With the dust starting to settle from the always-manic first week of free agency, it’s time to turn our attention to some of the underlying themes of the week. Amongst the yearly storylines is deciphering the scheme and philosophical changes each team is making, whether it’s a new coach coming to town or the incumbent staff looking to shake things up.
The free agency period is our first insight into the types of players each team is coveting and those hints will often carry right into the draft.
Putting money aside, here’s a look at some of the major on-field storylines to track from Week 1 of free agency.
Atlanta Falcons Moving to a 3-4
It’s not always fair to use the phrase “moving to the 3-4” in this age of multiple fronts and sub-package usage, but it was clear early on that the Falcons were looking to bring very specific body types to Atlanta. They got started on Tuesday signing DE Tyson Jackson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, as well as ex-Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai. Despite the Falcons being in dire need of pass rushers, they’ve turned to Jackson and Soliai with hopes of getting stronger up front against the run, most likely with more 3-4 sets in their future.
Both Jackson and Soliai are one-dimensional run stuffers with experience in the 3-4. Jackson has notched only 38 pressures in his entire career dating back to 2009 (for reference, 11 3-4 defensive ends bested that number in 2013 alone), but his +25.7 grade against the run brings some early-down value. Soliai has a similar profile, grading positively against the run in all but one season since 2008 while providing little as a pass rusher. He played a more traditional role as a 3-4 nose tackle in his early days with the Dolphins, including a career-high +13.8 grade against the run in 2010.
Jackson and Soliai join a crowded group of interior defensive linemen that includes Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Travian Robertson, but the Falcons still have some work to do finding more viable pass rushers to improve upon their cumulative -44.4 pass rush attack that ranked last in the NFL a year ago.
Bills Double Slotting
Among the many hot schematic topics in the NFL is that of player usage in the secondary. The influx of versatile offensive players along with more three-wide receiver sets has made life difficult on defensive coordinators, so they’ve had to get creative in dealing with the multiple options presented by offenses. Tight ends are as athletic as ever, running backs line up in the slot and out wide with regularity, the no-huddle offense has made defensive substituting more difficult, often trapping a one-dimensional defensive player on the field to be exploited.
With that in mind, the defenses have adjusted by looking for more versatile players to use in the back-7, particularly players that can cover. One of the top trends involves increased use of the “big nickel” that sees safeties step up into linebacker roles thus creating three and sometimes four-safety packages. The idea behind it being that safeties often have the ability to cover in space better than linebackers but they can also handle the spread running game better than cornerbacks.
The Bills have gone a different route in adding players to their secondary as they signed CB Corey Graham this week. Graham has spent much of his time in the slot the last two seasons with the Ravens surrendering 1.18 and 1.01 yards/cover snap in the slot in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Both of those numbers put Graham near the top of the league, but it’s what Buffalo already has on the roster that make him an interesting addition.
Current slot cornerback Nickell Robey is coming off a strong season as the undrafted rookie graded at +2.8 in coverage while surrendering only 0.87 yards/cover snap, good for sixth in the league. The Bills also have a pair of outside cornerbacks on the roster in Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, so the addition of Graham gives the Bills two viable slot cornerbacks.
Why the redundancy? Look no further than the New England Patriots whose passing game generally runs through the slot. The Bills appear to be matching up with their division rival with hopes of finally overtaking the annual AFC East champion. There’s also a bit of added versatility in Buffalo’s secondary with Aaron Williams, a former cornerback, playing safety. When you throw in linebacker Kiko Alonso, one of last year’s top coverage linebackers at +11.3, the Bills will feature one of the most intriguing coverage units in the league.
Patriots Matching Up
As much as pundits enjoy matching up wide receivers and cornerbacks like it’s a 5-on-5 basketball, make no mistake, not every team is looking to use their top cornerback to track the opposition’s top wide receiver. We had to remind fans throughout Super Bowl week that Richard Sherman will not “just take out Demaryius Thomas” all over the field, but rather, he’ll stay at his usual left cornerback spot and cover Thomas whenever he ventures that way.
