The Giants and Ravens set a record in Super Bowl XXXV with 21 total punts. That record may well be in jeopardy. But in this battle of top defenses, Carolina's superior and more flexible offense gives the Panthers the edge.
23 May 2013
by Vince Verhei
The Falcons were a pretty good defense last season when they blitzed, but they couldn't get pressure on the quarterback with a standard four-man rush. When rushing five or more, the Falcons gave up 5.5 yards per play, making them one of the ten best defenses in the NFL. When rushing exactly four, however, they gave up 7.4 yards per play. That was better than Kansas City (by about a quarter-inch per play – seriously), but worse than everyone else.
The Falcons addressed this by releasing John Abraham and signing Osi Umenyiora in free agency, but it's hard to call that an upgrade. Since missing all of 2008 with a knee injury, Umenyiora has 33.5 sacks. In the same four seasons, Abraham has 38 sacks, and he has had more sacks than Umenyiora in each of the past three years. Umenyiora is three years younger than Abraham, which is significant, but this still looks like a lateral move at best.
At the other end spot, Kroy Biermann had just four sacks last year, and has never gone over five in a season. In 2010, his only season as a full-time starter, he managed only three quarterback takedowns.
The Falcons list six other defensive ends on the roster, but none has ever had a sack in the NFL. The best hope for Atlanta this season is that fourth-round rookie Malliciah Goodman (seven sacks for Clemson last year) can out-produce his draft status.
The more undrafted free agents you bring in, the more likely you are to find a good player. That seems to be the philosophy in Atlanta, where general manager Thomas Dimitroff signed a whopping 27 unsigned college players. Linebacker Nick Clancy (Boston College) was first-team all-ACC and led the conference in tackles last year. As a senior, quarterback Seth Doege (Texas Tech) led the Big 12 in completions – and interceptions. Deon Goggins (Syracuse) played defensive line in college, but the Falcons will try to convert the 272-pounder into a tank of a fullback. Darius Johnson (Southern Methodist) gained 1,118 yards receiving as a junior in 2011, and was one of the few players at this year's combine to go undrafted. Offensive lineman Terren Jones (Alabama State) goes 6-foot-7 and 341 pounds; Dawson Devitt of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he may have the best shot of any UFA to make the team. Receiver Martel Moore (Northern Illinois) led the MAC with 12 touchdown catches last year. and you may remember this Matt Waldman piece on him if you're a regular. Adam Replogle (Indiana), a four-year starter in college, has a chance to stick at defensive tackle, where Atlanta is thin behind starters Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. Devonte Campbell (Maryland) can run a 4.65 40-yard dash at 255 pounds, a Speed Score of 109.1 that would make him a promising running back prospect, but he's another guy the Falcons are hoping can play fullback in the NFL
In February, we identified defensive tackle as the biggest hole on the Panthers' roster. The Panthers apparently agreed, as they grabbed Utah's Star Lotulelei and Purdue's Kawann Short in the first two rounds of the draft. Now, they need to find someone besides Steve Smith who can catch a pass. Smith is the franchise's all-time leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, but it has been a one-man show to an embarrassing degree. In the decade-plus since Smith joined the team in 2001, only ten other Panthers have caught 100 total passes, including four running backs (DeAngelo Williams, Brad Hoover, DeShaun Foster, Nick Goings) and three tight ends (Kris Mangum, Greg Olsen, Jeff King). The leading non-Smith wideouts in that timeframe: Muhsin Muhammad (retired in 2009, and also spent three seasons in Chicago), Keary Colbert (two 100-yard games as a rookie, none the rest of his career), and Brandon LaFell.
A third-round draft pick in 2010, LaFell returns this season as Carolina's No. 2 receiver by default. He has one 100-yard game in his career, against Tampa Bay in 2011, and 91 of his 103 yards that day came on one touchdown catch. Behind him, the Panthers have a motley crew of has-beens and never-wases. A list of the veterans at the bottom of the depth chart:
The Panthers did exactly nothing to address this position in the draft. Immediately afterwards, they added one college free agent at the position: Trey Diller (Sam Houston State), who was then cut by the team after rookie minicamp. The Panthers have since added Brenton Berson, Taulib Ikharo, and R.J. Webb, a trio of players who have spent the past few seasons bouncing around practice squads and the Arena League. No saviors to be found here.
By the way, Smith just turned 34. Very soon, the Panthers won't need to find a counterpart for Smith, they'll need to find his replacement.
Carolina signed 13 undrafted free agents, though some of them have already been let go. Panthers coach Ron Rivera singled out safety Robert Lester (Alabama) and cornerback Melvin White (Louisiana-Lafayette) for their performance after Panthers rookie camp. Quarterback Colby Cameron (Louisiana Tech) led the WAC in total offense and total touchdowns last season. Taylor Cook (Rice) finished his college career with 57 passes, 39 punts, and only 18 receptions, but the Panthers signed him as a tight end. Defensive end Wes Horton (USC) has notable bloodlines -– his father Myke played offensive tackle for UCLA, and more importantly was Gemini on American Gladiators.
