We’re all pretty stubborn in our beliefs as to who we draft and what our strategy should be. Some of you still think drafting Peterson is a good idea. Others are still enamored with Kyle Rudolph. In a recent post, I jokingly told you Phil Taylor isn’t an option and wouldn’t even let you vote for him in the poll lol. Well, I was wrong. Phil Taylor and all big defensive linemen are options, even if they don’t really penetrate much. And yes, even our own Jamaal Williams is a very credible option.
I try to keep an open mind and not cling to failing notions. The key to me isn't to never be wrong, but to quickly realize your wrongs and move on - never cling. Like everyone else out there, once in a while I find that either the logic or the facts I used to formulate my opinions were somehow flawed. In this particular case, I looked at Carolina’s roster and I looked at their last nine drafts. They never drafted really big linemen, nor are there any 300 pound defenders on the current roster. These facts supported my existing hunch, so I basically stopped looking. My theory was that when you have a defense that doesn’t blitz much, pressure from the front-four is crucial. My idea was that even interior linemen (DTs) each need to penetrate and collapse pockets in order to consistently pressure the QB and disrupt his timing. This all makes sense, but where I went wrong was not looking at previous rosters for Coach Fox in Carolina. In finally doing so, I realized he did in fact tend to use larger defensive linemen.
The significance of this is as it relates to our depth at DT and the combined effect on our draft strategy. Jamal Williams is as likely to stay as he is to leave, IMO. And if both he and Bannan stay, it makes it much less likely that we draft two early DTs. This is just an opinion, of course, as I have been wrong before. But hey, I didn't hear any of you saying Jamal was our starter either :D
After the jump we'll talk about Fox's preference in having larger DTs and I'll include a short chart to illustrate that. I then want to talk about sacks - how many we need from each position group and what those implications are on our draft.
|Pts||Yds||Sks||Yds per rush||LDE||LDT||RDT||RDE|
|2002||5||2||2||1||Julius Peppers||Brentson Buckner||Kris Jenkins||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'2, 310lbs||6'4, 360lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|52||3.7||12 GS, 12 Sacks||8 GS, 5 Sacks||16 GS, 7 Sacks||15 GS, 10 Sacks|
|2003||10||8||7||12||Julius Peppers||Brentson Buckner||Kris Jenkins||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'2, 310lbs||6'4, 360lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|40||4||16 GS, 7 Sacks||12 GS, .5 Sacks||16 GS, 5 Sacks||14 GS, 12 Sacks|
|2004||15||20||24||12||Julius Peppers||Brentson Buckner||Kindal Moorehead||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'2, 310lbs||6'2, 299lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|34||4||16 GS, 11 Sacks||15 GS, 3.5 Sacks||12 GS, 2 Sacks||16 GS, 3.5 Sacks|
|2005||5||3||7||4||Julius Peppers||Brentson Buckner||Jordan Carstens||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'2, 310lbs||6'5, 300lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|45||3.6||16 GS, 10.5 Sacks||16 GS, 1 Sack||15 GS, 4 Sacks||14 GS, 7.5 Sacks|
|2006||8||7||6||7||Julius Peppers||Ma'ake Kemoeatu||Kris Jenkins||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'5, 364lbs||6'4, 360lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|41||3.9||16 GS, 13 Sacks||14 GS, 0 Sacks||16 GS, 3 Sacks||14 GS, 5 Sacks|
|2007||15||16||31||4||Julius Peppers||Ma'ake Kemoeatu||Kris Jenkins||Mike Rucker|
|6'7, 283lbs||6'5, 364lbs||6'4, 360lbs||6'5, 275lbs|
|23||3.8||14 GS, 2.5 Sacks||13 GS, 0 Sacks||15 GS, 2.5 Sacks||16 GS, 3 Sacks|
|2008||12||18||9||23||Tyler Brayton||Ma'ake Kemoeatu||Damione Lewis||Julius Peppers|
|6'6, 280lbs||6'5, 364lbs||6'2, 301lbs||6'7, 283lbs|
|37||4.4||16 GS, 4.5 Sacks||14 GS, 0 Sacks||15 GS, 3.5 Sacks||16 GS, 14.5 Sacks|
|2009||9||8||23||20||Tyler Brayton||Hollis Thomas||Damione Lewis||Julius Peppers|
|6'6, 280lbs||6'0, 340lbs||6'2, 301lbs||6'7, 283lbs|
|31||4.4||14 GS, 5 Sacks||13 GS, 0 Sacks||16 GS, .5 Sacks||14 GS, 10.5 Sacks|
The chart above reflects the starting roster for Coach Fox’s first eight years in Carolina. I chose not to include the ninth year because the roster was purged of talent and expenses to such a large degree that I believe it would have negatively impacted averages and eschewed perceptions. For full disclosure, there was just one starting lineman that carried over from 2009 to 2010, one starting linebacker also. None of the 2010 starters were really big, but true to his trends, Foxy did bring in 325 pound DT Louis Leonard, to compete after losing 340 pound Hollis Thomas.
