Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
11 May 2009
by Rob Weintraub
The pre-draft acquisition of tight end Tony Gonzalez fills Atlanta's lone weakness on offense -- a pass-catching tight end who can give Matt Ryan a hot read outlet on blitzes, a great red zone target and a veteran desperate to win a ring. Tight ends Justin Peelle and Ben Hartsock are blockers first and are now free from receiving responsibilities. But they can't all play, and it remains to be seen how effective Gonzalez will be in Atlanta's blocking scheme. He was a decent blocker for Kansas City, but at age 33, his willingness to mix it up on the line of scrimmage may be the first thing to go. Someday he will slow as a receiver, but despite annual projections of slippage, Gonzalez remains one of the league's best. Specifically, he was very effective when the Chiefs reverted to the Pistol formation to energize their dormant offense.
Defensively, Ole Miss first-rounder Peria Jerry provides "country strength" -- in the words of General Manager Thomas Dimitroff -- to the front four. He will be asked to penetrate and make plays in the backfield, which he will need to do. After all, the Falcons were 29th in yards per carry allowed and 31st against runs over the offense's left tackle (5.37 yards per carry) position, Jerry's projected spot. In 2008, Jerry led the SEC in tackles behind the line of scrimmage with 18, so he's a big boost to a line in need of run-stoppers at the point. Free agent linebacker Mike Peterson is getting up in years but is familiar with coach Mike Smith's schemes from his time in Jacksonville. Backup Stephen Nicholas may take Coy Wire's strongside linebacker job; Wire is a good tackler but lacks speed and coverage ability.
Missouri safety William Moore dropped into the second round after a disappointing senior season, but he brings good coverage speed and the ability to hit from the "box" position to the team. Dimitroff would prefer interchangeable safeties who can cover (as opposed to more fixed "free" and "strong" positions), and Moore could grow into that role. Third-rounder Chris Owens from San Jose State is undersized (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) but he's a physical player who amassed 50 or more tackles in each of the last three seasons. Teammates Dwight Lowery and Coye Francies were more successful as opposing quarterbacks started to throw away from Owens. Richmond end/linebacker Lawrence Sidbury could be the pass-rushing threat the Falcons need from a depth perspective -- right now, it's John Abraham and several question marks. Most people expected the Falcons to tee off on linebackers in this draft after losing Keith Brooking and Michael Boley in free agency, but Dimitroff's draft strategies are as unpredictable as they are effective.
Dimitroff was unpredictable in his signing of free agents the day after the draft, too. Quarterback wouldn't seem to be a need, but John Parker Wilson of Alabama and Hoover High fame was brought in to camp. With a poor completion percentage, he wouldn't seem to be a threat to make the roster, but Wilson was a three-year starter, and could displace D.J. Shockley. The Falcons are desperate for bodies at linebacker, which means tackling machine Brock Christopher from Missouri and Derek Nicholson from Florida State have a shot at sticking.
Despite the howls of dissatisfaction from their fans, the Panthers didn't make many changes in the offseason. The front office hasn't panicked over a nightmarish playoff showing, choosing instead to concentrate on the 12-4 regular season.
The biggest move was a hedge against the potential departure of Julius Peppers, whose refusal to sign the franchise tender hangs over the team. General Manager Marty Hurney dealt next season's first-rounder in order to vault up in the second round and pick Everette Brown. He may not be Peppers, but Brown was considered the best pure pass-rusher available. Second-rounder Sherrod Martin could force his way into the lineup at cornerback, continuing the pipeline from Troy University's defense to the NFL (including players like DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, and Leodis McKelvin). Third-rounder Corvey Irvin of Georgia will attempt to address Carolina's biggest need: stuffing the run inside. The Georgia D-tackle will help, but the position remains iffy.
While Carolina's offensive line and running back combo are state of the art, the rushing attack may have gotten even better in the draft. Syracuse's Tony Fiammetta is a rock 'em, sock 'em blocking machine, and he may spell the end for longtime fullback Brad Hoover. Another draftee, Mike Goodson, will step in for departed third back Nick Goings.
