Archive for March, 2012

Ravens Special Teams was Abysmal in 2011

One unit that often gets lost in the shuffle is the special teams squad, and in 2011 the Ravens unit was nothing short of a disaster. From fumbles that lost games, to a revolving door at kick returner and ranking near the bottom in pretty much every statistical category, it was an abysmal performance from a unit led by veteran coach Jerry Rosburg. Add in the performance of Billy Cundiff coming off his first pro Bowl nod in 2010 and the missed FG heard round the world in the AFCC game, and the Ravens have some serious concerns heading into 2012.

Just how bad was it? Placekicker Billy Cundiff finished the year with a 75.7% make rate, his worst while playing a full season since entering the league in 2002. This was following up a 2010 season where he made an astounding 89.7% of his attempts, and tied a record for touchbacks in a season with 40. Of course we can’t forget the most crucial miss of them all, one from 32 yards that would have given the Ravens a chance to go to the Super Bowl for the first time in the Harbaugh/Flacco era. Prior to that kick, Cundiff was 68 of 71 from 32 yards or less, or 96%.

The kickoff coverage unit was by far one of the the worst this franchise has ever seen, an abysmal 31st overall allowing a staggering 29.2 yards per return. As crazy as it might sound, that was actually an improvement over the 2010 unit which finished dead last. With two years in a row of performances like that I suspect there will be some serious changes made, especially knowing head coach John Harbaugh’s special teams background.

On punt returns the Ravens averaged giving up just 9.6 yards to the opposing team, still only finishing middle of the pack overall. The Ravens made some adjustments in the middle of the season putting Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams manning the gunner roles, and improved in that area down the stretch. If anyone wants to know why Jimmy Smith is playing special teams there is your answer, he is a big strong fast athlete who brings young talent and speed to a unit that desperately needs it.

They allowed 2 return touchdowns on the punt coverage unit, after not surrendering any in 2010. Arizona Cardinals kick returner Patrick Peterson took one back 82 yards to house in week 8, and Cleveland Browns returner Joshua Cribbs made it to the endzone from 84 yards out on Christmas Eve in week 16.

Using a hodge podge of punt returners that included Chris Carr, Lardarius Webb and various other “spot duty” fill ins that were pretty unspectacular, the Ravens finished 9th overall with an 11.9 yard average in that area mainly due to budding superstar Ladarius Webb . Webb’s finest moment was taking a punt back to the house on Dec 6th from 68 yards out against the Cleveland Browns, his first NFL TD and the first one for the Ravens since the 2007 season. If the Ravens want to improve this unit, they need to find someone who can fill the role consistently, and that person under no circumstances should be one Lardarius Webb. Webb has established himself as one of the premier corners in the NFL and players you can’t afford to lose him to a season ending injury over a few yards here or there and a rare TD.

The one saving grace on the flip side of the punting game was veteran Sam Koch, who was the only bright spot on a disappointing unit. Koch averaged 46.5 yards per punt, good for 10th overall and a 3 yard increase from 2010. While he picked up his average his inside the 20 numbers suffered, with only 21 downed in red zone for 2011, compared to a staggering 39 in 2010. The attempts were fairly close with 81 in 2010 and 73 in 2011, so the fact he had almost half as many is a bit concerning. If the Ravens want to contend for the Super Bowl once again, special teams is an area that needs to be tightened up.

Hopefully some of the slight adjustments as the 2011 season went on will carry into 2012, because it is hard to be that bad across the board in one of the 3 phases of the game and not have it come back to haunt you at some point. The Ravens got lucky last year, but can’t count on that again for 2012 if the unit does not make a significant improvement. Coach Jerry Rosburg has his hands full this coming season, and if improvement is not shown he could be looking for another job.

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Ray Rice Market Value Analysis

With the Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster contracts that were recently completed, we now have two more extensions to add to the running back list to use for a solid market analysis. Some have already opined and are throwing out numbers without looking at the entire picture, which unfortunately still contains two contracts for backs that are much more comparable to Rice, in Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson. Those contracts, however, will not and should not be used as a framework for a long term deal as much as Rice’s agent would like them to be.

