Sometimes you get Reggie White, and sometimes you get Albert Haynesworth. For every Deion Sanders in San Francisco and Dallas, there's a Deion Sanders in Washington D.C. The ability to acquire free-agent talent at the highest possible level has to do with talent, of course, but there's also scheme fit, attitude fit, and a whole lot of timing. Though none of the free-agent signings for 2015 is official yet, there's enough traction around the big names to start to wonder just how well those players will fit on their new teams. Three defenders in particular look to make significant impacts in new places, and they're going to get paid accordingly.
DT Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins
Though J.J. Watt has been the NFL's best defensive lineman over the last two years (and he has; I think we can eliminate that debate), it's equally certain that Ndamukong Suh has been the league's best defensive tackle over the last five years. Especially as a pass-rusher, Suh has been an indefatigable presence since he was selected by the Detroit Lions with the second-overall pick out of Nebraska in the 2010 draft. Against double teams on most plays, Suh has totaled 36 sacks and 180 solo tackles in his career. His 8.5-sack total for the 2014 season was the highest he's amassed since his 10-sack rookie campaign. According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, Suh led all defensive tackles with 57 total pressures in 2014, and he's led, tied for the lead or finished second in total pressures among defensive tackles in four of his five seasons.
Suh did all of that for the Lions, but if the reports are true, he'll be doing that for the Miami Dolphins in 2015 and beyond after agreeing to terms on a six-year, $114 million deal with as much as $60 million guaranteed. And in that Miami defensive front, he has a chance to be truly special. The Dolphins have two highly-regarded outside rushers in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, but from a pass-rushing perspective, the inside combination of Suh and defensive tackle Randy Starks could be really exciting. Starks is 31 years old, and he's not the force he used to be against the run, but he shows enough quickness and agility as an interior pass-rusher to make some special plays.
And here, against the Chiefs in Week 3, he blows by fullback Anthony Sherman as a five-tech end as the right side of Kansas City's offensive line splits against a linebacker blitz. The result? Alex Smith goes down for a safety.
Now, what will the addition of Suh do for Starks, or Earl Mitchell, or any other tackle in Miami's defense? Imagine every offensive line focusing on Suh out of necessity, and do the math. Even when Suh is double-teamed, his rare combination of speed, power, technique and determination allows him to wreck the play anyway. The Dolphins didn't need to see Suh in person to understand this fact, but he made it quite obvious when Miami met the Lions in Week 10. On this third-quarter play, Suh takes right guard Mike Pouncey (#51) and right tackle Dallas Thomas (#63) to the middle of the formation, forcing a fumble from running back Daniel Thomas in the process. Suh capsizes that double-team like a cannonball dropped on a toy boat.
And against the pass? Suh is relentless and transcendent. This sack of Tony Romo in the Lions' wild-card playoff loss to the Cowboys is against a single-team blocker, but it's still one of my favorite Suh sacks. He takes the initial charge of rookie right guard Zack Martin (who played at a Pro Bowl level most of the year), drops Martin after a dance across the formation, and chases Romo around the pocket until the play is destroyed.
There's no question that Suh will elevate Miami's defense, especially against the run. Do the Dolphins still have work to do if they're going to compete with the Patriots and the rest of the AFC's top teams? Without question. Will Suh's cap numbers hamstring them to a degree? We haven't yet seen how that will work out, but one can assume so. Still, the assumption that this could be an Albert Haynesworth-style disaster is likely incorrect. Not only is Suh moving into a defense that represents a perfect place for his skill set, but he's adding all the right attributes.
CB Byron Maxwell, Philadelphia Eagles
If you were looking to describe the Eagles' pass defense in 2014 with two words, "hot garbage" might be appropriate. Starting cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams combined for just three interceptions with 14 touchdowns allowed, plus 117 total catches on 214 targets for 1,829 yards posted by opposing quarterbacks. Fletcher and Williams are both free agents, and neither looks to have any committees organizing their return to the team. Knowing full well that improvement was needed, the team reportedly agreed to terms with former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell on a six-year deal that includes $25 million guaranteed, and an average annual salary in excess of $10 million.