Getting back to the chart, the first thing to notice is the bold ink That represents a starting player that weighs 340 pounds or more. As you can see, there were just two years where Fox didn’t use a mamouth DT as the starter, and even that’s a little misleading. The first time was in 2004 when Coach Fox still had 360 pound Kris Jenkins as his starter. Unfortunately, four games into the season, injury prematurely ended Jenkins’ season. The only other year Fox didn’t primarily use a 340 pound starter at DT was 2005. But again, this was due to injury. Jenkins started in week-one and never played the rest of the year.
There can be no debate, therefore, that for the two years where Fox didn’t start a huge defensive lineman… He did plan to... but was unable to do so due to injury. After those two years where injury stopped Coach Fox from utilizing a mammoth lineman, Fox went out and insured against further injury by bringing in 364 pound DT, Ma'ake Kemoeatu. That year, 2006, Jenkins stayed healthy so both starting DTs were an astonishing 360 pounds or more. The same starters remained the next year, then when Jenkins left after the ’07 season, Fox still had his big boy Kemoeatu. When Kemoeatu left after the ’08 season, Fox brought in 340 pound DT Hollis Thomas. The argument could be made that this isn't just a trend, but a rule with no real exceptions. Fox had at least one starter of at least 340 pounds on opening day for his first eight seasons.
Kris Jenkins was a very special player. He’s listed at 360 pounds, but his early playing weight was probably around 345 pounds. Nevertheless, this behemoth notched sacks and got after the quarterback. 364 pound Kemoeatu, on the other hand, started over 40 games for Foxy yet never recorded a sack. Hollis Thomas (340 pounds) never recorded a sack for Fox either, although he was dismissed after just one year.
So to sum it up: Coach Fox likes his starting front to be big, really big. It seems logical to expect tor that trend to continue here. One starter is probably going to be a great big giant of a man; The other starter in the middle of a Fox defensive front is generally about an average DT, but needs the ability to penetrate the pocket and harass the quarterback. Jamal Williams, IMO, at 6’4 and 348 pounds, seems like a much better fit than previously given credit for. He’s got an injury history and he’s 34 years old, but still he had a pretty decent year last year (linebackers probably deserve more blame than they've been getting for our run defense.
Jamal is still under contract and still owed “guaranteed” money. He's shown the ability to penetrate and wreck havoc in the past, but not so much lately. Although in a 4-3, it would be harder for teams to zero in on this big body and it’s reasonable to assume he’d get into the backfield more often. Put a guy like Nick Fairley next to him and I’m just not exactly sure how a DC sleeps at night. You can’t focus on Dumervil AND Fairley AND lend a hand in stopping a 348 pound ex nose guard from wrecking your pocket. J-Wall isn’t elite but he doesn’t have to be. He’s bigger and stronger than virtually anybody he goes against one on one. Stop me if you've heard this before: Football is about match ups. An offense can't double everybody on the defensive line. J-Wall doesn't have to be 28 or elite to be a matchup problem for pretty much any center or guard that's forced to go against him man to man in a 43 front.
