Four Downs: NFC South

By Russell Levine

Atlanta Falcons

Break on Through

The Falcons became the third NFC South team in as many years to enjoy a breakout season. The division, thought to be one of the NFL's weakest when it was created, has produced a Super Bowl champion (Tampa Bay, 2002), an NFC Champion (Carolina, 2003), and an NFC runner-up (Atlanta, 2004) in its three years of existence.

Atlanta's resurgence in 2004 was often credited to Michael Vick, but in reality it was the Atlanta defense that really turned things around from the disappointment of 2003. Bolstered by the arrival of free agent Rod Coleman, the defensive line was the key to the unit's success, pressuring opposing quarterbacks to the tune of an 8.7% sack rate, second in the NFL. (Sack rate is our stat measuring number of sacks per pass play, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.)

Having a defensive line that can pressure the quarterback will cover a lot of weaknesses. In 2003, Atlanta had a good sack rate, 6.9%, but the rest of its pass defense was putrid. In 2004, with the added push up front, the retooled secondary performed better as well.

The one obvious weakness on the defense was the right side, where right end Brady Smith was in part responsible for causing the Falcons to rank last in the league against runs to the (offense's) left according to our adjusted line yards stats.

Still, there is no reason not to expect the Atlanta defense to continue to develop and improve, particularly under the tutelage of a defensive coach, Jim "Don't Call Me Junior" Mora. The secondary is very young and will no doubt be better with another year under its belt.

Runnin' Blue

What about the offense? Vick at this point in his career presents a conundrum. He's not a skilled enough passer to simply stand in the pocket and lead the offense, and his running ability is so spectacular that to stifle it is to put a restraint on Atlanta's biggest weapon.

One thing that that might help Vick improve is the presence of a true No. 1 receiver. The Falcons signed Peerless Price to an expensive free-agent contract two years ago to fill that role, but Price, who earned the contract after starring opposite Eric Moulds in Buffalo, has not been able to transition to the No. 1 spot. He is the classic example of a receiver whose prior success came about because he was running routes against No. 2 corners. When faced with better defenders, he's not able to get open on a consistent basis.

Evidence of the receivers' struggles is everywhere. Atlanta threw fewer passes to its wide receivers than any team in NFL (215 vs. NFL average of 302), and was only one of five teams where the wide receivers caught fewer than half the passes thrown to them. The combined DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here) of Atlanta's receivers was -20.2%, better than only Chicago. Price caught only five of 21 third down passes intended for him this season, which suggests he has trouble getting open when the defense expects a pass.

Vick doesn't have to become a statue in the pocket to succeed, but better receivers will help him make big plays in the passing game when things break down. That's currently an all-too-rare event for Vick, who usually opts to take off running as soon as things deviate from the way they were drawn up.

Free Agency Outlook

The Falcons don't need to be big players in free agency, and that's probably a good thing. At the moment, the team is approximately $14 million over the 2005 cap, but that number will drop significantly when the team exercises an option to pro-rate Michael Vick's signing bonus over five seasons (the entire $22.5 million is currently charged under next year's cap).

With most of Atlanta's key players locked up for a few seasons more, this is a team on the rise. The biggest potential loss to free agency is cornerback Allen Rossum, a superior return man and a major reason why the Falcons' special teams have been so highly rated in recent years (#6 overall, according to DVOA, in 2004).

When it comes to shopping, the obvious need is at receiver. Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress is probably the best pass catcher in the unrestricted free agent market. But after their experience with Price, Atlanta may be wary of another receiver who shares the load with another star, as Burress does with Hines Ward in Pittsburgh.

There are other options outside of the UFA market. Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad is likely to be a cap casualty (more on this below), while rumors persist that the Vikings will trade Randy Moss (although Len Pasquarelli suggests Atlanta is not an option for Moss). The disenchanted Laveraneus Coles is also an option, as is the recently-released Derrick Mason. But if the Falcons cannot land a premier talent, don't look for Atlanta to sink huge money into an unproven commodity. They may opt instead to continue to develop Michael Jenkins, a 2004 first-round choice.

