How will the best division in football follow up on it's success in 2013? Can Seattle keep Michael Bennett?
23 May 2011
by Robert Weintraub
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff spent the pre-draft months talking about "explosion players," and went all-in on offense in the draft. Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers should give offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey a chance to expand his drowsy playbook. But the defense still lacks still lacks TNT, especially in the pass rush where 33-year-old John Abraham remains the lone threat.
The Falcons are counting on the return to health of recent high draft picks, such as defensive tackle Peria Jerry and outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, to improve the unit's overall speed and tenacity. If they return, and Kroy Biermann emerges from his wife's shadow as a reliable pass rusher, the team should be a top contender once again in 2011.
Atlanta will look to sign a proven defensive end like Minnesota's Ray Edwards should the new CBA grant Edwards unrestricted free agency. (Edwards says Cliff Matthews, a two-year captain and solid pass rusher at South Carolina, was a late-draft heist and will provide quality rotation play. But one thing is certain -- fans who thought Dimitroff gave up too much in the Jones trade will be counting Julio's receptions while measuring them against the team's total sacks.
Like their division-rival Buccaneers, the Panthers plugged gaping holes by spending two high picks at a position of need along the defensive line. And as with the Bucs, the position in question remains in need of help. Third-round picks Terrell McClain and and Sione Fua are nice players, but they won't turn the interior of Carolina's defensive front into the Seven Blocks of Granite overnight.
Carolina will be implementing more 3-4 looks under new head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Rivera's ties to Chicago's Tommie Harris has led to speculation that the tackle would come south to shore up the middle of the line. The quality of the end play in the new look depends heavily on whether or not Charles Johnson stays in town. Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks in 2010, would be an unrestricted free agent under the old CBA. On the opposite side, Tyler Brayton (zero sacks) needs to be replaced, probably by promising second-year man Greg Hardy.
Safety is generally considered to be position of relative strength in Carolina, with corner being a weakness; but on closer inspection, the opposite is true. Carolina was Top 10 in defending the opposing team's first two wide receivers, but plummeted to 24th in the NFL against slot receivers, and dead last against tight ends.
Local interest is high in acquiring a shutdown corner a la Nnamdi Asomugha or Johnathan Joseph. Captain Munnerlyn and Chris Gamble did a respectable job last season, but depth is a concern if Richard Marshall leaves via free agency. The secondary's weaker spot is safety, where Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin were frequently out of position. The Panthers were also in the bottom half of the league in allowing second-level runs, a fall-off from the defensive line's strong play against the run, suggesting that the safeties weren't quite up to snuff in tackling. Godfrey is a promising ballhawk, however, and could thrive under McDermott, who helped mold attacking safeties in Philadelphia.
Like division-rival Atlanta, the Saints traded up to get targeted players and denuded the back half of their draft in doing so. Unlike Atlanta, New Orleans addressed its pass rush problem by drafting defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan excels against the run, and is good-not-great as a pass rusher. (In seventh-rounder Greg Romeus, the Saints got a boom-or-bust rush end.) Despite the selections, opposing passers still are likely to find tight ends and running backs running free when matched against the Saints outside linebackers. In 2010, New Orleans ranked 27th in DVOA against tight ends and 24th against running backs swinging out of the backfield. The team drafted Martez Wilson of Illinois in the third round, but he will have much learning to do -- and in less time, thanks to the lockout -- in order to fill the gaping hole on the strong side.
The team could pick up Buffalo linebacker Paul Posluszny, a restricted free agent under the current CBA. He would provide help in space while mentoring Wilson, and his surname would be chanted in a zesty Cajun manner. Assuming Posluszny doesn't relocate to the Big Easy, incumbents like Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar are among several Saints linebackers in contract flux (only mainstay Jonathan Vilma is a signed certainty, locked up through 2013) who would need to be re-signed. If Shanle doesn't resign, Jonathan Casillas, who missed the 2010 season with a foot injury, would perhaps be handed a starting role.
Given the Bucs' rumored starring role in this season's "Hard Knocks" (which by rights should film the labor negotiations), the biggest hole might be a lack of Buccaneers who pop off the screen as Rex Ryan did a year ago. But we'll restrict ourselves to on-field concerns. As with the rest of the NFC South, defensive end was a pre-draft need in Tampa. The Bucs double-dipped at defensive end in the first two rounds, taking Adrian Clayborn of Iowa and Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson, who dropped precipitously due to injury concerns -- mainly, that his knee has the consistency of oatmeal. Some teams have already written him off.
Tampa went one-for-two at defensive tackle a year ago -- Gerald McCoy played well and Brian Price was injured -- and the team seems to be gunning for a similar batting average with the Clayborn/Bowers combo. Both choices carry risk (Clayborn suffered nerve damage during childbirth that weakened his right arm and shoulder, though he has done OK with it so far), and it would be optimistic to call the hole "plugged" on the strength of the draft. "At least partially filled in" would be more accurate.
Meanwhile, with the uncertainty surrounding Aqib Talib's legal troubles, Ronde Barber's age, and Tanard Jackson's dependency issues, the secondary looms as a trouble spot. Tampa took a couple of Sunshine State secondary players in the later rounds, Florida's Ahmad Black and FIU's Anthony Gaitor, but while both are versatile, neither is as talented as Talib, Jackson, or Barber. Tampa was sixth in the league in DVOA against opposing No. 1 wideouts, a figure that seems certain to fall if Talib isn't on the team.
That puts the onus on E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis, a pair of corners the Bucs like and feel can replace Talib. There is sentiment that the Bucs will make a play for ultra-talented and expensive corner Nnamdi Asomugha when/if free agency resumes, and the Glazers have said that they will spend money on the team. Whether that means nickels or silver dollars remains to be seen.
A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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