I was raised on cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield playing bump and run in Cleveland. It was a big reason why I wanted Darrelle Revis and added some young, promising corners with man coverage skill to my squad. I have a brother-in-arms in that department with Sam Monson. The Pro Football Focus writer unveiled his RSP Writers team yesterday and if you appreciate the skill of man coverage, you’re going to love what he did.
I probably asked Monson more follow up questions than any writer thus far, including a mini-discussion about studying the game from a statistical perspective versus one of technique. I couldn’t agree with his answer more. We lead off with that question, using Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate as the starting point for this stats vs. technique discussion.
Golden Tate is a curious player to me. When I studied him at Notre Dame, he displayed a tendency to make difficult catches down field, in coverage, or after contact despite the fact that his hands technique was awful. He could catch the ball tight to his body or trap the ball in situations where in theory he’s more likely to have the ball knocked loose.
In this respect Tate reminds me a lot of Early Doucet. Good natural skill catching the ball, but poor hands technique upon entering the league. We both work for sites that place heavy emphasis on stats tracking the end result. However, I want to take you out of what some readers might think is your comfort space of stats and discuss a wide receiver’s technique.
Does it concern you that Tate executes as a receiver with technique that traditionally interferes with a player’s ability to produce? Have you seen any improvement from Tate in this regard? And third, how do you temper your stats-based analysis with watching technique within the context of a game?
Tate is one of those players that has natural ability that for some reason is different to how you teach it. Think of Jim Furyk’s golf swing or Rich Gannon’s release, or Brett Favre’s everything. If you were taking a young player and teaching them how to do something you’re more likely to use those players as a demonstration of the wrong way to do it than an example to follow, but each guy was incredibly successful because they were just naturally gifted and so comfortable with the technique that they developed. Tate may not have textbook hand placement and catching technique, but he doesn’t drop footballs, so it falls into the realm of something I’m not too concerned about. At the NFL level Tate’s hands have been fantastic, and he has some extremely interesting skills to go along with them, I’m excited for his development now Mike Williams is gone from Seattle.
- Describe your offensive system:
- Personnel formations
- Blocking schemes,
- Bread and butter plays
- Some of the pivotal players in the scheme
- The coordinators and coach that you’d likely pick to run it
The NFL has become a passing league, and we’re not going to be left behind. In Drew Brees we snagged one of the most prolific passers of all time and a player that can handle multiple personnel packages and schemes. Brees will be the master of ceremonies for this spread attack.
We will be primarily running with three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back in all formations. At any given time, the tight end could be tight or wide as a fourth receiver, and the runners will also be a threat from the backfield or as a slot receiver. Our tight ends and running backs are designed to pose questions to opposing defenses before the huddle breaks.
We will be mixing up man and zone blocking schemes, but we won’t be leaning too heavily on zone schemes. This will be primarily a power-blocking offense with designed movement from our linemen to open up holes. The mainstay of this offense will be high-low reads. We will build in multiple layers of options into every throw, starting deep and working back towards the line of scrimmage for the dump-off options and won’t be afraid to run receivers shallow to move the chains.
Most of the skill position players are important cogs in this offense and have been chosen because of a rare blend of skills that makes them versatile and a match-up problem. Mike Wallace will scare coverage deep, and we have multiple players capable of being reliable targets to move the chains underneath. Players like Woodhead, Moeaki, Brown, Snelling, Reynaud, etc all have position flexibility and allow us to get creative before the snap.
I’d be a big fan of Chan Gailey running this offense. As one of the more creative minds in the league, he will will use personnel as I outlined and do it well. Similarly, Rob Chudzinski has a history of being creative enough to take advantage of the personnel.
Describe your defensive system according to the same criteria above
This defense is going to be aggressive and beat you with talent. We have loaded up in the defensive backfield and intend to run man coverage and dare you to beat our players. The scheme will be familiar to Raiders fans except this defense doesn’t have the weak links to target like Oakland usually does.
Darrelle Revis will track an opponent’s top receiver and take them out of the game. Lardarius Webb represents the best corner to play opposite Revis and is equally capable of moving from left to right to the slot to accommodate Revis tracking receivers. Tyvon Branch is the best man-cover safety in the game, and is the only player that has already demonstrated repeatedly he has the ability to man-up with players like Rob Gronkowski and shut them down. That is going to be huge in the coming years as everybody looks for that big tight end weapon. Branch can play strong safety and be a force in the box, manning up with those players when called for.
You make a pretty bold statement that Tyvon Branch is the only player in the game capable of taking away the hybrid tight ends in the game. However Matt Miller comments that Patrick Willis did a strong job of defending Jimmy Graham in the NFC Divisional playoffs. Who is right?
