How will the best division in football follow up on it's success in 2013? Can Seattle keep Michael Bennett?
24 Feb 2011
by Robert Weintraub
The Falcons never were fully embraced as a Super Bowl threat in 2010, and that's because they were never fully feared. The reason was their lack of explosiveness, despite playing on the fast track at the Georgia Dome. The Dirty Birds had one scoring play of more than 40 yards all season. The Packers wiped Atlanta out in the playoffs with a much faster team -- the Falcons appeared to have been built for the frosty mud of Lambeau Field. Save for superb wideout Roddy White, there was no one on the team who was a threat to score with every touch.
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins is an average plugger who doesn't scare defenses; Harry Douglas showed zero burst after knee surgery in 2009; and Tony Gonzalez is still Tony Gonzalez but dropped to 9.4 yards per catch, the first time in his 14-year career he wasn't in double digits in yards per catch. Meanwhile, Jerious Norwood, whom the Falcons have wanted to be a homerun hitter out of the backfield, cannot stay healthy. The word to sum up his career has changed from "unlucky" to "brittle." He likely won't be in Atlanta's plans for 2011.
Finding a Norwood-type probably won't take precedence over obtaining another wide receiver, but it should. Thanks to Matt Ryan's efficiency, the passing game was just fine, ranking eighth in the NFL in DVOA. The running game, usually credited with Atlanta's success, was 27th in DVOA. Michael Turner and Jason Snelling were good for tough yards, but neither was a breakaway threat. Atlanta was 28th in the NFL in second-level yards, a steep drop from their eighth-place finish in Adjusted Line Yards. That means more due should be given the Falcons offensive front then the backs, who were unable to turn five-yard gains into 25-yard gains.
This isn't news in Flowery Branch, and the hunt is on for "explosion players." Speed backs aren't usually first-round material, so many mocks have the Falcons going with a wide receiver in the first round, such as Maryland's Torrey Smith or Miami's Leonard Hankerson. Deeper in the draft, there are some intriguing players who might leave tread marks on the Georgia Dome turf. SEC fans in the area are familiar with Kentucky's Derrick Locke, who combines speed with excellent vision. Cal's Shane Vareen is a similar player, without the superior hands Locke possesses. A pair of waterbug types, West Viginia's Noel Devine and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, would make for dangerous matchups on the flanks.
Speedy explosion players are also needed on defense, especially at defensive end. John Abraham is getting on in years, and there was little production on the other side of the line (unless you count Kroy Biermann's impending marriage to Real Housewife Kim Zolciak, which we emphatically do not). Some early draft buzz has the Falcons focusing on Miami end Allen Bailey, a physical specimen who didn't live up to preseason All-American status.
Right tackle Tyson Clabo is the protagonist of the Falcons offseason. He had a strong 2010 and is very dependable, but the team reportedly has a bright yellow marker across which it won't go to keep Clabo. He won't be franchised, as the team has declined to use the tag on any of its free agents. Much depends on how the Birds evaluate backup tackle Garrett Reynolds. He could be handed the spot if Clabo's price crosses the Rubicon in Thomas Demitroff's mind.
Complicating things is the free agent status of guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl. The Falcons could be in a position of having to choose between replacing one right tackle or both guards.
Defensive end Jamaal Anderson is almost certain to be cut. Local talk drools over the prospect of Ray Edwards or Mathias Kiwanuka coming in to replace him, but splashing out in free agency isn't the Dimitroff method. A lesser-known, younger type like Kansas City's Wallace Gilberry or Detroit's Cliff Avril is more Dimitroff's speed (both ends are restricted free agents under the current CBA).
The NFC South seemed poised to become the Division of the Quarterback. Then Andrew Luck spurned the pros to return to Palo Alto. That leaves the Panthers with Jimmy Clausen, fresh off a rookie campaign that placed him 46th of 46 quarterbacks (qualifying minimum -- 100 attempts) in DYAR and 44th in DVOA. The quarterback he replaced, Matt Moore, was scarcely better, ranking 43rd in both categories. Clausen was 1-9 as a starter, with three touchdown passes to nine picks. At times he struggled with the most basic of throws, like bubble screens and quick slants.
Shall we pile on? Why not? Clausen also ranked dead last in quarterback rushing numbers.
Naturally, Clausen could improve -- he has nowhere to go but up. And the Panthers have indicated he will be given the first shot for 2011, so he has no choice but to get better. There are a few positives. For example, Clausen actually took care of the ball well. His nine interceptions in 339 attempts compares quite favorably to a number of recent rookies, including Mark Sanchez in 2009 (20 picks in 364 passes) and Josh Freeman (18/290), both of whom got significantly better in Year Two.