Make no mistake, the Saints still have a lot of work to do to rebuild what was a historically bad defense last season. However, the best and most important player on this team is still Drew Brees, and right now New Orleans doesn't know who will be protecting Brees' blind side.
Former Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod missed only two starts in the past four years at left tackle, but he signed with Chicago in free agency. The Saints then failed to sign a veteran replacement, and didn't address the position in the draft until the third round.
The first player to get a shot at the position will be Charles Brown, a 2010 second-round pick. Brown excelled in limited action last year –- he saw 120 snaps on offense, mostly in place of Zach Strief at right tackle, and Football Outsiders game charters didn't credit him with a single blown block. (For comparison's sake, Bushrod had 28.5 blown blocks in 1,104 snaps.) However, the year before, our charters found that Brown gave up more sacks than Bushrod did, even though Brown played one-third as many snaps. Brown has also struggled to stay healthy, missing time with back, hip, and knee injuries.
The Saints also have Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft who busted out with the Rams. He played in all 16 games for the Jets last season, but with no starts and only 256 snaps, mostly in six-lineman packages. He had two blown blocks.
The aforementioned third-round tackle, Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, had the fastest 40-yard dash and highest vertical leap of all offensive linemen at the Combine this year. That will come in handy whenever the Saints call a play requiring a lineman to run very fast or jump very high. However, Armstead is generally considered a project player and unlikely to start in 2013.
The Saints pulled in quite a haul after the draft; Gil Brandt of NFL.com ranked their 13-name UFA class third in the league. He's most excited about quarterback Ryan Griffin (Tulane) and two linebackers, Kevin Reddick (North Carolina) and Chase Thomas (Stanford). Griffin was a four-year starter who set school records for completions, yards, and touchdowns. Reddick, an all-ACC player, led the conference last year with 18 tackles for loss. Thomas played both linebacker and defensive end in college, totaling 50.5 tackles for loss in his career and leading the Pac-12 in that category with 18 in 2011.
Beyond those three, red-zone specialist Shawne Alston (West Virginia) led the Big East with 12 rushing touchdowns in 2011, even though he gained only 416 yards on the ground that year. Big-fish-in-a-small-pond award goes to guard Tim Lelito (Grand Valley State), who was named the GLIAC's Offensive Lineman Of The Year. Eric Martin (Nebraska) was first-team all-Big 10 as a defensive end; the Saints will move him to linebacker. Kicker Jose Maltos, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, played at the University of Nueva-Leon. He auditioned for NFL scouts at Southern Methodist University’s Pro Day prior to the draft. He could have a real chance to make the team; the Saints have ranked in the bottom ten teams in the league in kicking for points in each of the past three seasons.
Remember earlier when we talked about Carolina's pre-draft need for a defensive tackle, and how the Panthers had since filled that hole? Well, in that same piece we said Tampa Bay's biggest hole was at pass rusher, and they've since gotten weaker there, not stronger. Michael Bennett, who led Tampa Bay with nine sacks last season (the only Bucs player to crack the top 50 in sacks) signed with Seattle in free agency.
The starters at defensive end will most likely be Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, both drafted in the first two rounds in 2011. Clayborn had an impressive 7.5 sacks as a rookie, but his sophomore season ended with a knee injury in Week 3. Bowers, meanwhile, has only 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons. After tearing his Achilles tendon in May of last year, he missed the season's first six games, and never re-entered the starting lineup. The good news for Bowers is that legal charges have been dropped after he brought a gun into LaGuardia airport, but he still has a lot to prove on the field to warrant his draft position. There's potential here – these guys went in the first two rounds for a reason – but both players must be considered question marks for 2013.
Are there other options for Tampa Bay here? Not really. The other veteran linemen on the Bucs' roster, both tackles and ends, have a total of 25 career sacks between them, and none has ever recorded more than five in a season.
The Bucs did find two possible solutions in the draft, taking defensive end William Gholston (Michigan State) in the third round and end/linebacker hybrid Steven Means (Buffalo) in the fourth. Still, neither of these players was particularly dominant in college, with neither gaining more than 7.5 sacks in a season.
The hope here is that Clayborn and Bowers will stay healthy – and that means the most important person in Tampa bay might be the trainer.
The Bucs didn't draft cornerback Deveron Carr (Arizona State), but they clearly wanted him bad enough to guarantee $5,000 of his base salary and grant him a $15,000 signing bonus on top of that. Might not sound like much in the multi-million dollar world of NFL contracts, but undrafted players rarely get guaranteed money. Quarterback Robert Marve began his career at Miami before transferring to Purdue, where he led the Big Ten in completion percentage last year. Cornerback Rashaan Melvin led the MAC with 18 passes defensed in 2012. Wide receiver D.J. Monroe (Texas) returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his Big 12 career. Orwin Smith (Georgia Tech) averaged a whopping 9.3 yards on nearly 200 career runs in his role as an A-back in the Yellow Jackets' triple option attack.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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