Conversation with Jene Bramel Part II

DeSean Jackson is probably glad that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be a player he only faces in practice. If the free agent acquisition plays to his potential, Jene Bramel sees 1-2 more sacks per game for the Eagles defense. Photo by MPR529.

If you’re an offensive-centric fan of the NFL or you play fantasy football the same way your older brother taught you then you need to read this interview with Jene Bramel.

The staff writer is one of the best fantasy writers you don’t know about because he is recognized as one of the go-to guys for leagues featuring individual defensive players (IDP). Even if your leagues are strictly offensive players, his knowledge of defenses will make you a better decision maker with offensive talent.

In part II of our conversation, Jene and I discussed 2011 free agency on the defenses that fared well or poorly in the open market for players. We also continue the conversation about the difficulty of evaluating safety talent, which NFL Draft Scout’s Chad Reuter broached in an earlier interview. And to wrap up this portion of our conversation, Jene and I discuss the roles of head coaches and coordintors and why he favors the zone blitz.

Waldman: Which defenses really helped themselves in free agency?

Bramel: You have to like what Philadelphia did. Bringing those new cover corners in a defensive scheme where you want to be a little more aggressive helps you in a lot of ways. They have a couple of young safeties that they want to play and having good cover corners will take some of the pressure off them.

When you’ve got a defensive line the caliber of Philadelphia and now you’ve added Jason Babin and these corners  out there to cover, it’s gravy. Those defensive ends already didn’t have any trouble getting to the quarterback  but if you give them an extra half-second to three-quarters of a second, those ends are likely to add a couple of coverage sacks per game. This is if Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can play up to his potential.

Waldman: Who else?

Bramel: I think Houston did well to revamp their secondary. Bernard Pollard was a very good player statistically from a fantasy football standpoint, but he didn’t provide enough in coverage. If you have a safety who can’t cover and two cornerbacks who really struggle in coverage then you’ve got problems. I think Jonathan Joseph would have generate more interest on the free agent market than he did if he didn’t have some injuries and durability concerns.

But he’s a very scheme-versatile corner that is going to help out a lot. It helps the Texans move a cornerback like Glover Quinn – who is not a good corner, but would be an excellent free safety. And they got Daniel Manning who can do a little bit of both in run support and coverage. He fits Wade Phillips’ scheme very well. I think they helped themselves in the secondary, but whether or not the team can transition successfully to the 3-4 remains to be seen.

Waldman: Anyone else?

Bramel: I think Jacksonville helped themselves a lot. There isn’t anything really special about Paul Posluszny or Clint Sessions or Dawan Landry, but those guys are a very good fit for the Jaguars’ division. Teams like Indianapolis and Houston can put their tight ends in the slot and challenge defenses up the middle and in multiple ways with slot receivers.

Jacksonville didn’t have anybody on the outside that could handle those players from their base defense. And they didn’t have anybody in the secondary that could do that, either. Again, those players aren’t special but they are massive upgrades in coverage for what they had.

And it might allow them to stay in their base defense against teams like Indianapolis and Houston when they field personnel with three receiving threats. Having Daryl Smith and Clint Session on the outside and Dawan Landry over the top is going to be a huge help against Dallas Clark. If I were the Jaguars and Dallas Clark was in the Colts huddle you almost had to think about playing a nickel package if you were Jacksonville. I don’t think they have to do that this year, which makes it that much harder for Peyton Manning to audible to a run and then run the defense up the gut and off the field because Jacksonville is in the nickel.

Waldman: Which defenses didn’t do enough to help themselves in free agency?

Bramel: The Bengals always pop into my mind, but I think that front four could be all right. If they let Carlos Dunlap play every down and use Michael Johnson to attack from the weak side they could be fine. They have a pretty good rotation.

It’s the secondary that concerns me. But I don’t know if you go out there and pay a lot of money for a Ray Edwards or an Eric Weddle. The reason that defense is good is because defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can scheme around whatever deficiencies they have and hide things as well as he can.

Waldman: Are there legitimate contenders that could have done more?

Bramel: I think I would have liked to see Dallas do a little bit more with their secondary. I’m not sure how well their corners are going to be able to cover. I would have liked to have seen Rob Ryan have a safety in the mold of a T.J. Ward – someone who is a little bit more of an impact player.

Bramel believes the Cowboys would have benefited from a player with T.J. Ward's ability to captain a defense. He's an emerging star. Photo by BGSU86.

I know that defense is complicated enough where they feel like the middle linebacker is generally considered to be the quarterback of the defense, but those multiple coverage schemes like the Ryan guys have a player who is not necessarily athletic, not necessarily a big-play impact safety, but you have to have somebody back there who knows exactly where everyone has to be lined up and you’re going to run a number of those variable coverage packages and overload blitzes.

You put one guy in the wrong place and all of the sudden what was overloaded is really overloaded and you’re giving up a walk-away touchdown. Gerald Sensabough doesn’t really excite me and neither does Abraham Elam. It would have been great to see Eric Weddle there or somebody else who not only had the smarts to run the scheme, but had the athletic ability to really make an impact like a Rodney Harrison once had or a T.J. Ward.

Waldman: NFL Draft Scout’s Chad Reuter told me during our conversation that safety was a difficult position to evaluate because of all the things that a safety is asked to do. Who are some up-and-coming safeties that have a chance to make their mark in the league?