The Panthers don't have the option of selecting another quarterback in the second round, as they did with Clausen -- the team dealt the choice in order to take wide receiver Armanti Edwards, who barely played. So unless the team feels Cam Newton's game can translate to the NFL, they will have to wait until Round 3 to tab another challenger for the starting job.
"This isn't Notre Dame anymore" were the cutting words of Steve Smith after Clausen apologized to the defense for his poor play in a game last season. Of course, Smith and the wide receivers did little to help Clausen in his rookie campaign. Smith, 32, is a shadow of the All-Pro he once was, and questions abound about his presence in Carolina in 2011. The other receivers were a mélange of rookies (Brandon LaFell showed flashes of potential) and vets better suited to special teams (David Clowney). Tight ends should be a drowning quarterbacks best friend, but Jeff King and Dante Rosario were more anchor than life raft. Carolina's pass blocking was also poor, ranking 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate.
Carolina's defense wasn't as bad as it could have been, given the horrific offense. The pass rush was a respectable 17th in Adjusted Sack Rate, the front line 11th in Adjusted Line Yards, and the unit overall was 16th in DVOA. Still, the weak link was at tackle, meaning that with Luck out of the picture, the beneficiary will be Nick Fairley. So the defense could have some serious teeth in 2011. But unless the offense (read: Clausen) improves, the Panthers can't hope to rebound and compete with the stronger teams in the division.
The Panthers tend to focus on re-signing their own, and there are several key guys they need to lock up. Center Ryan Kalil got the franchise tag and has signed his tender. Defensive end Charles Johnson had 11 sacks and is a must. Linebacker Thomas Davis is also a top priority. Another pair of solid defenders, corner Richard Marshall and breakout strongside linebacker James Anderson could also be free, depending on the CBA, and are more likely candidates to depart, given the holes on offense.
The emergence late in the season of Mike Goodson leaves running back DeAngelo Williams in greater limbo than the cast of Lost -- he could be franchised, re-signed, traded, or allowed to walk. Linebacker Jon Beason has another year remaining on his deal, but all sides consider the standout woefully underpaid, and the team hopes to lock the defensive leader up before his contract expires.
If the Panthers go on the hunt for skill position free agents, tight ends Zach Miller and Owen Daniels are prime targets. The Panthers are desperate for a pass-catching tight end, and with former Chargers tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski taking over as offensive coordinator, the position is certain to become an important one in Charlotte. Outside, the loser of the Santonio Holmes/Braylon Edwards money battle in New York could land here.
As for a quarterback, Vince Young and Donovan McNabb are outside possibilities, and the price for Kevin Kolb is likely too rich for Marty Hunley's blood. A Williams for Kyle Orton trade is intriguing, though unlikely.
Popular perception is that the Saints defense fell off from the Super Bowl winning unit of 2009. Certainly, the turnover rate that was the '09 Saints hallmark (predictably) declined, from 39 to 25. There was no chance the Saints would recover 13 of 15 forced fumbles in consecutive seasons. And the secondary went from 26 picks to night, from third in the NFL to dead last. New Orleans was third in the NFL in 2009 in ending opposing drives with turnovers (18.7%). Last year that number fell to 14th (13.9%).
But surprisingly, the Saints defense actually got better in 2010, moving up five spots in DVOA to ninth (consistent, too -- ninth against the run, ninth against the pass). The pass rush got a bit of a bad rap as well. The Saints were average, finishing 15th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
That said, the heavy blitzing schemes of Gregg Williams both exaggerated the efficacy of the pass rush and masqueraded deficiencies on the flanks. Most of the heat came from the middle of the defense. Tackle Sedrick Ellis led the team with six sacks, with middle backer Jonathan Vilma chipping in with four. Ends Will Smith and Alex Brown combined for only 7.5, and the lack of pressure off the edge from linebackers Scott Shanle and Danny Clark allowed teams to attack the Saints with secondary receivers.
As the wild-card game in Seattle showed, the Saints had tremendous problems stopping passes to opposing tight ends and running backs. The Saints were 27th and 26th in the league against those two positions, respectively, but that doesn't quite highlight their futility. This is better -- only the horrific Texans pass defense gave up more combined yards per game to non-wideouts (109.1) than did the Saints (107.9). The secondary did a good job covering wideouts, leaving the linebackers (and Darren Sharper) mainly accountable for the gaping hole in the defense.
An impact pass rushing end or linebacker seems an automatic target in the draft. One of the Big Ten's Fab Four -- Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward -- should still be on the board when the Saints pick at 24. There will surely be local pressure to take Heyward if he is available. The son of the late Saints great Craig "Ironhead" Heyward coming to the Big Easy would be a staple warm and fuzzy feature for pregame shows. A rookie end may have to contribute right away if Smith finally has to serve the four-game Starcaps suspension that has simmered since 2009.
