Back in August, Sterling Xie of Football Outsiders (via ESPN Insider) pondered how much defensive-minded head coaches Dan Quinn (Falcons) and John Fox (Bears) can help their teams improve their awful defenses in their first season with new teams.
The answer for Quinn and the Falcons: a whole lot. Fox couldn’t work the same magic for Chicago’s defense as he did for the Broncos back in 2011, but Quinn engineered a dramatic improvement for the Falcons’ defense in Year 1 of his reign.
The Falcons improved from 32nd to 22nd in the final defensive rankings of Defense-adjusted Value Over Average at Pro Football Outsiders. The Falcons' defensive DVOA improved by nine percent; Xie's analysis of defensive-minded head coaches from 2009 to 2014 showed that the average first-year improvement is just 1.4 percent.
Chances are Quinn's defense will be better still in Year 2 . Xie's analysis found that “defensive” head coaches improve the defensive DVOA by an average of another 3.8 percent from Year 1 to Year 2 and by another 2.2 percent from Year 2 to Year 3.
Only the four teams improved their defensive DVOA ranking this season more than the Falcons: the Steelers (up 19 spots), Jets (up 16), Panthers (up 13 spots) and Chiefs (up 13). All of those teams have rosters built for defense while the Falcons don’t—or at least they didn’t until Quinn, who was given final roster approval, started working with GM Thomas Dimitroff to change that.
The Falcons already had drafted cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford one-two in the 2013 draft. Trufant is the kind of cornerback Quinn typically likes for his scheme but Alford isn’t. Who knows if defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, the second-round pick in 2014, will ever fulfill his potential?
Safety Dez Southward, the third-round pick in 2014, isn’t even on an NFL roster anymore. Defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, the two major free agents the Falcons added for 2014, are not natural fits for Quinn’s scheme.
With Quinn in the fold, the Falcons drafted pass rusher Vic Beasley in the first round of the 2015 draft and cornerback Jalen Collins in the second. The Falcons added veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn ($750,000 guaranteed) and three linebackers: Brooks Reed ($9 million) Justin Durant ($1.25 million) and O’Brien Schofield ($255,000).
Now Quinn gets another offseason to build the roster on defense. The Steelers, Jets, Panthers and Chiefs are farther along.
The Steelers are headed by coach Mike Tomlin, an ex-defensive coordinator, but their vaunted defense had been in steady decline before he promoted long-time Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler to DC for 2015. They Steelers have focused on top defensive prospects in the draft lately: Jarvis Jones (first round), Ryan Shazier (first), Stephon Tuitt (second), Bud Dupree (first), Senquez Golson (second, but missed this season after shoulder surgery).
Jets head coach Todd Bowles, another ex-defensive coordinator, is in his second year with the team. The Jets also have loaded up on defensive prospects in the draft: Dee Milner (first round), Sheldon Richardson (second), Calvin Pryor (first), Dexter McDougle (third), Leonard Williams (first) Lorenzen Mauldin (third). They also revamped their secondary with four free agents before last season: Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera (yes, an ex-DC) is in his fifth season with the team. They Panthers have been selecting defensive prospects in the top portion of the draft over the past four years: Luke Kuechly (first-rounder), Star Lotulelei (first), Kawann Short (second), Kony Ealy (second), Shaq Thompson (first). They also added veteran free agents such as safety Roman Harper and cornerback Charles Tillman.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has an offensive background but he hasn’t neglected to add defensive talent in his three seasons with the team. In the draft, the Chiefs have selected Dee Ford (first round), Phillip Gaines (third), Marcus Peters (first) and Steven Nelson (third).
Now Quinn will go about adding the defensive pieces he wants for the Falcons. Already, Quinn has proven he can make a bad defense respectable. It's reasonable to expect he can eventually make it great.
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