In my extensive running back research I have been working on for the past few weeks(much more on that to come, stay tuned), there is one huge factor in years and guaranteed money working for or against a player seeking a new contract and that is age. The age of the player is the one thing that has shown to be the best predictor of future performance by a long shot, and it isn’t even close.

The reason age is such an important factor is that not all backs enter the league with the same”mileage” on their tires as others. Some are just late bloomers, some go the junior college route before making it, and some are sprung into action early by age 21 and have a head start on the field. There is a definitive and direct correlation from their age to drop off in significant production, and it is clear as day not matter what the talent level of the back. But the one common theme when you see them hit that proverbial wall is how old they are, when father time starts catching up with them.

Think about it, any player that makes it to the NFL has probably been playing football since they were a youngster, and THAT is when the miles start. You can easily judge how much wear and tear that body has by looking at the most basic stat, their age. This is where backs start differentiating themselves on these long term deals, and how many years and guaranteed money a team is willing to give up on a long term deal. As you will see the evidence again backs this up 100% when I post my findings a little later on down the road.

With all that said, here are all the significant running back deals done recently to give us a framework of what we are looking at for a player of Rice’s caliber and very young age at only 24 years old as I type, and a comparative analysis for each one.

Arian Foster – 5 years $43.5 million, $20.75 million guaranteed (signed 3/5/12, 25 years old)

I will say this, the Texans got an absolute steal for Foster. This is a 25 year old back who is coming off a 2,220 and 1,841 yard seasons  the two previous years, putting him in the very upper echelon of backs with Rice, Peterson and Johnson. At an average of $8.7 million a year Texan fans should be doing backflips as Foster will be a high producer for the next 5 years at a relatively modest price. He can run it, he can catch it and he is about to enter the prime of his young career. You can’t ask for much more at the number the Texans and Foster finished at…for the team and fans at lest.

Marshawn Lynch –    4 years $32 million, $18 million guaranteed (signed 3/4/12, 25 years old)

This is a deal that is very ambitious, and slightly overpaid despite Lynch being only 25 years old. Lynch is a “tier 2” back…barely. Lynch has never had more than 1,416 scrimmage yards, and that was last year. While that number is good it is nowhere near what your premium players at running back are producing these days. Lynch is a pure power runner that offers little in the way of receiving yards, and while he will be productive for the next 4-5 years will not be worth what he was just paid. This is a classic example of not looking at the entire career and using his best season which is fresh in your mind to justify this type compensation. Last year was probably as good as it gets for Lynch, and while it was good it just wasn’t that “great”.

Adrian Peterson – 7 years $96 million, $36 million guaranteed (signed 9/10/11, age 26)

A terrible deal, the very definition of an “albatross” of a contract that will kill the Vikings in the later years. In no way shape or form should any running back get 7 years, unless it has a couple “funny money” years at the end. Looking at the structure of this contract it does not, and pays Peterson consistently through age…33. Peterson is a violent runner and his style lends itself to injuries, not to mention the fact that at age 30 you will see a significant drop off, while still paying him a huge amount of money for the next 2-3 years. His average of nearly $14 million a year should be used as an example of what NOT to pay a running back no matter how good he is, especially for 7 long years.

 Chris Johnson – 4 years $53 million, $30 million guaranteed (signed 9/2/11, age 26 )

This deal is not quite as bad as Peterson’s, but close. Love the years, hate the money.  The yearly average again is just way too high, checking in at $13.25 million. The guarantees again are  just way outside of the box at $30 million for only 4 years, which would have been on the high side for a 6 year deal . With that guaranteed money and years no way the Titans can get out of this one early, but on the bright side he should be highly productive for the length of the deal.  Not $13.25 million productive though.

