Bizarro Browns defenses: Cincy and Tampa.

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Atkins (97) and Dunlap (96) attacking aggressively.

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I’ve been critical of the Browns’ off-season strategies this year.  But the area that I most misunderstand is the imperative for a whole new defense.  Putting a finer point on it, I think the Browns have needlessly junked a promising defensive scheme (with the best+deepest+youngest d-line rotation in league) and passed on quality FAs to improve the d-backfield while simultaneously and breathlessly hyping how smart they are for discovering this Attacking Aggressive Horton 3-4 Defense (AAH34D).

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3-4 defenses highlighted in yellow.  Seven out of ten top defenses ran 4-3. Imagine how much better they’d be with the AAH34D.

The corollary to the Browns stridency in their adoption of the AAH43D is that if you’re running a 4-3, you’re.. well you’re old-fashioned at best but really borderline dull.

Yet it turns out the seven out of the top ten defenses (points allowed) run a 4-3.  (See right.)

The biggest issue with the AAH34D is this:  we mainly don’t like to have our back pissed on and be told it’s raining.  That’s been that pattern and it continued with Joe Banner’s interview with Terry Pluto over the weekend.  Word search of Pluto’s piece reveals five ‘attacks’ and two ‘aggressives.’  Banner also made a point of telling us obfuscating about spending $90m on free agency.  It’s actually $22.7 this year when measuring by average salary:

  • Kruger, 8.1m
  • Bryant, 6.8
  • Everyone else, 7.8 (Campbell, 1.9; Barnidge, 1.2; Groves, 1.1; Graham, 1.0; Hoyer, 1.0; Owens, 1.0; Nelson, 0.6).

So, of $22.7m in average salary in this year’s FA spend, 70.4% was on the defensive front.  4% on the defensive backfield.  Implied message:  we don’t need to worry about finding a cornerback or free safety because attacking defensive front five in an aggressive 3-4.

Welp.

It didn’t escape my notice that the Bengals extended Carlos Dunlap last week.  In addition to that, Michael Johnson got the franchise tag from the Bengals this year and there are some indicators that the Bengals are trying to keep him.*  In addition to that, they drafted Margus Hunt in the second round.  That’s a hell of investment in the conventional DE-DT-DT-DE front four.

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Sheard, Rubin, Taylor with Hughes/Winn rotating in…  was shaping up as special.

The other part of the Browns defensive personnel strategy is, or seems to be, d-backs aren’t a worthy investment and, of course, height doesn’t matter.

Welp.

Couldn’t help but notice that Tampa signed Dashon Goldson, traded their first rounder for Darrell Revis, and drafted Johnathan Banks in the second round.  Those three will pair up with last year’s seventh overall, Mark Barron.  That’s a hell of an investment in the secondary.

This morning I want to take a look at these two defenses and challenge the wisdom of the new Browns’ gutting of the old Browns’ defensive scheme.

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The Bengals are building a beast front four in their 4-3.

We love a great front four on a 4-3 defense and the Bengals are building one.  According to the latest depth chart:

  • LDE, Carlos Dunlap, 6-6, 24, 2nd rd (54th) Florida.  Avg. salary: 6.7m;
  • NT, Domata Peko, 6-3, 28, 4th rd (123rd) MSU.  Starter since 2007.  8.5m;
  • RDT, Geno Atkins, 6-1, 25, 4th rd UGA (120th), first team all-pro in 2012.  0.8m;
  • RDE, Michael Johnson, 6-7, 26, 3rd rd (70th), GaTech.  11.2m.

Hunt is TOTALLY going to get under pad level. LOOK at that stance. Mark Kanick’s words… Margus. Hunt.  Estonian force of nature.

First thought is, damn… it was insinuated that 4th round picks don’t matter when the Browns were trading out of the fourth (and fifth) this year.  I disagree.  You’re supposed to get good players in the first/second rounds.  Hitting homeruns after that is what makes good teams great, especially teams who are committed to ‘building through the draft.’

The second thought is that Mike Zimmer is up to something with the height of his DEs.  Add in the drafting of 6-8 Margus Hunt and it looks like a strategic personnel direction.  The Bengals are committed to a 4-3 with height on the edge.  Why?

Here’s a guess:  Pass Deflections.

