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?
20 May 2010
by David Gardner
Heading into the draft, we wrote that defensive end was the Falcons' biggest need. Then the Falcons ignored the position completely on draft day.
Defensive end John Abraham, the Falcons' premier pass rusher, had only 5.5 sacks last year. As a team, the Falcons were 26th in the NFL with a 5.6 percent adjusted sack rate. ASR measures sacks and intentional groundings per pass player, adjusting for situation and opponent.
The other bookend is Jamaal Anderson, who defends the run much better than he rushes the passer. The eighth overall selection from 2007 has become just a marginal starter and seems to have hit a wall in his development.
To help stimulate the pass rush, the Falcons selected Kentucky defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round. Peters is a strong one-gap player who improved every year for the Wildcats and has a lot of upside. The Falcons wanted another tackle to pair with Jonathan Babineaux, who has been carrying their defensive line from the inside, and Peters will push last year's first-round pick Peria Jerry for time at the position.
But if either Abraham or Anderson can't come through with a double-digit sack season, the Falcons will have to manufacture sacks through blitzes and stunts. And they don't have the secondary to do that.
The Falcons didn't secure much help along the line in the post-draft period, either. The best player they were able to sign was Mississippi's Emmanuel Stephens who was an inconsistent junior college transfer. The Falcons did secure some other interesting small-school prospects, though. Gabe Derricks of San Diego has the size (6-foot-3, 202) to develop into a nice strong safety, and he was a four-year starter for the Toreros. At Villanova, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Brandon Harvey led his team with 53 catches, 694 yards and five scores. The Falcons also picked up a big tight end, Clenson's Michael Palmer (6-foot-5, 260), a local product who had more than 500 yards and four scores last year.
Quick, name the best player on the Panthers defensive line. Actually, if you're not from the Carolinas, name any player on the line.
The Panthers were 27th in the league in our defensive line rankings against the run last year. And that was with Julius Peppers on the team. They were 13th in adjusted sack rate, a ranking very likely to drop without Peppers around.
The Panthers may have made big splashes in the draft by saving quarterback Jimmy Clausen from his long fall and picking back-to-back wide receivers in the second and third rounds, but they lack both talent and depth along their defensive line.
On the outside, Everette Brown flashed his potential as a rookie, but he isn't ready to carry the load. He may regress this season because he won't have the benefit of all of the attention opposing teams put on Peppers. Charles Johnson has the potential to be a difference maker, but he hasn’t put it all together yet. He may not even start over Tyler Brayton. The only end the Panthers took in the draft was Mississippi's Greg Hardy in the sixth round.
Inside, the Panthers are trusting potential. Louis Leonard made his first career start -- and suffered a season-ending Achilles injury -- in the second game of the season at Atlanta in Week 2 and will be back in the battle with another pair of injury-stricken players from last season, Tank Tyler and Corvey Irvin.
For a streak of more than a decade, the Panthers selected at least one offensive lineman during each draft. They broke that streak in 2010, so they focused on the offensive line in the post-draft signing period. Oklahoma State's Noah Franklin played alongside Russell Okung for the Cowboys last season, but it was his first year as a full-time starter. Michigan's Mark Ortmann played every line position but center at Michigan, and his versatility could lead him to a reserve role this year. New Hampshire linebacker Sean Ware turned heads with a 4.46 40-yard dash at his pro day, and he was a solid starter and team captain for his team last year.
It's difficult to balance value and addressing needs when you are picking at the back of each round, but the Saints missed out on a big area of concern by not selecting any linebackers in the draft.
In the previous Four Downs, we wrote about the Saints' need for an outside linebacker. The Saints' front seven struggled last year. DVOA ranked them 29th in the league against the run, and opposing teams averaged nearly 4.5 yards a carry against the Saints.
First-round pick Patrick Robinson will hopefully close a revolving door for the Saints at corner, but the playmaking secondary was actually a strength for the Saints last year. The problem is that there isn't a viable candidate to replace the departed Scott Fujita, and it wouldn't hurt to find an upgrade for Scott Shanle on the weak side.
Evidently, the front office believes that their replacements are in-house among a group of young players that includes Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas and Stanley Arnoux. The group has a combined 60 tackles and zero starts, so we're not inclined to agree with the front office just yet.
The Saints managed to find one of the best undrafted linebackers in UNLV's Jason Beauchamp. Beauchamp was a four-year starter and has good size and the kind of versatility that Gregg Williams likes in his linebackers. The Saints also added a corner who could end up on the opening-day roster, TCU's Rafael Priest. Priest was a Sporting News third-team All-American last year and started 47 consecutive games for the Horned Frogs during his career. He didn't get a ton of interceptions last year because teams tended to shy away from his side of the field. Big Norfolk State receiver Chris Bell (6-foot-2, 211) led the Mideastern-Athletic Conference in receiving last season. Texas Tech's Brandon Carter led the Bid 12 in game-time makeup.
This year, for the first time, the Football Outsiders game charting project tracked broken and missed tackles. On defense, no defense player was shredded more than 15 times, with one exception: Tampa Bay safety Sabby Piscitelli, who led the league with 19 broken tackles.
(Ed. Note: For those curious, more broken tackle numbers are coming in next week's ESPN Insider article.)
Fellow safety Tanard Jackson, who has never quite been able to repeat his excellent rookie performance, also missed quite a few tackles when he came up in run support. When they weren't busy missing tackles last year, Jackson and Piscitelli were trying to trying to cover up the play of cornerbacks Ronde Barber -- who may have finally hit the age wall -- and Elbert Mack, who allowed a dismal 11.4 yards per pass according to our game charters.
The addition of Sean Jones and the return of Jermaine Phillips will bolster the Bucs' depth chart, but neither is going to turn around a defense that ranked 26th against the pass according to DVOA. Third-round pick Myron Lewis of Vanderbilt could take a little bit of pressure off the safeties if he can play the nickel behind Barber and Aqib Talib and thus keep Mack off the field.
One big name stands out among the Bucs' free-agent signings: Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Snead had a lot of pre-season hype for his junior year, but he didn't have much love after the season. He was inconsistent at best and displayed poor decision-making and accuracy. Still, he decided to forego his senior season and went undrafted. His main competition will be Rudy Carpenter, so he has a good chance to make the opening-day roster. Rico McCoy led Tennessee in tackles last season with 119 and has familiarity with the Tampa 2 defense, having played for Monte Kiffin last season. At 6-foot-3 and 318 pounds, Virginia Tech's Sergio Render could become a reserve offensive lineman after the release of Arron Sears. The Bucs also extended a contract to Josh Freeman's college roommate, Kansas State tight end Jeron Mastrud.
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