Carolina Panthers

Strange Days

No NFL team had a stranger season than Carolina in 2004. The defending NFC champs got off to a miserable 1-7 start after being decimated by injuries in the season's opening weeks, before rebounding to very nearly make the playoffs.

A team that looked like a one-year wonder in November looked like a contender again by December. Having withstood the worst run of injuries and adversity they're likely to ever see, the Panthers are hoping to build on a 6-2 finish and return to the playoffs in 2005.

Looking at the bright side, the Panthers can focus on that 6-2 run, one that revealed more depth than the team realized it had (hello, Keary Colbert and Nick Goings!), and feel confident it can again contend with only minor tweaks to the roster.

Carolina's defense gets plenty of publicity, and deservedly so. The unit ranked #10 in DVOA last season, but with some notable weaknesses. Like many modern defenses, Carolina's favors speed over size in the front seven. As a result, Carolina suffered against the run, particularly in short-yardage. They were last in the league in rush defense on third down and 29th in short-yardage situations. Some of that is due to the injury to tackle Kris Jenkins, who should be healthy again this year.

Carolina starts two young corners in Ricky Manning and Chris Gamble and could use a veteran presence at nickelback. Their pass defense DVOA, like their rush defense DVOA, got much worse on third down.

And for all the Panthers' talent up front, they need to generate a better pass rush -- they were just 27th in adjusted sack rate. Again, the injury to Jenkins could account for some of that, as well as the fact that Carolina likes to use Julius Peppers, probably their top pass rusher, in pass coverage on zone blitz schemes.

Whither Muhsin?

There is one major roster question that the team faces -- what to do with Muhsin Muahammad. The receiver, coming off a career year (#3 among receivers in our Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement {DPAR} ratings) is owed a huge roster bonus that will saddle him with a $12.5 million cap figure for 2005. Muhammad has expressed a desire to stay in Carolina, so the team my try to work out a long-term extension. But if no extension can be agreed upon, he will be released before March 2.

If Muhammad hits the open market, there are likely to be plenty of suitors for his services. But the Panthers may be able to survive his departure. A season-ending injury to Steve Smith in 2004 allowed rookie Keary Colbert to see plenty of action, and he could slide into the starting lineup opposite a healthy Smith in 2005. Teams looking to pick up Muhammad, meanwhile, should be warned against the possibility that 2004 was a fluke year from a receiver who set career highs in yardage, yards per catch, and touchdowns (more than his previous four seasons combined) at the age of 31.

New Orleans Saints

The Soft Parade

New Orleans has missed the playoffs for four straight years, a period in which they've been hamstrung by a soft defense -- one that has not improved despite numerous high draft choices and free-agent signings.

The Saints have taken a defensive lineman in the first round of each of the past three drafts, and have also signed several free-agent defensive linemen, yet the team was 26th against the run last year according to DVOA. Moreover, while the Saints were stockpiling mediocre ends and tackles, they bypassed several corners in recent drafts and their pass defense suffered. Against No. 1 receivers, the Saints' DVOA was 29th in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints are wildly inconsistent, a trait personified by Deuce McAllister, a player who has always been one of the league leaders in long runs but also has lots of carries for little or no gain. Quarterback Aaron Brooks can make some of the best and worst plays or any NFL quarterback in the course of a single game.

Still, without any urgency from ownership to shake things up, don't expect major turnover on the Bayou this offseason. In the win-now era of the modern NFL, it's shocking that the Saints have chosen to stick with head coach Jim Haslett despite records of 8-8, 8-8, 9-7, and 7-9 in the past four seasons, none of which included a playoff berth. Perhaps more curious is the decision not to shake up the front office, considering the poor draft results.

Spread the Cash Around

The biggest name on the Saints' list of free agents is defensive end Darren Howard, who is expected to receive the franchise tag for the second straight season. Howard is the Saints' best defensive player, but the team might be wise to invest the money it will pay him on a cornerback -- although this year's free-agent crop could be a weak one.

