Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South

by David Gardner

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Hole: Defensive End

Thanks to a top-notch run defense (No. 2 in our metrics) and a strong season from defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the Falcons pass defense didn't derail Atlanta's entire season.
But it came close.

The Falcons defense finished slightly below average, No. 20 in our advanced DVOA metrics which measure play-by-play success based on situation and opponent. The pass defense was near the bottom of the league at No. 27.

Part of the problem was the secondary. The Falcons addressed their biggest need -- acquiring a No. 1 corner -- by signing free agent Dunta Robinson. Robinson's play last season didn't match his big pay day, but he was the best corner on the market, and he immediately becomes the best corner on the Falcons roster.

The other part of the problem is the lack of a consistent pass rush. Defensive end John Abraham only had 5.5 sacks, his lowest total since injuries derailed his 2006 season, and he'll be 32 next year. The Falcons finished with just 28 sacks on the season, and were 26th in the NFL with 5.6 percent Adjusted Sack Rate. ASR measures sacks (and intentional groundings) per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent. (To give an example of why ASR is different from total sacks: Carolina had 31 sacks, just three more than Atlanta, but ranked 13th in ASR because they did that against 42 fewer pass plays.)

The Falcons could look for an outside linebacker or a wide receiver at No. 19, but defensive end will be the top priority.

Free Agency Recap

Besides the acquisition of Robinson, the Falcons have been quiet in free agency. The Robinson deal, explained here by FO's J.I. Halsell, is one of the most lucrative ever for a corner. Robinson was inconsistent as a starter last season, but he is an obvious upgrade over Brent Grimes and Chris Owens.

The Falcons traded one of their starting corners from last season, Chris Houston, to the Lions for a sixth-round pick this year and a conditional seventh rounder in 2011. Atlanta will look to the draft to shore up its remaining needs.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

Writing that the Panthers need a second wide receiver behind Steve Smith is like writing that the Colts need a defensive tackle. It happens every year.

But in 2009, the problem was even worse than usual. The always reliable Smith went under 1,000 yards for the first time since he broke his leg in 2004. Among wide receivers with more than 50 catches, Smith finished 52nd in DYAR and 57th in DVOA.
And he was the best Panthers' receiver.

Part of that can be attributed to the poor play of quarterback Jake Delhomme, but Smith is also 30 years old, and he could be starting the descent of his career. Mushin Muhammad performed admirably last season -- almost as well as Smith, according to our numbers -- but he isn't a long-term solution. It doesn't look like Dwayne Jarrett is the long-term solution, either. And no other receiver on the roster caught more than 10 passes.

The Panthers are expecting big things out of Matt Moore this season after he started five games and had a 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. Still, he'll need weapons to succeed as a full-time starter.

Free Agency Recap

The main move by the Panthers during this free agency period has been a quarterback purge. The Panthers released embattled quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Delhomme went on to sign with Cleveland for a cool $7 million, which makes Delhomme the most overpaid player in free agency by far.

The Panthers also let go of A.J. Feeley, whom they signed in September last year after a horrific game by Jake Delhomme. Backup Josh McCown, who went on injured reserve at the time of the of the Feeley signing, is also a free agent.

With these other passers gone, the Panthers re-signed quarterback of the future Matt Moore to a one-year offer sheet worth $3 million.

The team also lost starting defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers wasn't worth the contract that he was offered by the Bears, but he was the best defensive player on Carolina, and his absence on the defense will be felt.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Hole: Outside Linebacker

The Saints' resurgence on defense came thanks, in large part, to a playmaking secondary. Darren Sharper intercepted eight passes, and former second-round pick Roman Harper fully matured into a starter alongside Sharper.

The front seven wasn't as strong. DVOA ranks the New Orleans run defense as 7.7 percent worse than league average, 29th in the league. The defensive line allowed opposing teams to average 4.5 yards per carry.

Scott Fujita is not an All-Pro player, but he was an above average starter on a team that lacks depth at linebacker. His backup last year, 32-year-old Troy Evans, isn't the answer to fill Fujita's shoes on the strong side. On the weak side, the Scott Shanle has been a mediocre player in his four seasons in New Orleans.

