by Darrel Michaud
(Ed. note: Please welcome Darrel Michaud, one of the FO interns, for this edition of Four Downs. Michaud is a Saints fan and a student at Louisiana-Lafayette. He also gets the task of sorting through the FO mailbag, so he knows who's been naughty and who's been nice.)
What happened last year?
Atlanta started the year 6-2 and ended the year 2-6. However, if you think they fell apart starting with their Week 10 loss to Green Bay, you might be surprised to learn that signs of Atlanta's collapse started to crop up somewhere around Week 5. The 3-1 Vickless Falcons lost to the New England Patriots, despite a valiant effort from backup quarterback Matt Schaub. Weeks 6 and 7 saw Atlanta play horribly in wins against New Orleans and the Jets.
After the bye week and a 17-10 victory in Miami, the 6-2 Falcons hosted and lost to the 1-7 Packers in Week 10. Vick played well, completing 20 of 30 passes for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but as usual he wasn't the reason the Falcons won or lost.
From that point on, Atlanta won only twice: once on Thanksgiving against Detroit, and once in New Orleans where the Saints, at that point, either had stopped trying or were so bad they just looked like it.
The last five losses came in two varieties: heartbreaking, and downright awful. Carolina and Chicago dismantled the Falcons three times total, and outscored Atlanta by a combined 64 points. The two losses against Tampa Bay, on the other hand, were only by a field goal apiece.
The Saints-like collapse left many fans criticizing the coaching staff, the defense, and surprisingly to some people, Mike Vick. While the Falcons sell out both home and road games thanks to the entertainment of Vick, if the Falcons can't begin to win games again, Vick might become a joke in the vein of Kordell Stewart.
The most important player leaving the Falcons is left tackle Kevin Shaffer. This season's free agent crop is weak, but Kevin Shaffer's a top tackle and made Michael David Smith's Every Play Counts All-Pro team. With the contract he's likely to get on the market, Shaffer will probably end up elsewhere for 2006, which will undoubtedly hurt the pass protection for Michael Vick.
Also leaving the Falcons is safety Keion Carpenter. Carpenter does not play well in run support, a problem that contributed to Atlanta's horrible run defense. Atlanta should be able to upgrade this position.
Other Falcons unrestricted free agents include kicker Todd Peterson and wide receivers Brian Finneran and Dez White. White is just horrible, but Finneran made some big plays in 2005 -- no surprise to readers of Pro Football Prospectus 2005, which argued that Finneran was Atlanta's best receiver and deserved a larger role in the offense. Finneran has now led all Falcons receivers in both of FO's advanced stats, DVOA and DPAR, for three straight seasons. He would be an excellent replacement should Troy Brown retire in New England, or Ricky Proehl in Carolina.
Whom should they sign?
The major need for the Falcons should be clear: Atlanta needs to upgrade its run defense. While inside linebacker Edgerton Hartwell's return from injury should help, Atlanta has to upgrade at safety and tackle. Atlanta should look to replace Carpenter with a physical safety who can be an intimidating presence in the box. A perfect fit could be Tennessee's Tank Williams. At defensive tackle, pickings are slim for a top run-stopper, but someone like Green Bay's Grady Jackson could help shore up the middle of the defense.
On offense, While Kevin Shaffer's departure should hurt pass protection, don't look for Atlanta to sign a free agent tackle. Atlanta, like Denver, typically drafts smaller, more athletic linemen that, with the help of legendary line coach Alex Gibbs, become phenomenal run blockers. The Falcons are nearly entirely built for running the ball, anyway.
Atlanta could also use a better receiving threat. Although previous attempts to gain one, such as Peerless Price, have not gone well, Joe Jurevicius could replace Brian Finneran as the 6' 5" white guy that catches everything thrown in his direction.
What happened last year?
The Panthers started off slowly but exploded late in the season, largely on the shoulders of their defense and the most valuable receiver in the league. The team made it deep in the playoffs, but ultimately faltered when its defense couldn't stop the best offense in the league.
Sound familiar? While some of the details are different, Carolina's 2003 and 2005 stories are remarkably similar.
While the Panthers made the NFC Championship Game in 2005, the results of that game and their win over Chicago the week before should disturb Carolina fans. In Chicago, Carolina won a shootout. For those following at home, if Chicago scores enough points on you to constitute a â€œshootout,â€? you're doing something wrong on defense. Still, thanks to Steve Smith and only Steve Smith, Carolina advanced to the NFC Championship game.
Seattle's defense was too good to be beat by only Steve Smith, who silenced the receiver nearly the whole game. But Carolina's defense couldn't hold, as Matt Hasselbeck shredded the Carolina secondary like Enron's financial statements. These two games showed that a one-dimensional offense ultimately cannot win in the NFL, no matter how good that one dimension is.
