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05 Apr 2005

Four Downs: NFC South

By Russell Levine

Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: NFC South? You'll find it here.

Atlanta Falcons

Ch-ch-changes

For a team that went 11-5 last year and credited a lot of their success to character and locker room cohesiveness, the Falcons have undergone a lot of turnover this offseason. A sticky salary cap situation and the franchise's desire to get Michael Vick signed to a long-term contract led to the release of key contributors from every layer of the defense. Gone are linemen Ed Jasper and Travis Hall, linebackers Chris Draft and Matt Stewart, and safety Cory Hall.

Vick was not the only player the Falcons locked up. Tight end Alge Crumpler, who emerged as Vick's favorite target last season, and guard Kynan Forney were both signed to new deals before they could become free agents.

Atlanta dipped into the unrestricted pool to replace some of those who departed. The biggest addition was linebacker Ed Hartwell, who will start in the middle in Atlanta's 4-3 scheme. Hartwell isn't the only new linebacker in town. Ike Reese, a special teams Pro Bowler, with the Eagles last year, also comes aboard. He will compete for a starting spot and should help improve Atlanta's already solid special teams (6th in the NFL according to DVOA in 2004).

In fact, the special teams have been an area of focus this offseason. In addition to Reese, Atlanta re-signed their outstanding return man, Allen Rossum, and upgraded at both punter, with the signing of Toby Gowin, and kicker, with the addition of Todd Peterson in place of the sometimes-erratic Jay Feely.

One area that has not been addressed is the wide receiver position, where Peerless Price has been a disappointment but is the best of a sorry lot. The Falcons believe that Michael Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2004 out of Ohio State, can contribute much more in his second season.

Draft Needs

The Falcons will be drafting primarily for depth rather than impact players at the skill positions, particularly on the defensive and offensive lines and in the secondary. With Atlanta picking 27th in the first round, drafting for depth is probably a wise strategy.

The offensive line in particular is thin, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Atlanta move to shore up that unit in the early rounds. Then again, Jim Mora is a defensive coach and most defensive coaches believe you can never have enough quality defensive linemen. One player being projected to Atlanta in some mock drafts is Antaj Hawthorne of Wisconsin.

GM Rich McKay, who constructed Tampa Bay's dominant defense largely through the draft, loves defenders who can run and tackle. He'd much rather have undersized players who possess those attributes than anyone bigger and slower. Linebacker in particular is a position at which McKay has often embraced undersized, fleet players (think Derrick Brooks). Look for Atlanta to add more speed in that area.

Recent Draft History

Atlanta has had solid, if not spectacular, drafts in recent years. Looking at the first-day selections from the past four drafts, there are no busts that jump off the page at you, and the Falcons have gotten productive starters each year. The worst pick was probably defensive end Will Overstreet in the third round in 2002.

The 2004 draft class is particularly intriguing. The Falcons used the No. 8 pick on DeAngelo Hall, a corner who looks very promising. Jenkins, the other first-rounder, could develop into a starter this year, as could fifth-round defensive tackle Chad Lavalais out of LSU.

Atlanta is probably another productive draft away from becoming a real contender. If the Falcons can fill some of the depth holes with players who can become starters in another season or two, they will be well on their way to making years like 2004 more than an anomaly in the Peach State.

Carolina Panthers

Splish-Splash

After the injury plague it suffered through in 2004, Carolina will feel like it has hit the free-agency jackpot just by getting all its players back healthy this fall. By most accounts, Kris Jenkins, DeShaun Foster and Steve Smith all are expected to take part in the team's first mini-camp in April. The status of Stephen Davis, who underwent microfracture knee surgery, won't be known until later in the summer.

The Panthers did make a splash in free agency, however, adding guard Mike Wahle from Green Bay and cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle early in the signing period. Wahle is one of the best pulling guards in the game and should instantly improve a line that really struggled last year after the abrupt retirement of Adam Meadows in training camp and the regression of second-year tackle Jordan Gross. Lucas is a big, physical corner who adds a much-needed veteran presence to Carolina's secondary, which had three first-year starters last season. He's expected to take a starting job from either Ricky Manning or Chris Gamble (probably Manning), either of whom will become the nickel corner.

In order to free up the cash to sign Lucas and Wahle, Carolina released receiver Muhsin Muhammad rather than pay him a $10 million roster bonus it couldn't afford. Muhammad enjoyed a career year after Smith went down in the season opener, but he's 32, has been a No. 2 receiver his whole career, and wasn't worth the $12M bonus the Bears gave him.

There could be more turnover to come, especially in the wake of the report linking several Carolina players to steroids. Punter Todd Sauerbrun, one of the players caught up in the controversy, is a candidate to be released. If so, he'll have to take his feud with the Gramatica brothers elsewhere.

