Four Downs: NFC South
by Doug Farrar
The new All-American Football League has a Web site where you can apply for a full range of jobs -- everything from seasonal paid intern to coach to manager of football operations -- for one or more of the league's six teams. Given the number of times they've been jilted in the last few months, one would not have been surprised if the Falcons had posted their general manager and head coach openings on their own site. Rich McKay's reassignment and Bobby Petrino's "Woo Pig Sooey!" departure were followed by a Bill Parcells-declined invitation to run the show (he found the prospects of the 1-15 Dolphins more intriguing). Then came the embarrassment of Dallas' Jason Garrett and Indy's Jim Caldwell pulling their names from consideration as Petrino's replacement in favor of more-or-less clandestine arrangements to coach their current teams after the eventual departures of Wade Phillips and Tony Dungy.
The man who actually got the job, former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith, has a three-part headstart if this turns out to be what many think it might be. The 48-year-old-Smith started going gray at age 23, genetics having done what working for Arthur Blank might have taken care of anyway. Smith is Brian Billick's brother-in-law, so he's used to mercurial personalities. He very much enjoys pickled eggs, so a bad taste in his mouth wouldn't be a new sensation. Now, Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, New England's former Director of College Scouting, will try to surprise a lot of people.
If Smith can survive all the known obstacles, running an almost entirely new coaching staff, and leading the Falcons out of a very creative decline, he'll more than live up to the praises of those comrades who have touted his football acumen and unmatched work ethic. However, the Falcons need far more than a new coach. They require a total reset and a fresh commitment to not only winning, but the "simple things," like a clear chain of command and total collective accountability -- and that starts with the team's owner. The further Arthur Blank is from the actual team operations, the better this will go.
Who Could Leave?
To say that Atlanta's quarterback situation is fluid is like saying that Bobby Petrino has a slight case of wanderlust. Of their three signal-callers in 2007 (Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, and Chris Redman), Redman is the unrestricted free agent and he may be the one worth keeping. The big news in Atlanta is the possible departure of running back Warrick Dunn, a franchise cornerstone when the Falcons led the NFL in rushing each season from 2004 to 2006. Now that their offensive line has fallen on hard times, and the 33-year-old Dunn is owed a $4 million base salary in 2008, Dunn's future and the power running game that Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey want to implement seem to be at cross purposes. Dunn has said that he wouldn't mind going back to Tampa Bay, where he started his career, or to Indianapolis, where he could play at least one more season for Dungy, his first NFL coach.
At age 32, middle linebacker Keith Brooking played out of position (yet again) in 2007, and he's due $5 million in base salary in 2008. That's a restructure/departure waiting to happen. Outside linebacker Michael Boley is a restricted free agent, but the Falcons are nuts if they let him get away under any circumstances. For the second straight season, Boley led Atlanta's linebackers in Stop Rate, Success Rate (vs. the pass), sacks and Defeats. The three-year veteran may be underrated, but he's a legitimate addition to the top end of the amazing 2005 linebacker class that also gave us Shawne Merriman, Lofa Tatupu, and Kirk Morrison.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $5.79 million, with some major cuts coming)
The Falcons have as many personnel deficits as you'd expect of a team undergoing a total systemic transformation, but with that new coaching staff, it's difficult to know what they're looking for. Right now, everyone's watching film and deciding who fits and who doesn't. Will new line coach Paul Boudreau prefer the successful blocking scheme of the pre-Petrino era, or will he have to make do as he did with the Rams in 2006 and 2007? And how will that go with Mularkey's system? The Falcons need two types of quarterbacks: one interim placeholder in free agency, and one future franchise cornerstone in the draft. Redman would fit the former description. As for the latter, the Brian-Brohm-by-default argument left with Petrino. Middle linebacker will be a need whether Brooking leaves or not, but there aren't any obvious saviors in free agency. And what sort of defense will the new players run?
