The "nickel" and "dime" defenses in the NFL are now misnamed. There is too much money going into the pass-defense packages to label them as pocket change.
The Seattle Seahawks are the gold standard. Last year, the Seahawks paid defensive ends Cliff Avril $6.5 million and Michael Bennett $4.8 million and only started them a combined total of five times. Their mission was to lock down the line in pass defense, and they earned every penny.
The Seahawks' "subpackage" gave up only 4.4 yards per play, allowed only nine touchdowns and limited quarterbacks to 5.25 yards per passing attempt. Several players from the Seattle defense cashed in this offseason. The Seahawks gave Bennett a four-year deal worth $28.5 million, Earl Thomas $10 million a year and Richard Sherman $14 million a year. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald left for Tampa Bay and got $3 million a year. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner ($4.1 million a year, New England) and Walter Thurmond ($3 million, New York Giants) moved to different teams for raises. Defensive end Chris Clemons was cut by the Seahawks and signed a four-year, $17.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Just because a defender is on the field for first downs at the beginning of games no longer means he is a first-stringer. The pass-defense packages could be on the field for 60 to 70 percent of the defensive snaps. The Cincinnati Bengals were in pass-defense mode 71.9 percent of the time this past season.
With that in mind, let's look at five subpackages that could show dramatic improvement this season.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Opposing quarterbacks completed 66.2 percent of their throws for 7.71 yards per attempt in 2013, despite the Bucs' additions of Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis to the secondary. The problem was up front. Tampa Bay had only 23 sacks in the 408 times opposing quarterbacks dropped back to throw against the Bucs' subpackage. Lovie Smith should fix that with former Bengal Michael Johnson rushing from defensive end and McDonald as an inside tackle. Those two additions should take some blocking pressure off Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, who can rotate at end on the other side of Johnson.
2. Houston Texans: The Texans drafted Jadeveon Clowney, but he needed sports hernia surgery that will sideline him until training camp. He should be ready for the regular season. The worst-case scenario is that he starts just in the subpackage. Houston will ask for more from its pass-defense unit this year than it did in 2013. The Texans' subpackage was on the field for only 392 snaps the past season, the lowest total in the league. Even without Clowney, the Texans have pass-rush options. J.J. Watt is one of the most dominating defenders in football and was flanked at tackle by Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans have to find another inside presence next to Watt to replace Antonio Smith, who went to Oakland.
3. Oakland Raiders: Defensive tackle Pat Sims is Oakland's only returning subdefender who plays with his hand on the ground. Although it was tough to lose Lamarr Houston, the Raiders signed Smith, LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck. Their rush will be needed. The Raiders gave up a staggering 6.6 yards per play when they were in their subpackage -- 0.8 yards above the league average. Their subpackage also gave up a league-high 34 touchdowns.
4. St. Louis Rams: The Rams already were loaded with talent in their subpackage with Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford. Now they can put first-round choice Aaron Donald in for Langford. Donald has the look of a 3-technique tackle who can get six to nine sacks as a rookie. Opposing quarterbacks completed 69.7 percent of their passes against the Rams' pass-defense package and averaged 7.94 yards per attempt. The Rams got the sacks (38) last year, but this year they should get more stops.
5. Washington Redskins: Jason Hatcher was a productive inside pass-rusher for Dallas last year. This year, he'll bolster the Redskins' inside rush and complement outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The 2013 Redskins gave up 6.14 yards per play and 7.94 yards per attempt in their subpackages.
From the inbox
Matt in Richmond, Virginia
A: I think it can. Smith is too valuable to let go. I figure he's going to be suspended four to six games this season. The 49ers will stand by him. If they let him hit free agency, he's going to clean up. It would make sense for the 49ers to protect themselves. They could pay him $10 million per year and put $2 million or $3 million a year in incentives. They would need protection in case he gets suspended. They could reward him for sacks, big plays, forced fumbles, etc. Considering some of the problems he's had, I would hope Smith would return the favor for the faith the team has shown in him.
Q: Folks are demanding that Roger Goodell come down hard on the Colts for Jim Irsay's off-field indiscretions, including calls for the loss of draft picks. I think it would be unfair to take away draft picks. That would ultimately hurt the players, fans and the game on the field -- but not the owner. If Irsay had been caught cheating in some way (spying on another team, supplying PEDs, stealing playbooks), then his team should pay the consequences. But his crime had nothing to do with the players or Colts fans, so why should they be punished?
