Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Chatting Football w/ ProFootballFocus

Yesterday, I had another opportunity to chat a little football with Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus. I wanted to keep things primarily on the defense this time, and work our way through a few issues. I hope you enjoy.

Bob Sturm: I thought we could start with your thoughts on adding Rob Ryan since he hadn't joined the squad last time we did this. What did you think of that hire and what do you think of the types of things he likes to do defensively.

PFF Sam Monson: Rob Ryan is still a bit of an enigma. You can't deny the bloodlines, and the NFL is big on bloodlines, but he hasn't ever really built a dominant defensive unit yet like his brother or father. That being said he was able to make the Browns into a good looking unit overall, albeit with some holes

Bob Sturm: No doubt. I guess I liked his concepts in Cleveland, but I always wondered how NFL people would rate his personnel options compared to the norm. It seemed rather shallow there.

PFF Sam Monson: The Browns had some good players on D, but they also had some major problems. I think it's fair to say Ryan probably got more from the unit than the talent there would suggest he should have. That's good news for the Cowboys since they already have a very talented unit on D, and a couple of players that give a creative coach some real flexibility

Bob Sturm: I suppose scheme versus personnel is what all of these teams are weighing. I am happy you brought up the idea about Dallas' defensive personnel. You like the group as a whole?

PFF Sam Monson: When yo have guys like Ware, Ratliff, Spencer along your front - you're starting from a nice place. Teams can go for years trying to find a single legit pass-rushing force, and the Cowboys can deploy three at once. Obviously it's not a perfect group, but you've got to like that as a starting point.

Bob Sturm: As we look for obvious deficiencies on defense, all signs point to safety play. Before we look at options, please give me thoughts on how the Cowboys compared to the league at safety.

PFF Sam Monson: The secondary as a whole was a poor unit for the Cowboys, especially in terms of coverage. Alan Ball was our 78th ranked safety, and though Sensabaugh managed to rank 10th overall in our safety list, the way the Cowboys use him heavily as a SS in the box puts a lot of pressure on the guy bahind him, asking a lot of his range and coverage ability. Ball wasn't able to respond to it

Bob Sturm: It would sure seem that elite defenses usually get elite safety play in this current generation of the league. Ball hawking is part of the job, and a big part of what the Cowboys have had missing since Darren Woodson as they just don't get takeaways. I just wonder if teams value safety as much as they should on draft day and in free agency. The correlation seems difficult to dispute, no?

PFF Sam Monson: I think teams value it - some safeties have been drafted very highly over the last decade, but those guys aren't easy to find. You're talking truly elite athleticism in some schemes for a safety to be able to get to either sideline when playing single-high and have any kind of impact. With how good quarterbacks are these days at manipulating the safety with their eyes before the throw, it's an incredibly hard position to succeed at.

Bob Sturm: Just to put things in perspective. When you say Alan Ball is 78th ranked as a safety, I would certainly have to believe there aren't very many more spots below him among qualifiers. This seems to be the gaping hole that must be addressed down here to take the defense to the next level.

PFF Sam Monson: Yes, 78th means there were only 7 safeties that graded worse amongst those that played a qualifying number of snaps over the season - though interestingly one of those 7 was Pro-Bowler Brandon Merriweather. That tells you something about the state of the Pro-Bowl these days

Bob Sturm: When I started working on safety options, I sure believed that OJ Atogwe was just what the doctor ordered down here. He seems to have that very ball-hawking ability and very sound center field skills. I am dumbfounded that Dallas seemed to have no interest. Did it shock you? and how good can Washington be now that Laron now can be purely in the box for most of the game and Atogwe can mind the back?

PFF Sam Monson: Atogwe did seem to tick all the boxes for Dallas, it was a natural fit. It's a similar story in DC - Landry is clearly at his best when he can imitate Troy Polamalu - be destructive in the box and move around to confuse an offense, and they do need a capable safety behind him in coverage. Atogwe is certainly athletically able for it, and in man-coverage especially he is very good. He also has excellent ball skills. The only reservation we have is that it seems to an extent a waste of some of the other skills that Atogwe has shown in St Louis (like the ability to generate pressure on the blitz, and his play against the run).

Bob Sturm: Agreed. I thought the Cowboys would try to use him at both spots at times. But they ignored him which leaves two possible scenarios. 1) they think they are fine at safety (which seems insane) or 2) they have another idea at safety. I think #2 is likely, but the price goes up considerably for the younger options like Huff and Weddle

PFF Sam Monson: Especially after allowing Washington to essentially set the market with the contract they gave Atogwe. Eric Weddle's agent, David Canter has already said through twitter that he isn't looking for a bigger contract than Atogwe got, but he WILL get a bigger contract. Allowing the Redskins to set the market is always an iffy strategy

PFF Sam Monson: The bad news is the Cowboys allowed the two big available FAs to be signed (Bob Sanders being the other one), but the good news is if and when the CBA ever gets done there is a very impressive crop of safeties potentially available

Bob Sturm: Give me your thoughts on Michael Huff. Fans seem to fall in love with the idea of local connections and given his HS and college both happened locally. But, how well has he developed in Oakland? From what I see, he might be the best FS on the market, but give me your grading evaluation.

PFF Sam Monson: Huff had a rough start to his NFL career, and was teetering on the brink of being labeled a bust for a while, but he has quietly become an excellent safety, especially last season. Last year he was given more of a pure free safety role and it seemed to really play to his strengths. He was always an athletic specimen, and he hasn't lost that.

