Analyzing the most interesting deals from free agency: Part II
Jawaan Taylor! David Long!! Darren Waller!!!
Jawaan Taylor to the Chiefs
Taylor to the Chiefs might the most interesting deal from the first batch of free agency. It’s quintessential Chiefs: they’re allowing Orlando Brown Jr., a known (if flawed) quantity to walk and signing Taylor to a meaty deal. The Chiefs agreed to a four-year, $80 million deal with Taylor -- including $60 million guaranteed. They’re betting on Taylor’s upside, that his breakout campaign was, as the kids say, legit, and that his best football is ahead of him.
I agree! We know how young tackles develop at this point: Year three is when they start to figure things out; year four is when you can make a quality assessment. Here’s what o-line guru Brandon Thorn wrote about Taylor heading into free agency on his Trench Warfare Substack:
Taylor is coming off of the best year of his career in Jacksonville after a fresh start under line coach Phil Rauscher. Taylor has always been durable (66 career starters with zero missed games) but finally shored up some technique issues in pass-protection to put him firmly in the middle-of-the-pack range of starters at right tackle. At just 25-years old with ideal size (6’5” 315 lbs. with 35+ inch arms) and good play strength, there is a reasonable case to be made that his best football is still ahead of him.
Taylor has always been a plus in the run game, but prior to 2022, he was hyperactive in pass protection. He was fidgety. Nothing was smooth. Everything worked at warp speed – his feet; his hands. He regularly lost his balance or was caught off guard. His hands and feet routinely fell out of sync. He finished dead last in my totally fictitious ‘tackles who conceded pressures because they get caught with their feet crossing over at the point contact’ metric. It was endemic to the Taylor experience: He would engage in a block while crossing his feet rather than shuffling and maintaining a wide, solid base.
That changed last year. The numbers speak for themselves. Taylor allowed only 21 total pressures (!) last season and just five sacks, both the lowest marks of his career. Taylor’s underlying figures were solid, too. He finished in the middle of the pack in ESPN’s pass block win rate (88.8%). After a haphazard 2020, he’s shown year-on-year improvement.
The numbers are good. The process behind them has been even more encouraging. Taylor has cleaned up the majority of his technical flaws – though he still has a tendency to get crossed over coming out of his stance (old habits are hard to kick, you know. Sometimes it’s fun to have a cigarette on a night out):
The big shift in his game: His early get-off. Taylor has become a maestro at efficiently closing the space between himself and edge rushers. He’s not just springing into his stance and waiting; he’s leaping out and engaging. He’s mastered the early set-off technique pioneered by o-line czar Duke Manyweather.
By now, you’ve likely heard all about the new trick that has helped linemen combat the get-off-and-go freakazoids that are dominating the NFL’s edge-rushing landscape. In order to keep up with pogo-stick pass-rushers, linemen have taken to stealing a half-step on the proceedings.
Manyweather and his team found a loophole within the rules that effectively allow linemen to sneak out of a two-point stance early when sinking into pass protection. You probably spent far too much time this season shouting at the TV or wondering why officials were not bothering to call clear false starts… because, well, they weren’t false starts.
Manyweather – a private trainer for linemen across the league and the mastermind behind OL Masterminds – has a full explanation you can listen to here.
In essence, league rules allow a lineman in a two-point stance to ‘adjust’ their back foot. They’re able to load up, lift and raise their back foot. That’s considered an ‘adjustment.’ Linemen can then start to time up that ‘adjustment’ to the snap count, allowing them to leap out of their stance a millisecond before the snap — without triggering a false start or forcing a defender to jump early.
By corkscrewing or adjusting their back foot, they’re able to shift their weight early to allow them to spring out of the stance more explosively at the snap (or a slight beat before):
The technique has helped Taylor. Rather than sinking to depth and gifting an ocean of space between himself and an opposing edge-rusher, he’s now able to compress the distance as early in the rep as possible.
