RSP Writers Project Q&A: Matt Williamson ESPN

Hard to disagree with ESPN analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson about Matt Stafford. Especially on his take about Stafford’s durability. Photo by C. Vogle.

For more about the RSP Writers Project, featuring some of the best football analysts on the Internet, go here.

Matt Williamson unveiled his RSP Writers Squad yesterday and the offensive firepower is obvious. The ESPN analyst was gracious with his time to kick the tires on this project before releasing it to the public. I could say he had a head start, but the reason he picked a promising team has more to do with his experiences, including work as an NFL scout.

Williamson takes the time to discuss his team below. As always reader comments and analysis is always welcome.

Describe your offensive system, personnel formations, blocking schemes, bread-and-butter plays, and pivotal players in your scheme.

The key to my offense is obviously the triplets of Matt Stafford, Trent Richardson and A.J. Green – three very young players that I am extremely high on for the immediate and down the road for years to come. The beauty of building around these three is that they have very few, if any, physical limitations. We can game plan on a week-to-week basis to best exploit that opponent’s greatest weaknesses.

Although I only have four wide receivers on my roster, we will employ plenty of three receiver sets with Green, Greg Little and Brandon LaFell. They are also a bigger threesome which makes them helpful as blockers in the run game against nickel defenses. But a huge key to what we are trying to accomplish on this side of the ball revolves around the tight end position.

I feel as though my squad has a few guys in Chris Rainey, Marcel Reece, Fred Davis, Tony Moeaki and James Casey that are remarkably versatile as to where they align and what we ask of them. Reece and Casey really stick out in this manner due to their rare versatility as blockers, receivers and even ball carriers. They can do anything I ask of them. Our opponents will see plenty of two and three tight end sets, but that doesn’t mean that we will not spread it out in said groupings.

With Richardson – and to a lesser degree, Rashad Jennings – as the primary ball carriers, we are going to stress a power running game with a lot of man blocking principles. Acquiring offensive linemen was very expensive in this exercise overall, but I still feel like I was able to put together a pretty rugged group up front with some position versatility and with excellent size overall.

We will run a lot of Power O in the run game and although we don’t have a true lead blocking fullback, Reece or Casey will provide that service in short yardage situations. And I do think we can run some lead plays with these guys leading the way in normal down and distance situations. But we are going to throw-and throw deep. We also will be a heavy play action team and will give Stafford plenty of responsibility at the line of scrimmage

Clearly Stafford, Richardson and Green are the absolute pivotal players for my offense, but Davis and Little should see plenty of favorable matchups in the passing game due to the attention Green and my running game is sure to garner. Again, the versatility of Casey and Reece-along with Rainey-is a somewhat unique component to what we do on offense and the personnel groupings we can employ has nearly endless possibilities.

The coordinators and coach that you’d likely pick to run it.

Another vote for the Saints offensive scheme. This time Williamson casts it. Photo by modenadude.

The offense that I most want to base my attack after is New Orleans and to a lesser degree, Green Bay. What I like more about what the Saints do as opposed to Green Bay is that they too feature a power running game to complement their elite passing attack. Both teams use an extreme variety of personnel groupings-maybe more so than any offenses in the league. Again, my offense will be extremely difficult to prepare for during the week and I feel like we can game plan on a week-to-week basis very well to best attack our opponent’s weaknesses.

Describe your defensive system according to the same criteria used for the offense in terms of formations, plays, pivotal players, and coaches.

Revis…Revis? Nope. Starring in the “Revis” role for Matt Williamson’s defense is Patrick Peterson. Read how the former NFL scout assesses the risk-reward with this move. Photo by Crawford Orthodontics.

This will mostly be a 3-4 scheme with a little versatility to it, but we will not be as multiple as the Patriots for example. I would like to mix in some Big Nickel here and there on early downs as well with Dwight Lowery most likely acting as the extra safety and Henderson coming off the field. Also, with the wide variety of defensive big men I have selected, there will be some varied fronts to best utilize this group’s wide skill set, including mixing in some penetrating attacking play calls instead of just a steady diet of two-gapping.

We will consistently mix coverages on the back end, but with what I expect to be a very good pass rush, we will not shy away from press man coverage, especially with Patrick Peterson. Of course in my 3-4 defense, the opponent will see a lot of zone blitz principles and the defensive linemen will be two-gapping a high percentage of the time on early downs.

What I can promise is that we will not be bashful on this side of the ball. I expect my offense to score in inordinate number of points, so if we allow a big play or two on defense due to being overly aggressive, I can live with that. But we will also make our share of big plays on defense as well.