Does anything give hope to those who wish the Jake Delhomme era would end sooner rather than later? Well, the Panthers signed Hunter Cantwell the day after the draft. He's an intriguing prospect from Louisville whose draft stock fell with a poor 2008, but he definitely has the requisite size for an NFL starter, and hey, he's never had six turnovers in a playoff game.
Cantwell was just of 21 undrafted free agents the Panthers signed, the most of any team. Marlon Favorite is another excellently-named D-lineman out of LSU, and his 315 pounds and above-average strength make him suited for Carolina's interior needs. Lonnie Harvey is even bigger -- 346 pounds -- and shows exceptional agility for a man his size. You can see for yourself; the Morgan State grad posted his pro day workout on YouTube.
The Saints wisely resisted the impulse to draft a running back and instead targeted their biggest need, secondary help, by taking Malcolm Jenkins. The versatile Ohio State Buckeye was easily the best corner on the board; he could start there or at safety. The free-agent signings of Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper suddenly make an awful unit from 2008 seem at least competent. Backup Usama Young may push for a starting role at safety.
The linebacker corp still needs reinforcements -- fourth-round pick Stanley Arnoux only helps, but more is required past middleman Jonathan Vilma. Teams had a staggering 80 percent success rate against the Saints, which was mostly on the linebackers and defensive ends. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is the most significant addition. Williams arrived after head coach Sean Payton fired his buddy Gary Gibbs. If Williams can get more out of players like Scott Fujita, Sedrick Ellis, and Charles Grant, the Saints might field a defense their offense won't be ashamed of.
That high-flying offense added an interesting piece. Fullback Heath Evans was signed away from New England. While he won't provide the inside running of the departed Deuce McAllister, Evans is a dangerous receiver with nifty feet. His blocking should also help the smallish duo of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas find running lanes between the tackles.
That inside running need was evident, as the Saints signed the "Wisconsin Winnebago," P.J. Hill. Hill has little speed or explosiveness, but is plenty tough and showed good blocking ability with the Badgers. The Saints beat out seven other teams to sign Herb Donaldson, the all-time leading rusher in the Missouri Valley Conference and AFCA All-American. Donaldson is a swift 225-pounder, and he put up 157 yards and two touchdowns on Arkansas. He could well stick around as insurance against injuries to Bush and/or Thomas.
As new coach Raheem Morris put it, he is now "married" to his first draft choice, quarterback Josh Freeman from Kansas State, whom Morris once coached in Manhattan. The Bucs are publicly attempting to take pressure off Freeman by saying their preference is to sit the rookie behind either Luke McCown or the newly added Byron Leftwich. Leftwich managed to resurrect his career with a couple of highly effective relief efforts in Pittsburgh (66.0% DVOA, exactly 131 points higher than his abysmal 2007), but he is not even a short-term answer. McCown threw exactly one pass last season, and didn't even complete it.
Whoever takes the snaps, the rushing attack (ranked 23rd in our advanced DVOA stats) will have to improve. Derrick Ward was signed from the Giants for just that reason. Ward was the second-ranked back in DVOA last season, but his new offensive line doesn't quite have the quality record of his old one. New tight end Kellen Winslow is another weapon that will help open up a staid attack, provided he bounces back from a mediocre year (he caught just 52 percent of intended passes in Cleveland). Of course, his effectiveness and happiness are tied to a quarterback getting him the ball on a regular basis.
On defense, Tampa Bay no longer employs the Tampa-2 zone and has plenty of new faces in town. New coordinator Jim Bates prefers run-stuffers inside and perimeter players who force runners to the middle. Third-round choice Roy Miller from Texas is a physical presence at defensive tackle and should start immediately. Kyle Moore from USC, whom the Bucs moved up to grab in the fourth round, will see plenty of action at end.
The key defender may be Jermaine Phillips, who moves from safety to Will linebacker, and faces comparisons with the man he replaces, Derrick Brooks, perhaps the best 'backer in franchise history. Angelo Crowell comes in from Buffalo to man the strong side, flanking holdover Barrett Ruud.
Tampa Bay went heavy on the offensive line on UFA signing day, bringing in four big boys. Maurice Miller played well opposite Michael Oher at Ole Miss, but isn't nifty enough for the pros. Ryan Purvis from Boston College could stick as a blocking tight end, and he has good hands.
24 comments, Last at 20 May 2009, 4:25pm by ammek