As in Part 1 of this series, we focus on players who are expected to move, not guys who hopped in the whirlpool this week to see if they could soak that pesky franchise tag off. You might not agree with all of the matches, but you cannot argue with the stats: the Football Outsiders database will help us determine just what each free agent is bringing to market. All of these players have something to offer. It’s just a matter of finding a compatible partner.
The Player: Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
The Fit: Denver Broncos
The Boost: Screens and Bombs
Tim Tebow can work on his throwing motion at all the independent camps he wants. Unless he gets a Matrix port in the back of his neck and jacks John Elway game film directly into his brain, he is never going to be a classic pocket passer, and the Broncos are not going to run a conventional offense. The Tebow Broncos are always going to mix designed quarterback runs and options with screens to wide receivers and play-action bombs when the defense cheats up too far. Their emphasis should be on optimizing that style of football, and on incorporating enough “traditional” NFL passing to keep defenses guessing, not on cramming Tebow into a round hole on the pegboard.
With tens of millions of dollars of estimated cap space, the Broncos can afford to shop for a receiver who can beat the defense with pure athleticism: someone who can turn a screen and a juke into a touchdown or slip through the secondary on a scramble drill. With DeSean Jackson off the market, Wallace is the perfect player for their system.
Wallace was the target for 115 passes last season. As Table 1 shows, 43% of those passes fell into two categories: super-short tosses of two yards or less, and long bombs that traveled 25 or more yards in the air. As the table also shows, Wallace was exceptional on both types of passes, averaging over ten yards per catch on screens and turning nearly half of the bombs into game-changing receptions.
The screen-and-bomb act would play very well in Denver. Forty-four of Tebow’s 271 passes traveled less than three yards in the air, while 51 of his passes traveled over 25 yards. Have Tebow throw more of those passes to Wallace and Demaryius Thomas and fewer to Eric Decker and Eddie Royal (who fit better as third or fourth receivers), and he may score enough points in the first three quarters to skip the fourth quarter heroics.
Wallace has also rushed 15 times for 144 yards in his career, and end-arounds are another big part of the Broncos offense. After spending three seasons waiting for Ben Roethlisberger to stop pump faking while defenders made him the bottom of a human pyramid, Wallace knows to keep working to get open long after most receivers would assume the play is dead. That’s an essential skill in Denver.
The Player: Stephen Tulloch, Linebacker
The Fit: Philadelphia Eagles
The Boost: Competence at middle linebacker.
Despite signing enough players to stage a Gettysburg reenactment last season, the Eagles somehow still have some cap room. And if all the mercenaries they hired last year congeal into a real team, the Eagles won’t have many major weaknesses. (Yep, we said that last year, too.) They still have a gaping void at linebacker, however, and Tulloch has experience in a similar system, as well as the playmaking ability that the current Eagles linebackers lack.
Table 2 shows the number of plays made by Tulloch and the Eagles top four linebackers last year, as well as each player’s Stop Rate. In Football Outsiders lingo, a “stop” is a productive tackle, like bringing down a running back for a three-yard gain on first-and-10, as opposed to cleaning up after a 12-yard run.
Tulloch made more tackles than any Eagles linebacker, despite playing behind one of the best defensive lines in the NFL with the Lions. Rolle and Jordan posted impressive stop rates but did not make many plays. Rolle started 13 games: 57 tackles, assists, and passes defenses are a very low total for a linebacker who spent that much time on the field. Remember that when a defender is nowhere near a ballcarrier he should have tackled, it will not show up on any stat sheet.
Chaney was the Eagles best linebacker, and he was forced to play multiple positions as the Eagles benched Matthews and experimented with other players in various roles. With Tulloch in the middle, Chaney can play his natural position on the weak side, and the Eagles can sort among their other youngsters on the strong side.
Tullock could step right into the Eagles lineup because Eagles coordinator Juan Castillo uses many principles that are similar to the ones Jim Schwartz uses in Detroit. The Eagles keep their defensive ends wide and apply pressure with their front four, just like the Lions. The linebackers don’t have to blitz much, but they must plug gaps and make tackles. Tulloch has experience doing both. The current Eagles linebackers have not had much success at either.
The Player: Ben Grubbs, G
The Fit: Cincinnati Bengals
The Boost: Interior Line Solidification
Last year, the Bengals were forced to juggle among Bobbie Williams, Mike McGlynn, and Clint Boling at left guard. The results showed up in the stat sheet. According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals ranked 30th in the NFL in runs up the middle, and their red zone woes (they were a miserable 14-of-26 converting touchdowns in goal-to-go situations) nearly kept them out of the playoffs. Cedric Benson averaged less than three yards per carry when rushing between center and left guard. This was a team that wanted to pound the ball, but couldn’t.
The Ravens also had a problem at left guard early in the season: Ben Grubbs missed six games with a toe injury. The run-focused Ravens averaged just 96.5 rushing yards 3.8 yards per carry when Grubbs was out. They averaged 141.2 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry in the games Grubbs played.
The stats reveal what Ravens fans know: Grubbs is a classic push-the-pile guard, the kind that turns one-yard plunges into four-yard gains and 3rd-and-inches into first-and-10. He is also somewhat low on the priority of list of a team that must re-sign featured running back Ray Rice and decide upon a contract extension for quarterback Joe Flacco. Grubbs’ agent has reportedly had “positive” meetings with the team, but “positive” sometimes means “we like you, and thanks for the years of service, but don’t expect us to match any heavy-duty offers.”
The Bears are expected to compete for Grubbs’ services, and he would be a good fit there. But the Bengals have the need, the cap room, and the run-oriented system that will allow Grubbs to do what he does best.
The Player: Kyle Orton, Quarterback
The Fit: Indianapolis Colts
The Boost: Life Lessons that are Precious
Let’s assume that Peyton Manning is long gone. Let’s also assume that Andrew Luck is the next Colts quarterback. Who do you want backing Luck up? Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky? Why not just use two cardboard cutouts of Manning? Painter has proven that he deserves a assistant coaching position at some small college, not an NFL job. Orlovsky is the quarterback equivalent of a contractor who guts dilapidated houses before the bulldozers arrive. Luck is going to need an honest-to-goodness mentor who can get him through a very challenging transition process.
Once in Denver, Orton had two solid seasons while Josh McDaniels systematically destroyed the roster around him. McDaniels left, and Orton earned a front row seat for Tebowmania. Once Tim Tebow made him expendable, Orton resurfaced with the Chiefs, once again playing well for a team trying to climb out of a pit of coaching lunacy.
So Orton got a taste of the rookie phenomenon treatment, watched as a Grossman got a taste of the young phenomenon trearment, watched as Tebow redefined the very concept of young phenomenon treatment, played in the postseason, was on a Super Bowl roster, went from first to third string and back several times, and got thrown into a trade of historic portions. He was also a pioneer in the field of social networking embarrassment. He has gone from savior to scrap heap and back several times.
In short, this is a guy you want your rookie quarterback to have coffee with as he comes to terms with the vagaries of the young phenomenon treatment.
For all of his experience, Orton does not turn 30 until November, and he played fairly well for both the Broncos and Chiefs last year. If the Colts need him to start the first four games, he will be better than anything they had last year. And when he hits the bench, he won’t complain. It will just feel like a typical year for him.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.
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