Ricky Proehl is a free agent and will probably retire. Proehl was set to retire last year, but John Fox convinced him to stay for one more year. Hopefully Proehl sticks around, because he's one of the few players left from Tecmo Super Bowl. (In case you're wondering, and you're probably not, Sean Landeta's the only player left from the original Tecmo Bowl).
Most importantly, linebacker Will Witherspoon should be in high demand for teams with holes at linebacker. More specifically, Jack Del Rio's Jaguars are interested in the Will, who played under Del Rio when he was the Panthers' defensive coordinator. Re-signing Witherspoon is definitely the top priority for the Panthers, but if he's not signed by the time free agency hits, the presence of Thomas Davis on the roster and other pressing needs could mean Witherspoon will sign elsewhere.
Chris Weinke will also leave Carolina. Weinke won his NFL debut in 2001, before the Panthers went 1-15. Weinke's only other positive contribution to his team in his career came when he led the Panthers to a comeback victory over the Lions earlier this season.
Starting punter Jason Baker is also a free agent. Very few people noticed that Baker's solid punting was even better than Todd Sauerbrun's in Denver.
Whom should they sign?
Rumors are linking the Panthers to former Packers defensive tackle Grady Jackson. Jackson would presumably provide insurance against Kris Jenkins' going down for the season for the third year in a row. Brentson Buckner is aging at 34, and Jordan Carstens disappeared at times. The 33-year-old Jackson, as often is the case with tackles of his size, can't play the full game with a high motor, but he has the ability to rotate in at the line and provide great run defense.
Of course, the top priority for the Panthers should and will be adding a second offensive playmaker to take the pressure (and seven defenders) off Steve Smith. The Panthers could do this by acquiring a new receiver (whom Jake Delhomme will never throw at anyway) or running back.
If Carolina goes looking for a receiver, they'll find that this isn't a bad crop of wideouts. Good receivers on the market include Antwaan Randle El, David Givens, Nate Burleson, and Joe Jurevicius. One of these guys, coupled with the possible emergence of Drew Carter, could make Carolina a much more dangerous passing team.
The Panthers tagged DeShaun Foster with the transition tag but might look to improve there as well, as the transition tag leaves plenty of flexibility for the team. Carolina was rated 29th in rushing DVOA, better than only Green Bay, Baltimore, and Arizona. MVP Shaun Alexander has stated interest in going to Carolina if he can't re-sign with the Seahawks, but Edgerrin James, who doubles as a receiving threat, is also on the market. If the Panthers don't sign either of them, a healthy Eric Shelton might make a good committee back.
New Orleans Saints
What happened last year?
In a word? "Meltdown." After the Saints upset the division rival Panthers in Carolina, a combination of bad luck and bad decision making on and off the field led to a train wreck of a season, giving the Saints a 3-13 record and the second pick in the draft.
Hurricane Katrina obviously affected New Orleans like nothing the NFL had ever seen. Katrina forced New Orleans to play their home games elsewhere - one in New York, three in Baton Rouge, and four in San Antonio. Furthermore, the Saints had no permanent training facilities, which forced them to become creative; creativity definitely is not the strength of the New Orleans Saints.
More than just displacement, the NFL and Tom Benson's handling of the situation left many fans and players bitter. Benson's never been loved much in the Crescent City, but fans felt that Benson was not up front with his plans and the decision to play half of the home games in San Antonio rather than LSU made fans feel as though they had been betrayed.
The players, too, spoke out. After the Week 2 "home" game in New York, Joe Horn and Aaron Brooks publicly criticized Paul Tagliabue. Brooks also criticized Tom Benson's hesitation to decide where to play the New Orleans home games during Week 14.
On the field, let's look at some of the greatest moments of incompetence in 2005.
Week 2: Despite crossing midfield six times against the Giants, New Orleans managed to score only 10 points, losing 27-10. At one point, the Saints kicked a field goal from three yards out; at another, Joe Horn fumbled the ball through the end zone for a touchback.
Week 3: Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper threw for three touchdowns and zero interceptions after tallying zero touchdowns and eight interceptions the previous two weeks.
Week 5: Deuce McAllister, having been rewarded a humungous contract for average play the previous off-season, tore his ACL against the winless Packers. The Saints, already down 42-3 by that point, lost 52-3.
Week 6: With Aaron Stecker and Antowain Smith sharing the running back duties, the Saints rushed for 211 yards on the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints still managed to lose when Todd Peterson kicked a field goal to win the game 34-31 as time ran out. Peterson missed his first attempt, but defensive end Tony Bryant was flagged for holding on the play. Peterson, of course, nailed his second try. Haslett called the penalty "a flat-out [redacted] call."
Week 7: Leading 17-7 in the fourth quarter, the Jamie Martin-led Rams score 21 unanswered points to win 17-28. With the score 17-21, Mike Furrey intercepted an Aaron Brooks pass and returned it 67 yards to seal the game. Anyone with a set of functioning eyes could see that Ernie Conwell was down whenever the ball was taken from him, but New Orleans had no more timeouts and could not challenge the play.
