Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Apr 2006
by Darrel Michaud
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: NFC South? You'll find it here.
Atlanta entered the off-season with a clear goal: improve the league's worst run defense according to DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Replacement, explained here.) With defensive end Brady Smith a cap casualty, Atlanta targeted the top end available: the New York Jets' John Abraham. The Falcons traded away their first-round pick for Abraham, though they also received a 2006 third-rounder, and a 2007 fourth-rounder. Atlanta promptly signed Abraham to a six-year, $45 million contract, so he's costing them a lot of money and a high draft pick. While an upgrade over Smith, Abraham comes at a steep price, especially considering he often goes down to injury and offers little run support.
With the departure of safety Keion Carpenter to free agency, however, Atlanta seized an opportunity to grab a run-stopping safety: Lawyer Milloy. Milloy, the only bright spot on the 31st ranked Bills run defense last year, represents a huge upgrade over Keion Carpenter and should help bolster the defense.
For the other safety position, Atlanta traded a fourth-round pick in this year's draft for Cleveland's Chris Crocker. Crocker, a cornerback at Marshall, specializes in coverage. Crocker will battle with incumbent Bryan Scott for playing time.
Atlanta also recognized talent in its own camp, re-signing unrestricted free agent wide receiver Brian Finneran. Finneran, although by no means a top receiver, catches everything thrown his way and has been the most valuable Atlanta wideout for five straight seasons according to DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement, explained here.)
Atlanta's biggest loss came when tackle Kevin Shaffer departed to Cleveland. Unlike other Falcons linemen, Shaffer is well-rounded and not just a run blocker who fits into the Alex Gibbs cut block scheme. Don't look for Atlanta to make a big splash in free agency, however. The Falcons look for athletic linemen to fit into their scheme and usually get them in the second day of the draft.
With a draft as deep and wide open as ever, and no pick until 47, Atlanta could potentially take a wide range of players filling in a host of needs. Many people speculate Atlanta could take an offensive lineman such as guard Davin Joseph of Oklahoma, but Atlanta has not drafted an offensive lineman on the first day since 2000. Expect the Falcons to draft help for the secondary, perhaps in the form of Florida State cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but if LSU running back Joseph Addai drops to 47, Atlanta will find it difficult to pass him up. Later in the draft, Atlanta will focus on adding depth along the trenches. One thing is for certain, though: if the Falcons draft a wide receiver with their first pick for the third year in a row, Matt Millen just might be running things in Atlanta.
In arguably the best free agent move in the NFC South, Carolina signed Keyshawn Johnson to a four-year, $19 million deal. Keyshawn provides a much needed weapon to keep five defenders away from Steve Smith. No longer a superstar, Keyshawn lined up across from Terry Glenn last year and contributed a DVOA of -0.1 percent, meaning he was nearly exactly average. But even if Keyshawn's only an average receiver, his ability to draw defenders should help the Carolina offense. That is, of course, if Jake Delhomme will just give him the damn ball.
After Seattle re-signed Shaun Alexander, Carolina felt the need to re-sign DeShaun Foster. Football Outsiders has shown no love for Foster, an oft-injured, inconsistent running back. Last year, DeShaun exploded for three games: two against Atlanta, the worst run defense in the league, and one against a Giants team playing the game without a first-string linebacker on the field. Don't expect Foster to run for a combined 300 yards against the Falcons next year when he has to stare down Lawyer Milloy in the box.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers released veteran defensive tackle Brentson Buckner to get under the salary cap. With Buckner gone, and Kris Jenkins perpetually injured, Carolina signed two defensive tackles to provide depth. Maake Kemoeatu, a 6-foot-5 350-pound space-eating tackle, let Ray Lewis and Edgerton Hartwell destroy opposing ball carriers in Baltimore for four years. Damione Lewis, a former Ram, will provide depth at defensive tackle if and when Kris Jenkins goes down with another season-ending injury. Jenkins, Lewis, Kemoeatu, and Jordan Carstens should provide a steady rotation of defensive tackles for the Panthers in 2006.
Carolina lost outside linebacker Will Witherspoon to the St. Louis Rams. Witherspoon complemented Dan Morgan well, and finished 2005 with 80 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two interceptions. Second year safety/linebacker tweener Thomas Davis will likely step into his spot, but Carolina might look to the draft to replace him.
Even with the signing of Keyshawn Johnson, Carolina still needs to upgrade its offense. Drafting 27th, Carolina could look to go a similar route as Pittsburgh did in 2005. With the 30th pick in the draft last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted tight end Heath Miller. The rookie ranked fifth in DVOA among tight ends last year, adding an extra dimension to Pittsburgh's passing offense. This year, three tight ends look to go in the first round: Maryland's Vernon Davis, Georgia's Leonard Pope, and UCLA's Marcedes Lewis. Lewis, the third-ranked tight end in the draft, should fall to Carolina, where he would provide a big target and take even more pressure off Steve Smith.