The return to health of will linebacker Jon Casillas would help. You might not recognize the name -- Casillas was undrafted and missed all of 2010 with a foot injury. You certainly remember his greatest moment, however. It was Casillas who was credited with recovering the Saints onside kick to begin the second half in Super Bowl XLIV (Casillas himself says teammate Chris Reis should have gotten credit, but whatever -- Hank Baskett hates them both). He was outstanding in training camp last summer and was named to take the departed Scott Fujita's place in the starting lineup, but Reis was hurt before opening day. His speed and hitting would be a welcome addition both in coverage and attacking the passer.
The Saints will have plenty of decisions to make in-house. No fewer than 28 players have four-plus years of service, making them free agents under the current CBA. Contributors like Scott Shanle, Jimmy Wilkerson, Heath Evans, Jonathan Goodwin, and Julius Jones are at six years, which means they will almost definitely be free agents, regardless of the negotiations. Safety Darren Sharper, a crucial cog in the Super Bowl run but ruthlessly exposed in 2010, hopes for a one-year deal.
Meanwhile, Reggie Bush and Drew Brees have one year remaining on their deals. Assuming Brees is kept for a large sum, Bush will probably have his expensive contract negotiated downward, or be released. Jeremy Shockey was already let go this week.
Depending on just who and how many free agents there are, the Saints could be in a position to sign big-ticket pass rushers like Charles Johnson and Kamerion Wimbley. Manny Lawson isn't a great pass rusher, but he would be an intriguing fit in a 4-3 defense that needs cover linebackers. Washington's Rocky McIntosh is another natural 4-3 linebacker lost in a 3-4 scheme. Cleveland's Matt Roth would provide help in the pass rush, and he could be a bargain given the way he disappeared in the final third of the season.
An NFC team from the old NFC Central barely makes the playoffs at 10-6, then gets hot thanks to a superb young quarterback and races to the title, overcoming a plethora of injuries. Green Bay's story could have been the Buccaneers story in 2010, with some tweaks. The team went 3-1 in the final month despite a rash of injuries on defense and nearly slipped into the postseason, where Josh Freeman's excellence might have gotten some national exposure.
Of course, there was one critical difference between the two Bays besides 50 or so degrees in average temperature -- pass rush. Green Bay brought down opposing quarterbacks 47 times and was fourth in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate. Tampa Bay was second from bottom in both numbers, with a mere 26 sacks. Like the other teams in the NFC South -- only more so -- the Bucs have a crying need for someone who can get to the passer.
Tampa's run defense was equally poor. Running backs averaged nearly five yards per carry against the Bucs, by far the worst in the league. Teams also gashed the Bucs for more second-level yards than any other team. But advances and injury recoveries for young players like Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, end Kyle Moore, linebacker Quincy Black, and safety Cody Grimm, along with cornerback Aqib Talib, should help the cause even before the Bucs add bodies this offseason. Price and McCoy are especially vital -- only the Bills gave up more yards per carry up the middle than the Bucs. Somewhat contrarily, they were tough in power situations (seventh overall) -- it was all the other running situations that troubled Tampa.
However, there is no sack specialist on the roster. Tampa is a lock to take a pass-rushing defensive end in the first round, and have already spent considerable time making goo-goo eyes at Iowa's Adrian Clayborn. If the Hawkeyes end is gone by No. 17, Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Georgia's Justin Houston, and Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson will get long looks. The Bucs could double up at the position, as they did in 2010 with McCoy and Price. Or they could go after an outside linebacker such as Bruce Carter of North Carolina or Washington's Mason Foster.
The Bucs are so committed to improving their defensive line play that they have hired two new coaches to yell at the front four. One, former Minnesota Vikings player Keith Mallard, was touted to the organization by none other than Warren Sapp. The other is named Grady Stretz, who will replace the likely-to-depart Stylez G. White as the most comical moniker in the meeting room.
Guard Davin Joseph is the priority for the Bucs. He's the best run blocker on the line, and the team wants some continuity in front of Josh Freeman. He isn't expected to be franchised, and the Bucs are expected to let middle linebacker Barrett Ruud walk in order to keep Joseph. Strongside run stuffer Quincy Black is another player the Bucs want to keep. Breakout running star LeGarrette Blount will almost certainly be extended. Can corner Ronde Barber have yet another productive season at age 36? It seems unlikely, but he has been retained for another season.
As for outside signings, the Bucs could have Jags middle linebacker Kirk Morrison move across the state to replace Ruud, but drafting a replacement seems the better move. The right tackle combo of James Lee and Jeremy Trueblood is in need of an upgrade, with a young player like Denver's Ryan Harris as a possibility.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.
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