Patrick Willis is a great player, and probably the best inside linebacker in the league, and he did a fine job generally speaking on Graham in that game, but he still allowed 3 catches for over 80 yards, including a deep, 66-yarder. If I had to make do with Willis in terms of shutting down these elite freak athlete TEs, I’d still be in a better position than most teams, but I think Branch can go toe-to-toe with these guys and win the battle with all of them.
He limited Gronkowski to one catch for 15 yards in their game last season going man coverage with him most of the game. He also blanked Dustin Keller and Antonio Gates (twice!) last season while Owen Daniels and Kyle Rudolph could each muster just a single catch against him. Willis might be able to hold his own better than most players, but I think Branch can shut them down. I’m not sure Willis can do that long term.
Nice…Branch it is. What about the rest of your secondary?
Chris Cook will be our third cornerback role and play the perimeter when in the game, which will allow Revis or Webb to play the slot, depending on where the best receiver has been aligned. Cook has shown some elite cover skills already, including doing as well against Calvin Johnson as anybody last season before legal troubles left him sidelined. He has huge potential.
Danieal Manning is the nest best thing to Ed Reed as a deep, single-high free safety, and he has the range to influence throws in a Cover-1 situation.
The defensive line is designed to help the secondary by applying pressure. All four of the starters are fearsome pass-rushers on their own. Together that front is living in the backfield and killing passing games. Stephen Tulloch is an important piece of the puzzle, being uniquely capable of patrolling behind aggressive gap-shooting defensive tackles and keeping things clean up the middle.
This defense will destroy offenses and needs a Ryan to run it. Rob Ryan has been trying to build this kind of defense for years but has never had the personnel to get it done. He will love this team.
Where do you believe your offense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?
We are not set up to pound the ball over the course of a season and don’t expect to have to. We can keep teams honest with Chris Ivory handling the load up the middle as a punishing runner, but we need to be able to move the chains with short passes rather than relying on smash mouth football. Our depth on the offensive line is not ideal, and if we lose Brees’ blind side protector Jared Gaither things start to fall off quickly. Todd Herremans can handle himself there, but it will be a significant drop and require a re-shuffle on the offensive line.
Where do you believe your defense is vulnerable in terms of system and personnel and what specifically have you done to minimize the impact of those vulnerabilities?
This defense has very few flaws, other than the inherent flaws of a man-coverage scheme. It is potentially light up the middle on base-downs, but we have a two-down run stuffer on the roster if we need it and Tulloch on his own can paper a lot of cracks in that regard. I don’t anticipate this defense being troubled by many offenses.
I get that you have a strong defense and you take the stand that it will be a dominant unit. How would you attack it from an offensive standpoint?
The weakness of the defense is the strength of it – the fact that it can and will be playing man coverage for just about the entire time. There are ways to beat man coverage and cause confusion. Shallow crossing patterns from receivers, motion, generally testing the defense to make sure everybody knows who is covering who and that the whole unit is aware of their shifting responsibilities given each of these scenarios is how you go about trying to create breakdowns. No defense is perfect, and this defense will probably breakdown somewhere along the line, but I’m banking on it making far more plays than it blows – even in those situations.
Who are your stars and why did you invest so much in them?
Revis, Webb and Branch were vital to the defense. It all starts with the coverage, and those three can lock down in man coverage and take away an offense’s top three targets. That is a major departure from the game plan for most teams and gives us a huge advantage.
Drew Brees was the best quarterback we could afford, because you can’t win in this league without an elite guy under center. We were hoping initially for Aaron Rodgers, but given the saving, there is no discernible difference between the two, so we elected to save the $2 million. Our receiver corps and defensive line were the next biggest spends, as both will be the driving room of their units.
Name some of your offensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.
Guys like Aaron Brown and Danny Woodhead will be important cogs in the offense. Jason Snelling and Jackie Battle are both capable of carrying the ball a lot of Ivory should be injured, and if Moeaki goes down we would be interested to see how Martellus Bennett fared as the go-to tight end in the offense, rather than just a depth player and second tight end. Darius Reynaud would backup Percy Harvin when they were together in the Vikings and we think that’s a suitable role for him.
I always thought Aaron Brown displayed poor decision-making as a runner except in the context of a well-blocked draw play or run to the outside. I see you make the comparisons to Reggie Bush, who also displayed poor decision-making early in his NFL career. Although Bush “matured” last year, I thought that gained maturity was really a return to how he used to run the ball at USC. At TCU, I didn’t see Brown display this kind of skill so I’m curious about what you see from Brown that you like. As an integral part of your offense, how do you intend to use him?