Bramel:  I think there are a lot of guys in their second year in the league that might make a difference. Fantasy owners know about Eric Berry and T.J. Ward because they were productive last year, but those were guys who were still feeling their away around the more complicated NFL pass offenses. As they get more comfortable in their shoes their reads will come quicker, they will be able to support the run sooner, they won’t bite on play action quite as strongly, and they will know what they are seeing in terms of route combinations and react a little sooner to make plays.

I think those guys with those skills will be the safeties of tomorrow. Patrick Chung could come into his own in that respect. A guy like Morgan Burnett of the Packers, who got hurt last year, has a nice chance to become a good two-way safety.

Waldman: What do you think of Kam Chancellor?

Bramel: I like Chancellor a lot. I think he may be limited to a run support, in-the-box, safety role – which is fine in Pete Carroll’s scheme. But I don’t know that his size will prevent  him from being versatile enough in pass coverage. I would like to see him on the field and how he changes direction before I think he’s got a chance to become a two-way guy.

There were a lot of folks who thought that Chancellor was way better cast as a weak side linebacker because he’s 6’2” 230 lbs. Not that guys of this size can’t be effective safeties, but should Chancellor gain any more weight or lose any flexibility moving forward and it’s going to be tough for him covering as much ground as he needs to.

As Chad said about the difficult with evaluating the position, it goes back to the way television covers the game. You don’t get to consistently see where they line up, what steps they are taking, or what presnap reads they might be making. Even on those All-22 (coaches tape) angles you’re not sure what coverage those guys are in. You’re pretty sure, but not exactly sure what zone they are supposed to cover. It’s hard to know which responsibilities they were asked to fulfill and whether they fulfilled them.

Waldman: How would you evaluate them?

Bramel: I’m not sure how I would do it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable evaluating them on YouTube or even college tape. So many of those guys are playing robber type roles or run support roles because their front seven might have a weakness or the defense is looking for a big play.

That was the problem I think teams had with evaluating Taylor Mays. I think these guys get drafted based on their athleticism with the hopes that they can get coached up, because they really have no good way to get a sense of these guys instincts unless they just stand out or they are the fastest player on the field.

Waldman: If you can have any coach take over your favorite NFL team, who would it be and why?

Bramel might think LeBeau is the head coaching equivalent of tryptophan, but the Steelers defensive coordinator is the standard setter for defensive coordinators. Photo by Jessa B.C.

Bramel: I think if anybody could take over my favorite team’s defense it would be Dick LeBeau. I think the zone blitz scheme gives you everything you want. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 3-4 defense although it works a little bit better that way because you’ve got five guys who can easily drop into the underneath zones whereas in the 4-3 if you want to do that you’ve got to have somebody in the three-point stance back up and do that.

You’re putting pressure on the quarterback many times without losing a guy in coverage. It makes you look like you’re bring five or six guys when you may be only bringing four or five. This is what really draws me to a defense like that and I wrote about this in the Ultimate Guide to NFL Defenses.

Waldman: By the way, that might be one of the most useful things I’ve read at any football site, both for fantasy football and general football knowledge. In fact, I’m going to post a link to it on the blog for my own quick reference. Back to what you were saying…

Bramel: I think what put the light on in Dick Lebeau’s head was the desire to pressure the quarterback without taking the risk. So it looks like a riskier defense that it is. It looks like a more aggressive defense than it is.

All it really is, is a four- or five-man pass rush with a good Cover 2 defense behind it. There’s nothing exotic about it except with the way that they do those exchanges at the defensive end for a linebacker or a defensive tackle for a linebacker. This  confuses a quarterback into thinking he’s got an open spot when he really doesn’t.

Waldman: Great information about the zone blitz and LeBeau, but what about a choice for a head coach?

Bramel: As for head coaches, I don’t know. I never really played the game. The players say they like a player’s coach – somebody with a personality to motivate and take risks. I think that’s why you hear so much about guys like Rex Ryan.

Folks love to play for him and his teams will almost always do well because his teams have an identity from the get go. One of the things that I think the Bengals have been missing for so many years is an identity. You’ve gone from guys like Mike Shula to Bruce Coslett to Dick LeBeau – who I love as a defensive coordinator, but he’ll put you to sleep as a head coach – and now Marvin Lewis.

What they all have in common is that monotone approach. Maybe they are a little bit fierier in the classroom or locker room, but you don’t get the sense that they are. They just don’t look like motivators. I would want somebody who has a good grasp of personnel. Somebody who knows how to motivate them the right way. I think that’s a tough mix when you’re talking about young kids with a lot of money who have been stars on their teams from the time they were in middle school.

Waldman: Of course it complicates matters that most NFL head coaches are former ace coordinators. You’d think more teams would figure out that this ladder doesn’t always work.

Bramel: While the coordinators are the underrated guys,  I think I’d rather have my head coach be a personnel guy who knows how to relate to any number of players. It certainly helps if you’re an X and O guy. Tom Landry and Buddy Ryan are examples of top coordinators who could be very good coaches.

If you put a motivator in the head coach spot and two very very good X and O guys as coordinators, you’re going to do much better than if you have a big name head coach with a coordinator’s background and lacking strong motivational skills.

Waldman:  At the same time, a good leader doesn’t need to be a loud, brash, quote machine, either. Belichick is an X and O’s guy, but at the same time he understands how to delegate. He’s open-minded and relates to his players, which wasn’t something he exhibited in his first stint in Cleveland, but he learned.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean doing it all yourself as much as it is allowing other people to do it for you and allow them to grow within their position so they can eventually contribute things that you couldn’t. You need a coach who can let go and see the team with perspective instead of being stuck diagramming plays.



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