Draft Needs

Even though rookie receiver Keary Colbert performed well when pressed into duty by Smith's broken leg, wideout remains a need area for the Panthers. Third receiver Ricky Proehl remains undecided about his future, and Carolina needs to add some depth here. Neither of the prized pass-catchers in this year's draft, Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams, is likely to be available when they pick at No. 14, so Carolina will probably wait until subsequent rounds to address this position.

I think an offensive lineman is the most likely pick in the first-round, perhaps tackle James Brown of Oklahoma. But if a player like running back Cedric Benson falls to the 14 spot, Carolina may opt to grab him. Stephen Davis is a question mark and DPAR whipping boy Foster is too inconsistent.

Another area where the Panthers need to start thinking about the future is along the defensive line. Shoe-kissing Brenston Buckner is still a productive player, but he's not getting any younger.

Recent Draft History

Last year's injury problems aside, Carolina is a team on the rise. And like most teams that fit that description, they've done it by not missing on day one of the draft. Here are Carolina's top two picks in each of the past four drafts: Gamble and Colbert (2004); Gross and Bruce Nelson (2003); Julius Peppers and Foster (2002); Dan Morgan and Kris Jenkins (2001). If Foster is the starting tailback this fall, there could be as many as seven starters of eight picks in a four-year stretch, as well as half of the best front four in football. That's how you build a championship-caliber team.

The Panthers have also uncovered some productive players, such as Smith and linebacker Will Witherspoon, in the draft's middle rounds.

The only thing that holds down the overall evaluation of Carolina's drafts is the fact that a number of the players, particularly Morgan and Foster, have been injury prone.

New Orleans Saints

If It Aint Broke ... Hey Saints, It's Broke

Is there any team in the league that needs to blow things up and start over more than the Saints? New Orleans has missed the playoffs four straight years, and if they were just a bad football team, that would be one thing. But they're something far worse -- a mediocre football team.

Four straight years of seven to nine wins. Four straight offseasons without making major adjustments to the roster. Four straight years of looking like a Super Bowl team one week, an expansion team the next. Four straight years of mediocrity under Jim Haslett.

Much like the Dolphins last year, the Saints need to be absolutely horrendous one of these seasons to shake them out of their doldrums. These .500 seasons just encourage the front office to leave things pretty much as is so the cycle can repeat itself the following year.

Annually, New Orleans tinkers with its roster, reaches for a defensive lineman in the draft, stumbles out of the gate, puts together a run at some point that has everyone believing they can make the playoffs, but falls just short.

The tinkering has been minimal this winter. The biggest name the Saints added in free agency has been former Buccaneer safety Dwight Smith, a versatile player who has also been a corner, but hardly a game-changing force. He's also had a pair of gun-related arrests the last four years. So much for upgrading the character of the New Orleans locker room, which has been a mess since Albert Connell stole cash from Deuce McAllister's locker and Joe Horn allegedly slept with Willie Roaf's wife. Smith replaces Tebucky Jones, who was released after the Saints learned with Bill Belichick knew when he traded him to the Big Easy -- "Tebucky" is Flemish for "Doesn't Wrap Up."

Antowain Smith was also added to serve as McAllister's backup. Ho-hum. That ought to be good to move the Saints from 8 to 8.2 wins.

Draft Needs

The Saints' primary needs are all on the defensive side of the ball, which is rather remarkable considering they have selected a defensive lineman in each of the last three first rounds. But only Charles Grant of that group (which also includes Will Smith and Jonathan Sullivan) has cracked the starting lineup. And with Darren Howard's status uncertain -- he has been hit with the franchise tag but may still be traded -- the Saints still have a need along the line.

New Orleans would also like to address the linebacker position and get a safety to play behind Smith and Jay Bellamy.

On offense, Joe Horn is the best player, but he's not getting any younger and the jury is still out on former first-rounder Donte' Stallworth after three seasons, so receiver could also be a need.

But there's no reason to suspect New Orleans will alter its defense-first strategy, and will probably reach for player in the first-round. Nothing else has changed about the Saints the last four years, so why should the draft strategy?

Recent Draft History

Remember how we pointed out how Carolina could have has many as seven starters this season from its top eight picks the last four drafts? For New Orleans, the number could be as low as two -- McAllister in 2001 and Grant in 2002. You can watch a lot of Saints games without seeing any contributions from some of the other high picks -- names like Devery Henderson, Sullivan, and Sedrick Hodge.

Given the draft history, it's surprising that New Orleans has been able to hang around the .500 mark for four seasons. Unfortunately, it also means this is a team that is probably on the downside, not the upswing.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away

If I told you I switched off the Red Sox-Yankees season-opener on Sunday night to watch one of the Buccaneers' newest acquisitions play for the Frankfurt Galaxy in an NFL Europe game on tape delay, would you think I was abnormal in any way?