I think Brown is a shifty, elusive runner with nice receiving skills and the athleticism to be a factor in the offense. I wouldn’t use him much as a traditional running back between the tackles, but I think he has the skills to make people miss on the perimeter and be a weapon lined up as a receiver. I always liked what I saw when the Lions used him but he seemed consistently short-changed in that regard to me. In reality he would be down the pecking order in this offense, but he’s a player I’m sufficiently intrigued by to want on the roster and to try and carve out some touches for. Another interesting comparison for him would be Michael Bennett – one time Vikings Pro-Bowl RB. Was always a fantastic player in space, but the Vikings never seemed to try and manufacture that space for him. I’d try and do that for Brown.
I love the addition of Tony Moeaki in theory. But if he can’t stay healthy, you have little depth at tight end. Is there anything you have read that bolsters your confidence in Moeaki’s health?
I’m less concerned about my depth at the position than you are. I think Martellus Bennett is a monster in-line blocker and has some serious athleticism. He’s always been the second fiddle to somebody as a pro, and I think he could emerge if he was the primary target at TE in a team. If Moeaki goes down he becomes that guy for us, and it’s not like we’re short of quality receiving options in the slot to replace his position in the spread formations either. Hayden Smith is a great athlete who I have high hopes for coming over from rugby. The position he played should have taught him a lot of the TE skills inherently, so I think he might be able to emerge down the line as a legit player. Hopefully Moeaki can stay on the field, but I’m not concerned about the team if he can’t.
Name some of your defensive role players who might be role players now, but you believe could develop into much more as a starter or even star in your organization.
Someone like Sterling Moore has shown well in limited snaps and could develop into a player that can push to start. Up front John Chick looks like a situational pass-rusher but if he develops he could win the other starting spot from Brian Robison, and D.J. Smith has a chance to develop into a future starter at linebacker.
Which of your starters or significant situational contributors on your rosters do you believe would be on the roster bubble in 2013?
Most of the offensive line would be far from untouchable. The hike in the RSP project prices hit the offensive line hard. Initially it was possible to cobble together a starting offensive line for a truly bargain basement price. This time most of the bargains were gone and some players were disastrously overpriced. As such we’ve paid money for some offensive line positions we’re not wild about, and would be using the draft of free agency to get cheaper at that position I think. Someone like Bobbie Williams would be fighting for his job against a cheaper, younger, rookie.
What was the most difficult part of the selection process for you?
Struggling with the new values in particular on the offensive line. I had planned initially to steal a march on the competition by going on the cheap on the offensive line but still getting quality players. That cheap part evaporated quickly and the offensive line ate into the cap in a hurry. Deciding whether it was worth the drop from someone like Brees/Rodgers down to a Peyton Manning for a significant saving was also something we went back and forth on. Peyton Manning if he is healthy and back anywhere near his best could wind up being the biggest bargain of this entire process, but in the end we decided it was too big of a risk to take.
Based on your roster what type of playing facility would you want as your home stadium (describe the facility as outdoors, indoors, turf, grass, climate)?
We’re a passing team, but I don’t think passing teams need to reside in domes these days, and if anything those domes may be a hindrance come December if you need to travel elsewhere in the cold. I want an outdoor stadium with field turf to acclimatize my players to the elements but give them a sensible surface in any weather.
I’m happy with all climates, but wouldn’t be wild on an early-season Florida heat, there’s too much running involved to have to cope with that as well.
Name three risky personnel selections on offense and explain why (talent, off-field, age, injury, fit, etc.).
Marques Colston has knees that must be held together by surgical tape at this stage. He is a truly excellent player, but his injury history is long and consistent. Similarly Jared Gaither has had his injury worries in the past, and was struggling to find a team for some time because of them. Both of those guys could go down at any stage. Bobbie Williams isn’t as young as he used to be and we’re projecting a smooth transition to LG despite a year off essentially. Should be OK, but it’s a concern.
Where do you intend to use Marques Colston in personnel sets? As you mentioned, his knees are held together with tape. And functionally, he’s used a lot as a big slot receiver. Give me some examples of how you incorporate him and your other receivers into this Gailey-like offense with layers so we can understand how you’re going to be effective with an the creaky Colston; Mike Wallace, who many writers and fans tend to regard as a limited route runner but great physical talent; Danny Amendola, as another slot guy; and the rest of your receivers?
Colston is at his best in the slot with the Saints, and he’ll see a lot of his time there with this offense as well. We’ll be running four-wide a lot, even if one of those wide outs is actually a tight end or even a running back. Colston has been successful on the edge too and can move between them when needed.