Sean Weatherspoon will be the quarterback of this defense and will wear the headset in his helmet. He will never leave the field under any circumstance. As pivotal as Weatherspoon is, the most important player for my defense is probably Peterson, who I am going to use in a Darrelle Revis/Deion Sanders role on the opponent’s best wide receiver most weeks. Obviously the edge pass rush that Von Miller and Lamarr Woodley should provide is extremely important as well and I also fully expect Eric Berry to soon develop into the best safety in all of football. Berry’s role in this defense will vast.

Running a reasonably strict 3-4 scheme, anyone from the Steelers’ or 49ers’ defensive staff would make sense to handle my squad. But I would like to mix in more four man fronts-not a ton, but some-than these teams generally use on early downs for variation and to best utilize the varied skill sets of my defensive linemen, so the Ravens obviously make some sense as well. Not bad defenses to pattern ourselves after!

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?

I worry about my quarterback and wide receiver depth and the fact that there is so much invested in Stafford and Green. The same can be said for Richardson, but I think my squad could still win a lot of games with Jennings as the lead running back. But if Stafford or Green were to go down, we would be in some trouble and would have to shift what we do on this side of the ball a great deal.

This will most likely mean utilizing far more heavy sets and featuring the tight end position as a whole more with even more pre-snap movement and confusing personnel groupings. Assuming everyone is healthy, my slot receiver situation is the most worrisome to me as it stands now. Going forward, there will be fewer defensive linemen and defensive backs on my roster as I look to add more bodies at wide out, specifically a dangerous slot option.

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?

According to our RSP Lab Rat Matt Williamson, cornerbacks were too expensive. Such is life. Give these writers an inch, they’ll take a mile. Photo by Marianne O’Leary.

When I started this project, I very much wanted a very strong young nucleus-and I think I accomplished that. But I also immediately scanned Matt’s list to see where I could get players I liked on the cheap. It just so happened that for the buck, I very much liked the lower end cornerbacks and defensive linemen-and for these positions, I took a quantity over quality approach with the intentions of consistently rotating players in at these spots and creating excellent competition for playing time. So that approach could leave me vulnerable if no one were to really step up. Also, my kicking specialists are really poor, but we will use a few draft picks in the next draft to address that issue.

Who are your stars and why did you invest so much in them? Like the Colts in their prime seasons with Peyton Manning, my roster has a ton invested in its core players: Stafford, Richardson, Green, Miller, Weatherspoon, Berry, Peterson and to a slightly lesser degree Davis and Woodley. But that is an awfully strong core! The reasoning for being so aggressive with assembling such a fantastic (and young) nucleus is that I felt very confident in the players that I spent very little on overall.

Great players make those around them great and with my group mentioned above, the jobs of guys like Little, the offensive line as a whole and the rest of my secondary should be much easier. We can consistently help our “Weaker Links” with design and scheme while my studs are creating mismatches in our favor on a consistent basis. And my studs should only get better with more experience.

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.

Future star? Many of us think so – Williamson included. Photo by The Brit_2

Little immediately comes to mind. He will never rival Green, but remember that this guy came to college as a running back, didn’t play his senior season and didn’t have the benefits of an offseason before his rookie year in the NFL. I also think Casey will be a star in this league before long.

Another guy I really like-especially for the price is Marcus Cannon. I think he can be a Pro Bowl guard or a very good right tackle. In the meantime, Cannon will see ample time when we use six offensive linemen, which will happen with some regularity to help out the big guys up front, even on early downs. Brandon Brooks also has a chance to develop into a great NFL guard.

And as I alluded to above, I don’t think the public has seen how effective Jennings can be. If Richardson went down, I think Jennings would be fine and Reece could also log a few carries as well. I was also extremely high on Colin Kaepernick a year ago and have no reason to change my thoughts on him long term.

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.

There are far fewer defensive players on my squad that fit this mold, but along the defensive line, I expect one of two of the younger guys to step up. Cameron Heyward and Corey Peters have the best chance to be those guys. Other than that, I don’t see a defensive player with a super high ceiling that is currently under the “Role Player” distinction, although I think Peterson will soon be in the conversation as the second-best cornerback in all of football.

Going forward, we will draft some high upside defensive players and bring them along slowly. Bruce Carter is one guy that certainly would have fit this criteria, but Matt bumped his price tag up quite a bit since the original inception of this project. By the way, you should have seen how strong of a team I originally had (I was a lab rat for this project) before Matt changed around many of my favorite bargains’ price tag!

