by Robert Weintraub
Biggest Hole: Outside Linebacker
From the moment Keith Brooking stepped into the short zone and left Arizona tight end Stephen Spach wide open behind him for a pivotal third-and-16 conversion in the Wild Card playoff game, it was apparent the Falcons were going to do some offseason housecleaning at linebacker. Brooking was released, as was Michael Boley and three other defensive starters.
General Manager Thomas Dimitroff sat out most of free agency, with the exception of signing oft-injured linebacker Mike Peterson, a solid player who reunites with old position coach Mike Smith, but he's aging and a questionable fit for the starter's money he is being given. Last season's rookie sensation Curtis Lofton is suddenly the lone proven entity on a unit that is otherwise short on speed, coverage ability, and bodies.
The pass to Spach that iced the Cards game captured the Falcons' defensive season in microcosm. While the team covered wide receivers reasonably well (ranking 16th in DVOA against the opposition's top wideout and 17th against the secondary threat), they were abysmal against tight ends and running backs -- 28th and 29th in the NFL, respectively. That speaks to a pressing need to upgrade the linebacker corps.
Picking 24th, Atlanta could be able to snag one of USC's available outside 'backers, Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews (who ran a slightly faster 40 at the combine). Aaron Maybin of Penn State is another possibility. Strong safety is another pressing need, and if the Falcons go that way in the first round, linebacker Cody Brown of UConn would be a second-round target.
Free Agency Recap
Even before the free agency period began, Dimitroff stated his team would not be an active player. The GM kept his word, letting productive cornerback Domonique Foxworth leave for Baltimore for far more money than Atlanta offered, and cutting ties with the aforementioned Brooking, Boley, Grady Jackson, and Lawyer Milloy. None of them figured to be in Atlanta's plans anyway, and gutting a poor defense makes sense, but there aren't many reinforcements, either. Dimitroff had a spectacular '08 draft, and after the team's stunning turnaround, has been granted elusive "genius" status by the fanbase, at least for now. The Falcs' inaction in free agency despite the obvious defensive needs ordinarily would have been met with loud grumbling, but the whiff of "Beli-Genius" that Dimitroff emits has been an effective force field. However, the pressure is on for another excellent draft.
Aside from Peterson, the only other new Dirty Bird is center Brett Romberg, who started for the Rams in the back half of the season and will provide depth in Atlanta. Defensive end Chauncey Davis was re-signed, and he will get every chance to take time from former first-rounder Jamaal Anderson, who has been a disappointment. Special-teamer Tony Gilbert was retained, and he will get a shot at a place in the linebacker rotation, but has not been impressive in limited chances thus far.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Hole: Secondary
The Saints have only the 14th pick to play with on the first day, as they won't check back in until their two picks in the fourth round. That makes hitting on that top choice critical for a lopsidedly offensive-heavy squad (first in offensive DVOA, 24th in defense). Just about every position in the back seven can use an upgrade, save Jon Vilma at middle linebacker.
New Orleans would prefer to concentrate on the secondary, and with the free agent signing of cornerback Jabari Greer, safety is the position most in need of upgrade. Roman Harper, Josh Bullocks (who left via free agency), and Kevan Kaesviharn fell down on the job last season, and the Saints are in dire need of an impact player in the rear. Unfortunately, the only player to fit the bill is Vontae Davis of Illinois, and he would have to switch from corner, although many scouts feel he has the speed and instincts to do so.
If Davis (whose brother Vernon plays tight end for the 49ers) feels like too much of a reach at 14, and assuming cornerback Malcolm Jenkins isn't available, an outside linebacker would be the choice, perhaps USC's Brian Cushing or Virginia's Clint Sintum, or even a convertible inside 'backer, such as Ohio State's James Laurinaitis. Cornerback Ken Lucas, cut by Carolina in a salary dump, would be a logical pickup, but he would have to accept less money to fit the Saints salary structure.
Free Agency Recap
Re-signing Vilma was a no-brainer move. The Mike linebacker was by far New Orleans' best defender in 2008, and among the best in the league. But a cap crunch prevented New Orleans from doing much to get him some help, save giving midlevel corner Greer $23 million for four years. Division rivals Tampa Bay were also in on Greer, and that drove up his price. The Saints obviously felt an upgrade was necessary, damn the cost, and they were probably right. Greer will be under immense pressure to perform in '09 and live up to the contract. He must be better than the last free agent corner the Saints imported, Jason David, who never recovered from being scorched by former teammates Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison on national TV on 2007's "Opening Night." The Saints hope safety Darren Sharper has something left, but he was worth a one-year deal on the assumption that Gregg Williams knows how to utilize him well. Guard/tackle Paul Spicer signed a one-year deal to add defensive line depth.
The rest of the Saints' moves were designed to keep firing away on offense, re-signing wide receiver Devery Henderson and tackle Jon Stinchcomb, and bringing fullback Heath Evans over from New England. Evans is a smart player with good hands who replaces Mike Karney and will give Drew Brees yet another checkdown target. Meanwhile, the Deuce was cut loose, bum knees and all, to the sadness of Crescent City fans, who will no longer be able to yell "Deuuuuuuuuuu-ce!" on McAllister's forays into the middle of the line. Center Nick Leckey, a sometime starter with the Rams and Cards, adds experience up front.