On his indispensable Pro Football Reference blog, Doug Drinen recently pointed out that the 2007 Carolina Panthers were one of 16 non-strike teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start at least four quarterbacks (the 1984 Chicago Bears started five) in the same season. In Carolina's case, the Jake Delhomme/David Carr/Vinny Testaverde/Matt Moore combo put up a ranking of 29th in passing DVOA and helped their team to a 7-9 record in football's worst division. Quarterbacks -- at least the good ones -- are hardly disposable, but putting four different starters on the field in a season needn't lead to a wasted year. Two of four Mike Ditka-coached teams on the list, the '84 and '86 Bears, bookended what may have been the best team of all time, and both multi-QB teams made the playoffs. His '97 and '98 Saints didn't fare as well, but that's what happens when you don't have a historic defense and your competing quarterbacks include Heath Shuler, Danny Wuerffel, and two guys named "Billy Joe."
Longtime Carolina starter Jake "I was Eli Before Eli was Eli" Delhomme suffered an elbow injury in the third game of the 2007 season, which led to this merry-go-round. His rehab is on schedule, and the team will hope that he can pick up where he left off last year. Delhomme completed 55 of 86 passes for 624 yards, eight touchdowns and only one interception in his production of "Sample Size Theater." The Panthers went 2-1 with Delhomme under center. Testaverde retired after the season, and David Carr managed to prove that it was he, and not Houston, who had the problem.
Undrafted rookie Matt Moore made a good showing late in the year, putting up solid starts against the Tampa Bay and Seattle pass defenses. That's the one benefit for the Panthers in having so many starters last year: They know they can compete with their veteran under center, and they now have an intriguing young player to build around. Circumstances don't always end so fortuitously.
The quarterback position wasn't Carolina's only problem. The Panthers were one of several teams that inexplicably gave more carries to the less-effective running back, as DeShaun Foster and his -6.8 DPAR (only Reggie Bush ranked lower) got 247 carries to the 144 enjoyed by DeAngelo Williams, who had 18.9 DPAR. Williams gained 1.5 yards more per carry than Foster. The receiving corps has been "Steve Smith and some other dudes" for the past three seasons.
Carolina's pass rush fell off precipitously -- the defense went from 41 sacks in 2006 (7th in Adjusted Sack Rate) to 23 in 2007 (30th in ASR). Julius Peppers' sack total plummeted from 13 to 2.5. Team owner Jerry Richardson proclaims that he wants his Panthers to be a "physical team" like the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, improvement on any level will first require Richardson to get active with his checkbook. This is a team in transition. One way or another, a personnel reset is imminent.
Who Could Leave?
Receivers Keary Colbert and Drew Carter are unrestricted free agents; the Panthers might re-sign Carter for continuity if they're not tired of waiting for him to develop into the complementary threat to Smith that this offense so desperately needs. Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross, the team's left and right starting tackles, are also up for grabs when free agency begins. The Panthers can't afford to lose Gross, who had an outstanding season. UFA defensive end Mike Rucker has hinted at retirement, and the level of play exhibited by rookie middle linebacker Jon Beason may have Dan Morgan looking elsewhere. Defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Kindal Moorehead could find other homes as the Panthers take a close look at their defensive line. At this point, only Peppers is safe, and he may take a contract hit.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $6.05 million)
A game-breaking receiver is the obvious need. The Panthers owe it to Smith to get him someone to deflect coverage. Seattle's D.J. Hackett is a deep threat with the hands of a slot receiver. If he can stay healthy, he'll be elite, and he'll field some big offers in the offiseason. The need for a defensive end opposite Peppers is just as graphic. If the Panthers can square away their offensive line issues and save enough money for a Jared Allen or Justin Smith, that would be optimal, but it's just as likely that they'll look for an end early in the draft. Both lines could see a major refurbishing, and even with the inevitable cap cuts, there'll only be enough for big-name remodeling on one side if all the team's needs are to be met.
New Orleans Saints
Aaron Schatz first uncovered the true genius of the Saints' defensive personnel strategy in this Decembe 2007 article.