Pass deflections have long been considered bonus.  You don’t really plan to get them.  They just happen and when they do, it’s great.  JJ Watt is changing that.  NFL’s defensive player of the year had 16 PDs last year.  If you consider that for each PD there were probably two passes altered and that’s 48 passes affected by Watt.

Johnson and Dunlap were nowhere near Watt on deflections and NCAA doesn’t track PDs so I don’t have data on Hunt.**  But it seems to me that the Bengals sourcing of huge wingspan guys to place in passing lanes is not coincidence.  They’re looking to remove easy short passes from the QBs check-down progression.  This makes it a lot easier for linebackers to cover zones as the zones are smaller.  (Cincy’s league-slowest LB corps says Thank You.)  Clogged passing lanes at LOS also helps the Bengals to pressure the QB without blitzing.  And of course, pressure with a four man front is defensive nirvana because Manning/Brady/Rogers can’t exploit vacated zones if linebackers aren’t blitzing and thus zones aren’t vacated.

Bengals were the #6 defense last year in total yards.  They’ve added James Harrison to their linebackers.  Dre Kirkpatrick is bound to improve in his second year and it’s worth noting that the Bengals CBs are both first rounders.  Mike Zimmer is one of the best DCs in the game.  Marvin Lewis, head coach is an open question but Marvin Lewis, DC presided over a defense that won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at QB.  Those two have a clue about running defenses.  Bengals’ good defense could move up to great this year.

It’s also worth noting that their two significant recent additions to their d-backfield (Kirkpatrick and Taylor Mays) are north of 6′ 1″.  This brings us to part two of staffing your defense differently from the Browns:  check out what the Bucs did this off-season.

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Technically, you CAN have too many pass-rushers.

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Bucs have given up two first rounders (in last two years) and a second and a LOT of cap to build a top secondary.

The Bucs defense was not good last year:  29th in total yards, dead last in pass yards allowed.

Unlike the Browns (25th in pass yards allowed) who have tended to losing last year’s starting #2CB and FS with 3rd and 6th round draft picks and lots of money and draft investment in the d-front (Because why?  Altogether everybody:  YOU CANT HAVE TOO MANY PASS RUSHERS!)… the Bucs have gone a different route.  Building from last year’s seventh overall draft pick (Mark Barron), the Bucs have added new personnel at the three other secondary positions.

  • SS, Mark Barron, 6-1, 23, 7th overall Bama;
  • CB, Johnthan Banks, 6-2, 23, 2nd rd (43rd) Missy St;
  • FS, Dashon Goldson, 6-2, 28, 4th rd (126) Washington, 1st team all-pro, $8m average salary (5/41m);
  • CB, Darrelle Revis, 5-11, 28, 14th overall Pitt, 3x first team all-pro, $16m average salary (6yr/96m).
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Browns and Seahawks are outliers. Difference is that Seahawks have best defense (points allowed).

Their focus is on building a Seahawks-quality secondary.  And why not:  Seattle had last year’s best defense and its strength was its beast secondary.  Tampa invested in quality and in size (their height went from 71.2″ in 2012 to 72.2″ this year, the largest height increase in the league) of their d-backs.

Put another way:

  • The Bucs have spent a two first rounders and a second in the last two years plus $140m in contract terms on their secondary.  Their combined average salary at DB is 16.0 (Revis) + 8.3 (Goldson) + 3.6 (Barron) + 1.1 (Banks) = 29.0m.
  • The Browns have released last year’s starting CB2 and FS.  They passed or failed at signing a CB or FS in free-agency.  Their shortest in the league secondary actually got shorter.  Combined average salary:  8.5 (Haden) + 1.3 (Ward) + 0.6 (Skrine) + 0.5 (Gipson) = 10.9m.

Of course you can have too many pass-rushers, what would you do with 50 pass-rushers on your roster?  But cutting Chud some slack for his stupid bromide, and let’s modify it to say that having pass-rush depth is very important… the other unsaid truism is:  you can have too few talented defensive backs.

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Bucs/Bengals will provide early litmus test on the Browns’ strategy.

I am fascinated to see how the Bucs’ and Bengals’ defenses produce this year.  They provide two case studies on how to build a defense and both are completely different from the Browns.  Here’s the three paths.