Justin Bannan has been perpetually mentioned as the veteran starter next to whomever we draft. Obviously, I’m starting to see it differently, though. One way or another, I don’t see how we keep both. They’re both owed a big salary and have a lot of guarantees. We probably need one, but the other one is expendable. It's possible and perhaps even likely that Justin Bannan is traded, even if only for peanuts. The point wouldn't necessarily be to gain much in trade other than to get someone to take his contract. He’s younger and has less injury history than Jamal, but if we can’t find a trading partner to take his salary, or J-Wall’s salary, there’s not much possibility we’re going to crowd the position by drafting two early DTs, IMO.You just can't feel good about purposely drafting to put one of these four-million-dollar men on the bench. You can't feel good about paying them to stay home. And you can't really feel good about drafting to develop this early when we need immediate impact in so many other places.
I’ll try and be quick and just briefly touch on this area. Basically, you can see from the above chart that the DE position was very stable under Coach Foxy. Mike Rucker served for the first six years, Peppers for the first eight. Tyler Brayton grabbed a starting role when Rucker left, then Charles Johnson took over for Peppers when he left. Charles Johnson is also a notable starter even though the chart doesn't show 2010. He spent a few years notching sacks in a rotational role before he broke out in that starting role in 2010 .
For Coach Fox’s defensive scheme and philosophy to work, it is absolutely crucial to create pressure from the front-four. In his years at Carolina (as charted above), the starting front averaged 21 sacks per year. When at that average or above, the defense ranked top-ten in total sacks, yards per game and points per game in all but one year. In the three years without having 21 sacks from the starting front four, Fox never won more than eight games.
54% of total team sacks come from the starting front four, and doesn't include additional sacks from rotational/third down defensive linemen. In other words, it’s important for you to understand that the other 46% of sacks don’t come from the starting linebackers - they averaged just six sacks per year combined. Do we have the talent to get 21 sacks from the starters up front and another handful or two from rotational guys? No, not yet.
Where will our sacks come from?
Even if Dumervil averaged what Julius Peppers averages (ten sacks per year), we still couldn't rely on the other three starters to get 11 more per year with our current roster. Even if if Fairley/Dareus and Ayers both grab a few sacks and Jamal manages to pick up two more... we'd still be short this year. Sure, it's possible Doom leads the league again, but it's also possible he only gets seven. And what if Ayers gets blanked again? This is why we deal in averages rather than hopes and wishes and career highs.
Most importantly, though, even if we managed our 21 sacks from the starters, we don't have any rotational guys like Charles Johnson to come in and add 4-6 sacks apiece like they had in Carolina. We don't have anybody to take over for injury at that position either. We need more sacks from that position, and we need more insurance. Quality depth and rotation DE isn't a wish list. In this defense, it's like breathing. If the front-four can't apply pressure, the defense is broken.
Ayers is a great run defender with potential to be a great pass rusher in this system. Dumervil is a great pass rusher with potential to get better against the run. But neither of them can stay on the field for every play anyway. Neither of them can stay healthy their entire careers. And neither of them have a quality backup or even a solid rotational guy behind them. Sack artists cost too much in free agency. We'll need to draft one, IMO. There is plenty of room at this positional group for a draftee to have immediate impact. Have him play some run downs for Doom and some pass downs for Ayers. Have him come in in case of injury so that we don't end up like last year.
Tell me about your starting front-four. I'm thinking Doom, Fairley, J-Wall and Ayers. I would add that either Kerrigan or Sheard (early in the 2nd) would be filling in for Ayers on some passing downs. Again, I just don't know how you account for everybody on that line assuming Fairley and either Ayers or the new DE can rush the passer like we expect.