That's a lot to pay for the least-known member of the Legion of Boom secondary, especially if you're among those who believe that whatever he did well in Seattle was created to a large extent by the efforts of cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Skeptics who view Maxwell as a product of that system may wonder just what the Eagles are getting themselves into. Let's go under the hood and take a look.
Maxwell was selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft out of Clemson, and didn't become a starter until Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond III, his predecessors, were suspended for various violations of the NFL's drug policies. When he made that move, however, his presence was of immediate benefit to the team. In 2013, he allowed 23 receptions on 45 targets, 274 yards, four interceptions and two touchdowns. He had a bit of a dropoff in the postseason, but it appeared that the Seahawks once again had the Sherman bookend that Browner once had been.
In 2014, Maxwell lived up to the potential of an above-average starting cornerback. He was Seattle's most-targeted defender with 71, though the idea that he was far more heavily targeted than Sherman is a canard, as Sherman was thrown at 65 times in the regular season. Maxwell allowed 45 catches on those targets for 567 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His 81.1 opponent passer rating was nearly twice as high as Sherman's, but Maxwell proved that he could hold things down pretty well.
“He’s been a pretty legitimate starter for us for some time now," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said the week before Super Bowl XLIX of Maxwell's transition to starter. ‘"Maxy’ has a great personality and character about him -- he’s very flexible, and he’s pliable to situations. He handles challenges and difficulties really well, so I don’t see anything at all. He’s been fine. He’s had no problem adapting to the things that we’ve asked him to do whenever, and he’s just a regular part of our team. I don’t think that he’s gone through any kind of a big change at all.”
Though all of Seattle's cornerbacks must play press, Maxwell is the best and most proficient of them all in off-coverage, various zone principles and "bail" coverage, when a defender turns his hips to the quarterback (frequently on a multi-receiver side) to try and read the quarterback's intentions. Press-bail coverage has bedeviled Sherman to varying degrees since he came into the league, but Maxwell has it on lock for the most part, as he showed against the Cardinals in Week 14. Here, he's on the strong side (top of the field) in a WR/TE set, and he stays with speedster Josh Brown all the way down the field on a deep post. From the snap, Maxwell does a great job of keeping with Brown and adjusting to the dual route concept. Watch him close on the deep ball from backup Drew Stanton:
The downside of this play? Maxwell was a bit early with the physical aspect of his play, and was busted for pass interference. That was a 39-yard gain for the Cardinals.
And as well as Maxwell plays the ball in those circumstances, that penalty wasn't an isolated incident. Against Arizona in Week 16, it was a different quarterback (Ryan Lindley) and a different receiver (Michael Floyd) but the same outcome. This time, Maxwell played straight-up press against Floyd on a deep boundary route to the left sideline (Seattle's staple coverage) and did a great job of tracking Floyd throughout the play. Maxwell has the hip turn, flexibility and raw speed to work against just about any receiver in the NFL.
Sadly for Seattle, though, Maxwell was arm-barring Floyd near the catchpoint, and though the contact was mutual in this case, Maxwell was busted for another interference call -- a 36-yard gain this time.
Are we splitting hairs on the penalties? Well, Maxwell was penalized nine times last season (10 total, one declined) for a team-high 105 yards, and six of those penalties were for defensive holding. It's something to watch, and if you're going to pay a guy this much, you want to be sure that he's not going to offset his talents with penalty liabilities.
Still, it's pretty clear that Maxwell has a varied skill set, and that's about more than his physical gifts. He's become really good at reading routes and breaking to the target, as he showed in this Week 3 tackle of a Peyton Manning pass to Emmanuel Sanders. Maxwell starts the play with bail coverage on Demaryius Thomas outside, but does an absolutely tremendous job of breaking off to cover Sanders, who had flown by the slot defender. It was a 42-yard gain, but Maxwell probably saved a touchdown because he read the action and adjusted so well.
Maxwell can also play the slot pretty well, though the Eagles have the right guy for that position in Brandon Boykin, and given Philly's outside coverage liabilities, one imagines their newest acquisition on the outside more than anything else. Is he worth this much cabbage based on his tape and the numbers? Perhaps. Keep in mind that Sherman was a fifth-round pick who came in to start in the middle of a season (2011) and took time to become the dominant player he has been over the last couple years. Maxwell has less than two years of starts in a demanding system, and he's risen to the challenge for the most part. While he won't have the level of teammate help in his new home, perhaps Byron Maxwell can start the Eagles' defensive rebirth.
