Four Downs: NFC South
by Robert Weintraub
Atlanta Falcons: Can Dunta Robinson improve in coverage?
Atlanta filled a gaping hole at defensive end with free agent Ray Edwards. If he provides the pass rush expected of him (16.5 sacks in the last two seasons), the Falcons’ pass defense will improve noticeably. Steady pressure and the ability to take blockers off John Abraham will be a welcome development from the signing, high sack totals for Edwards would be gravy.
But Edwards isn’t exactly DeMarcus Ware, and even if he was, the secondary play in Atlanta needs to get better if they are to get past teams with top quarterbacks at the helm (see: Packers 48, Falcons 21 last January). Brent Grimes, who turned in a stellar 2010, signed his free agent tender and is back in the fold, so the onus falls on the marquee free-agent signing of last offseason, Dunta Robinson, to lift his play somewhere near Grimes’ level.
Robinson played mostly man-to-man coverage in Houston, and he struggled to pick up some of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s zone schemes a year ago. Undoubtedly, the pressure of returning to his native state and making a ton of cash to do so (he signed a $57 million contract, $22.5 of that guaranteed) had an effect. Now that the "prove you’re worth the price" focus is on Edwards and rookie Julio Jones, perhaps Robinson can relax and raise his game. He’s never going to be a shutdown guy, but Robinson figures to get targeted more this season, albeit perhaps not as much as Grimes, who was thrown at 124 times in 2010, second in the NFL. If Robinson can make some plays, opposing quarterbacks will be in a quandary about which corner to pick on.
New Orleans Saints: Can any of the linebackers cover?
The Saints have done a solid job in identifying weaknesses and addressing them this offseason. The interior run defense needed bulking up, so widebodies Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin were signed. Pass rush off the edge was a major concern, so the Saints drafted Cameron Jordan in the first round. The departure of veteran center Jonathan Goodwin was counteracted by the import of the even more veteran Olin Kreutz.
But one area in dire need of upgrade remains a question mark. In 2010, New Orleans struggled mightily in covering tight ends and running backs, ranking 27th and 24th in the NFL, respectively, in DVOA on passes to those positions. Much of that falls on the inability of the linebackers to cover in space. Outside of middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the unit is below par in coverage. Scott Shanle was re-signed despite his struggles in this area, and will battle Jonathan Casillas for the starting role. Casillas is coming off Lisfranc surgery, so his ability to improve pass defense on the weak side is questionable at best.
On the strong side, Danny Clark, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and rookie Martez Wilson are battling for snaps. None of them are especially nimble in coverage, though of course the jury is still out on Wilson. The wild card to watch is Will Herring, a free agent signed away from Seattle. Herring could take over as the starting SAM backer, or at least play the position on passing downs, due to his fluidity in space.
Carolina Panthers: Will opponents triple-cover Smith?
Cam Newton will be Carolina's starting quarterback, if not in Week 1, then shortly afterward. However, given the state of the Panthers receiving corps, Newton might want to keep a death grip on that clipboard. Outside of the perennially disgruntled-yet-talented Steve Smith, no wideout on the Panthers roster is likely to keep opposing defensive backs awake at night.
Our KUBIAK fantasy football projection system currently has Smith catching as many passes for as many yards as the rest of the wide receiver corps combined. David Gettis and Brandon LaFell showed promise in 2010, but the John Fox administration and Smith himself voiced frustration at their lack of drive and desire for improvement. It wasn’t a good sign that vet Legedu Naanee was signed to bolster the unit -- it was clearly a move designed to light a fire under Gettis and LaFell rather than one based on Naanee’s merits as a player. Armanti Edwards, the college quarterback the Panthers traded up to take in the third round last year, then deactivated for 12 games, will also get a shot at redemption. Now all he has to do is learn how to catch and run routes.
It’s a cliche to say that a good tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend, but it seems like Carolina is buying high on that found knowledge. The new offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, is a former tight ends coach. Two fellow University of Miami alums, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, have been brought in to give Newton a security blanket. Both Shockey and Olsen have the ability to stretch the field deep, and Chudzinski spent the last two seasons in San Diego watching the effect Antonio Gates had on an offense. Neither Panther import is Gates, but they are closer to him than the secondary Panthers receivers are to Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton. On the plus side, Legedu Naanee is fairly comparable to former Chargers receiver Legedu Naanee.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Will they regret cutting Barrett Ruud loose?
In the long run, probably not. Barrett Ruud made a large number of plays for Tampa, but advanced metrics show he had a rather poor 2010, especially against the run (he was the 105th ranked linebacker in Yards per Run Tackle, at 4.8 per carry against). The fact the Titans only signed him to a one-year deal reveals Ruud’s value in the marketplace.
But in the short term, with Bucs fans charged up over last year’s 10-6 and with powerful Atlanta and New Orleans in the division, having an experienced leader of the defense wearing pewter would seem to be important. Even if it is just an average player like Ruud. Instead, the Bucs appear ready to go to battle with either second-year man Tyrone McKenzie, who had all of five tackles in 2010, or rookie Mason Foster, a third-round choice out of Washington.
General manager Mark Dominik has proven his preference for young, cheap players time and again, and the strategy has mostly worked. In this case, the mike linebacker situation will be strongly impacted by the play, and health, of high 2010 draftee tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price up front. McCoy lost three games to an arm injury last season (and left an early Bucs practice with a shoulder ding), while Price missed all but five games with a nasty pelvic injury that required two surgeries and the insertion of several screws. Add the health concerns of 2011 top choices Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn, along with the legal limbo of cornerback/scofflaw Aqib Talib, and the Bucs already had plenty of question marks on defense. By letting Ruud walk, they added another.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)