  1. Invest in a top-end front four that can pressure the QB without blitzes;
  2. Invest in talent and size to create a turnover producing and intimidating d-backfield;
  3. Throw your money at the an aggressive attacking 3-4 d-front and attack aggressively.

CANT WAIT to see how this unfolds.

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* Although it’ll now have be post-season.

** I do have the data on Hunt’s 17 blocked kicks in his SMU career.

  • mgbode

    Kanick, you are better than this post. I love your well-thought out articles even when I disagree with your overall points. However, from the jump, you start with a false-premise and it kills all further arguments.

    Using Pts/Game as an indicator of top10 defenses? For one, you would need to separate out the ST points, and points scored by opposing defenses, but you also need to factor in field position and a littany of other things. The good news is that there are places that factor in alot of the external factors (no, they are not perfect, but it’s better than Pts/Game IMO and helps factor out the cruddy offenses hurting the impact on the defenses seen in that statistic).

    Using the Football Outsiders, their top10 defenses from 2012:

    (1) Chicago
    *(2) SF
    *(3) Houston
    (4) Seattle
    *(5) Denver
    *(6) ARIZONA (Horton’s defense)
    (7) St.Louis
    *(8) Green Bay
    *(9) NYJ
    (10) Cinci

    6 base 4-3 defenses and 4 base 4-3 defenses (though Chicago, SF, Seattle, Denver, and GB did an absolute ton of switching between them).

    • mgbode
    • enhhhh… let’s start at the thesis. it is this: the AAH34D has been oversold to us. the devoting of the lion’s share of this off-season personnel acquisitions to a SAM, JACK, and 5techDE was over-the-top.

      to support that, i show a preponderance of 4-3 defenses in the top 10 of the pts/allowed stat. yeah sure you can use lots of metrics to measure defenses. yds/allowed, passyds/allowed, rushyds/allowed, takeaways, TFL, 1stdownsallowed, avgdrivelength. there’s also the quality of the offenses faced to consider. you can then try to normalize those metrics into an overall index… which is -i guess- what PFF attempts to do. but it seems simpler to use the metric that counts which is really points allowed.

      i checked the espn stats i used versus PFR and the data is the same. i cant tell if special teams are included or not. but that seems a bit of a red herring… especially when the seahawks are so far outside the norm. so i’m not quite willing to concede on the bad data charge.

      circling back to the thesis, and really the charge i’m leveling at the new berea group: the data doesn’t support their premise that signing kruger and bryant and drafting mingo was a valid top priority. when you layer on the likelihood that ray horton will leave it gets more problematic. add to that a great/promising young core of 4-3 d-linemen (including hughes and winn here) was already in place and it gets worse. and finally when you look at the neglect of TE, FS, CB2, etcs (and i know we’re on the same page on this), it… it strains a fan’s patience.

      finally the AAH34D has a lot of vulnerabilities but mainly, it relies on cheating. when you blitz, you’re cheating because you’re vacating a zone. when you build special sub-packages, you’re cheating because you’re banking on the QB calling a play that fits your package. i’m saying a great front 4 inside a 4-3 allows you to avoid cheating and my exhibit A is the Giants teams that beat Brady.

      the point of this post is to show how two 4-3 teams are being innovative in ways completely different than the browns. unsaid is that the paths chosen by the bengals and bucs could have been taken by browns and within the existing defense’s framework and wouldnt that have been a more sensible route.

      • mgbode

        yes, the 3-4 as an end-all be-all is definitely oversold (I do prefer it but mostly because it’s easier IMO to go hybrid from it). it’s obviously what Haslam prefers and seems to be what Chud/Norv prefer (as Norv is good buddies with Horton and it’s rumored that he would have gone with him in Arizona had the Bidwell’s promoted Horton there).

        the “cheating/vacating” angle is somewhat true, but if you are rushing 4 on most downs then it’s the same as the 4-3 just that it adds a level of question to the offense to guess where that 4th rusher is coming from. that is not true from Horton’s defenses though as he tends to be in the top 1/3 of 5+ man rushers. he has been successful at it though.

        the first data point is bad though. i won’t back off that point. ST TD’s isn’t the main concern. It is field position, quality of your own offense (plays per game on defense that we have been discussing) and the quality of the offenses you are facing coupled with what your defense actually did in all those opportunities. When PFF factors all that in 6/10 top defenses are 3-4 ones, which I think is a significant departure from the pts/game list that only has 3/10.