The Saints will be forced to replace Fujita, who signed a three-year, $14-million deal with the Browns, but they should also consider finding some talent for the weak side. The Saints may also look to draft help in the secondary, particularly if free-agent safety Darren Sharper signs elsewhere, but linebacker is the first priority.

Free Agency Recap

The Saints have managed to escape the curse of Super Bowl champions losing free agents. Fujita and back Mike Bell, who signed an offer sheet with the Eagles, are gone, but a number of Saints players remain unsigned.

Offensive tackles Jammal Brown and Jermon Bushrod are both restricted free agents. Bushrod's play was pretty good -- for a backup -- but the Saints hope that Brown will be back 100 percent from his ACL tear.

The Saints' top priority from this point will be signing RFA Jahri Evans to a long-term contract. After Darren Sharper tests the market for a little while longer, the Saints may be able to re-sign him to a short-term contract.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Hole: Defensive Line

The Bucs have been searching for Warren Sapp since he left Tampa in 2004.
Although the team moved away from the Tampa-2 at the beginning of the 2009 season, defensive coordinate Jim Bates was later demoted and Raheem Morris returned the team to its traditional defense. For the Tampa-2 to be successful, the Bucs need a dominating defensive tackle who can command double teams and collapse the pocket. No such player is on the roster right now.

The Bucs, with the third pick in the draft, should have a good shot at either Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh, and either player would step into a tackle tandem with Chris Hovan.

Partly because of the lack of a dominating defensive tackle, the Bucs were unable to generate any kind of pass rush last season. The Bucs generated just 28 sacks last season, with an Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.8 percent, 24th in the NFL . No offensive coordinator is staying up late worrying about Stylez G. White or Tim Crowder coming off the edge.

Really, the Bucs can't go wrong with a defensive player at the top of the draft. Eric Berry would start in place of the woeful Sabby Piscitelli, who made Football Outsiders' 2009 All Keep Choppin' Wood Team, made of the players at each position who did the most to hurt their teams.

Free Agency Recap

Bucs' fans are almost ready to mutiny over the team's absence in free agency.

GM Mark Dominik believes in rebuilding through the draft, and although that is definitely more effective for sustained success, the Bucs faithful are just looking for signs of life. There are even rumors of possible black outs next season.

The Bucs didn't show any interest in re-signing No. 1 wideout Antonio Bryant, so he bolted to the Bengals. Reserve safety Will Allen reunited with his former coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. They also lost reserve linebacker Matt McCoy to the Seahawks and starting punter Josh Bidwell to the Redskins.

To address an obvious hole at safety, the Bucs signed former Eagles' safety Sean Jones last week. He has been the team's only signing.

(Portions of this article originally appeared on Insider.)


13 comments, Last at 04 Apr 2010, 10:49am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Bit sloppy there, guys. The Bucs lost reserve players, but those players basically only featured on special teams.
But aside from that, Sean Jones wasn't the only signing: they also grabbed linebacker/special teamer Jon Alston. They also traded for Reggie Brown, though that isn't a free agency signing.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I think you're underestimating the loss of Antonio Bryant. Who are the Bucs going to play in his place?

I'm not saying the Bucs should have splurged in free agency, but they could have had a pulse. It's not the key to long-term rebuilding, but the Bucs could use help in the short- and long-term.
-- Dave

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Oh absolutely, I didn't mean to speak of losing Antonio Bryant but rather the literal reserve players the Bucs lost.

Losing Antonio Bryant himself isn't much of a problem because I think there's a lot of downsides to him - but the problem is a total lack of a replacement. When you see the price the Ravens had to pay for Boldin, it makes you wonder why the Bucs aren't doing anything. Especially now that the stand-out receiver is rookie Sammie Stroughter, who caught a grand total of 31 balls for 334 yards on limited time.

It's starting to look like one of the 2nd round draft picks will be a receiver who will be expected to come in and be the long-term #1 receiver. That'll be a lot to ask of a rookie receiver, and a weak base to help Josh Freeman perform. Hopefully, this will work itself out - but the lack of movement at WR specifically is worrying.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

A couple of points and some more in-depth news on the Saints:

Sharper had 9 picks this season. Also, he's rehabbing from knee surgery, so his testing of the market really won't start until he gets off the crutches and can prove that he can pass a physical. The Saints don't even expect him to be ready for all of that until July.

