Offseason Analysis: Free Agency So Far (defense)

Last week’s post discussed what has happened on offense so far, and broke down our most pressing needs. This week, we’ll turn to the defense.

Unfortunately, the list of signings is a lot shorter, and the list of corresponding needs a lot longer, than on the offensive side of the ball. To date, the River Kings have signed only two players: DL Walter Walker and DB Tyler Hanks.

Walker (6’3″, 295, South Florida) returns to the team for 2020. He saw limited action in 2019, in part due to a nasty injury suffered on a goal line stand. In five games he contributed 11 total tackles (3 solo, 8 assists) and half a sack, plus a pass breakup and a blocked kick. He’s got good size and has some drive, but without more game time under his belt it’s hard to see him anchoring the line in 2020.

Hanks (5’10”, 166, Ferris State) is a versatile athlete who was a high school running back, recruited to college as a wide receiver, then converted to cornerback in spring ball. A standout special teamer in college, he also has a background in basketball and track. In short, he seems to fit the “athlete” mold favored by a lot of IFL teams for their defensive backfield (see for example last year’s standout defensive player Nickolas Brassell, who also played wide receiver). Versatility is a huge plus in Coach Ivory’s defensive scheme; Hanks seems to have the tools to succeed.

Both Hanks and Walker will need to step up in a big way, right away. A combination of injuries, schematic mismatches, and a sputtering offense left the 2019 River Kings’ defense in a huge hole. We finished the season 8th in points allowed (a whopping 53.6 per game), 7th in total yards allowed per game, 9th in rushing yards allowed per game, and tied for last in interceptions with a mere 3. Ours was also the lone defense not to score in 2019. Perhaps most tellingly, we were dead last in tackles per game, with only 34.6 Even the one statistical bright spot — 140.1 passing yards per game, good for 3rd in the league — has a dark explanation: With our offense seemingly unable to score, teams simply didn’t have to throw. So they didn’t — opponents threw just 244 times against our defense, versus a whopping 372 times against the preseason championship favorite Arizona Rattlers.

From what I saw from the sound booth, the defense suffered from three major, interrelated issues last season: Conditioning, technique, and injuries.

The first is perhaps the least serious, as it likely has a simple, though maddening, explanation: When you’re on the field far longer than the offense, you’ll wear down quickly. Added up over the entire season, you get a defense that looked gassed almost from the opening kickoff. This led to some truly bizarre statistics at the end of the campaign. On June 1, for instance, our offense actually held the ball almost twelve full minutes longer than Arizona — that’s 80% of an entire quarter — while still losing 56-0. You may have purged that game from your memory, but those of us without the sweet release of amnesia know how we got those numbers: Banging the ball fruitlessly into the line nineteen times, at 1.5 yards per carry, while gaining just 3 yards per catch on only 9 completions (in 22 attempts). Arizona scored at will; we didn’t score at all.

A more productive offense, it’s safe to say, will lead to a fresher defense.

The time-of-possession disparity doubtless contributed to our second major problem, a rash of injuries starting early in the season. No less than 40 gentlemen appear on the stat sheets as having made a stop for the River Kings in 2019. A handful of those were recorded by offensive players or specialists on kickoffs or turnovers (kickers Henry Nell and Philip Nwosu combined for five), but the defense still ran out a crazy number of guys over the course of 14 games.

Most tellingly, not one single River Kings defender suited up for all 14 games. Linebacker Jeff Branch almost made it the full season (13 games), but only three other defensive players — DBs Brassell, La’Darius Newbold, and Tuff Johnson — suited up for 10 or more. Everyone else was in single digits. Coach Joey Smith’s defense was clearly built around the veteran presence of the Johnsons — DBs Ricky and Tuff — but Ricky only played three games, while a clearly-hurting Tuff barely gritted out 10.

It’s no surprise, then, that a worn-down group with no real chance to develop chemistry suffered breakdowns in technique. Add to this the fact that lots of players were playing out of position for extended periods — LB Branch on the defensive line, several tackles switching between the offensive and defensive lines — and the defense’s dismal performance in 2019 makes a lot more sense.

The new coaching staff’s first priority on defense, then, must be to lock down some dynamic playmakers early. A big, penetrating tackle to complement Walker is a must, along with a rangy ball-hawking safety to backstop Hanks. Last year’s squad had some talent. Bringing Brassell and the rest of the 10+ start group back would really help — Newbold and Branch made rapid strides adjusting to the indoor game, and deserve a second look. As do linebackers Malik Slater and Jason Gibson, and DB Damante Horton — they were 2nd, 6th, and 7th on the team in tackles, respectively, despite only playing a handful of games (8, 7, 5). DB Na’Shawn Lewis also impressed in limited action — 17 combined tackles, a pass breakup, and a forced fumble in just five games.

Coach Ivory told me that he looks for a big, physical presence at linebacker — ideally someone who’s 6’3″, 250, with a quick head and a nasty disposition. Slater is a bit shorter than that, and Gibson isn’t quite that big, but both of them play head’s up ball with a mean streak. I’d like to see one or ideally both of them back, especially as Gibson has college experience as a safety.

There’s lots of work to be done, but I have confidence our new coaching staff will get it done in a big way.

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