        Also, I think the FO could argue that with similar valued players that Horton got more out of Arizona’s D than Jauron got out of Cleveland’s D. They both were put in similar situations and Horton did a better job. And, he did it while his top2 safeties weren’t high priorities on anyone’s list (Wilson at least got a job and Rhodes somehow is still an UFA). So, you can go and get the best available & attainable DC or you can stick with more of the same.

        Now, you know I agree with you that if this shift was the plan then why didn’t they go out and get a CB2 and FS? They went after Grimes as their primary target but he signed so late (due to the achilles) that there were no other good CB2 candidates left. It really leaves us holding the bag and hoping that a guy like Owens can step up big-time this year (and our secondary as a whole stays healthy which is always dicey).

        finally, one point on Seattle that bugs me: they get excellent DL play. Mebane and Bryant moved OLs and they decided that having another pass rusher was a priority and signed Avril this offseason. They value DL and pass rushing quite a bit.

        • you nailed in the first para and i keep meaning to go back and find the quote: I think it’s Haslam who wants the attacking aggressive defense.

          i actually like most of haslam’s football takes. he’s a build-from-the-line-out guy. i think he knows his football as much as you or i do and i *do* mean that as praise. so while i do part company with his want of the 3-4 now while telling us to be patient through another re-build.. overall i like his football instincts.

          im not sure a review of horton’s talent is going to show a more with less verdict. the top end players -campbell, dockett, washington, peterson- are better than the browns top -rubin, haden-. (dont forget taylor was gone most of the year.) here’s the ourlads depth charts from 9/1/2012:

          i hear you on the seattle line. but the intimidating tone is set with that secondary.

          • mgbode

            Is this the quote?

            http://espncleveland.com/common/more.php?m=49&action=blog&r=17&post_id=10241

            Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner launched their coaching search on Monday with a public appeal for a strong man with specific skill sets.

            “We want an individual as a head coach who’s a strong leader, who’s tough, because this is a tough business, but also is smart, very organized, has great attention to detail and is aggressive,” said Haslam. “That’s the kind of football team we will have and that’s the kind of individuals we are.”

          • mgbode

            first, thanks. and, we do agree on most of this stuff, it’s some of the finer details where we diverge 🙂

            Perhaps I’m a homer, but even discounting 1/2 season of Taylor:

            Campbell > Sheard
            Dockett quasi-equal Rubin (they do different things)

            DQ = Washington
            Haden = Peterson (in coverage, Patrick obviously blows him away with ST efforts. both had some struggles in coverage but with some obvious upside)

            And,
            Ward > Rhodes

            (and yeah, their secondary was lights-out last year, no question)

  • bupalos

    I mostly agree with this. There’s just no question they left holes they could have plugged pretty easily. With Haden, the secondary is still bottom half, and it’s an injury away from being bottom 3. There’s no way to spin that. They just aren’t investing to win this year. I see opponents throwing tons of 2.5 second straight fly patterns at the seams and edges. The secondary simply has no height OR ball skills. There’s no reason for any team with big TE’s and WR’s to look any further.

    The part I don’t agree with is the “scrapping the defense, going for the inferior 3-4.” There is such a thing as base scheme, but it means less and less every year. Partly thanks to our flip-flops and our overstocking on the d-line, we could play any gap scheme on any down. I’m vaguely hopeful that instead of chasing the flavor of the month, the browns can be in the vanguard for once: no-scheme is the new scheme. And having a few weirdos like Mingo– a pick I originally hated (and will continue to dislike if he’s used conventionally)– can be key to that.

    • if 3-4/4-3/3-4-hybrid renders the concept of base defense moot, why did we guarantee 32m and use the 6 overall on players specifically suited to the 3-4 base defense? ie, 5tech DEs and speed rush OLBs.

      a conventional 4-3 may not be the vanguard but it remains the smartest way to cover the field with the fewest gaps.

      the vanguard part comes through staffing it large wingspan DEs and linebacker-sized d-backs. the browns are going in the opposite direction of what *appears* to be a winning personnel staffing. we’ll know at the end of the year whether these observations are on target or not by watching cincy and tampa.

