Free agency, and the 2011 season itself, may still be in a holding pattern. But Nnamdi Asomugha's value in the marketplace seems to be flying higher each day.
The Oakland cornerback is widely seen as one of the best in the game. Just ask NFL players themselves: Asomugha finished No. 18 on the NFL Network's recent players-voted list of the top 100 performers in the game today. He was third among cornerbacks, behind Darrelle Revis of the Jets (No. 8 overall) and Super Bowl champ Charles Woodson of the Packers (No. 16).
Asomugha was Oakland's first-round pick in 2003 and struggled before a breakout season in 2006, with 8 INTs. He's picked off just three passes in the four years since, but largely because offenses fear his coverage skills and refuse to throw his way. Even with limited production on the stat sheet, Asomugha was good enough to earn three straight Pro Bowl selections from 2008 to 2010. He's a four-time All Pro (2006, 2008-10).
So Asomugha is a hot commodity right now, perhaps the free agent poised to earn the biggest payday when the signing period begins.
Here are four teams that should jump at the opportunity to grab him -- based on glaring deficiencies in a critical Cold, Hard Football Facts "Quality Stat" that we call Defensive Passer Rating. It merely applies the formula used to rate quarterbacks to pass defenses. It has an incredibly high correlation to team success.
In fact, other than points allowed itself, Defensive Passer Rating is the single most important measure of a defense's capabilities. Just look at the 2010 season: AFC champion Pittsburgh finished No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating (73.78), just behind Super Bowl champion Green Bay (67.23).
We discussed the historic importance of Defensive Passer Rating here on SI.com back in January, right before Super Bowl XLV.
It is a MUCH more effective measure of pass-defense capabilities than yards allowed, which you should ignore when rating pass defenses. Yards allowed are largely a function of the number of attempts against a unit. History is filled with great champions that surrendered a lot of yards but were highly effective when measured by Defensive Passer Rating.
The 2001 Patriots were 23rd in passing yards allowed. So many observers thought they were highly vulnerable against Kurt Warner and the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams. But the 2001 Patriots were No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating (68.6) -- a much tougher unit to pass against than anybody but the Cold, Hard Football Facts gave them credit for.
The 2009 Saints were 26th in passing yards allowed. So many observers thought they were highly vulnerable against four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning and the Colts. But the 2009 Saints were also No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating (also 68.6) -- a much tougher unit to pass against than anybody but the Cold, Hard Football Facts gave them credit for.
In both cases, the underrated pass defenses came up with huge plays -- pick-sixes by Ty Law and Tracy Porter, respectively -- that proved the difference in the game.
So, with all that said, here are four teams that could desperately use the help of Asomugha as they look to take the next step forward in 2011.
Need proof of the importance of pass defense, as measured by Defensive Passer Rating? Consider the 2008 Lions. At 0-16, they produced the worst record of any team in NFL history. Not so coincidentally, they fielded the worst pass defense in NFL history, with a 110.8 Defensive Passer Rating.
Put another way, the 2008 Lions made every quarterback that year look like 2010 unanimous league MVP Tom Brady (111.0 passer rating). Now you know why the 2008 Lions couldn't win a game.
The 2009 Lions were barely any better, with a 107.6 Defensive Passer Rating, again among the very worst in history. The 2009 Lions went just 2-14.
The 2010 season was one of great promise for the Lions, as we discussed here in May. The Lions improved by four games to 6-10; they also improved nine spots in Defensive Passer Rating, to 23rd league-wide (89.2 DPR).
It was a nice advance up the charts. But it still leaves the Lions far from a championship-contending defense. A player like Asomugha could be just what they need to actually compete for a NFC North title for the first time since Barry Sanders ran wild.
The Texans boast some of the best and most exciting offensive players in the game today, including prolific passer Matt Schaub (9,140 yards over the past two seasons), wide receiver Andre Johnson (302 receptions in last three years) and running back Arian Foster (league-best 1,616 yards and 16 rush TD in 2010).
All that firepower earned Houston a disappointing 6-10 record in 2010 and the ninth straight season since the franchise's founding without a playoff appearance.
The culprit is a pass defense that's consistently among the worst in football, and was THE worst in football in 2010.
Here's Houston's Defensive Passer Rating and rank in the indicator each season of its existence.