Worst Yards per Pass (through week 13)
Jason David, NO: 14.5
Hole in Zone, 11.9
Final Totals (with a few games still uncharted)
Jason David, NO: 13.6
Hole in Zone, 11.8
(Note: Hole in Zone gave up 11.5 yards per pass in 2006, just a smidge over Samari Rolle's 11.0 Nice try, Samari! We didn't use the "Hole in Zone" designation in 2005, the first year of game charting.)
David also "led" the NFL with a 32 percent Success Rate among cornerbacks, but that is not what caught everyone's eye. When a bare area of the field outperforms a player, THAT'S a story. Bill Barnwell followed up a month later, adding both David and Hole in Zone to Scramble for the Ball's "All Keep Choppin' Wood" team, naming David as the nickel back for the KCWs and "HiZ" (as he would prefer to be known, for brevity's sake) as a starting cornerback alongside Baltimore's Corey Ivy.
Since Football Outsiders is the first site to recognize HiZ's value, I arranged the only known interview with this vital part of New Orleans' defense. Surprisingly, he refuted the assumption that David could be replaced by any cornerback worth his roster bonus. "They talk about scheme, right? Well, I've been in the right scheme in New Orleans," HiZ said. "Jason came from Indianapolis, where he was used to the Cover 2, but we play a lot more man coverage here. That isn't fair to him, really. Look at the season opener, when the Colts roasted us, 41-10. Coach (Sean) Payton was asked about the pass defense after the game, and he admitted that the common ground on many of the routes we got burned on was man coverage. This just helps my sample size -- no Hole in Zone without a zone, got it? Meanwhile, Jason's getting turned around left and right. The guy's 5-foot-8, a buck-eighty, with the hip turn of a dump truck, trying to jam guys at the line or turn and run without a zone handoff. What do you think is going to happen?"
While David signed a four-year, $15.6 million contract with New Orleans before the 2007 season, HiZ has come up from (literally) nothing to take his current place. "I went to a very small school -- Huxley U, which hadn't made football headlines since 1932, when Professor Wagstaff and his boys did that 'Horse Feathers' thing," he said. "'Jumping Anaconda!' was our motto, and we meant it!" Ignored at the Senior Bowl, passed over at the Combine, practically invisible during the NFL Draft, HiZ harbors no ill will. These days, he's practically ubiquitous. "I recognize that my talents may not be obvious on the field, and the numbers are surprising, but there's a place for me on a lot of teams."
As for David, HiZ suggests that signing that Saints contract was the worst thing his teammate could have done. "Jason needs to get the hell back to a team that plays more zone, where he has more help. New Orleans is a problem for guys like him. In the last two seasons, who's been more famous for getting burned than Fred Thomas and Jason? It's as if Mike Rumph and Ahmad Carroll never existed!"
Who Could Leave?
HiZ isn't going anywhere, despite a rumored lucrative offer from the Green Bay Packers. Other than that, a great deal of the defensive structure is up in the air. New Orleans finished dead last in pass defense DVOA and allowed 54 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Fred Thomas is an unrestricted free agent -- say no more. Most of the important free agent names for the Saints are on offense: David Patten (who found a valuable role as the team's No. 2 receiver), running back Aaron Stecker (who picked up the most slack as the bigger back after Deuce McAllister suffered his second major knee injury in three seasons), and tight end Eric Johnson (who was productive when healthy). McAllister has five years left on his current contract, and he's due $3.6 million in base salary for the 2008 season. Undrafted rookie back Pierre Thomas will make that position very interesting if he builds on the flashes of potential he showed last year.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $31.69 million)
The best possible cornerback, obviously. Mike McKenzie, 31 years old, tore his right ACL in late December and David has a bright future as an overpaid nickel corner. If Marcus Trufant and Nnamdi Asomugha aren't re-upped by Seattle and Oakland, respectively, either player would be a massive improvement. Asomugha would be a better fit, as Trufant's 2007 excellence was more reliant on pass rush and safety help. Asante Samuel might be in play, too.