      • bupalos

        I’m not saying base is moot, I’m saying it means less and less every year. As in this is the direction things will move, towards more playbook complexity. I think this still happens off a base, so yeah, you have to staff it. The bottom line as I look at that roster now is scheme and play calling flexibility, and I like that better than the single gimmick stuff (like a super-tall ball-batting line) that always requires physical tradeoffs to which an offense can adjust (chip guys down, send backs to crack their exposed ribs).

        And I don’t think Mingo at least is “specifically” suited to the 3-4 or anything else. He’s a weirdo. I hope they blitz Ward sometimes and let Mingo run back and cover deep. He’s got that kind of speed and glide. If it’s true that he’s the player they had targeted and were so high on, I have a hard time believing it was simply because of his speed rush. The Robertson int. against the Ravens is the kind of thing I see defenses more and more trying to manufacture; taking advantage of these read-triggers offenses are building in. Create confusion and try and pull their trigger for them.

        Good call on the Cincy d-line emphasis. Wouldn’t have noticed that. It will be interesting to see some of these experiments play out.

  • Petefranklin

    I rated the offenses of the top 10 list you have at 6-3-1 to the ABOVE average. That is just off the top of my head,but it clearly indicates agreement with your point about needless change. In the context of a NFL game it is much easier to score after the other team does the same.Look at the QB’s of the teams on that list, 8 out of 10 are good or great. This tells me that the 4-3 is the new 3-4. I just hope cornrows is forced into playing it “old fashioned” somehow.

    • the thing is, if horton rushes four that means kruger or sheard/mingo will be dropping into coverage.

      i’m trying to picture sheard covering eifert or pitta and it keeps visualizing as a 15 yd gain. i’ll try harder.

      • bupalos

        Mingo should be a coverage beast. I just mean by build, speed, agility, etc. He has to learn it, and you can’t count on that and it won’t be immediate in any case. But the idea of Mingo dropping into coverage is one of the only reasons I’m slightly warming to the pick. There’s your guy who can run with those tight ends.

        • let’s say mingo is your TE cover specialist. how hard is it to audible a motion and get eifert lined up on kruger. or worse, skrine. and that assumes the offense isnt running the a kelly-fast offense which wouldve have precluded you from getting your nickel package on the field.

          • Kevin

            You motion away from Mingo, and he rushes from a 9 tech (standing position) and Kruger/Sheard only have to cover that TE for about 5-10 steps. If Mingo can approximate the speed threat of a Freeney or Aldon Smith from the edge (if not the production), not sure how often teams will leave him on an island against an OT.

  • Few things. First, great piece for people who like to think about these things. There’s been way too much “Guhhhhh, we’re going to ATTACK on defense!”

    1. Somewhat agree on the “not scrap last year’s defense.” I would have been fine with scrapping Jauron, whose defenses didn’t do much of anything. HOWEVER, in re-watching a bunch of Horton games from 2012, I noticed the Cardinals play a LOT of 4-2-5, just like practically every other team in the league because for the 1,000th
    f-ing time, IT’S A LEAGUE WHERE OFFENSES THROW THE BALL 60% OF TIME.

    2. Point being, I can defend the Bryant signing because he is a versatile lineman and can make a living rushing from inside. As for Kruger – whatever. Usually when Baltimore doesn’t re-sign a guy, there’s a reason why. As for Mingo – as Greg Cosell said, “he needs to have open lanes to the quarterback to be successful.” You think?

    3. I still feel Taylor, Rubin and Sheard are key to this year’s defense. Rubin could find an End role on first down more suited and Taylor is a natural nose tackle type player. And Sheard is STILL the team’s best pass rusher.

    4. Agree with the BIG secondary idea, yet I also like corners who can cover receivers. For me, the biggest issue (and I know Kanicki covered this before) is how the corners and safeties match up with all the AFC North tight ends. I dread the Browns playing the Bengals and Ravens this year just for this.

    Also, reports are now that Chris Owens is a starter. Okay – not good. But what’s even worse is when Chris Owens gets hurt.