Amazing. Houston fielded its best pass defense way back in its debut season of 2002. The numbers are sobering, especially considering the incredible draft-day resources the Texans have devoted to cornerbacks and pass rushers. Their high-profile draft picks simply have not panned out on the field, and the 2010 season was the worst yet for this consistently underwhelming pass defense.
The Texans were not only dead last in pass defense, one of the few teams in history with a DPR above 100, but also among the worst in the league in every single measure of pass defense: they allowed a league-high 33 TD passes (tied with Dallas) and they were 31st in yards allowed per pass attempt (a brutal 8.22 YPA).
The future is simple for Houston: they will not become a true playoff contender until they pair their explosive offense with at least an average pass defense. Asomugha could help the Texans achieve this modest goal and lift it to mediocrity.
There must be something in the steamy waters of the AFC South, because the Jacksonville pass defense is nearly as bad as Houston's -- and the Jaguars didn't have all the benefit of an offense littered with game breakers.
In fact, it's something of a statistical miracle that the Jaguars were two games better than Houston last year.
Jacksonville was 31st in Defensive Passer Rating last season (98.53), while surrendering a league-high 8.29 yards per pass attempt. It's hard to stop anybody when opposing passers pick up better than eight yards every time they drop back to pass. For a little perspective, in Tom Brady's statistical breakout season of 2007, in which he threw a record 50 TD passes, he averaged 8.31 YPA, about what the Jaguars surrendered in 2010.
Jack Del Rio has a reputation as a coach who tries to build a team the "old fashioned way" with a strong run game and run defense. He needs to shed this reputation because his style doesn't help you win football games in the NFL. Teams win in the NFL when they pass effectively and stop the pass on defense. And the Jaguars were dreadful last year at stopping the pass.
Asomugha could change that dynamic instantly.
The Patriots defense led the NFL with 25 INTs last year, and rookie cornerback Devin McCourty is one of the game's bright young stars. The team also drafted another corner (Ras-I Dowling) with the first pick of the second round of the 2011 draft. So the chances of New England chasing Asomugha are slim and none -- especially considering the team's history of chasing value players over high-profile players.
But it's such a tantalizing option that would instantly make the Patriots a virtual shoo-in for a Super Bowl title that we can't help but discuss it.
The big turnovers and McCourty's breakout performance, for example, masked what was otherwise a very porous pass defense. The 2010 Patriots were 30th in yards allowed (4,345), though that's largely a function of the huge number of attempts against them (612). More importantly, the New England defense was 24th in completion percentage (63.6), 21st in Passing YPA (7.1) and 21st in TDs allowed (25).
If not for Tom Brady and the prolific passing attack, the Patriots were an eight-win team in terms of pass defense. Even worse, breakdowns in pass defense in huge moments have haunted the Patriots in recent years. The unit could not make a single stop in the second half of the 2006 AFC title game, as Peyton Manning and the Colts mounted the greatest comeback in title-game history, a 38-34 Indy win.
A year later, the 18-0 Patriots could not even stop the less-than-mediocre Eli Manning in the Super Bowl, surrendering two fourth-quarter touchdown passes with immortality within their reach.
The Patriots had a fighting chance in last year's 28-21 divisional playoff loss to the Jets. But once again, the New England pass defense came up small in a big moment. Patriots killer Mark Sanchez produced one of the greatest statistical performances of his career against New England's vulnerable pass defense (64.0%, 7.8 YPA, 3 TD, 0 INT, 127.3 rating).
New England's signature failure on pass defense came in the third quarter, after the Patriots closed to within 14-11. Sanchez came out slinging, going 4-for-4 passing for 76 yards on the ensuing drive, highlighted by a 58-yard backbreaker to Jerricho Cotchery and a seven-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes.
Even in the glory days of Super Bowl success, the New England pass defense consistently failed in big moments: the Rams struck for two fourth-quarter touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Panthers lit up New England for three fourth-quarter touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and even a heaving Donovan McNabb pulled out a late touchdown pass in Super Bowl XXXIX.
In four Super Bowls over the past decade, the Patriots have surrendered a mind-boggling 54 fourth-quarter points. It's something of a miracle they won three of those Super Bowls with those defensive meltdowns -- meltdowns that continued against the Colts and Jets.
It's true that New England's greatest problem last year was not necessarily pass coverage, but an inability to mount a decent pass rush. But the fact remains that a player of Asomugha's caliber would instantly make New England's pass defense a much more powerful unit -- one that would be virtually unbeatable when paired with Brady's prolific offense.
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