Look at the difference in the distance between Taylor and Aidan Hutchinson pre-snap to at-the-snap. Hutchinson is an all-power-rush, all-the-damn-time kind of edge defender. Give him a runway, and he’s fork lifting through the chest of anyone. By getting out early and cramping Hutchinson’s office space early, Taylor is effectively altering the pass-rushers technique – he’s not quite as wide as he expected pre-snap; Hutchinson has to change his plan of attack.
Once in that confined space, it’s tricky to operate: Taylor is huge, and in your jersey, and executes with minimal mistakes. You have to earn everything.
In the early years, Taylor struggled when there was too much distance between himself and an edge-rusher – rushers feigning one way before darting the other. He would overplay his hand, setting too wide and conceding the inside gate. Or he would give too much of a runway for the outside swoopers and speed-to-power rushers. By compacting the space, Taylor is no longer waiting on pass-rushers; he’s setting the terms of engagement.
Simmer down, big fella! I’m pretty sure a reel of Taylor getting an early spring out of his stance constitutes pornography for Chiefs’ o-line coach Andy Heck.
And there should be more to come. Taylor will be just 25 years old by the time next season kicks off. He has already figured out a technical solution to an issue that plagued the early portion of his career. He has refined the subtleties — footwork, timing, arm positioning. Now, the Chiefs have an experienced tackle with the ideal physical tools and few (if any) technical weaknesses. Drop him in a room with Heck — one of the league’s top o-line coaches — and any flaws that have sunk below the surface will be ironed out.
Any move you make on offense looks smart when you have The Chosen One. But adding Taylor represents a particularly savvy move from Brett Veach. The Chiefs are buying out a player’s prime years at a premium position, someone who has the traits to be an All-Pro caliber tackle next season.
The question now is where exactly will Taylor play?
It was initially reported that the Chiefs would flip Taylor from right tackle to left tackle. But with Andrew Wylie out the door, it might make more sense to keep Taylor on the right side and look for someone else to slot in at left tackle. Taylor hasn’t started a game on the left side of the line in his NFL career and had only two starts at left tackle in college. Flipping sides isn’t impossible, but it’s a larger leap than most like to presume – the vantage points are different; what is asked of a tackle on specific concepts is different; the relation to the quarterback’s landmark is different.
Why bother shuffling Taylor around when the distinction between the two tackle spots is so minimal these days (does anywhere care that Lane Johnson plays on the right?) and Taylor has proven to be effective on the right? Moving him would feel like a moves for moves sake. Given the volume that the Chiefs are in the gun – plus Mahomes’ slip-and-slide style – it doesn’t make much of a difference which side of the line Taylor lines up on.
KC can look elsewhere for a left tackle. There will be options late in the first round. With the 31st pick, the Chiefs will have a chance to ID one from the crop of second-tier, high-upside tackles. There’s a chance that Peter Skoronski’s arm length scares off some teams at the top-to-middle of the first round, while Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison, Georgia’s Broderick Jones, and Ohio State’s Dawand Jones all have starter-caliber potential – and all would be worthy of a mid-round selection. And if the Chiefs really like one specific player from that batch, it wouldn’t cost an awful lot of draft capital to jump up to the early 20s to go get their guy.
David Long to the Dolphins
I mean, you have got to be kidding me? How were the Dolphins able to snag David Long on a two-year $11 million deal given some of the contracts handed out to linebackers on the opening day of free agency?
In this stupid, polarized climate of haters and dubious ‘well, actually’ takes, there is one thing we can all agree on: David Long is awesome. Jot down the names of the best linebackers in football last season and you’re not rattling off many before you get to Long.
Long was the backbone of a Titans defense that massively overperformed its underlying metrics through the first-half of the season, before crashing back to Earth in the latter stages of the year.
The Titans, more than any other defense in the league, played a strict 4-2-5 defense, betting on Long to cover alllllll kinds of distance – horizontally and vertically. Long was used as the early plugger vs. the run. The Titans played with even (four-man) fronts on early down, banking on Long to be the fifth-defender to build a wall at the snap. They didn’t create many negative plays on early downs and subsisted on an overwhelming interior rush to bail them out of dodgy down-and-distances on third downs when all their interior guys were healthy.