    • sheard is our best rusher now but in jan/feb i think -one man’s opinion- our best rusher under contract was cut. would have loved to have seen marcus benard in camp. no idea how he’ll do with new england but won’t be at all surprised if he’s a factor.

      any yes, the gresham-eifert-green-sanu set matching up with haden-owens-skrine-robertson will be another fascinating thing to watch tho for the wrong reasons.

      • Kevin

        Just a hunch, but I am thinking you could by the second half of the season see a good deal of 3 safety personnel groupings in the nickel and dime against TE heavy teams, with Bademosi playing a hydrid TE/S role lining up in the box and shadowing the TE. We saw a bit of this last year with Haag, but Haag, well, stinks.

        Still gives me heartburn, but I think that this is part of the Horton/Lombardi “master plan.”

    • Kevin

      I agree with a lot of this. I was not enamored with the idea of switching base D schemes at first, but frankly came to accept that most of our guys are better suited to a 3-4. Tuba is a natural 3-4 “do a little of everything” end, and Taylor a natural NT. Hughes and Kitchen also fit better in a 3-4, and Mr. Mugshot should beast with all the one on one matchups he should get. Hell, one of our biggest complaints with Heckert was that he kept drafting guys that fit better in a 3-4. Some scouts even had Sheard higher rated as a OLB conversion candidate than a DE. So, I think the change to the 3-4 is only problematic in the standard having to learn a new system growing pains aspect, and not like our prior switches where we clearly lacked personnel capable of performing indispensable tasks required by the system. On the downside, Winn is likely to suffer from the scheme change unless we do a lot of front running where we can put in four pass rushers at a time.

      My biggest beef with the change to the 3-4 was our ILBs. Call me crazy, but DQJ is highly overrated (sticks to blockers like fly paper) and I worry about Robertson being undersized.

      Now, I agree that our failure to sign a 6ft+ bookend to Haden in free agency is near criminal.

  • Anonymous

    too much banner bashing !!!!!!!!!!!!

    he signed #1 and got his offset, much to your chagrin !!!

    guaranteed with his coaching hires they make huge improvement!!!

    let it play out !!!

    • awww, come on. there’s 100 pages with browns takes today and i can think of two likely to be critical. this is one. someone needs to be the loyal opposition.

      just trying to get the record right here. i wouldn’t be bashing banner if he:
      * wouldn’t have accused the earlier regime of not having a long term plan;
      * had taken steps in FA to address holes;
      * didnt talk so much window dressing, ie cafeteria, office space, logos, unis.

      he actually had a lot to work with coming in including unprecedented cap space. with bryant and mingo he spent a lot of resource on his own manufactured need. whether theyre 10-6. 6-10, or 3-13… they’re not as good as they could have been, and that was by design, and that’s what i’m calling out.

      imagine if he’d done coaching hired and NOT put in a new defense and signed FAs that plugged holes and drafted a player who would start.

      it reminds of tacitus’ reporting of calgacus’ take on the romans: To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire. They create a desolation and they call it peace.

      • Kevin

        I have some quibbles with your bullet points. I think they talk about the window dressing a lot because it would be unseemly for them to tout the biggest improvements this team made – the coaching. As it is now, the front office and players get criticized for throwing the prior regime under the bus for making simple statements like “I think Brandon/Trent/Little is better equipped to succeed with Norvinski.” (See, for example, your first bullet regarding criticizing the former regime).

        I also tend to agree with the comment that the former regime had no long term vision. In particular, as trite as it sounds, Heckert indeed in my mind was accumulating “talent” and not building his depth chart. Assuming the move to the 3-4 was not anticipated, did we really need Hughes, a 3-4 NT/DT, at the top of round 3 last year when we drafted another 3-4 NT in the first the prior year? Was there really a need to extend losers like Gocong and Patterson? (Remember, Heckert was on record as saying Gocong was better in the 3-4) Were there really no transitional FAs at WR or OG that would’ve helped on the field while easing the transition of our youngsters? It seemed like Hecket was running the team like a cellar dwelling NBA team in the hope of winning the lottery and then being able to trade 3-4 JAGs and a future draft pick for a disgruntled superstar to pair with the newly drafted face of the franchise.

        The FA bullet is right on, though. Sign a vet #2 CB this offseason, though, and I would’ve been content.

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