Amendola is more limited in terms of where he can play and will be almost entirely a slot guy providing the underneath outlets. Mike Wallace may be a limited route runner, but he runs four or five routes so well he’s extremely tough to stop, so I don’t need him to run the full route tree. He may be the best pure deep threat in the NFL, and that scares defensive backs so much that it opens up free comeback and hitch routes for him, not to mention the bubble screens from the cushion they give him.
Wallace will be primarily the deep layer, running fly patterns, posts, corners and taking coverage deep. The second receiver (Colston or Moeaki primarily) will be the intermediate layer, running digs, seam routes, ins, outs and everything to work the intermediate of the defense under the coverage Wallace will run off, and Amendola and the backs will provide the shallow layer outlet routes which can pick up quick yardage and first downs. The idea is to stretch a defense and give Brees simple but fast reads to attack a defense on every snap.
Name three risky personnel selections on defense and explain why (see above).
Justin Smith is an all-world 3-4 defensive end, and I’m convinced he could be the same as a full-time 4-3 defensive tackle, rather than the part-time one he is now, but it’s still a risk because he has never had to do it in the past. In Cincinnati he was a 4-3 defensive end, and underwhelmed there before finding his niche in SF. I think the Bengals just had him in the wrong place and at this point in his development he would be arguably the best 4-3 defensive tackle in the NFL, but on the other hand, maybe he would grind down and be less effective.
Terrance Knighton was a bargain at $0.5 million and I can only assume that is because of his eye injury. We don’t expect that to be a major issue and so snapped him up at that price.
Both of our strong side linebacker options are less than long-term proven commodities though we could move Erin Henderson to play SAM and insert Rolle into the lineup at WILL to cover if both manage to under perform.
As our reader/commenter Samuel mentioned after reading Matt Miller’s Q&A, Justin Smith is 34, and pretty old to be a cornerstone for a team. Especially such an important cornerstone. He might be in your opinion, the best defensive player in the game, but he’s pretty old. How are you accounting for this long-term, or is your approach purely a “win big now?”
When Justin Smith shows any signs of slowing down, I’ll start to consider it, until then he’s one of the most important players on this defense and we’re happy to have him. He plays with an intensity level and ferocity on every snap, and that alone will help him eek out a bit more time down the end of his career, but given if anything he is playing his best football at this age, I can’t anticipate any overnight decline that would render him useless. We’ll keep an eye out in future drafts for his long-term replacement, but we’re not concerned yet by any stretch.
Name a few players you really wished to add, but couldn’t find the room due to the restrictions of the salary cap or the fit within your team’s system.
I love Victor Cruz and Percy Harvin. Harvin especially would have been perfect for the versatility this offense requires, but at $8 million it was always a tough ask. Aaron Rodgers would have been the perfect quarterback with money no object, but that extra $2 million would have cost elsewhere. I was also keen on Mike DeVito as a versatile defensive end-defensive tackle but funds were so tight that we elected to spend half a million less on Letroy Guion for that spot. Tight times!
Which players on your team would you have added even if they cost more than the listed price?
Revis and Justin Smith were the two players we identified as cornerstones early on. They were important to what the defense wanted to do and they needed to be there. Tyvon Branch was the other player that fit into that category. He’s the only player you can man-up on athletic freaks and trust to hold his own. At the price he was worth it, but he would have been at more than that value as well.
How do you think the makeup of your roster and distribution of your resources illustrates where your philosophy breaks with NFL conventional wisdom?
I’m not sure it does too much. We played the system rather than the philosophy. Most NFL teams recognize now that paying for depth is important because you’re going to use those guys over the course of the season.
We recognized that as well, but decided that we could see enough excellent players for no money that the secret was to go cheap in those depth areas and load up with high-end merchandise for starters. Consequently we’ve ended up with some extremely capable depth players for low end prices.
The strategy of finding the bottom 20 guys on the roster I think was the most important part though, and that’s probably where the difference came, as some teams will carry players just to do so, and spend money without real thought into the quality of the depth they’re bringing in. Depth is crucial to success at the NFL level, but so is outright quality in a couple of areas.
Some people have skimped on the quarterback, and that was the one area we new we needed to be elite.
- How much of a priority did you place on special teams, considering the restrictions of the salary cap? How would you rate your special teams unit?
We viewed special teams as important, but like most NFL teams – something that came well after the starting 22 was nailed down. We looked for depth players that were known quality when it came to special teams and even dedicated a couple of spots on the roster purely for special teams specialists like Heath Farwell.