There's almost nowhere to go but up.
OLB/DL Pernell McPhee, Chicago Bears
The transition from situational player to full-time starter can be a daunting one, at best. Some players are built for it, and show that right away. Others quickly prove why they're only slot receivers or dime defenders or third-down ends. Perhaps the player whose exploits will be most closely watched in this regard in the 2015 season is defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, who has reportedly agreed to terms with the Chicago Bears on a five-year, $40 million deal.
Like Maxwell, McPhee is a newer NFL name in a new place in desperate need of defensive enhancement. The 2014 Bears put up one of the worst season-long defensive performances in the franchise's long history. When teams weren't gashing Chicago's high-priced and oft-injured defensive line with their running games, they were making fools of the Bears' secondary. Much of that had to do with the regressive (to be kind) schemes of former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who at some point took the Hot Tub Time Machine back to the early 2000s, when you could get away with vanilla zone coverage against offenses that hadn't figured that out years ago. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who did an absolutely fantastic job in San Francisco through the injuries and suspensions of his personnel, was summarily dismissed for his trouble, and now stands to be the biggest overall coaching upgrade in the league in his new location.
One thing Fangio is known for is his multiplicity. He'll throw all kinds of things at enemy offenses in subtle ways. Through most of his time with the 49ers, he stayed with a base four-man front with a pass-rushing linebacker and a stay-at-home run defender, but if the situation called for his players to move to different gaps, Fangio was more than capable of scheming that up, too. And that's where McPhee could be so very valuable to his new team and coaches.
According to Pro Football Focus's 2014 metrics, McPhee rushed the passer 75 times in 372 total passing snaps from the standard outside linebacker position; he also played 115 snaps as a defensive end on either side of the formation with his hand on the ground and 120 snaps came from other linebacker positions. In addition, McPhee rushed occasionally from a three-tech and one-tech defensive tackle positions or gaps, with a stand-up stance and with his hand on the ground. He registered 7.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries with those limited opportunities, and if you want to see him at his best, look no further than his two-sack game against the Browns in Week 17. On the first sack, he beat left tackle Joe Thomas, one of the NFL's best at his position for years, for a straight-up takedown.
This came with 13:12 left in the second quarter, and featured McPhee in a wide-9 set with his hand on the ground.Thomas can barely get up and into his kickstep before McPhee is on him, and with a quick inside move, quarterback Connor Shaw is left to wonder what the heck just happened.
The second sack of McPhee's day shows what happens when you leave a crossing tight end (in this case, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron) to block McPhee one-on-one. Quite simply: Bad things happen. McPhee is closing off the offensive right side, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (who's generally the anti-Joe Thomas from a talent perspective) pinches inside to double defensive tackle Brandon Graham. Running back Terrance West barely puts up a fight at the last line of resistance, and this does not go well for Shaw at all.
Here, in Week 5 against the Colts, McPhee is lined up with his hand off the ground between center Jonotthan Harrison and right guard Hugh Thornton. At the snap, McPhee just okey-dokes Thornton into oblivion with a quick rip move, and the Colts have to re-set one sack later.
So, McPhee can produce quarterback pressure from anywhere on the field. But what makes him enticing as an every-down player is his ability against the run. He had 22 run stops in 142 run plays in 2014. By comparison per PFF, Dumervil had 23 stops in 159 run plays, and Suggs had 30 stops in 308 run plays. Against the Steelers in Week 2, he takes on center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro, fends off Pouncey's chip, and takes DeCastro to running back Le'Veon Bell's location for a two-yard gain. Pouncey and DeCastro are each excellent players, and Bell is as tough to stop as any back in the league. This kind of play should alleviate any concerns about McPhee as an every-down player in a different defense.
The Ravens knew they were probably going to lose McPhee. After the season he had, he was going to get paid in a serious way, and Baltimore's loss is Chicago's gain. Pernell McPhee might just be the next Monster of the Midway.