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?
03 Jun 2014
By Vince Verhei
The Falcons' defense finished 29th in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, 26th against the run and dead last against the pass. And so general manager Thomas Dimitroff went to work in free agency, adding starters up front (former Kansas City defensive end Tyson Jackson and former Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai) and depth in the secondary (cornerbacks Javier Arenas from Arizona and Josh Wilson from Washington). Dimitroff failed to add a pass rusher, though, and that's a problem. By FO's Adjusted Sack Rate metric, the Falcons had the league's worst pass rush last season.
Osi Umenyiora led the team last year with 7.5 sacks, but he'll be 33 this season, and he hasn't cracked double digits since 2010. Plus, the Falcons seem likely to use more 3-4 looks next season, which might limit Umenyiora to a specialized third-and-long role. Nobody else on the roster has ever collected more than six sacks in a season. Most 3-4 teams get pass rush from their outside linebackers, but it's not even clear who the Falcons will be starting at that position. Jonathan Massaquoi, a part-time end for his first two seasons in the league, is a favorite, and he has shown flashes of potential (four sacks and 19 hurries in only 528 defensive snaps last season). The Falcons also drafted defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman (ten career sacks in college) and linebacker Prince Shembo (19.5). If they're lucky, one of those players could turn into the edge rusher they so badly need.
The Falcons signed a whopping 20 free agents after the draft, including four wide receivers. Bernard Reedy (Toledo) was a two-time All-MAC receiver and could add a special teams punch, with three touchdowns on kickoff returns in 2012. Tramaine Thompson (Kansas State) scored on both kickoff and punt returns in his career. Freddie Martino set a Division II record last year with 146 catches at North Greenville (go Crusaders!). If he makes the final roster, Julian Jones (Arkansas State) had better get used to saying "no, not Julio, Julian" to disappointed fans. Tight end Brian Wozniak (Wisconsin) had only six receptions in his senior season, but four of them went for touchdowns. Fellow tight end Jacob Pedersen (Wisconsin) was an all-Big Ten Honorable Mention. Quarterback Jeff Mathews (Cornell) set 47 school records and 18 Ivy League standards, including 72 touchdown passes. Fullback Maurice Hagens (Miami) might have the best chance to make the team simply because Patrick DiMarco is the only other fullback on the roster. Center James Stone (Tennessee) started 39 games for the Vounteers and made the Rimington Award watch list. Nose tackle Donte Rumph (Kentucky) was a three-year starter in the SEC, and at 337 pounds could play nose tackle in the Falcons' 3-4. Linebacker Roosevelt Nix (Kent State) was four-time first-team all-MAC, with 24 career sacks.
Jordan Gross, one of the top left tackles in football, surprised the Panthers by calling it a career in February, and the Panthers surprised everyone by not making a move in free agency or the draft to try to fill his spot. General manager David Gettleman explained why quite succinctly in an interview with Bryan Strickland of the team's website: he didn't like any of the available options any more than the options he already had on the roster. The likely favorite to take over for Gross is Byron Bell, who joined Carolina in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico (where he played on the left side of the line), then started 41 games at right tackle over the next three seasons. Another option to compete with Bell (or take his old job at right tackle) is Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who started eight unimpressive games at guard last season; FO charters charged him with one blown block every 33.4 snaps, putting him in the bottom ten guards in the league with at least 500 snaps. Garry Williams started 11 games at right tackle in 2010, but has started only ten games since (and only one in 2013) due to a myriad of knee and ankle injuries.
The Panthers could also have an opening at guard, especially if Chandler wins one of the tackle spots and Travelle Wharton retires. Trai Turner, a third-round rookie out of LSU, could be the next man up.