Deangelo Williams – 5 years $43 million, $21 million guaranteed (signed 7/29/11, age 27)

Another terribly bad deal for a couple of reasons, the age and production level. The age is a huge factor, with him signing a 5 year deal with only 3 good years left in the tank at age 27. That is 2 years on the back end where they will either cut him, or have a high salary for a small producer on the roster. On the production side I was baffled to look at his numbers, inconsistent and downright average numbers since he has been in the league. Only ONE year over over 1,500 scrimmage yards, another year of 1,369 and spotty performance otherwise.  He just isn’t that good, and I have no idea what the Panthers were seeing paying him this type of money.

 Maurice Jones Drew – 5 years $31 million, 17.5 million guaranteed (signed 4/15/09, age 25)

I threw this deal in here because it was mentioned somewhere else, but it really isn’t that relevant for a few reasons. First it was signed 3 years ago, unlike all the others which were signed recently. Second it was signed at a time when Jones Drew was coming off of 3 years of “part time duty” where he was a very efficient producer but had not put in the 350ish touch seasons we see from a back like Rice the last 3 years. Jones-Drew only had 530 total carries his first 3 years and had not shown that he could carry a full load yet, and the Jaguars made a very shrewd move getting him to sign early (a year before he hit free agency and got full time touches) and that turned out to be a very smart move. Last of all even if you take Jones Drew’s best seasons ( at age 24, 25 and 26), he still does not have the value through the air of a Foster or Rice, and heavily relies on the ground game at this point of his career to get a lot of his production.

So there we have it, a list of mostly bad deals for one reason or another. Sometimes it is projected future production, sometimes it is age, other times it is both. Fortunately for Ravens fans Rice has a leg up on every one of those backs with his past and projected future production. He has the age factor working for him, being only 25 years old when the 2012 season starts. He has the production factor going for him, out producting every one of those backs on the list the past 3 years, a few by a long shot. He also has the lack of injury history, another thing not one of those backs on that list can lay claim to.

So what does all this mean, and where do I see Rice at? Due to his age, I am going to set the years at 6 not 5 to start off. That will pay him through his age 30 year, right at the point even the lesser backs last until without a significant production drop off. Now with the 6 year deal, his signing bonus will a little higher and I will guess around $26-28 million. The total value of a 6 year deal should average around $10 million yearly give or take a few dollars, especially if much less productive backs are getting over $8 million averages.

Look for a deal for Rice in the 6 year $60 million range, with $27 million in guarantees, and don’t be shocked if it is a little higher. Rice has out-produced, and history shows will continue to out-produce every single back on that list for the foreseeable future. And that is what you pay for in the NFL and any other sport…..production.

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Lardarius Webb – Pay the Man Now, Not Later

One of the greatest things about the 2011 Ravens season was the joy of watching a young cornerback go from a guy who a lot of people outside of Baltimore  knew nothing about, to one of the best man to man cover corners in the NFL by the end of the season. The ball skills and short area quickness Webb possesses are nothing short of amazing, something that you won’t see on a lot of players. On top of all that his hands are just as good as many wide receivers, picking balls out of the air like they did in the days of “stickum” .

Webb seemed to have highlight reel interceptions week after week in critical situations, and appears to be fully recovered from ACL surgery that ended his 2009 campaign and hobbled him throughout the entire 2010 season where he admitted he was just a step slower than he normally is. Even without all his speed back he excelled in the nickel corner role and managed to get his hands on 9 balls intercepting two.

Many Ravens fans saw a possible star in the making, but had no idea Webb would play at an All Pro level while being matched up against the best of the best wide receivers week after week the entire season. It was almost as if you were watching a true shutdown corner in his prime, at an unbelievable level of play despite Webb’s youth and relative inexperience. Including the playoffs he picked off 8 passes and had an unbelievable 25 passes defended, and notched his first NFL touchdown Week 4 against the NY Jets. The player grading site ProfootballFocus had Webb ranked as the number 4 cornerback in the NFL, not allowing one single touchdown all year.

Before the AFC Championships many of the Patriots faithful had no idea who Webb was, and bristled at the notion of anyone, much less some “no name cornerback” covering their beloved Wes Welk-ah one on one in open space. Welk-ah had an unthinkable 122 receptions and over 1,500 yards leading up to that game, so the Patriots fans had good reason to boast and brag about how unstoppable he was. His final tally for the AFCC game?  Just 6 receptions for 53 yards and no touchdowns, and anyone who watched was probably wondering if he was even on the field most of the time as he was a non-factor.