Playing that style puts a huge weight on linebackers. They have to fit up fast versus the run, but be ready, willing, and able to bail out and turn and run versus any kind of play-fake or dropback concept. Finding a defender who’s physical enough to hit the LOS early to take on wrapping lineman and capable of peeling out to cut a crosser is the secret sauce of modern defensive football:
Playing a lighter style up front – four-man fronts, light linebackers – worked for Tennesse early in the year. Eight weeks through the season they ranked 10th in EPA per play and third in success rate. Over the final half of the year, they dropped to 29th in EPA per play and 15th in success rate. Long and the three-man wrecking crew up front could only cover up for structural issues – and a lack of early down negatives – for so long.
Things will be different in Miami. With Vic Fangio at the helm of the defense, the Dolphins will play with five and six-man fronts on early downs with Long and the other linebackers asked to play more see-it-find-it football. Is that a concern? Nope:
That’s where Long thrives. It’s his happy place. Skirting through the fractures in an offensive line to find and corral ball-carriers is where Long does his best work. He attacks the run like a running back. He thinks like a running back, first pressing before bouncing to daylight:
Long is among the brightest diagnose-and-attack linebackers in football. He knows where things are going before they even develop. He plays with unteachable two-steps ahead vision. Watch this:
Did you catch that? It’s a completion, a decent chunk for the Raiders. But watch Long throughout the pre-snap to post-snap process (#51). He knows exactly what the Raiders are running… He knows the check… he knows the second check. Derek Carr changes the play twice, and Long calls it out. He knows exactly where the ball is going – and lets everyone know it. It’s not his responsibility to cover the void that the Raiders are attacking, but you can still see how antsy his feet are to get over to the other zone, where he would be able to make a play on the ball. He knows, through concept vs. coverage, he can’t impact where the ball is going. But he knows exactly what’s coming and wants to race over there anyway.
That might seem small. It might seem pointless. The Raiders still hit a chunk, you dope! But that kind of recognition pre- to post-snap can buy everyone on defense a half-beat. If you’re undermanned talent-wise, that half-beat can make all the difference. If you’re even talent-wise? Yeesh. Good luck keeping up.
Grabbing Long for such a cheap sum while he’s still in his prime – that delightful moment for a linebacker when their understanding of the league’s offensive schemes and their athleticism coalesce – represents a bargain for the Dolphins.
Penning Jalen Ramsey to a fresh $20 million-per-year deal felt like a (necessary) overpay given where he’s at in his career. Even if you like Ramsey at this stage of his career – and I do! – that’s a hefty outlay. But when you combined the cap hits of Ramsey and Long, things are more palatable. The two deals balance each other out.
The cap hit for Ramsey is steep; it pays him superstar money when he’s now in the ranks of the very, very good. But if you told the Dolphins – or any team, really – before Monday that they could snag Ramsey and Long for a combined cap hit of $9 million in 2023, they would probably have passed out. There’s no GM around who wouldn’t find that duo, at that price, tantalizing.
Ramsey’s cap charge will balloon to $29 million for 2024, bringing the combined Ramsey-Long package to $34 million. That’s not great, but it’s not awful – and it’s likely the Dolphins will look to restructure Ramsey’s deal next offseason if he plays up to standard next season anyway.
Every defense running some version of Fangio-ism should have been all over Long. That the High Wizard of the cult was able to grab the linebacker for a paltry price in the first flung of free agency feels like some kind of trick. Did Fangs use the force to hoodwink his understudies? Does he have dirt on someone? Does Long’s agent know how essential his client's skill set is to the dominant defensive scheme currently circling the NFL?
The Dolphins' defense is set up to win now. Ramsey is the headline-grabber, but in terms of winning in 2023, Long will be the more impactful piece.
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