Based on our statistics, there may be no single greater need in the NFL than the need for the Saints to improve against elite receivers. In 2007, the Texans ranked 31st against No. 1 receivers with a DVOA of 26.9% (remember, defensive DVOA is better when it's negative). New Orleans put up a ghastly 76.3% DVOA, which is not only the worst number we have in our game charting records for any team against any receiver in any season, but so much worse than the 45.2% DVOA against number-ones the Saints amassed to finish last in the league in 2006, as well. New Orleans' front office has both the cap room and the intent to make a defensive splash at more than one position (the middle of the front seven is a likely target), but every other need is waaaaaaay down the line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The A-Train, Taken
On January 24, the A-Train made it official. Fullback Mike Alstott, perhaps the most beloved player in franchise history, retired from football after missing the 2007 season with the second major neck injury of his career. Alstott's achievements are impressive enough -- 5,088 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns on 1,359 carries, six Pro Bowl trips and a Super Bowl ring -- but it's the outpouring of warm thoughts and heartfelt memories from teammates and coaches that Alstott will take home as his true legacy.
Dungy, his first NFL coach, remembered "the way he played, as well as the big plays he made, but I think the fire and the determination that he played with, the things that made him such a fan favorite, are the same things that I always appreciated about him."
His last NFL coach, Jon Gruden, said that Alstott's "contributions on the field and in the locker room were invaluable to our Super Bowl championship in 2002. Certainly as a coach, but even more so as a fan of his, it will be tough for me to not be able to watch him on Sundays."
Warrick Dunn: "I was blessed to have played with him for five years."
Trent Dilfer: "He was a three-tier fullback. He could have played solely tailback, and did play tailback for many games. He was a very good fullback from a lead-blocking standpoint. Then, he was one of the best natural receiving backs in all of football."
Business partner Derrick Brooks: "I think Mike has made the most important impact of all as he cemented his legacy in our community ... He helped turn Tampa into a better place for our children."
Brad Johnson: "I remember a really hot day against Cleveland in 2002 when we handed off the ball to him and nobody blocked anybody. He must have run over nine guys, just one of his signature plays. He had a career of always making something happen when nothing was there."
John Lynch: "Mike Alstott embodied the transformation of the organization with the way he played and the style in which he played. In 1996, we drafted this young kid from Purdue and he helped turn this franchise from perennial losers to a championship team."
Last but not least, fellow retiree Warren Sapp: "The time and the memories I have of Mike Alstott are so great that I don't even consider him a teammate. I consider Mike Alstott family."
There is the smaller success of having your on-field feats remembered after the game is done with you. Then, there are those fortunate few like Mike Alstott, who have turned lives well-lived from every perspective into a heritage of near-reverence among those who know him best.
Who Could Leave?
Tight end Jerramy Stevens proved valuable as a backup to Alex Smith; his late-season production might have teams overlooking his past penchant for off-field jackassery. He's an unrestricted free agent. So is cornerback Bran Kelly, who has proclaimed his intent to leave the team by exercising a $480,000 option to eliminate the final year of his current contract. Injuries during the season left Kelly as the team's nickel corner after he lost his starting job to Phillip Buchanon. The decision of a 32-year-old cornerback who has missed 19 games in the last two seasons to turn down $3.2 million for a chance to test the market is ... well, interesting. John Wade, a 10-year veteran center, provided a nice balance of maturity in what was the NFL's youngest offensive line in 2007. The Bucs could use his contributions again.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $25.9 million)
Receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard both had good seasons, but both are over 30 and youngster Michael Clayton hasn't been nearly productive enough. Galloway's shoulder injury proved to be a killer in the playoff loss to the Giants. Another downfield threat like the aforementioned D.J. Hackett, or Chicago's Bernard Berrian, would be a big help. Earnest Graham may get a lucrative contract extension after a fine season, but running back depth is clearly a problem. Fortunately, the Buccaneers won't need to shell out big money in free agency with an overstuffed draft class at the position. Additional help in pass protection would be beneficial. This is the only team in the NFC South that can focus on depth and the future, as opposed to plugging blatantly obvious (and very expensive) holes in their roster.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.