At some point, the Saints have to see if all those high choices can develop -- Jonathan Sullivan, we're talking to you -- and spend some money on other areas of their defense.

New Orleans is in decent shape with the salary cap, even after the expected franchise tag for Howard, and should be able to pursue some veteran help for the offensive line along with the needed defensive backs. That includes not just a better corner, but likely a strong safety to replace 12-year veteran (and UFA) strong safety Jay Bellamy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

When the Music's Over

Did somebody in the Tampa Bay organization make a deal with the Devil in exchange for the team's 2002 Super Bowl season? To a paranoid Bucs fan like myself, it can certainly seem so at times. Tampa Bay is 12-20 the past two seasons, the worst ever two-year stretch following a Super Bowl win. And it's not just the losses, but the way Tampa Bay loses -- a knack for self-inflicted mistakes and an inability to win close games that borders on the comical.

Two years after Jon Gruden promised "you ain't seen nothing yet," the team is bad, aging, and an estimated $12 million over the salary cap, partly because Gruden and his hand-picked GM, Bruce Allen, opted to retool with middle-market free agents in 2004. Most of the signings were, to be charitable, ill-advised. RB Charlie Garner blew out a knee. RT Todd Steussie lost his starting job. LT Derrick Deese finally started to look his age. WR Joey Galloway injured himself dropping the first pass thrown his way in the season opener and missed much of the season.

Those looking for a silver lining in the post-Super Bowl wreckage point to the fact that Tampa Bay has 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including a full compliment of first-day choices for the first time since it traded four picks to the Raiders for Gruden's services in 2002.

The defense -- the team's calling card since its rise from the NFL ashes in 1997 -- remains strong if not always dominant. It withstood the loss of Warren Sapp and John Lynch to post another top-10 ranking (#7 in DVOA).

The defensive line continues to generate a pass rush with its front four, as the Buccaneers were No. 1 in sack rate, at 9.5% despite blitzing relatively infrequently.

Free Agency Outlook

Gruden's track record suggests that neither the struggles of the past two seasons nor the team's cap situation will deter him from attempting to add veteran players via free agency. Before they can be buyers, however, the Bucs must clean up their present cap situation, and that will mean a host of releases/restructurings.

The axe will almost certainly fall on former starting quarterback Brad Johnson, who fell to third on the depth chart and did not play the final 12 games of 2004. Tampa Bay must also restructure the deal of Brian Griese, who became the starter after Chris Simms, who replaced Johnson, was also injured. Griese actually had the Bucs flirting with playoff contention after an 0-4 start, but is owed a $6 million bonus in a few weeks that the Bucs have no intention of paying. The team is betting that Griese, who does not want to change teams again and likes Gruden's QB intensive offense, will accept a modest deal to remain the starter for at least another season while Simms continues to develop. If not, he will be released and Tampa Bay will almost certainly sign a stop-gap QB in free agency, perhaps Jeff Garcia.

With that host of draft picks and needs all over the field, Tampa Bay may again attempt to sign a host of veterans to relatively inexpensive deals and use the draft to build for the future. Target areas are certain to include the offensive line, which has been a problem area despite annual roster turnover, and the defensive backfield, which needs an upgrade at nickel corner and more depth at safety. Another obvious need is at kicker, where Tampa Bay finally released Martin Grammatica after he cost them several games the past two seasons.

On its own roster, Tampa Bay has several key UFAs. The top target is likely to be play-making safety Dwight Smith, a former corner who is likely to seek cornerback money. Other UFAs who could re-sign are starting guard Cosey Coleman, defensive tackle Chartric Darby, and Galloway.

Oddly enough, all three Tampa Bay tight ends are also free agents: Ken Dilger, Rickey Dudley, and Dave Moore.

Later this week: AFC West by Michael Tanier.


3 comments, Last at 26 Mar 2007, 10:59pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

cost cutter coupon

cost cutter coupon intro

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

2007 3i mazda

This site contains relevant information about 2007 3i mazda.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

ferrari f430 photo

ferrari f430 photo introduction