The Patriots, under head coach Bill Belichick, have generally stuck with the Seahawks way of doing things, keeping cornerbacks on their reserved side. But something changed back in 2012 after the Patriots traded for CB Aqib Talib in the middle of the season. After playing predominantly on the left side in his first three games, the Patriots started to match up Talib against opposing top wide receivers. The trend continued into 2013 as Talib got off to a fantastic start while tracking wide receivers over the first six games of the season, but a mid-season injury limited his effectiveness during the second half of the year.
With Talib moving on to the Denver Broncos, the Patriots countered by bringing in CB Darrelle Revis. In addition to it being clear that the Broncos and Patriots are in a heated battle for AFC supremacy, it’s also quite clear that Belichick believes in his new model of defense. Just as recently as two years ago, Patriots fans were lamenting the use of “off coverage” (what fan base doesn’t hate off coverage?), but last year saw New England press opposing receivers as much as any team in the league.
They went on to sign former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner who also excels in press coverage while incumbent cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is best suited for tight man coverage as well. While the Patriots’ defense generally mixes things up on the back end as much as any defense in the league, it’s clear that they’ve gone all-in on the philosophical switch to becoming a man coverage team.
Saints Have Safety Flexibility
One of the biggest free agency storylines has surrounded our top-rate free agent safety Jairus Byrd. He landed in New Orleans where he will pair with last year’s first round pick, Kenny Vaccaro, to form one of the league’s most fascinating safety duos. Their skill sets complement each other very well as Byrd has the experience and range to play single-high while Vaccaro has the versatility to play closer to the line of scrimmage while also covering tight ends and slot receivers.
When we dig deeper into Vaccaro’s ability to line up all over the field, we see that he had an evenly-dispersed 30% of his snaps at free safety, 33% at strong safety, and 34% in the slot. On running downs he played in the box 70.6% of the time, second-highest in the league among safeties. Byrd, on the other hand, played in the box on only 12.1% of his run snaps, making his and Vaccaro’s roles clearly defined.
Of course it’s Byrd’s ability to actually cover on the back end that makes him so valuable, and his +41.0 coverage grade over the last three years shows he’s among the league’s best. That will allow the Saints to deploy Vaccaro as an extra run defender (+5.3 run stop), blitzer, or simply have him match up with tight ends and slot receivers. Byrd opens a variety of possibilities for Rob Ryan’s defense.
Titans Seeing What Sticks
With new defensive coordinator Ray Horton coming to town, it’s clear the Tennessee Titans are in for a defensive overhaul in their front-7. Horton generally plays a 3-4 front, but with the Titans already strong on the defensive line, it was unclear whether or not big changes would be made. This free agency period hasn’t necessarily been revealing from a schematic standpoint, but some of the additions are making for a crowded situation in the front-7.
First, Tennessee re-signed DE Ropati Pitoitua who had a strong showing last year against the run at +11.1. At 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, he has the desired frame to play defensive end in a 3-4 as he did during his time with the New York Jets. Tennessee also signed DE Al Woods who showed well in his limited snaps at 3-4 defensive end for the Steelers a year ago, grading at +2.6 against the run. The biggest signing of the week was LB Wesley Woodyard who joins Colin McCarthy, Zach Brown, Akeem Ayers, Zaviar Gooden, Moise Fokuo and others in a crowded group of “traditional” linebackers.
Many fans think an influx of linebackers is a surefire sign that moving to the 3-4 is inevitable, but the opposite is true. The 3-4 really needs three interior defensive linemen and two edge rushers to go with just two traditional linebackers in the middle. Ayers is a rare linebacker in that he may have some value as a true pass rusher (+6.8 in 2013), but asking him to rush the passer 30-35 times a game may be a bit too much. That job is generally reserved for defensive end converts, which leads us to DE Derrick Morgan and DE Kamerion Wimbley. Both players would likely make the move to outside linebacker in the new scheme, something Wimbley is familiar with from earlier in his career.
While the rest of the teams on the list appear to have made their defensive intentions quite clear, the Titans head into the draft with a clutter of players in the front-7. They can go any number of ways in the draft, but adding a big nose tackle (perhaps Louis Nix from Notre Dame), could finally reveal their intentions of moving to a 3-4.
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