Alan in Lubbock, Texas
A: I couldn't agree more. This isn't an organizational mistake. It's an individual mistake. Irsay should have to pay the price, and he will. The organization and fans shouldn't. What's driving me crazy now is how everyone wants a fast decision from Goodell. He needs to hand down the right penalty -- not the fastest penalty. I'm sure once the case is settled in court, Irsay will be fined heavily and suspended for a good portion of the season.
Q: I am thinking of a wide receiver. He is a tad under 6-foot-1 and about 215 pounds and runs a 4.59 40-yard dash with great leaping ability. He "extends and catches the pass away from his frame" and seemingly "plucks the ball out of the air." He "adjusts to errant throws" with "secure hands to make difficult one-handed grabs" but can also "get hung up at the line" of scrimmage. I could be talking about newly drafted Packers WR Davante Adams, but actually I was thinking of someone who was drafted one slot after Adams back in 2003: Anquan Boldin. Do you see the similarities? I don't even want to imagine what Aaron Rodgers could do with an 11-years-younger Anquan Boldin.
Fearn in Rolling Meadows, Illinois
A: One difference might be that Boldin is more physical than Adams. The other difference might be Boldin's background. He was a quarterback in college. He knew where to place his body during routes to give quarterbacks good looks. Boldin is more of a slot receiver. I think Adams can do well on the outside. I said this many times during the entire offseason: I am amazed at how many receivers with great hands were available in this draft. Adams has first-round talent. I think the Packers got a steal with where they drafted him.
Q: I'm looking at the Patriots' quarterback situation and thinking that if they can't get a first-round pick for Ryan Mallett, why trade him? They will get a compensatory pick if he signs elsewhere next year. What is the formula the NFL uses to determine the round of compensation?
Blair in Vancouver Island, British Columbia
A: If a team loses more unrestricted free agents than it signs, it will receive as many as four compensatory picks. The formula is based on salary and performance. If Mallett gets more than $7 million a year elsewhere in free agency, the Patriots could get a third-rounder, the highest compensatory pick awarded. Because he hasn't played much, Mallet might have to settle for a contract worth less than $4 million year. That might net the Patriots a sixth- or seventh-round choice.
Q: Why hasn't the NFL put out DVDs of the past Super Bowls, playoff games and regular-season games of importance? I believe there is a market for this. What else is there for fans to do from February until September? Wouldn't it be great to see Earl Campbell and the Oilers facing Miami in that "Monday Night Football" game? How about the NFC Championship Game in which Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark for the touchdown? I would love to see the first Super Bowls in their entirety, with announcers and commercials.
Michael in Corpus Christi, Texas
A: The NFL must not feel there is a market for it. Believe me, if there were a market, they would sell it. You can understand their caution. Games can be recorded because they are on television. Now, fans can pay for Game Rewind and several years of Super Bowls at any time. NFL Films does a great job of creating shows that capture the Super Bowl experience. The NFL does a great job of marketing. This might be an area it doesn't want to enter.
Q: You might want to consider the contract structure from the player's perspective. Richard Sherman's deal is an extension -- his 2014 salary is $1.4 million. His signing bonus of $10.8 million is essentially a hedge against the possibility of an injury next year. Assuming he is not injured, Sherman's 2015 salary is guaranteed five days after the Super Bowl, so he can't lose out because of a preseason injury. He gets the bonus no matter what (even though it is spread out), so his real undiscounted compensation in 2015 is $20.8 million ($10 million salary plus $10.8 million bonus). The 2016 season salary plus $5 million of the 2017 salary becomes guaranteed five days after the 2016 Super Bowl -- making the annual average after two years $19.2 million. The average drops off after that, but he will have collected $38.4 million (about 70 percent of the overall value) in the first two years of the contract. Because of the hedge next year and because of the front-loading, he's pretty well protected against the possibility of injury or drop-off in performance after the 2015 season.
Paul in Richmond, Virginia
A: All that is true, but the contracts being given to players after their rookie deals are different than the big deals of the past. Under the new CBA, players aren't getting the kinds of guarantees in their second contracts that they used to. Teams now are structuring deals so they can get out of them on a year-to-year basis without suffering too heavily from a salary cap standpoint. So if a player's skill level doesn't keep up with the amount he's due to earn each year, there is a greater chance than in the past that he will be released.