What if I told you the player in question was Akili Smith?

Smith, who no doubt sends Ryan Leaf a Christmas card every year to thank Leaf for preventing him from being considered the worst quarterback bust of all-time, was signed by the Buccaneers' as a depth quarterback. The former third-overall draft pick is a longshot to make the roster as the third-string QB behind Brian Griese and Chris Simms.

Two points here. First -- is there anything in sports lamer than the Sunday night opening game of the baseball season? The baseball season should open on a Monday afternoon, in Cincinnati, no questions asked. Second, it's been a really slow free-agency period for the Buccaneers.

After a purge that saw the release of QB Brad Johnson, WR Joe Jurevicius, LB Ian Gold, and CB Mario Edwards, Tampa Bay's cap issues have forced it to sit largely on the sidelines while other teams fought not only signed the premier players available, but also picked a number of starters off its roster, including S Dwight Smith, DT Chartric Darby, and G Cosey Coleman.

Tampa Bay did manage to achieve one of its top priorities, which was to get Griese signed to a long-term deal that should keep him the starter for at least the next two seasons. The Bucs also kept safety Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl XXXVII MVP who signed with Arizona, was cut, and rejoined the Bucs late last season.

The only new starter acquired in free agency has been former Jets tight end Anthony Becht, who replaces Ken Dilger. Two other names of note were given one-year deals. The Bucs will give former Vikings DT Chris Hovan a chance to resuscitate his flagging career and also added former Jaguar Juran Bolden to replace Edwards as the nickel corner.

Draft Needs

Where do the Buccaneers need help in the draft? Where don't they? This is a team with an aging roster, a bloated cap, and a very spotty history in recent drafts. That's not a good recipe for sustained success.

Outsiders look at Tampa Bay and see a Super Bowl champion that completely fell apart to the tune of a 12-20 record the last two seasons. What they often fail to realize is that Tampa Bay won its Super Bowl at the end of a six-year window of opportunity. All the pieces looked to be in place for another run in 2003, but some strange things happened on the way to 7-9 (see the 2003 DVOA rankings for a better explanation). Management made a bet that with a few added pieces -- names like Todd Steussie, Charlie Garner, and Matt Stinchcomb -- the team could contend again in 2004, which would be the absolute last chance before the roster had to be blown up. So, it didn't work. But GM Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden didn't inflict any more long-term cap damage with their 2004 shopping spree, and the rebuilding process has begun this offseason.

Now the team enters the 2005 draft with 12 picks, having finally paid off the debt to Oakland for the acquisition of Gruden. Although this is not said to be the deepest draft, it will be a critical one for the Buccaneers to revitalize a roster that is alarmingly thin in certain spots.

The Bucs are picking fifth -- their highest selection since the Buccaneer "still single after all these years" Bruce days -- and if you listen to Gruden, they like just about every player available -- including the QBs Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. But it will be a shock if they don't take a receiver or running back in round one. Given that there are two stud running backs (the Auburn tandem of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown) and two stud receivers (Edwards and Williams) in the draft, odds favor at least one of these guys being available to Tampa Bay at No. 5. In a running back-rich draft, I expect the Bucs to grab a receiver to pair with last year's top choice, the star-in-the-making Michael Clayton, if they have the choice.

If they opt for a running back at No. 5, it is because Gruden has grown tired of Michael Pittman's inconsistency and fumbling (six lost fumbles last year). Other extreme areas of need are the offensive line, which has been a work in progress in Tampa Bay for at least four seasons, and defensive back, where the Bucs must build some depth to eventually replace Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. Also, don't be surprised if Gruden moves aggressively to draft Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent, perhaps as early as the top of round 3.

Recent Draft History

Tampa Bay fans complained plenty when Gruden won a power struggle with former GM Rich McKay, the man who built the team that Gruden pushed over the top in 2002. McKay was an excellent GM, overseeing the franchise's rise from perennial laughing stock to contender. But it must also be said that McKay drafted poorly and made some questionable contract decisions in his final years that contributed to Tampa Bay's current situation.

McKay pretty much cemented his reputation with one draft -- the day he selected Warren Sapp 12th and Derrick Brooks 28th in the first round in 1995. But recent drafts were far less productive, littered with busts and middle-round players that never made it out of training camp. When you read Tampa Bay's draft history, it's a miracle this team ever won a Super Bowl with year after year of subpar selections.

The new Gruden/Allen brain trust oversaw their first draft in 2004 and the initial results are mixed. Clayton was a steal with the 15th pick, and fourth-round safety Will Allen will compete for a starting spot this season, but there is little else to show for the other six selections. With 12 picks this April, the Bucs need to do better.

Coming Thursday: NFC West by Mike Tanier.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 05 Apr 2005

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