Tenet #3: Safeties are More Important than Cornerbacks
As more and more NFL offenses try to exploit the middle of the defenses, Roseman and others are placing an added priority in acquiring top-notch safeties, particularly ones who manifest the versatility to play man-to-man in the box/slot and zone coverage over the top.
As Brett Kollmann points out, Roseman has inked his two safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod to multi-year contracts, which this year count for $$18.5M combined on the salary cap (the 2nd and 3rd highest cap figures on the Eagles’ defense behind Fletcher Cox). By contrast, the Eagles’ highest paid CB this season is Sidney Jones at $1.4M, followed by Ronald Darby at $1.1M (the 14th and 15th highest paid players on defense). In fact, backup FS Chris Maragos is making more money ($2M) this season than either of the starting CBs.
Last year the Eagles got excellent play from slot CB Patrick Robinson whom they signed to a bargain one-year $1M prove-it contract. Robinson parlayed his 2017 performance into a 4-year $20M deal with the Saints. One could argue that $5M a year for one of the top slot CBs in the game is very reasonable, but not to the Eagles, who (according to Kollmann) are planning to fill Robinson’s spot with 2018 4th round rookie Avonte Maddox of Pittsburgh.
In my opinion, the Eagles have one of the top safety tandems in the league. Both Jenkins and McLeod can hit like safeties and cover like CBs. However, it remains to be seen whether the Eagles can get away with under-valuing the CB position again this year. In the Super Bowl, Tom Brady lit up that secondary for 505 yards on 28/48 passing and 3 TDs and 0 interceptions. Three of the Pats’ receivers eclipsed the 100-yard mark: Danny Amendola (152 yards), Chris Hogan (128 yards, 1 TD) and Rob Gronkowski (116 yards, 2 TDs).
Cardinals’ Secondary Situation:
The Cardinals have been getting very good play from their safeties in recent years, although they have seen a good deal of turnover at the position in light of the free agent defections of Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger and Tyrann Mathieu, all of whom will make more money this season than FS Antoine Bethea ($4.65M) and SS Budda Baker ($1.55M). Yet, Bethea (86.1) and Baker (84.5) had higher PFF scores in 2017 than Jefferson (82.4), Swearinger (83.6) and Mathieu (77.0) ---and even higher than Malcolm Jenkins (84.2) and Rodney McLeod (79.3). In addition, before he tore his ACL, Tyvon Branch (88.5) had the 6th highest PFF grade in the NFL.
Would Howie Roseman have traded up in 2017 to take S Budda Baker if he were making the calls for the Cardinals? Yes.
Obviously, where Roseman and the Cardinals differ (somewhat) is in the value they place on CBs. Clearly, the Cardinals love having Pro Bowl LCB Patrick Peterson ($14.96M cap figure in 2018) as the second highest paid player on their defense. However, one could easily argue that the Steve Keim still hasn’t made a long-term commitment to the RCB position, which has been a revolving door for years. Keim did trade for CB Jamar Taylor, who will count $1.78M on this year’s cap and will count $4.88M on the 2019 cap if he proves he is Taylor made for Steve Wilks’ defense.
Tenet #4: Right Tackle is Now the Premium Position on the Offensive Line
Brett Kollmann does a superb job of explaining how the trend of decent run blocking, but shaky pass protecting right tackles is now being scrutinized more heavily by discerning GMs like Howie Roseman. What defenses have done is flip their best DEs to create the best blocking mismatches possible. What Kollmann points out is that last year the Eagles’ 1st Team All Pro RT Lane Johnson did not give up one sack to the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Jason Pierre-Paul. Thus, having a RT who is a key cog in the running game and a stud in pass protection is an advantage that most teams do not have.
Even when LT Jason Peters was lost for the season, the Eagles, nor Lane Johnson himself, wanted him to flip sides. The Eagles went with 2016 5th rounder Hala Vaitai at LT instead.
I believe that teams will trend in Roseman’s direction in trying to give at least equal value to the RT position. But, let’s face it, RTs as versatile and athletic as Lane Johnson are rare. Moreover, where Roseman got it right was at the center position with 1st Team All Pro Jason Kelce (a 6th round steal)---having a smart and athletic man in the pivot is, in my opinion, becoming a popular trend in the NFL, as more teams are now taking centers in the 1st and 2nd rounds.
Cardinals’ RT Situation:
This has been a position of constant flux for the Cardinals for many, many years, partly because the Cardinals have been flipping their top tackles---moving the top rookies to RT (Levi Brown and D.J. Humphries) and then trying to flip them back over to LT, which has stunted their growth and continuity. As we saw this past season after Humphries and Jared Velheer were flipped, Veldheer was manhandled by the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, which helped cost the Cardinals a prime time win last. Veldheer did improve over the next few games at RT, but wound up being flipped back over the LT when D.J. Humphries was lost for the season.
Perhaps the best and most natural RT prospect the Cardinals have had in recent years was Bobby Massie---who, despite his DUI suspension, was making strides before he was signed away by the Bears. Curiously, even with Humphries and Veldheer on the roster, Steve Keim made a furious last-ditch effort to re-sign Massie. Last year, at RT with the Bears, Massie earned a PFF grade of 69.9, ranking as the #36 tackle. Thus, Massie has yet to take his game to the next level.
This off-season Keim dealt Veldheer to the Broncos and signed 31-year-old UFA Andre Smith to a 2-year deal. Smith lost his starting RT job on the Bengals and played snaps at guard and tackle last year due to injuries, earning a 47.9 PFF grade, which ranked him as the #62 tackle.
What was so surprising about the signing of Smith was that it came so early in free agency. Obviously, he Cardinals had made signing him one of their top priorities. Smith’s career has been marred by injuries, questionable conditioning and inconsistent play. His best years were in 2011 and 2012. But he never made a Pro Bowl, which is disappointing for a former Outland Trophy winner at Alabama and the #6 pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
What the Cardinals do have going for them in a big way is the addition of Ray Brown as offensive line coach. Perhaps Ray Brown saw a glimmer of himself in Andre Smith and felt that he could rejuvenate him. Andre Smith has always had the talent---perhaps Brown is right coach to bring it out in him.
Regardless, Ray Brown also has some intriguing young talent at the RT position in John Wetzel, Will Holden and this year’s 7th round pick Korey Cunningham. Of the three, the only one who comes close to matching up physically with Lane Johnson (6-6, 317, 4.72 40, 28 reps, 34” VJ, 118” BJ) is Cunningham (6-5. 311, 4.90 40, 27 reps, 35.5” VJ, 119” BJ).
Cunningham, like Johnson, is a converted TE. Last year at Cincinnati, he did not give up a sack all season on 469 pass attempts. He is considered a late bloomer who slid in the draft because of short arm length (33.5”). Lane Johnson’s arm length, by comparison, is 35.25.” However, on the plus side, Korey Cunningham had the second highest SPARQ score (NFL proto-type athleticism by position) of all the tackles in the draft,, behind only Kolton Miller.
Tenet #5: Be Ready to Change and Adapt Each Season:
Steve Keim is no stranger to innovation as we have seen with the way the Cardinals have helped to popularize the run/pass versatility at RB in David Johnson and the use of smaller, faster hybrid $LBers in Deone Buccanon.
This season, the Cardinals are trying very diligently to modernize their approach to player development. Perhaps the greatest fascination heading into the new season is in determining what the coaches get out of the young talent on the roster, particularly from previous draft picks who thus far have under-achieved.