Webb was matched up on Welker in the slot all day, one on one and had no problems staying step for step with Welker. The seemingly impossible task of stopping this catch machine that no one man could do was done, and done well. The world finally got to see what Ravens fans have been seeing for 17 games, as Webb did it yet again with a twisting reach back interception that completely swung the momentum the Patriots had at the time. The look on Tom Brady’s face was that of shock and disbelief when the play was over, and of one could read minds I’m sure it would have been something like “How in the hell…..”

So that brings us to this offseason, where Webb is currently a restricted free agent for the 2012 season. There is no doubt the Ravens will place a 1st round tender on Webb, forcing any team to give up a 1st round draft pick and a hefty contract to steal him away. But I am writing today that the brass in Owing’s Mills should avoid that situation immediately and start talking long term deal with Webb and his agent, to lock him up early.

The tender on a 1st rounder for 2012 is going to be almost $3 million, and a reasonable long term deal could have that cap number around the same amount or just a little bit higher with the uncapped league rules a thing of the past. Webb is clearly in the future plans, and he should never get anywhere near free agency or another team who could easily be willing to pony up a 1st rounder and contract for one of the best young corners in the game, forcing the Ravens to match.

One option they could use is the “franchise him and then work out a deal” scenario in 2013 while he is under the tag, like they did recently with Haloti Ngata. But why even let it get to that point?

About one of the only criticisms I have  of the Ravens front office is the dragging of their feet in getting major contracts done, the two prime examples being Chris McAlister and Terrell Suggs. Both were franchised and deals were not able to be worked out, and in the end they eventually ended up paying both a lot more than they wanted after all the back and forth. When you have elite players like that their value is only going to go up the more they play, as they enter their prime. Webb is no doubt entering that stage of his career and his price tag is only going to go up the closer he gets to free agency and the more spectacular plays he makes.

Webb plays a position of the utmost importance in the pass happy NFL, and he will only be 26 years old when the 2012 season starts. NFL owners all around the league will have the checkbook out and there will be a lot of zeros on the check they will be willing to write him if he ever sniffs free agency, or even with his availability under the top restricted free agent tender. For reference here are the latest contracts that top tier cornerbacks signed and how they break down. (per rotoworld)

Darrell Revis (NYJ) – 4 years $46 million with $32.5 guaranteed (signed 9/6/2010, age 25)

Jonathan Joseph (Hou) – 5 years $48.75 million with 23.5 million guaranteed (7/29/2011, age 27)

Leon Hall (Cin) – 5 years $42.375 million with $14 million guaranteed (signed 9/2/2011, age 25)

Brandon Flowers – 6 years $50.6 million $22 million guaranteed (signed 9/16/2011, age 25)

Nnamdi Asomugha – 5 years $60 million $25 million guaranteed (signed 7/29/2011, age 30)

As you can see there is a firm template in place and recently the market that has been established for top flight corners, with many large deals in the past year which is sometimes tough to find at certain positions. Again cornerback is such a high demand position these days teams are locking up their players before they even hit free agency, and of the listed players only Joseph and Asomugha were unrestricted free agents. And if the Bengals didn’t have to pay Leon Hall you can better believe they would have paid Joseph before he hit free agency, and in Asomugha’s case he was franchised twice before the Raiders let him walk in yet another botched player transaction.

Looking at these numbers the market rate is about $8 – $12 million per year, with around $25 million in guarantees. While Webb and his agent certainly won’t be able to argue he should get Revis type money, he could make a case that he deserves to be paid in line with the rest of the group. Both sides would have an advantage in getting a long term deal done sooner rather than later, with Webb gaining security against injury, and the Ravens getting a slight discount by not having competing bidders to drive up the price. I would think something in the 6 year $45-50 million range with a nice signing bonus around $25 million could get the deal done, and then the Ravens have another superstar locked up long term who can lock down one side of the defensive backfield.

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