Week 16: Down 10-9 late in the fourth quarter at Ford Field, Todd Bouman led the Saints on a 70-yard drive culminating in a field goal with 1:52 left to play. With no timeouts, Joey Harrington took the helm and marched the Lions downfield on the strength of two plays. The first was a completion to Roy Williams for 40 yards on fourth-and-17. The second, also to Williams for 15 yards, put the Lions in field goal range with time dwindling. Jason Hanson and the kicking team raced onto the field and kicked the ugliest winning field goal in football history.
All of this led to a complete overhaul of the coaching staff in New Orleans. Out went Haslett and his staff and in came Sean Payton, a former assistant coach to Bill Parcells in Dallas. Still, all of this seems like a secondary story to just where the Saints â€“ if they'll be the Saints for long â€“ will end up in the future.
Aaron Brooks is probably the first player people think of when talking about who's leaving New Orleans. The Saints benched Brooks after a loss in Week 14 to the Falcons. Brooks also made himself no friends with his criticism of Tom Benson's handling of the situation.
The best player leaving New Orleans is undoubtedly Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley. Bentley started his NFL career at guard and promptly dominated Warren Sapp and other defensive tackles unfortunate enough to line up against him. Bentley has since switched back to his college position of center. Some observers feel that Bentley plays better as a guard, but he would rather stay at center. He also would rather play anywhere not New Orleans. Most people speculate that Bentley will end up in his home town of Cleveland, as there has been interest from both sides.
Also leaving is defensive end Darren Howard. Howard, once the best player on the Saints defense, has been made replaceable by the man many now consider the defense's best player, Will Smith.
WR Az-Zahir Hakim and CB Fakhir Brown are both unrestricted free agents. Both of them were expected to be contributors but had injury troubles. What else do they have in common? Well, aside from the erroneous H's in their names, neither of them can catch the ball.
Whom should they sign?
Trying to determine the biggest need for the Saints is like trying to determine the best quarterback of all time. You can read what other people have to say and you can look at numbers, but in the end you just have to conclude that there are many of them and they're all great.
There are two major problems with the Saints and free agents. First, the Saints have so many holes that even if they were to somehow magically acquire Steve Hutchinson and Will Witherspoon, the team would not likely be competitive. Second, and more importantly, who in his right mind would want to play for New Orleans right now? The best option for New Orleans would be to just blow up the roster and start over with fresh talent at every position.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What happened last year?
Cadillac Williams exploded out the box, but injuries slowed him down after Week 3. Michael Clayton redefined sophomore slump. Brian Griese went down in the middle of the year.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Tampa Bay won the NFC South.
Things looked grim after the Week 7 bye, with Griese out for the year. Chris Simms stepped in and promptly dropped games to San Francisco and Carolina. It looked bad in Washington, too, until Simms led the Bucs on a game-winning drive culminating in a controversial call on a 2-pt conversion.
From then on, Tampa Bay lost to only New England and Chicago, beating Atlanta and New Orleans twice and winning in Carolina.
Still, Tampa Bay dropped the Wild Card game at home against the Redskins. As exciting as the regular season was for Tampa Bay fans, the Bucs won six of their games by a touchdown or less despite playing, like the rest of the NFC South, one of the easiest schedules in the league.
It seems as though Tampa's biggest weakness every year is its offensive line. Losing tackle Kenyatta Walker to free agency won't help things.
Michael Pittman's contract contains a $200,000 buyout clause. Look for Pittman to exercise it and hit the free market looking for one final good contract. Pittman provides a receiving threat that Cadillac doesn't.
Mike Alstott also might leave. Even though he's technically a free agent, he might return to the Bucs for one last season. Reportedly, Alstott's looking for a contract that gives him about $1.5 million and $1 million in signing bonuses. If both Alstott and Pittman leave, Cadillac will need a backup, either a free agent or a draft pick.
Dexter Jackson will soon end his second run with the Bucs, and may be replaced by young safety Will Allen.
Brian Griese will find himself elsewhere once again, because Tampa simply doesn't have the cap space to pay a backup quarterback $7 million. Other players rumored to get the ax include Shelton Quarles, Greg Spires, Jeff Gooch, Derrick Brooks, and Simeon Rice. The Jags are reportedly interested in Rice, but Tampa may not have the luxury of working out a trade because of its need to clear space.
Whom should they sign?
It's going to be hard for Tampa to actually sign many people. Barret Ruud and Will Allen will likely step into roles opened for them by cap casualties. Other needs, like offensive line, cornerback, and backup running back should be addressed in the draft. If Tampa makes any moves in free agency, look for them to be small moves for depth purposes, or gambles on low-cost players with upside.
Wednesday: NFC West by Mike Tanier