Calvin Pace has rapidly declined into a sub-replacement-level option. Last season, Pace’s -4.3 pass rush rating was 27th best amongst the 28 qualifying 3-4 OLBs, and there’s no good reason to expect anything in the way of improvement for 2012. On the other side, Jamal Westerman (+1.8) offers a bit more promise, but it’s clear that an upgrade on both sides would make a huge difference for the Jets’ postseason (much less Super Bowl) chances. In the middle, David Harris (+5.8) is solid in coverage (+8.5) but surprisingly ineffective against the run (-2.3). However, given the rest of the front seven’s strengths and weaknesses, that’s actually OK, particularly given how dangerous rival New England’s tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) can be. Bart Scott (+16.5), the other ILB, remains quite effective against the run (+14.1), but he may be a cap casualty. Should the Jets release him – and should character concerns cause Arizona State ILB Vontaze Burfict to slip in the draft – it could be a match made in heaven (or hell, as it were).
The secondary – and in particular the cornerbacks – is the strength of the Jets’ defense. Darrelle Revis is a game-changer, and his +23.1 rating (including +16.8 in pass coverage) was tops amongst all NFLers. On the other side, things get a bit dicier, where the risk-taking Antonio Cromartie (-1.6) is competent in pass coverage (+2.8) but prone to taking bad penalties (-3.2). He should expect to continue to be targeted frequently with Revis on the other side, and it’s a good bet that his relative effectiveness is tied directly to the Jets’ ability to put pressure on opposing QBs. Jim Leonhard (+2.9) and Brodney Pool (-0.4) are both free agents, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if one or both are gone. Of the two, Rex Ryan is more likely to push for Leonhard to return. Look for Kyle Wilson (-8.5) to make the transition to safety, as he hasn’t proven to be at all effective as a cover corner.