Ten free agents ended up on Carolina's roster after the draft. Corey Brown (Ohio State) twice led the Buckeyes in receiving yardage and added a pair of punt return touchdowns. Darrin Reaves (Alabama-Birmingham) rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in the last two seasons, then skipped his senior season to enter the draft. Oops. Guard Andrew Norwell (Ohio State) was a three-time all-Big Ten selection, including the 2013 season for a Buckeyes team that finished second in the country with 321.3 rushing yards per game. David Foucault (Montreal) played left tackle and right guard in college, and was the fifth overall pick in the CFL draft this year. Linebacker Denicos Allen (Michigan State) was a three-time all-Big Ten pick. Cornerback Carrington Byndom (Texas) was a two-time all-Big 12 player who also played in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Usually when we write about a team's biggest hole, what we mean is that the players at a given position are too old, or too young, or too small, or just plain no good. For the Saints, though, the center position is literally an empty space. They do not list a veteran center on their roster. Tim Lelito is listed as "C/G," and if the Saints had a game tomorrow he'd probably be the guy snapping the ball. Lelito played in every game last year as an undrafted rookie out of Division II Grand Valley State, including a couple of starts at guard. He did play center in college. The only other center on the team right now is Matthew Armstrong, a college teammate of Lelito's who joined the Saints as an undrafted free agent this year. In an interview with Gary Estwick of The New Orleans Advocate, Armstrong didn't sound like he was interested in a competition. "I'm not here to compete for a starting spot," he said. "I'm just trying to make the team."
Jonathan Goodwin, who started in New Orleans for three years before spending the last three seasons in San Francisco, has visited the Saints recently. Goodwin could sign after June 1, when he won't cost the Saints a compensatory draft pick. Even then, though, the Saints' best option would be a guy the 49ers let walk away. Other available centers include ex-Bengal Kyle Cook; ex-Titan and Steeler Fernando Velasco; and ex-Cowboy, Raven, and Raider Andre Gurode.
A current look at the Saints roster shows 17 UDFAs. Wide receiver Brandon Coleman (Rutgers) led the Big East with ten receiving touchdowns in 2012. Steve Hull (Illinois) spent three years in the secondary, then switched to wideout as a senior and gained 993 yards receiving. Derrick Strozier (Tulane) also bounced back and forth between offense and defense, leading Conference-USA in passes defensed as a senior, and returned punts and kickoffs to boot. Running back Tim Flanders (Sam Houston State) started his collegiate career at Kansas State and finished as the Southland Conference's all-time rushing and scoring leader. Defensive lineman George Uko (USC) was a two-time honorable mention all-Pac-12 selection. Defensive end Lawrence Virgil (Valdosta State) did 39 reps on the bench press at his pro day; that would have been the second-best performance at the Combine this year. Linebacker Spencer Hadley (BYU) is best known for being suspended after he was photographed partying in Las Vegas, so he should feel at home on Bourbon Street. Safety Ty Zimmerman (Kansas State) was a third-team AP All-American. Oh, and did we mention that Matthew Armstrong (Grand Valley State) might be your starter at center? Yeah, that's a big one.
This certainly is a common thread among NFC South teams, isn't it? Even Atlanta might have needed a lineman if they hadn't taken Jake Matthews in the first round of the draft. As for Tampa Bay, they've made some major changes on the line this year, but none of their acquisitions seem like permanent fixes. Gone are center Jeremy Zuttah (traded to Baltimore), guard Davin Joseph, and tackle Donald Penn (both released after the season). The only remaining starters from last year are tackle Demar Dotson and guard Carl Nicks. Nicks, signed to a $47.5 million contract in 2012, played in only nine games in his first two seasons in Tampa Bay after a battle with staph infection, but the Bucs are hopeful he will finally be healthy.
The rest of the line will be filled by spare parts picked up cheap from other teams. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith spent three years on the Packers' bench before winning a starting role last year. Similarly, Anthony Collins spent six seasons as a spot starter for Cincinnati, impressing in limited duty. He was never able to nail down a first-string job, but he shone in 2013, with fewer blown blocks per snap than any other tackle. The right guard spot is a bit of a question mark, but the favorite is likely Jamon Meredith, who spent time with the Bills, Lions, Giants, and Steelers before starting 20 games the last two seasons for the Buccaneers.
Fifteen college free agents will go into camp with Tampa Bay. Wide receiver Solomon Patton (Florida) led the SEC last season with 29.2 yards per kickoff return. Matt Patchan (Boston College) was a second-team all-ACC offensive tackle last year. Andrew Miller (Virginia Tech) was a three-year starter and can play center or guard. Outside linebacker Nate Askew (Texas A&M) has only played defense for one season, but the converted receiver is a rare combination of size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and speed (4.45-second 40-yard dash at his pro day). The most well-known UDFA in Tampa Bay may have been quarterback Brett Smith (Wyoming), who threw 76 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in college, but he lasted only nine days until the team released him.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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