Bob Sturm: And when he comes hard charging into the box, it looks like he enjoys a big tackle. Why would Oakland let him get away?

PFF Sam Monson: Well they have drafted a few safeties recently (possibly because Huff looked like he wasn't going to work out) and they've been sinking money into other players - who knows what their financial and cap situation will be under any new CBA deal - it might just be a case of economics for them.

Bob Sturm: For the Cowboys needs, that seems to make more sense to me than Eric Weddle who is also young and solid, but wouldn't his weaknesses lie in coverage sometimes? It would seem to me that I can see Huff/Sensabaugh but Weddle/Sensabaugh would be problematic in CF. Agree?

PFF Sam Monson: To a degree. I think it's fair to say that Huff has better range than Weddle, and better ball skills, but I think Weddle is a better safety in coverage than the numbers might suggest. We talked to him during the season and he mentioned one of the things he's trying to improve are his hands - having been in position for a few easy picks this season but let them bounce off his hands for incompletions. He's more than capable of playing the deep safety spot, but I'd agree that it's not necessarily making the best use of him. Between that and the contract they're likely chasing with him, Huff does seem like the first phonecall I'd be making.

Bob Sturm: I know they are saying all the right things in SD, but does Sanders' signing set up Weddle's exit? And did you just indicate that Huff would actually be cheaper than Weddle? Interesting.

PFF Sam Monson: Well we've heard that Weddle is going to be looking for a major deal. Huff hasn't really had the body of work that Weddle has, so my assumption would be he could be a cheaper option, but contract negotiations and figures have surprised me before. As for Bob Sanders - He's been off the field so much over the past few years I don't think we can read too much into his signing - San Diego can't really be relying on him being on the field

PFF Sam Monson: That being said, it does seem like they would be wise to plan for Weddle's exit - Sanders might just be part of the contingency plan.

Bob Sturm: Could you weigh in on the idea of converting Corners in general to safety? Around here, part of the offseason consensus seems to be to try to either convert Terrence Newman to safety or drafting Prince Amukamara and convert him at some point. Newman makes no sense to me given his tackling ability, but as a concept, where do you fall on this?

PFF Sam Monson: It's something that sounds easy and logical, but doesn't always work. A guy who has spent the last ten years in a backpedal and reading receivers isn't necessarily all set to work the deep-middle of the field or come down and fill running lanes. I agree with the Newman assessment, I don't really see that as a sensible conversion. As for a player like Prince, it's certainly an option, but oftentimes guys are projected for a move to safety because they lack the speed to play corner - but if you're expecting them to play the deep middle of the field in Cover-1 or Cover-3 shells, that guy needs speed too.

Bob Sturm: I am not sure how much of the college tape you pour over, but with Prince, I wish I saw more elite skills at Nebraska than his tape produces. He seems to be very toolsy and his combine speaks for itself, but I really need money in the bank at #9 overall. I can't get the Oklahoma State torching out of my head.

PFF Sam Monson: With the amount of NFL tape we have to go through we're really not the best guys to ask for college prospects - I've personally only just really started in with some film, the Senior Bowl practices and Combine stuff, so I'm by no means an expert on prospects at this stage. I think though that for the reasons we talked about before, safety isn't an easy position to succeed early at, and all the more if you're converting the guy from corner.

Bob Sturm: What do you think of the other potential FAs at safety? Landry from Baltimore? Quintin Mikell? Give me your thoughts on who the Cowboys should be targeting for their specific needs..

PFF Sam Monson: We love Quintin Mikell - He was our top ranked safety last year, and he's a force all over the field. Again though he would be wasted as a single high safety. If the Cowboys are intent on that (and if they're not it means they need two safeties instead of one, because Sensabaugh is much poorer in deep coverage), then they need to be looking at a Michael Huff, or maybe even a Danieal Manning from the Bears. Manning is an exceptional athlete (he's kept Hester away from KR duties at times), and was a different player when the Bears began to use him as a deep safety and take advantage of his range. Landry is best as a Sensabaugh type in the box.

Bob Sturm: Using your data, I found some amazing numbers about DB pass rush numbers showing the Cowboys used their secondary to blitz about as little as anyone in the NFL. If Rob Ryan wants to create chaos, it would sure seem that needs to be introduced. According to PFF, I think Newman and Jenkins have come on blitzes a combined 4 times in 3 seasons. Very predictable where Wade would try to get pressure.

Bob Sturm: I think the entire secondary combined for 50 blitzes last year. The Jets were at 350, and the Packers and Steelers were both over 150. As were the Browns.

PFF Sam Monson: By and large you're comparing two different styles of 3-4 scheme there. The Jets' Hybrid scheme being fairly unique, but the Pack and Steelers are both from the same zone-blitz school. Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers both developed their zone blitz concepts together years back so they're always likely to blitz more than a Wade Phillips scheme that is far more traditional.

PFF Sam Monson: take your point though that the Cowboys would likely be more effective by mixing up their fronts and attacking in more creative ways, and I suspect that's very likely under Rob Ryan

Bob Sturm: Sam, as always, I appreciate the time. And ProFootballFocus.Com is amazing and a great resource for all who love the NFL. Let's visit again soon.

PFF Sam Monson: Thanks for having me on Bob, always a pleasure.

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