Which of your starters or significant situational contributors on your rosters do you believe would be on the roster bubble in 2013?

My team really doesn’t have older guys that could fall off a cliff during the next year, but there are plenty of defensive backs-some who could see significant playing time in 2012-that will have to fight and claw every year to keep their job with the way my team is now structured. My kicking specialists should certainly be worried too.

What was the most difficult part of the selection process for you?

One player Williamson couldn’t say “no” to was Von Miller. Photo by Jeffery Beall.

That is easy; the hardest part of this process was saying “no” to so many great players that just didn’t make the cut for my team. Whether it was because they were not a great scheme fit, a bit too expensive or just a hair behind someone I already chose, that was very difficult indeed.

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)?

Because of the great versatility and methods of attacking a defense, I think my offense can thrive in any environment. In a dome, we could go three or four wide or empty and let Stafford do his thing. Or in poor outdoor conditions, Stafford is equipped to drive the ball through the rain or snow while my massive offensive line should control the line of scrimmage for the workhorse, Richardson. I can’t say that my defense is really better suited for any particular environment, but we are very fast on defense, so sloppy weather might not be our best setting defensively. But I am from Pittsburgh, so Heinz Field it will be.

Name three risky personnel selections on offense and explain why (talent, off-field, age, injury, fit, etc.).

I guess Stafford is a risk considering his injury history and that I only have one other quarterback on the roster, but I really don’t think Stafford is any more apt to get injured going forward than most quarterbacks around the league. Little is a risk because it is all in front of him-hopefully. Outside of Albert, who I am very confident in, the rest of my offensive tackles are extremely unproven. And if Albert were to fall to injury, Glenn-who I have penciled in as the starting right tackle-would have to switch sides. Davis’ off the field behavior also is worrisome.

Name three risky personnel selections on defense and explain why (see above).

Peterson is a risk-an expensive risk. By that, I mean that I am banking on him to become an elite player at his position. On this side of the ball, I was less risky. I really am not worried about guys like Miller, Weatherspoon or Berry developing into top players at their respective positions. They are already well on their way. I suppose Williams is a bit of a risk as my starting nose tackle, but he won’t be asked to play a ton of snaps, as we will employ a heavy rotation amongst the defensive linemen and Williams will never be on the field during passing situations. Chris Cook’s off the field behavior also has to be a concern, especially since I consider him the leading candidate to start opposite Peterson.

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.

Tyron Smith was a player that when this project originated was a fantastic bargain. Well, Matt must have caught on to that-and I didn’t think I could fit Smith on my roster any more after his price tag was bumped up significantly. Without naming them all; a few players that really come to mind are Jonathan Stewart, Jermichael Finley (along with a lot of other tight ends), Mike Iupati, Kevin Zeitler, David DeCastro, Chandler Jones, Henry Melton, Red Bryant and Sean Lee.

Bryant is the guy that really stands out most and it drives me crazy that I couldn’t squeeze him in with his $4.5 million dollar price tag. Also, I felt like cornerbacks were overpriced overall, but thought Josh Wilson was a value at $4 million as a strong second cornerback that doesn’t get enough credit. Maybe I will swing a trade for Bryant or Wilson! I would expect to see these names I listed above to be on many of the other writer’s rosters for this project.

Which players on your team would you have added even if they cost more than the listed price?

Before knowing the value of any of the players for this exercise, I did know that AJ Green would be on my team no matter what and pretty much felt the same way about Von Miller. I also knew that I would not cut corners with my starting quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback who I thought should have been valued higher than Stafford.

How do you think the makeup of your roster and distribution of your resources illustrates where your philosophy breaks with NFL conventional wisdom?

When looking at my team, I think all 32 NFL teams would trade their roster with the one I have assembled. That isn’t to sound cocky, but I do think this is a winning team. But overall, I can’t see what I did that really breaks from what most NFL teams try to accomplish, especially on offense, where I have surrounded my franchise quarterback with many movable talented parts. We will be tough to play against.

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?

I put very little value in my kicking specialists. I would give that portion of my squad a D grade. However, I am loaded with high end returners like Peterson, Manning and Rainey and also put a high premium on collecting linebackers and defensive backs that didn’t cost much against the cap to assemble a deep group of quality special team players. Also, offensive players like Casey, Reece and Moeaki should contribute on teams as well.

Hopefully one of them learns how to long snap!


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