Regarding the number of Saints players who remain unsigned, what is that number? I mean, we're talking about Mark Brunell, Dan Campbell, Kendrick Clancy, John Carney, Billy Miller, and Pierson Priolou types of guys. Some will be back, while others will retire or just remain unsigned. When it comes to Free Agency, the Saints are in a good position to retain their core players and augment the team via the draft.

Losing Fujita is big, particularly in ways that can not be measured. I think that they will draft someone to fill that hole and/or try to fill it from within, perhaps with Stanley Arnoux, who missed his rookie season with an injury. Draftniks will remember that he was overshadowed by Aaron Curry at Wake Forest. At safety, Usama Young, Chip Vaughn, or Malcolm Jenkins will be the prime candidates to compete for Sharper's spot IF he doesn't return.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Every so often I forget about Stylez G. White, and it makes it so great when I hear his name again.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Regarding the Panthers - why don't they just trade Smith and one of their two running backs for draft picks and rebuild? I thought it seemed by cutting Delhomme that Carolina wasn't looking to be a contender next season. Wouldn't it be wiser for them to trade the few assets they still have for more picks in a deep draft and go from there? Since they already have a future QB, it would feasibly only take 2-3 seasons for them to be a strong contender again instead of trying to patch together another 8-9 win squad that prays it can somehow sneak into the playoffs. Is it simply that Fox and Hurney are at risk of losing their jobs they're still trying to string together one more run?

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The reason is this: the Panthers have a -dominant- offensive line. It is seriously one of the best in the league. But Jordan Gross, not to mention a few others, won't last forever. The Panthers think Matt Moore might be good, but they can't rely on him to be a long term solution based on Sample Size Theater last season. What they can do is get ready to win now, in what is, apart from New Orleans, a weak division.

The Panthers couldn't get much for Smith; he's had injuries and is coming off a bad year (for him). Likewise, even talented running backs have such a short shelf life that they are rarely traded for valuable consideration; too many teams remember Portis-for-Bailey.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I agree with the vast majority of that, but I don't really see how the NFC South qualifies as a weak division. Sure, the Bucs are pretty bad (though I think they may rebound more than people expect this year) but the Saints are Superbowl champs and retaining most of their key players, while the Falcons have a great young offense, a d that should be at least adequate, and are coming off two straight winning seasons. It's more fun than the AFC South or NFC East, but it's not exactly a cakewalk.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC South


"I thought it seemed by cutting Delhomme that Carolina wasn't looking to be a contender next season"

I thought that cutting Delhomme was a HUGE step toward becoming a contender this next season. The Panthers are one season away from being a 12-4 squad and you want them to rebuild? Didn't they paste the Vikings last year?

Gratuitous and arguable snarky-ness aside, the Panthers have a young quarterback with tremendous potential, a dominant offensive line, two Pro-Bowl running backs and a defense who's only real loss was the yo-yo like play of Julius Peppers. Why would they give up any of their young marquee players?

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

"Really, the Bucs can't go wrong with a defensive player at the top of the draft. Eric Berry would start in place of the woeful Sabby Piscitelli"

Berry's a fantastic prospect. Piscitelli sucks. It would still be a terrible move for the Bucs to take Berry third overall. Tyson Jackson, last year's third overall pick, got a 5 year, $57m contract with $31m guaranteed. The third pick this year will presumably get a little more. That would make Berry the best paid safety in the league by a huge margin. You really think Berry is likely to have over 50% more value than Troy Polamalu, for example? Frankly, I think it's also probably too much money to give a rookie defensive tackle who is anything short of a once-in-a-lifetime prospect. In other words, take Suh if he's there, but go for your favourite left tackle in preference to McCoy.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Jammal Brown didn't suffer an ACL tear. He had sports hernia surgery and hip surgery. He should be 100% by the start of training camp and he will be the starter while Bushrod will go back to the bench. Thankfully.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I have to tell you, I really think DE is the biggest need for the Saints. Between Arnoux, Waters, Casillas, Dunbar, & Mitchell their has to be a decent starter at the SAM in that group. At DE, we have Bobby McCray and Jeff Charleston playing opposite Will "The Manimal" Smith. Ouch!