Biggest Hole: Defensive Line
On the morning of January 10, the Panthers felt pretty good about their quarterback situation. Then Jake "The Mistake" Delhomme turned in an epically awful playoff performance against Arizona, and suddenly, the team was forced to ponder whether they needed to address the position in the draft. But as Carolina doesn't select until the 27th choice in the second round (59th overall), the elite signal-callers will be gone.
Meanwhile, Defensive end Julius Peppers has been franchised and is disgruntled. And two time zones west, the communication gap grows between Jay Cutler and new coach Josh McDaniels. A Peppers-for-Cutler trade would rock the NFL, and make Carolina's offense fearsome.
The Panthers would then certainly concentrate on the depleted D-line in the draft. While the Cats' pass rush was slightly above the league average in '08, their run defense was steadily pushed around, ranking only 20th in stuffs and success in power situations, and giving up more than 4.5 yards per carry.
Late second-round targets could include one of a solid group of D-linemen, like end Matt Shaughnessy of Wisconsin, or tackles Ron Brace of Boston College or Evander Hood of Missouri. Already in house is backup end Charles Johnson, entering his third season. He showed immense promise last season and could replace Tyler Brayton as a starter.
If Peppers goes to New England, or nowhere, the Panthers might go for Delhomme's replacement, especially if K-State's Josh Freeman falls to them. Free agent Kyle Boller remains available and an intriguing player who could benefit from a change of scenery.
Free Agency Recap
The stranglehold Peppers' $16.7 million tender is exerting on the franchise has kept the team relatively quiet in free agency, like the rest of the division. The team did achieve its most important offseason objective, re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross, thus keeping their stalwart offensive line intact.
Peppers' franchise designation led directly to the dumping of cornerback Ken Lucas, whose value to the Cats was more keenly felt in the locker room than on the pitch, even though he started all 16 games last season. Lucas' cool reaction to getting coldcocked by Steve Smith in training camp had a direct effect on the team's playoff run. A more fractious response easily could have divided the team. Nevertheless, Richard Marshall should be able to step in rather easily to replace Lucas in the Carolina secondary. The Panthers were also unable or unwilling to keep reserve linemen Jeff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale, who left for Buffalo and Chicago, respectively. That's because they have a mere $24 thousand and change available under the cap, the lowest figure in the NFL.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Hole: Linebacker
Imagining Tampa Bay without Derrick Brooks at Will linebacker will take some doing; he is arguably the greatest player to man the position in the Tampa-2 defense perfected in South Florida. Nevertheless, he and fellow outside linebacker Cato June, also released in Tampa's late-February purge, slipped in production down the stretch last season.
Beyond unfocused defensive coordinator Monte Kiffen, the front line got most of the blame for the Bucs' stunning defensive collapse. Only nine teams gave up more yards per carry to running backs than Tampa's 4.52. But they were a decent 11th in Adjusted Line Yards, which attempts to isolate the D-line's responsibility for stopping the opposing team's ground game. Using this metric, Tampa's front gave up only 4.10 yards per carry. And while the team mustered only 29 sacks, they ranked eighth in Adjusted Sack Rate, bringing down quarterbacks once every 7.2 attempts.
So Tampa Bay should look for linebacking help in the draft, even though quarterback is a perennial need and the pressure will be on to get Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman with the 19th pick (or by trading up). Cushing, Mathews or Maybin will fit here, along with Northern Illinois' Larry English, although he might not be a perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' defense, which is more aggressive than Tampa's eponymous Cover-2. The signing of Angelo Crowell from Buffalo may change the Bucs' thinking, but it shouldn't.
Free Agency Recap
Tampa Bay got a lot of media attention for profligacy, especially after the release of Brooks, June, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn, and Ike Hilliard. But Tampa Bay's attempt to get younger doesn't mean the team has not been active in free agency so far. The biggest splash was the acquisition of running back Derrick Ward to bring his lightning south, and team with Ernest Graham's thunder. The Bucs outfought Cincinnati for Ward's services, and he is expected to get a heavy workload, especially given Cadillac Williams' brittle knees. The offense will also be helped by tight end Kellen Winslow, acquired in a trade from Cleveland, although the substitution of solid citizens like Brooks and Dunn for the surly "Soldier" may not be a net positive.
Another new man on the pirate ship is Mike Nugent, who goes from poster boy for not spending valuable draft choices on kickers to poster boy for questionable free agent contracts for kickers. Nugent is five years younger than Matt Bryant, and has a bigger leg, so the move looks like an upgrade, if a low-priority one.
Tampa Bay's re-signing of safety Jermaine Phillips was a key move, as he should team with Tanard Jackson, Aqib Talib, and holdover Ronde Barber to form a solid secondary. That's if the Bucs don't move Phillips to linebacker, which is under consideration. The Crowell signing was overdue, and he steps into June's spot on the strong side. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant was rewarded for his surprising excellence last year with a new deal, and receiver Michael Clayton, tight end Jerramy Stevens, and quarterback Luke McCown were also retained. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon and defensive tackle Jovan Haye left via free agency, but both were Cover-2 players and deemed expendable.