Carolina will look to add depth all around in the later rounds of the draft. The Panthers will shore up their defensive tackle and outside linebacker positions, which have been hurt in free agency. Carolina could grab another running back as well, since this position has been marred by inconsistent performance and injuries over the past few years.
Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans with much celebration. The Brees signing has all of New Orleans excited for football again. And why shouldn't it? The signing of Drew Brees represents the beginning of a new regime in New Orleans, one that's willing to do what it takes to win -- whether that means firing the whole staff or spending money to bring in a top quarterback.
Not only did the Saints sign Brees, they signed him to a great bargain. The deal, lasting six years and worth $60 million with a $10 million signing bonus, guarantees only the first year. Essentially, Brees signed a one-year deal and must now go onto the field to prove he's worth $60 million.
Perhaps the biggest winner in all this is tight end Zach Hilton. Hilton, a fan favorite since he first joined the practice squad, showed promise last year as he caught 35 passes for nearly 400 yards and accrued 7.2 DPAR. Hilton's no Antonio Gates, but his 6-foot-8 frame provides an even bigger target for Brees.
Defensively, New Orleans knew it had to upgrade its linebackers. The Saints inked Anthony Simmons, a Seattle linebacker who missed last season with a wrist injury. Simmons is primarily a run stopper that can blow up plays before they get started, but he lacks the ability to cover well. The Saints also signed Scott Fujita, who followed Sean Payton to New Orleans from Dallas.
Not all is well on the free agent front, however. New Orleans signed running back Michael Bennett away from the Vikings. Bennett provides insurance for Deuce McAllister, who's returning from a torn ACL. Realistically, however, Bennett just gives the Saints another injury-prone, overrated running back. Last year, according to DPAR, Bennett ranked 51st out of 53 backs with at least 75 rushes.
Like Atlanta, New Orleans also lost its top offensive lineman to the Cleveland Browns, when center LeCharles Bentley signed with his hometown team. Then, defensive end Darren Howard signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Howard, once the best defensive player on the Saints, was no longer one of the two best defensive ends on the team. The loss of Howard should allow Will Smith to shine and become a household name.
This is where things get very interesting. New Orleans, who holds the second pick in the draft, by all reports was ready to select quarterback Matt Leinart before the signing of Drew Brees. Now, New Orleans has a host of options which make the draft one of uncertainty.
First, Brees is far from a sure thing, coming off a shoulder injury last season. Brees' contract is only guaranteed for the first year, and drafting Leinart is not out of the question. That said, Drew Brees came from a similar situation with Phillip Rivers, and New Orleans simply does not have the luxury to pay two franchise quarterbacks.
Second, New Orleans could stay put and take potential impact players such as Virginia left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson or NC State defensive end Mario Williams. While Ferguson would fill a much more pressing need, "Super Mario" Williams displays athleticism that draws comparisons to Julius Peppers.
If the Saints decide one player can't fill their needs, however, New Orleans could work a trade to move down in a deep draft. However, only the Jets and the Broncos possess two picks in the first round. The Broncos have no need for a quarterback. The Jets could theoretically trade both their firsts for the privilege of taking Matt Leinart, but there's a chance Leinart will fall to the fourth pick anyway.
Either route they take, the Saints' mantra should be "best player available." More than anything, New Orleans needs an injection of talent.
Perhaps the least active team in free agency, the Buccaneers signed only Vikings guard Toniu Fonoti. Lack of cap space will leave the division winners looking mostly the same.
While Brian Griese and Dexter Jackson are leaving, Kenyatta Walker, Ike Hilliard, Matt Bryant, Mike Alstott all return. Backup quarterback Brien Griese's departure to Chicago further reinforces Chris Simms's position as a starter. However, with Tim Rattay also an unrestricted free agent, Tampa Bay could end up without a quality backup for the young Simms. The only other passer on the roster is second-year quarterback Luke McCown. Former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson leaves Tampa Bay for the second time in three years. Jackson, who's heading to Cincinnati, will be replaced by second year safety Will Allen.
While Tampa Bay's been inactive in free agency, things could have been much worse. The increased salary cap allowed Tampa Bay to keep expensive starters such as Anthony McFarland, Derrick Brooks, and Simeon Rice, all of whom were rumored to be possible cap casualties before the new collective bargaining agreement.
With the 23rd pick in the draft, Tampa Bay will focus on one of three main areas. Most importantly, Tampa needs to focus on improving its offensive line, a perpetual weakness. Look for Tampa to take Auburn tackle Marcus McNeil. If some team snatches up McNeil before Tampa, the Bucs could look to their linebacking corps or their defensive line, where their star players are aging. Players like outside linebacker Ernie Sims of Florida State could keep the defense a top unit for years to come.
Thursday: AFC South by Ned Macey
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